I have had the privilege of a classical education. It is an anachronism that is still possible in our age of vocational study through a careful selection of school and university, although my own time was almost a quarter of a century ago.
At school I studied Latin and Greek; calculus was taught through half century old tomes or textbooks written by the Second Master and the Head of Maths. The deputy head was called the Second Master and taught maths, which pretty much tells the story.
My higher education college was part of the second oldest university in the country and was founded a hundred years after my school, but still half a millennium ago. Despite providing a first rate educational system, attracting the finest professors and brightest young minds (seasoned with the occasional outlier like me), at its core it was still an almost monastic institution. The senior combination room had no electric light. Scholars signed the vast register with a quill pen and knelt to vow “decency and innocency of life”. Grace was read in Latin, which was fine because back then my Latin was pretty good.
The curriculum may have evolved, but the ethos and the ritual had not. I read the dismal science: Economics, but not in that hard finance, “get a job in the City” way of a college off the Strand or in Chicago. This was the economics of distribution; it was moral philosophy, taught by decaying Marxists and old queens.
It may seem hardly relevant to the education that most young people experience today, and perhaps in detail it is, but its structure, its time of life timing is almost exactly the same, and most alarmingly, it has not changed in five hundred years.
My college originally taught Divinity. Young men, and only men, destined for a lifetime in the clergy passed through its halls. Think of all those curates in Jane Austen’s novels, and you will know the type. Law, mathematics, natural sciences all came later. The arts came later still (although the only first degrees offered are Bachelor of Arts; and if you survive three years without going to jail, being declared bankrupt or walking on the quad lawns then it is upgraded for an admin fee to a Master of Arts). I imagine social sciences were only grudgingly admitted to the portfolio.
Therein lies the true anachronism. The highest echelons of our educational establishment are bound up in rituals and traditions, which are unique, but it is what they have bequeathed to all education that is the problem. It is a system designed for young men from centuries ago, when life expectancy was half what we enjoy today, and yet it is emulated around the world.
The modern student emerges from almost fifteen years of non stop education burdened with debt, and seeking to build a career in an employment market where there is no retirement age and mothers return to work. Hallelujah for the equality legislation, but it has left those at the earliest stages of their working life ill served.
The system is at its most pernicious for young women, which is where the intriguing opinion of Kirsty Allsop becomes relevant (reported in The Independent and The Guardian). In debt, and in need of housing and a job, today’s graduate will rarely be able to draw breath until they hit thirty. For young women their healthiest child bearing days will soon be over. It is an inescapable biological reality. So have we allowed a system dating back to medieval times to govern lives in our times? Do we need, or deserve a system more suited to modern life expectancy and economics?
The timing has knock-on effects as well: fewer children, born later in life exacerbate the challenges of our ageing society. Two children per couple between the late twenties and mid-thirties may forestall the problems of over population, but it will not resolve the problems of increasing costs of the pensions we all feel entitled to, and for care of the elderly, with the medical consequences of longer lives.
Placed against this is the need to let youth be youth. My own university days were formative, challenging and most of all fun. I learned in an intellectually charged atmosphere, with people of all stripes and backgrounds and had the bubble of academic arrogance inherited from school well and truly burst. It was necessary, and it was probably necessary at that point in time.
If we play forward an alternative, where young people are expected to find work, likely lower paid, develop a career from a lower base, and then find time to take a career break, perhaps aged forty, with their own kids heading into the workplace, what are the consequences?
In part the burden, or responsibility, of nurturing minds will fall away from the state, via the education system, and on to employers. The good ones will invest in their raw recruits, as they do today, the poor ones will let them find their own way. In some respects, before mass university participation this was the case anyway. Will the market increase or decrease the disparity between the rich and poor? I suspect things will get worse, the cost benefit equation of search costs to ferret out real talent, against the lower risk of picking from good schools in good areas is never going to favour the bright but underprivileged.
Could the same effect as three or four years at university be achieved through a mandatory government funded gap year, or national service, or joining the peace corps? The rounded person then goes and finds a partner to have kids with, and once those children are ambulatory, or in full time education, checks out of work and completes their own education.
The question triggers other related debates as well. To what extent should everyone be educated to degree level? Are the higher proportions we see in university now, compared to twenty or thirty years ago, getting anything meaningful from the experience? There will be some snobbish decrying of lame universities collecting fees and government subsidy for irrelevant degrees in TV cooking shows and Game of Thrones (much of which I agree with), but the real question is whether the quality of human being that emerges from the end of this process is better than the one we would get by letting the market decide and then allowing them the education that they can afford later in life?
So here is the overall question, and one which I think ought to be a matter of wide public debate. Does the system need an overhaul? Is it time to break the shackles of five hundred years of a system and build something new?
If you are interested in my storytelling look here