The World of Work

The great education debate is in a state of permanent flux. Even the debate about what the debate is about, is in a state of flux. Some people deny the debate exists, usually just before they add their tuppence to the debate. Others haughtily declare the debate irrelevant, before being triggered by someone who deigns not to share their view. One of the statements I’d like to debate is the statement, often presented as axiomatic, that the true purpose of education is to prepare children for the world of work.

It is part of human nature to want to be useful and to contribute in a positive way to society. Even those people who claim to hate their job, those who would ‘give it all up today’ if they won the lottery, may well be desirous of a sense of purpose within a few months. Working allows us to reveal our merit and to play a role in the betterment of society. We are more than just Marxian cogs in a machine, but the knowledge that even the grandest machine can be brought to its metaphorical knees by the removal of the most insignificant cog provides reassurance to us all.

To some, work is merely The Curse of Adam, without whom we might have lived forever in paradise. The fact he gave in to temptation and crunched that apple is directly responsible for the mind-numbing tedium we endure on a daily basis. Or perhaps he should be lauded for giving us the opportunity to gossip by the water-cooler about the grim humanity revealed on Married at First Sight.

The arguments against the narrow-minded and reductionist view represented by ‘education as preparation for the world of work’ have been stated, and persuasively, on many occasions. Education exists to make minds, not careers; what is the point of STEM, without the accompanying flower (the Arts); Oakeshott’s ‘Conversation of Mankind’. And so on. I subscribe wholeheartedly to these views, and I play my part in the education of children because I believe in education for the sole purpose of becoming educated.

But in addition to this, preparation for the world of work is a nonsense. If we assume, as is almost certainly the case, that most of the children we educate today will enter similar jobs to those of ten or twenty years ago, preparation for the world of work would mostly involve:

  • How to swiftly transfer blame to others and hoard credit for oneself.
  • How to appear permanently busy so no-one loads you with the floating jobs.
  • How to take a sickie and have people believe you really are sick (Wednesday tickle cough, Thursday heavy hacking, Friday Netflix).
  • How to make people believe you are paying attention in meetings.
  • How to prepare your own lunch without ending up eating the same sad gruel out of misted tupperware every day.

Because that’s what work is, and lots of it is boring for plenty of people. On the other hand, the joy in learning and understanding some of the works and ideas of the most intellectually and culturally advanced members of our species is what should happen in School. The joy to be found in music, art, theatre, film and literature is what can sustain us through even the most tedious day at work and it is this we should be teaching and promoting during the limited time we have with the young and impressionable.

Bede the Venerable died in the year 735. I have walked past Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral on many occasions (he was interred there in 1020). It is almost 1300 years since he died, yet his quote about the futility of the human condition is unlikely to be bettered any time soon:

It seems to me that life is like the flight of a little bird through a fire-lit hall on a winter’s evening where the soldiers are feasting; out in the forests the storm is raging; the bird flies swiftly through the bright room then vanishes back into the cold darkness from which it came. So too we live: moments of brightness engulfed in the vast unknown.

Education is not about preparation for the world of work, but to ensure that we are able to enjoy more of those moments of brightness than might otherwise be the case.