The constraints of education

I was brought up with the similar ideals and dreams as most kids, to grow up big and strong and face the world standing proudly atop the shoulders of my hardworking parents. One thing that struck me early on, however, was this emphatic obsession with educational success which many people seemed to share.

So, I worked hard, and worked hard, and worked hard and then I even worked a little harder and I attained the grades that I so craved to get a place at one of the top universities in England.

But I couldn’t help but feel a little sad as the majority of my class comrades all opened their results to find a less desirable set of letters beset in front of them.

It dawned on me at this stage, that not everyone in this world will be blessed with the intelligence or know-how to gain access to some of the country’s finest educational institutions and will ultimately end up in ‘lower-grade’ or ‘non-Russell Group’ universities… which is an utterly pathetic claim to make anyway.

I should probably add at this stage that I went to a fee-paying private school that had monstrously high expectations of their students. Just to help you paint the picture a little clearer in your mind.

But the problem lies in that most employers will always prioritise those with university degrees over those who don’t when seeking new workers. Whilst I can see why they undertake such a preference in their selection, I do believe that it’s this very ‘threat’ that is driving children and teenagers to a tunnel-vision approach to life.

Rather than wanting to break free and explore the world and all its wonders, students are shoved into the university triage system from the moment they open the envelope containing their results. Whilst some of the more adventurous-minded decide to take a gap year / sabbatical to see the world, the majority of the students embark on their next educational step, university, which in turn will lead to either another educational step (PhD, Masters, professional qualification) or an employment step which in turn will lead to your adult life of working endless jobs to climb the ladder until you reach the highest point you feel comfortable at.

Unfortunately, despite my admittedly tremendous exam results, I was forced into taking a gap year due to some health complications. What happened across that year would change my view on the world entirely, and without even stepping foot outside the country to ‘find myself’ in some amphetamine-driven trip to Bangkok.

I began to see the world objectively, and saw that, despite the ever-present need for money which could only be earned through working, I could not justify ploughing through 4 more years of education to then land myself at the bottom of an endless pile of coworkers, to then climb this pile to the top, and to finally reach its peak in my latter years, at which point my whole life would have flown by.

It was incredible to have this almighty revelation that it was in fact ok to take a break from education and from the endless work churn society pushes on us (from kindergarten to primary school to high school to university to professional qualification to climbing the job ladder to retiring). I figured that this was possibly the only chance that I would have to escape from the jaws of university just for a little while longer, to enjoy my life and to explore it. So, I decided to take a second gap year, to embark on various projects and attempt to better make use of the spare time that I was being given, much to the disappointment of some of my peers and old teachers that have a far more ‘traditional’ view.

Many people argue that it’s alright to take time off after university to explore, but I somehow doubt that after being thrown into over £30,000 of debt, having spent 3–4 whole years sweating away over endless books and having networked endlessly at boring conventions that you would want to let that all go to waste by going off and learning a new skill or travelling South America. Some may, but most I think won’t, which is completely understandable and justified.

It comes back to the question of ‘What will an employer look for?’ ultimately, which is someone with a degree. Apparently having a university degree immediately makes you superior to the rest of the population, because it has taught you independence, discipline and a structured approach to working. Again, great stuff! But in my opinion, this isn’t exactly the most awe-inspiring or enriching of descriptions I’ve seen.

How about this… free-thinking, objective, mature and sociable. To me, this screams potential. If I were at the head of a business looking to employ someone, sure I could employ a pencil pusher who will do my bidding (fetching me coffee, etc), but I would far rather have an individual on board who can challenge, comment and interact with myself and other members of staff and who has had the time and experiences to mature naturally, rather than artificially through an educational establishment.

The thing is, most of what I am describing is achievable through taking time off, as well as attending university. I am certainly not bashing the concept of going to get a degree and studying, I am merely bashing the elitist and snide view that anyone without a degree is immediately unemployable and ‘wild’.

Schools, universities and employers need to work together to encourage children growing up to embrace the concept of freedom and entice them to explore the world and all of its magnificence through a different lens to that of your parents, teachers, colleagues or whomever else who tries to push you down a particular route.

This is something which my parents were particularly formidable at. No matter what I decided to do, they were there encouraging me to do what I wanted to do, not what I ought to do. Sadly, not all children are blessed with free-thinking parents, and some find it hard to break free from the chains of education and society.

This is why I believe that there needs to be a change in the way in which we approach ‘growing up’ and ‘teaching’. It does not mean that we need some radical reform, it simply means to not put as much pressure, show children that the world is their oyster and to prepare them as best as we can for the challenges which they are bound to face out in the big wild world.

People will ultimately always make mistakes, no matter how wise, well-educated, well-travelled or fantastically smart they are, and they will have to learn from those mistakes. It’s not up to us to drive them down a narrow-minded path of cloning which we seem to be doing now.

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© Oliver McQuitty 2018