Universities are for Everyone

11

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.

11 COMMENTS

  1. I wouldn’t normally comment on an online article but some fairly personal criticisms have been inferred and as such, should be addressed.
    I think you’ve suffered from a gross misinterpretation of my argument. I very much agree with you that the state system has failed in providing some people with a suitable education. Yet I see no reason to believe that encouraging these failed teenagers to go to university will solve their problems. Not only is this naive, but it is also patronising to assume someone lacking in education can no longer make anything of their life.
    I find your accusations of “snobbery” both alarming and hypocritical considering it is you who seems to be adorning those with “middle class postures” and a degree with such high praise. Is this not belittling the achievements of those who have opted to go down a route other than university? Your article suggests you hold a higher regard for the graduate than you do for those without a degree. Surely this is not your actual belief?
    Rather than continuing to see universities as the next step “for the middle and upper class citizens” we should reassess what alternatives are available for those who maybe struggle with academia. Rather than blindly sending someone to university with no thought of the consequences, a moment of thought should be given to options such as apprenticeships and work schemes. Or perhaps you don’t see these as the same suitable positions of “privilege” that you do a graduate.

  2. You will note that my reply to you was specific to those issues I raised in the above piece. In this regard I see no ‘gross misinterpretation’. The points which you now raise, are more clear than the ones raised in your original article. I suspect that that had you written with such consideration and clarity I would not have had the impulse to reply to you.

    My reaction to you was and is on the words you chose to describe/refer to those who cannot make it to unversity–‘Some people are better suited to be electricians, carpenters, or plumbers because they are better at working with their hands than with their minds’. Now, whichever way I look at these words I cannot help but sniff an air of snobbery. As comventional wisdom goes, university students use their minds more than their hands. So who is it then, in the context of your piece, is most likely to use their ‘hands more than their minds’?

    My challenge to you and to all of us who have access to higher education is to refelct on our own condition of being students/graduates. Many of the day-to-day practicalities are removed from us and placed in the hands of men and women in the university who serve us in many ways. In other words, the words you use in your piece reach beyond the 50% of learners who cannot make it to university and implicate the men and women who serve you and I on this campus. It is this carelessness of thought which I react to.

  3. Whichever way I read the words ‘Some people are better suited to be electricians, carpenters, or plumbers, because they are better at working with their hands then their minds’ I cannot help but sniff an air of snobbery. So my charge of snobbery remains. That said, I think that in your comments you have been able to make your views clearer than they are in your original piece.
    To be clear, my reaction is not so much on the specific words you have used but on one point. The context you use them and the people inferred by them. In other words, my reaction is to the lack of reflection on your part that the electricians, plumbers and carpenters are the very people who make it possible that on any given day of your university life (and especially if you are in residence) you would not have to do any plumbing or electrical work. There are men and women employed to do this for you. And your words imply that they are better suited for this work. This begs the question: what are you suited for then? I guess it’s a rhetorical question.

    I would have much more to say if I could understand the other objections you raise in your comment.

  4. While I appreciate the vigor with which Mr Zuma attacks the noticeable failings of successive governments to provide a sound system of elementary education, I nevertheless feel compelled to point out a number of ridiculous assertions in this article.

    Firstly, he implies some kind of correlation (if not direct causation) between the ‘humbleness’ of the communities from which youngsters hail and the likelihood of these same people to attend and succeed in universities. To claim that there is any correlation whatsoever is elitism in disguise; the university system should provide a platform for intelligent and capable students, with no regard whatsoever to their background. To say that it is especially important that those from humble backgrounds be given this privilege, or to assert that these same people are being unfairly denied the opportunity is a form of begging the question. As an argument, it assumes that the system is prejudicial in this respect, in order to then prove the existence of the presumed prejudice. Such a prejudice should not and does not exist. There can be no such thing as ‘positive’ discrimination.

    Secondly, we are presented with the, frankly offensive, notion that the intelligence and academic skills of individuals is a product not of their minds, but of their schools. I take serious issue with this on a personal level. After witnessing the trully terrible commitment to education at the relevant state schools in my area, I attended two highly prestigious private schools, despite my parents being of bare economic means. This happened for two reasons. The first is that I proved my academic worth to these institutions in the entrance examinations. The second is that both institutions are, in essence, eleemosynary, and were therefore compelled to overlook my family’s relative financial constraints. Is Mr Zuma suggesting that whatever academic skills I possess were acquired due to the status of these schools? Despite the fact that these skills were the reason these schools accepted me in the first place? Can this argument be extended to state that, had I not attended schools of such status (regardless of how I managed to get in), I would have considerably lower academic skills and intelligence?

    To broaden the point even further, is Mr Zuma seriously suggesting that there is any connection whatsoever between intelligence and alma mater? While I would be the first to stand up for the academic excellence of my former schools, I would never, ever be so arrogant as to claim that they ‘made’ me, or anybody else, more intelligent. That they could even have the power to do such a thing is a claim of enormously elitist implicaitons.

    The quality of a school is in its ability to educate, not to enhance intelligence. It is conflating these fundamentally different concepts that Mr Zuma stumbles into nonsenical ramblings about a misguided ideal of equality that I am not sure even he understands. People inherently are of a given intelligence. Schools do not, and cannot change this. Humbleness of upbringing does not and cannot change this. Nothing, in reality, can change this. Universities, as such, should select their constituents on this basis alone.

  5. I think Mr Farrington has pretty much hit the nail on the head. The sad reality is that there is inevitably inequality in natural intelligence amongst young people. Although I admit that the school one attends can perhaps have an influence on what grades you finally achieve, there is no getting around the fact that some are born to be smarter than others, just as some are born to be faster or stronger. If you are arguing that a Cambridge student who was fortunate enough to attend a very good school has attained a place at a top university only due to their schooling, then how do you explain those who have got into top universities after going to a very bad school? If everyone had the potential to get into Oxbridge, then surely it would depend entirely on what school you went to and as such, all Oxbridge students would come from the same select schools, which is simply not the case. Furthermore, you keep referring to the sentence I wrote that claims ‘some are better suited to being electricians…..’ as being snobbish. Why do you think this is snobbish I wonder? An ability to work specifically with one’s mind (i.e. a university graduate) is no more or less admirable than an ability to do more with one’s hands (e.g.a joiner). They are simply different skills, both of which have their uses. I never said in my article that just because someone was the best in their academic field then they are to be held in any higher regard in society. Your article was suggesting that we should encourage as many people to get to university as possible as this is the pinnacle of societal existence. I maintain that is not the case and to argue that it is is elitist. You give little if no thought to encouraging less academic children into other career paths that are equally respectable to a graduate position.

  6. I welcome both Mr. Farrington’s and Mr. Earnshaw’s comments. Mr. Farrington departs on a misreading when he writes ‘Firstly, he implies some kind of correlation (if not direct causation) between the ‘humbleness’ of the communities from which youngsters hail and the likelihood of these same people to attend and succeed in universities’. Instead, what I wrote is ‘We should demand that the education system serve young people and their aspirations and especially those who come from humble communities’ and I later added ‘We should remember that for many poor communities and families’ education represents the only hope out of the cycle of poverty’. There is nothing in this that correlates learners from poor communities, university admission and university success.

    My reference to poor communities was in light of Mr. Earnshaw’s, I think correct, observation that Tony Blair had given the public a fall promise. Now, it needs no deep searching inquiry to suspect that the people most likely vote for Tony Blair based on his promise are those who reside in poor communities. Why? Well, it is the public education system and especially the schools in poor communities that tend to produce students who are academically poor. It therefore, seems to me that it is learners from these communities who mostly comprise the 50% that Mr. Earnshaw refers to in his article. It is for these reasons that I wrote the words I quote above. This is not to say that learners from poor communities should be given an advantage over their counterparts who come from better resourced homes and communities. Rather the call is to give to them the same quality of education that will prepare them for higher education just as their middle and upper class counterparts are receiving. This, in my view, is not ‘positive discrimination’ as Mr. Farrington seems to think but rather an issue of equal opportunities. If we have to compete on the same level for admission into the same universities then the quality of schools that prepare us for this competition should at best be equal and at worse be somewhat comparable.

    This brings me to the point that Mr. Farrington rejects most forcefully. He writes ‘Secondly, we are presented with the, frankly offensive, notion that the intelligence and academic skills of individuals is a product not of their minds, but of their schools’. Whereas what I wrote is ‘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’. If the words ‘traced’ and ‘produced’ mean the same thing for Farrington there is little, if anything, to be said on this matter. In using the word trace I was suggesting precisely what offends Mr. Farrington. The debate on intelligence is complicated and I do not pretend to be any wiser on the matter. It does seem to me though that intelligence, like most human abilities that have a genetic component, can be said to be potentialities. Take as an example, a baby born with the genetic ability/potential for sight. Take this baby and put him in a dark room for approximately five years and the baby will invariably be blind for the rest of his life. It appears to me that intelligence is no different. Without cognitive stimulation we simply could not develop all the cognitive abilities/potentials we may have been born with. Disease is another example, many people will carry the cancer cell with them but never develop cancer while others do. The point is that there is a great deal of epigenetic factors that turn potentials into actualities and again intelligence is no exception.

    So by ‘trace’ I am suggesting that our academic skills and intelligence are contingent (this does not mean produce or caused) by the quality of education we received from pre-primary school right through to secondary school (there are many other factors, of course). In fact, our cognitive stimulation begins prenatally and continues in our home environments even before we start school. This is where differences in socio-economic status between communities and families enter the equation (as a contingency). In general terms, what one gets then is that learners who come from poor homes and communities (that have poor public schools) tend to perform badly at schools and have poor academic skills. This is why those who have the money or are able to make the sacrifice in the face of financial constrains send their children to good schools. These schools give us a range of experiences and opportunities that influence our intellectual (and other forms of) development. I believe that Mr. Farrington concurs when he writes ‘After witnessing the trully terrible commitment to education at the relevant state schools in my area, I attended two highly prestigious private schools, despite my parents being of bare economic means’.

    The point, once again, is not that schools produce intelligence but rather that the type of school you attend has a great influence in our intellectual stimulation and in turn, our intelligence scores and academic skills. Mr. Farrington is fortunate to have parents who made the sacrifices they did so that he attended ‘two highly prestigious private schools’. I wonder what would have happened had Mr. Farrington’s parent not been able to send him to schools he refers to but instead ended up in ‘two highly under-resourced public schools’.
    Mr. Farrington writes ‘The quality of a school is in its ability to educate, not to enhance intelligence. It is conflating these fundamentally different concepts that Mr Zuma stumbles into nonsenical ramblings about a misguided ideal of equality that I am not sure even he understands. People inherently are of a given intelligence’. Mr. Farrington is correct. I do understand what he means in the first sentence. The last is just mere essentialism and the dangers of which the horrific histories of human relations should remind us. More importantly though, I wish to restate what was one of my main points in the article I wrote, that is, the issue of equality with regard to the education of learners from poor communities. As it turns out this is nothing but ‘…nonsenical ramblings about a misguided ideal of equality…’ Oh well, here are further potentially nonsensical ramblings with ‘elitist implicaitons’: Let us avoid the temptation to over-emphasise our intelligence which may not have been fully developed to the extent which it is now had life given us different life conditions, parents and other circumstances beyond our control.

    Mr. Farrington might do well to pick up any one of the many biographies of Albert Einstein, a man we consider to have been a genius. Indeed, he was intellectually gifted but this too was stimulated and enhanced by his home environment and further education. From a slightly different angel, Malcolm Gladwell in ‘Outliers’ gives testimony to the importance of contingencies and epigenetic factors.

  7. Very interesting. After consideration, I think you are right, I did indeed misread and thus misinterpret the connection you drew between humbleness of upbringing and university success. The second point, however, I think is trickier. I would maintain that ‘produced’ and ‘can be traced to’ can mean entirely different things, but I am not sure that you have used the word trace in a way that rules out ‘produce’ as a synonym. Even in your reply, I have trouble locating a distinction in the meaning. However, you insist that you mean one, and so perhaps more specific explanation is required; arguing about the meaning of words is an extremely pointless exercise.

    Finally, i apologise for the harsh tone I developed towards the conclusion. I vow from this moment forward only to comment while sobre. 🙂

  8. I agree with you that my use of the word ‘trace’ does not entirely exclude the interpretation of ‘produced’ as youwll point out. The wrod may have been an entire inappropriate one to use in view of what I intend it to mean. As for expressing your views in strong or ‘harsh’ tones, this is something I have done too in the past and like you now guard against. I never took it seriously. Perhaps we could co-write a piece in the near future 🙂

  9. Universities are for everyone, they benefit all society and all society has some stake in them.

    Even if I am not a graduate I benefit from there being qualified teachers and nurses. If I am a business I benefit from the pool of talented graduated from which to build my workforce. Furthermore the education and research that institution provide educate society and make it more aware of cultural and scientific issues.

    Given the collective benefit in higher education, universities should remain in state ownership and provide free education to anyone who has the talent to benefit from a higher education. Scotland has it right on this.

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