A few weeks ago, I belatedly saw An Education, the film inspired by Lynn Barber’s memoirs of her teenage years. Although Ms Barber has made it clear in interviews that the film isn’t a verbatim rendition of her adolescence, the film is excellent: some truly fine performances, a well-written script and a real capturing of the suburban South London of yesteryear. (I grew up about 2 miles from the setting of the family home, and had several attacks of something slightly less fond than nostalgia through the film.) Without throwing in too many spoilers (just buy the DVD, it’s a film worth seeing), it’s a story about life lessons as well as school lessons, and the relative merits of each, illustrated by an academically gifted young girl’s affair with an older man (remarkably, with not just the consent but the encouragement of her parents, all three of them dazzled by social sophistication – and a noticeable whiff of cash).

Set in 1962, it’s partly a very English ‘bright teenager rebelling against the stifling cultural and social norms of the day’ movie, but one that also has the grace to give its female lead some rather fine lines. (Having not read the book, however, I can’t tell you whether they are honest accounts from the time, or the work of a scriptwriter.) One of the film’s pivotal moments comes in a heated exchange between the ‘heroine’ (called Jenny in the film) and her headmistress:

Headmistress: Nobody does anything worth doing without a degree.
Jenny: Nobody does anything worth doing WITH a degree. No woman anyway.
Headmistress: So what I do isn’t worth doing? Or what Miss Stubbs does, or Mrs. Wilson, or any of us here? Because none of us would be here without a degree. You do realize that, don’t you? And yes, of course studying is hard and boring…
Jenny: Boring!
Headmistress: I’m sorry?
Jenny: Studying is hard and boring. Teaching is hard and boring. So, what you’re telling me is to be bored, and then bored, and finally bored again, but this time for the rest of my life? This whole stupid country is bored! There’s no life in it, or colour, or fun! It’s probably just as well the Russians are going to drop a nuclear bomb on us any day now. So my choice is to do something hard and boring, or to marry my… Jew, and go to
Paris and Rome and listen to jazz, and read, and eat good food in nice restaurants, and have fun! It’s not enough to educate us anymore Ms. Walters. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.”

Since then, of course, much has changed. Women’s opportunities, in society, the economy and the workplace, have been transformed. The bomb is not the biggest scare factor of the moment, and anti-Semitism is (rightly) far more taboo. Even secretaries can comparatively easily go to Paris or Rome, and we all eat ‘better’ (actually we eat a more varied diet, but the nutritional quality is a different issue). We probably don’t read as much, and almost no-one listens to jazz. But Jenny’ last two sentences are as true as ever.

19 years after the film was set, I – like Jenny, the first person in my family to go to University – was approaching graduation with an English degree, and was a little taken aback that the University’s careers service could equate studying English only with subsequently teaching English. Explaining that teaching held no appeal, there was an embarrassed muttering about ‘possibly the Civil Service, or something er …. diplomatic’, although my lack of familiarity with fingerbowls and fish forks might have held me back in the latter. And in 2010?

How much ‘training’ fails – in that neither the trainee nor their organization performs noticeably better as a consequence – because those being trained can’t clearly see why its being done to them? (If you’ve not yet done so, please take a few minutes to respond to the Learning Transfer 2010 survey so that we can help to quantify the answer.) It’s not an aspect I recall – please comment and correct me – being surveyed, but it’s a fairly obvious query to ask how those who are let down by the training they’re offered/given/provided might feel about it. While one of the lines of thought influenced the recently announced changes in Higher Education – focusing funding only on ‘STEM subjects’ (a point we’ll come back to) – is that by making students shoulder more of the cost of their own education, they will become more questioning and demanding of those educating them, it’s still tempting to ask how far this is often the place.

In an interview about her memoirs in The Guardian, Lynn Barber explains her lack of willingness to ask questions of the man who nearly derailed her life (before she subsequently went on to Oxford) on existentialism:

Simon was adept at not answering questions, but actually he rarely needed to, because I never asked them. The extent to which I never asked him questions is astonishing in retrospect – I blame Albert Camus. My normal instinct was to bombard people with questions, to ask about every detail of their lives. But just around the time I met Simon I became an existentialist, and one of the rules of existentialism as practised by me and my disciples at Lady Eleanor Holles School was that you never asked questions. Asking questions showed that you were naïve and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French. I badly wanted to be sophisticated.”

Her interviews around the book compare and contrast ‘sophistication’ (although ‘sophistry’ might be the better choice of word), which she sees as something that “My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for”, with a desire for the “kind, decent, straightforward”. (She’s talking about men, before you splutter your coffee over your keyboard at the thought of those adjectives being used to describe journalism, let along some of the more colourful periods of her life and career. But I suspect that the reality for most of us is that our tutors and trainers are the ones in the privileged position of ‘knowing’: training, if not education, tacitly expects us to learn from them, not question them. Jenny’s outburst at her headmistress in the film is not the norm, even in 2010. (In the context of training and development, it is actually arguable – see Rob Terry’s The Great Leadership and Management Development Conspiracy (PDF version) – that the learner has a vested interest in keeping quiet. An interest that has acquired its vest, moreover, from those teaching them.)

There have already been many criticisms and responses to the announced changes in university funding, and there will no doubt be many more. I am most tempted to comment that I still stand by a combination of two earlier posts here – What are you reading for? A question for businesses as well as students and The Best Question: Unleash Your Inner Four Year Old – both of which essentially made the point, as we subsequently did in another post that:

An adult conversation requires two adults, both of whom must be more than happy to start sentences with ‘Why …?’” 

Applied to learning, knowing ‘why’ doesn’t just address key factors that influence transfer and application (motivation to learn, motivation to transfer, perceived utility, content relevance), it also addresses a more mundane question more likely to occur to the learner not previously steeped in the nuances and terminology of contemporary pedagogy: ‘Why should I bother?’.

As we’ve already noted in ‘What are you reading for?’, who should be educated in what is far from a settled question. The philosopher A C Grayling recently commented in New Statesman in an article called Universities Challenged that ‘balance’ is an important concept, not just between arts and sciences but between education and training.

First, note that everything that goes by the name of education is a mixture of training and education proper, the latter being the cultivation of intellectual power and sensitivity in conjunction with widened horizons of ideas about life and the world. Training is just what it implies: the acquisition (and practice) of skills and bodies of knowledge pertinent to their exercise.

One can construct a rough grid in which, in the vertical dimension, training progressively yields to education as pupils mature, while in the horizontal direction,. The balance of training over education is greater at the applied-science end of the spectrum, the opposite being the case at the other, literary and philosophical, end.

The key word there, however, is ‘balance’. Engineers and biochemists can benefit from thinking about ethics and politics […]. In the other direction, literary scholars can benefit from training in logic and the social sciences.”

These are fine, fair and intelligent points (as you would expect from a widely respected professor of philosophy), but they don’t explain how we might get engineers to press for more education in ethics, or philosophers for a greater grounding in sociology. Indeed, when it comes to putting a vest on their interests (in the interests of social modesty as well as concealment), it’s worth looking at where the educators’ rewards mainly come from. For humanities lecturers, the rewards are linked to getting research published in academic journals, as this wins funding for their paymasters. It’s not the teaching and learning they provide that is the driver of the rewards, no matter how demanding the students can be made to be.

As our guest columnist, The Graduate, recently described from personal experience, we are currently in a world where graduation doesn’t so readily lead to the sunny uplands that featured in the pre-enrolment publicity brochures. It would be nice – at least for the more purist free-marketeers among our audience – to think that this will increase their readiness to question the quality and relevance of their education. (Although it may just disinterest them in getting one, or interest them in doing so merely to fill three years, no matter how expensively. At least some of them will be ‘sponsored’, one way or another, mostly by parents who believe that either the degree or the education are worth having.) Although the film version of her memoirs ends with the ‘heroine’ explaining calmly that she went on to Oxford and learnt to respond to boyfriends’ invitations to Paris with a feigned glee – “as if I’d never been” – we should remember that the author describes her ‘education’ as harsh and damaging. If even if we see learning to lie, or at least to present a resemblance of enthusiasm, as a vital life skill (not least in responding to workplace or social ‘initiatives’), the objective of education should not be to embitter. The last laugh should not be a hollow one.

But education and training has another consumer: employers. In the case of education, they ‘buy’ graduates. (Even if they currently don’t in quantity, despite it being undeniably a buyer’s market.) In the case of training, they buy the improved performance that should result from the training they’ve paid for. And, if we’re realistic, employers – especially acting together – can exert more influence than even large numbers of unemployed graduates. (I’m aware of the potential impact of either social media campaigns or French-style ‘street activity’, but I’m conscious both are easily dismissed. Whether with words or water cannons.) Grayling argues that:

… society needs to have a civilised conversation with itself about its values and about what is to be learned from the experience of mankind.”

As an English graduate, I’m not about to disagree. (And if I wasn’t curious to read, I wouldn’t have explored outside my ‘home’ discipline. From little acorns …) But the business community needs to have a conversation – civilised would be pleasing, but pointed might be more fruitful – about learning, training and education too. Why, for example, is business education not a ‘STEM’ subject that will continue to receive funding (background information at The Times Higher Education Supplement)? We – and our companies – need more than entrepreneurs, of course, but we (and they) need more than technologists and scientists too. How do we address the probable continuing over-supply of graduates for the next few years? One nutshell view of succession planning would be to point out that the future of today’s’ labour market entrants is the future of today’s businesses too – unless they are all to be dissolved or replaced, which I guess is not the plan. In the famous words of some earlier French demonstrators, “Be reasonable. Demand the impossible!”

People are a vital resource, as well as a social constituent. Whether as raw materials (graduates, fresh intake), stock (existing staff) or process agents (HR and L&D professionals), they are a finite resource and the best way to ensure best use is made of them is to ask questions about current methods, structures, processes and drivers (reward being a significant one). And if we are to expect their commitment and attention, Jenny was right: it’s not enough to education them, they need to know why.

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