September 19, 2003
Work Experience, Real Life, etc.

For me there's no question that the best current article about the realities of education, self-advancement etc., is this one in the latest Spectator. I've not read all the other recent education articles doing the rounds, but if any of them are nearly as good as this one I'd be amazed. And I only got to this piece because Jonathan Pearce linked to another piece in the same issue about the BBC.

Rather than doing the lazy thing and just copying, pasting, commenting, and leaving it at that, let me try to show a bit of initiative.

What the piece says is that now that exam results have becomes so uniformly good, and hence meaningless, the new bit of the juvenile CV which can maybe make a real difference is now "work experience". But not just any old work experience. It has to be posh work experience, with some grand city business or publishing firm that future employers may actually have heard of. Merely working, at Sainsbury's won't get you ahead of the pack when that first real job interview comes along.

Time for just a little copying and pasting:

'In the past six months I’ve had a letter a week requesting work experience, and I usually try to interview about a third of them,' sighed Miss Dawnay. 'So I’ll call them up and ask them to come in on, say, Thursday at 11 a.m. And then they will drawl, 'Fine ... what’s your address?' I always want to scream, 'Do you have any idea how much it will cost me in lost time to read it out?'

Maybe that's what Miss Dawnay should have done. If she had, that would really have been work experience. It would have taken just as long, but she might have enjoyed it more, and the snot might actually have learned something. Well, probably better to break these things to them gently.

I was one of these under-experienced O- and A-level laden little annoyances once. And the one time when I got a realistic sense of exactly how much use I was in that office I infested as a teenager was when one of those work-at-sixteen evening-classes didn't-have-your-advantages blokes in a suit with a mortgage actually lost his temper and told me. No bloody use at all. I'm only putting up with you because my bloody boss, whom your bloody parents nobbled, told me to.

I don't really know what is the answer to all this, although I'm doing lots of good reading about such matters and may be able to tell you all in a year or two.

Meanwhile … you're never going to stop parents trying to wangle unfair advantages for their children, and why would you really want to?

If you keep teenagers away from Real Life, on the grounds that Real Life finds them too annoying, then the teenagers remain ignorant of it until they emerge from University, and the facts of Real Life hit them all in a rush. They have to learn sooner or later, and someone has to put up with them while they do.

My preferred answer is the whole radical TCS-type agenda, which lets children take charge of their own lives just as soon as they are inclined, choose their own work, school (if they want a school), and in general their lives, from the available alternatives. That way, they get their first non-parental bollocking for being too annoying and self-centred (if they have been) at about the age of five from some guy selling hot-dogs, and they learn continuously about Real Life (which really just means other people) by not ever being seriously separated from it (them). The teenagers I've know who have best combined having plenty of self-confidence with hardly being annoying and self-centred in a bad way at all, giving off a sense that your time and efforts might be as valuable to you as their time and efforts are valuable to them, are those who've been raised this way.

As it is, you either get teenagers who still have a bit of spirit, but no Real World knowledge, or teenagers with bags of Real World knowledge, but who only have it because that's all they have. They've had all the spirit kicked out of them by people only losing their tempers with them and telling them they're useless, and nothing else.

As for the fact that people now spend longer and longer accumulating CV stuff instead of actually doing real Real Life things, well, stay tuned about that also.

(If and when TCS-like ideas become the orthodoxy, will they then, in a bungled form, merely become a new arena of parental concern? "Live your own life! Be free! Do interesting things that employers will be impressed by! Don't just sit at home studying! Don't wait for us to tell you what to do!" Oh well. No doubt the TCS people have thought that syndrome through.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsParents and childrenRelevance