The last issue of The Saint published an article penned by David Earnshaw titled “Universities are not for Everyone.” While I think that the issues raised by Mr. Earnshaw are important, I do not think that he succeeded in presenting a coherent “point of view”.
I raise two objections. I depart and take inspiration from Earnshaw’s words when he writes about university students (and graduates): “…These minds should push the boundaries of mankind, advancing society for the greater good…” Universities are elite institutions of higher education historically created by and for middle and upper class citizens. Therefore, at university students are socialised into all manner of middle class postures of being and living in the world. To be a university student and graduate is to occupy a position of privilege and power. It is in view of this that being a university student and graduate necessarily carries privileges and responsibilities.
My first objection then is that it is simply not enough to state that “The sad reality is that 50% of school leavers do not have the intelligence or academic skills needed to become a successful graduate”. We should question why the education system fails and, in turn, destroys the life chances of so many young people in this country. We should demand that the education system serve young people and their aspirations and especially those who come from humble communities. This would appear to be a good star to “advancing society for the greater good”. If Tony Blair’s education campaign and promise was appealing, it is because it ignited the hopes of many parents and the aspirations of young people to escape a life of scarcity. We should remember that for many poor communities and families, education represents the only hope out of the cycle of poverty. Blair’s electioneering with the hopes of young people is distasteful. And individualising the institutional failures that produce learners with poor academic skills is disingenuous. Government should he held accountable for this.
Secondly, it certainly comes out as snobbish to add immediately that “Some people are better suited to be electricians, carpenters, or plumbers, because they are better at working with their hands then their minds”. Of course, Earnshaw recognises that those who work with their hands are not “…of any less use in society…” We should suspect that some of the people who today work with “their hands more than their minds” are victims of a dysfunctional schooling system and elitist universities who accept “only the best”. Supposedly the so-called “best” have been bestowed with intelligence that surpasses all odds. This is a fairy-tale. If Mr. Earnshaw and I have any measure of intelligence and academic skills to speak of, this can be traced to the status of the schools we attended and the quality of education we received.
More disturbing in Earnshaw’s words is the lack of reflection on what it partly means to be a university student. As university students our lives are supported in many ways by women and men whose work is to make our lives easy and pleasant—departmental secretaries, the security officers, the cleaners, the residence maintenance staff, and so on. Put differently, all the men and women who Earnshaw thinks are better at working with their hands than their minds.
As university students, one of our responsibilities is to reflect on our own position and privileges in society. This should guard against the temptation of snobbery, elitism, irresponsible writing and most importantly, to remain humble. The women and men who “oil the wheels and cogs” of our university lives could have been our mothers and fathers.