A Proper Education

April 30, 2018

Golden Papers

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I left school and university with my head packed full of knowledge; enough of it, anyway, to pass all the examinations that were put in my path. As a well-educated man I rather expected my work to be a piece of cake, something at which my intellect would allow me to excel without undue effort. It came as something of a shock, therefore, to encounter the world outside for the first time, and to realize that I was woefully ill-equipped, not only for the necessary business of earning a living, but, more importantly, for coping with all the new decisions which came my way, in both life and work.

My first employers put it rather well: ‘You have a well-trained but empty mind,’ they told me, ‘which we will now try to fill with something useful, but don’t imagine that you will be of any real value to us for the first ten years. ’ I was fortunate to have lighted upon an employer prepared to invest so much time in what was, in effect, my real education and I shall always feel guilty that I left them when the ten years were up.

A well-trained mind is not to be sneezed at, but I was soon to discover that my mind had been trained to deal with closed problems, whereas most of what I now had to deal with were open-ended problems. What is the cost of sales? ’ is a closed problem, one with a right or a wrong answer. ‘What should we do about it? ’ is an open problem, one with any number of possible answers, and I had no experience of taking this type of decision. Knowing the right answer to a question, I came to realize, was not the same as making a difference to a situation, which was what I was supposed to be paid for. Worst of all, the real open-ended question – ‘What is all this in aid of? ’ was beginning to nudge at my mind. 3. I had been educated in an individualist culture. My scores were mine.

No one else came into it, except as competitors in some imagined race. I was on my own in the learning game at school and university. Not so in my work, I soon realized. Being an individual star would not help me there if it was in a failing group. Our destinies were linked, which meant that my co-workers were now colleagues, not competitors. Teams were something I had encountered on the sports field, not in the classroom. They were in the box marked ‘fun’ in my mind, not the ones marked ‘work’ or even ‘life’. My new challenge, I discovered, was to merge these three boxes.

I had discovered, rather later than most, the necessity of others. It was the start of my real education. 4. ‘So you’re a university graduate, aren’t you? ’ said my new Sales Manager. ‘In classics, is it? I don’t think that is going to impress our Chinese salesmen! How do you propose to win their respect since you will be in charge of some of them very shortly? ’ Another open-ended problem! I had never before been thrust among people very different from me, with different values and assumptions about the way the world worked, or should work.

I had not even met anyone more than two years older, except for relatives and teachers. Cultural exploration was a process unknown to me, and I was not accustomed to being regarded as stupid and ignorant, which I undoubtedly was, in all the things that mattered in their world. 5. My education, I decided then, had been positively disabling. So much of the content of what I had learned was irrelevant, while the process of learning it had cultivated a set of attitudes and behaviours which were directly opposed to what seemed to be needed in real life.

Although I had studied philosophy I hadn’t applied it to myself. I had assumed that the point of life was obvious: to get on, get rich, get a wife and get a family. It was beginning to be clear that life wasn’t as simple as that. What I believed in, what I thought was worth working for, and with whom, these things were becoming important. So was my worry about what I personally could contribute that might not only earn me money but also make a useful contribution somewhere.

It would be nice to think that this sort of experience could not happen now, that our schools, today, prepare people better for life and for the work which is so crucial to a satisfactory life. But I doubt it. The subjects may appear to be a little more relevant, but we are still left to learn about work at work, and about life by living it. That will always be true, but we could, I believe, do more to make sure that the process of education had more in common with the processes of living and working as they are today, so that the shock of reality is less cruel.