Category Archives: Education

Careers Advice to the Young

In which The Author offers some life lessons
to the next generation

Learn a skill while you get the chance. The old crafts are disappearing, and those who master them can command their own salary.
An example: thatched roofs may be decorative and appealing, but they cost an absolute fortune to maintain – simply because only a handful of people still have the know-how to work in the traditional manner.
Another example: the ability to write shorthand was once the tool of every secretary. Now, dictation machines have made it largely redundant. The only people who learn shorthand now are trainee journalists (mainly from a sense of tradition). But batteries can run flat and power cuts can occur. Unlike the dictation machine, the shorthand master can work anywhere, being rendered out of service only by a lack of paper or a broken pencil.
These are two examples of arcane arts, way beyond the capabilities of the amateur, but immensely valuable to those who master them. Please bear them in mind as you read on …
  • Learn to write. Constructing logical sentences in one’s native language, with generally-accepted spelling and grammar, is a skill which is dying out. (If you don’t believe me, look at any Internet site frequented by young people – or, come to that, the application forms for temporary work in our bookshop.) Even fewer young people have mastered the arcane art of putting marks on paper using ink. Learn these skills at any price – they are in increasingly short supply.
  • Learn to read. Not by simply skimming from MySpace bulletin to MySpace bulletin on the screen of a mobile phone, or hopping across speech bubbles in a Manga comic. I’m talking about reading actual physical books – page after page of text, designed to entertain, or to inform, or to advise, or to comfort, or to irritate, or to amuse, or to provoke, or to sadden, or to cheer, or to bemuse, or to enlighten. A book is the distilled product of a person’s hard work and imagination, in an easily portable form for use anywhere, in any situation. Like the secretary who knows shorthand, the truly great reader will never fall victim to technological breakdown. The only time which a book fails is in inadequate lighting conditions. It really is a tool for everyday use. It can even come with illustrations if you like them, but they’re not necessary. It may take you many years to master this skill, but the rewards are infinite and eternal.
  • Learn to speak. It is vital that you can express yourself in your spoken native language, clearly and without ambiguity. Initially, concentrate on the meaning of your utterances, and make them direct and concise. Leave nuances of meaning to poets, and leave puns and double entendres to comedians. These will come with experience and maturity. Using language is like playing a musical instrument – you must first master the basics before moving on to the advanced exercises.
  • Learn to listen. Always remember this: you do not know in advance what the person attempting to engage you in conversation will say next. It may be merely a phatic exchange, conveying no information but intended to cement your social relationships. Alternatively, it could be something of tremendous importance – something that will turn your mental landscape inside out. You cannot predict this ahead of time. And if you do not listen, you may miss out on a nugget of pure gold.
  • Learn to see. Look beyond the physical manifestation of the energy source known in some circles as a ‘soul’. The residual self-image before you will be, like yourself, buffeted by a thousand psychic winds. The least you can do is huddle together for protection from the storm. In Ireland they have a saying: ‘A stranger is only a friend you haven’t met yet.’ Facebook has a box on the ‘How do you know this person?’ checklist: We Met Randomly. Probably three-quarters of my friends (both virtual and real) will fall into that category, or into the category of Mutual Friends leading from the first group. Offer the hand of friendship; it will be grasped more not than often, but those rare successes will be more than adequate compensation for the failures.
  • Learn to talk. This is not the same as just speaking. I mean something far more complex and challenging. I’m talking about the very real problem of telling a fellow human being about your deepest feelings – the fears and doubts and hopes and dreams and fantasies that make you unique. Find someone whom you can trust with your secrets and talk to them. Ask yourself, how many of your virtual friends have you actually met, and could you trust them all with your secrets? If the answer is fewer than 100%, do not put your emotions on display on the Internet for all to read. Remember, you are not a film star or a contestant in a Reality TV show. Not that many people are interested in you, and airing your private life in public simply makes you vulnerable to abuse.
  • Learn to think. Examine both sides of the argument, form your own opinions and draw your own conclusions. Don’t follow the herd. There’s no safety in numbers. The only place the sheep ends up is in the slaughterhouse.
  • Enjoy life! It’s not always a laugh a minute, but if you can get through the first thirty years it really isn’t so bad …

Lite Racy Rats

In which The Author reads a worrying
report in a newspaper

Under-fives struggle with writing – report
One in seven children are unable to write their own name or recite the letters of the alphabet by the age of five, according to government figures. The results, based on teachers’ observations of more than 500,000 children throughout England as they start their formal schooling, also concluded that a third failed to recognise simple words such as ‘dog’ or ‘pen’, while 15% could not write ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ or their own name from memory.
Lee Glendinning, The Guardian, 12 October 2007
That’s scary enough, isn’t it?
It’s worse when you consider that a large proportion of those children will never grasp the basics of written English – not even after they’ve left school with 11 A* GCSEs and five A levels at Grade A.
A substantial number of them will end up at university. A percentage of those will end up imparting their half-learned ‘knowledge’ to future generations, after finding their way to a PGCE course and ending up in front of a classroom full of kids.
At present in work we’re dealing with the new intake of students to what is laughingly described as ‘Higher Education’ or ‘Further Education.’ A substantial number who come to us every year with mis-spelt reading lists, or who can’t even grasp the concept of a bibliography.
‘The author is Evans, John,’ they quote slavishly from their precious pieces of paper. They don’t even possess the imagination or initiative to turn it around and say ‘John Evans’. (Or even this: ‘I need The Mayor of Casterbridge by Hardy, T.’ – presumably the same Hardy, T. who’s listed in the phone book, living in Bridgend!)
Grasping the concept that books may actually be shelved in alphabetical order poses much the same intellectual challenge for these students as understanding that the Earth orbits the Sun did for Renaissance Europeans.
‘Where’s your ‘Quantitative Methods’ section?’ one student asked me yesterday. I think she was stunned to learn that it doesn’t exist. There were one or two books on the subject, among all the other Business Studies shit. What was she expecting: a whole bay labelled Quantitative Methods?
And explaining that a recommended textbook might not actually be available is equivalent to explaining Quantum Mechanics to a six-year-old child. It simply doesn’t register in their tiny minds. It’s beyond them.
Read Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr – his first novel – for a frightening look at what our future will be like, now that our education system has been totally dumbed-down.
(Of course it’s back in print. I wouldn’t tell you to buy an out of print book, would I? What do you think I am – a fucking lecturer?)