Staying on the right side of the tracks

 | Tue 11 Jun 2013 13:04 ICT

You must have heard this cliché while living in Thailand:

“You need a degree here just to work in McDonalds!”

It’s not true; I looked on the Thailand McDonald’s website. You require a ‘High school diploma or Higher’ to make, or serve burgers.

In Thailand, as well as every other country I expect, the job a person ends up doing, or the career path they follow, is not always relevant to, or is sometimes only loosely related to, their three years at university. While graduates might not be flipping impoverished meat patties for a living, they could well be talking to people about the glamour of interest free credit, or they might even be taking photographs of expensive cheese cakes. In any case their three or four years in school might not have been relevant to their occupation, and even if it was they would probably find that a little (hardly three or four years) bit of training and experience – and perhaps some self-study –suffice to learn the ropes.

In my early twenties I worked in a prison food processing plant for one summer. I’d have been selected for the production line had I not told enormous lies about my education. They put me in the quality control laboratory due to my fictitious achievements in the field of science. I soon discovered a monkey would have been able to do my job, which mostly entailed standing in large freezers recording the temperature of low quality beef, and also making sure the ‘lads’ didn’t lock the door, again. Lads, incidentally, who talked more like me than my thermometer wielding pals in quality control. Working in loans, or cheese cakes, or prison food, is not that difficult. It’s not rocket science as they say. In fact, many jobs outside of specialized science-related jobs, highly-skilled, or creative employment, are not very difficult.

A degree is sometimes superfluous. However, it distinguishes two types of people: described in gross and reductive terms educated and uneducated.

Why is it so important to spend three years in university, often dragging yourself or your family into debt? Why go to university if your intention is to work in a bank, or market a roller-skate brand?

For the love of knowledge?

If that were the case then I guess you could have just stayed at home. Knowledge is not exclusively academic. The degree, and its assumed assurance of an education, is often just a commodity that you require to belong to a certain class of society. The so-called educated class.

Granted, dissecting corpses in your mother’s kitchen would get you into a lot of trouble, but that’s a rather specialist subject. A surgeon undergoes years of study, followed by peer reviews, and it’s likely that there’s endless research involved, too. But many jobs don’t require this kind of training.

For a lot of people the pay-off is the certificate itself, proof of education. Education without this proof, call it knowledge, is in today’s competitive work environment pretty bloody useless. Anyone who chooses to self-educate faces many difficulties? The state, the market, the workplace, is not keen on certificate-less people. Certificates mean more money. I hear Thai students say all the time, “Get a Masters and it means an extra ****** baht a month.” Many of these people I meet have little interest in their subject, only the promise of more cash. Idealistically knowledge or learning should be a passionate response to curiosity, but it may for many people be only a means to make more money than the non-educated.

You didn’t really need that certificate to do your job, nonetheless the only reason you are doing the job is because you have the certificate. Someone else doesn’t have it, or any other certificate for that matter, and so they are probably bound to a different/murkier stratum of employment opportunities. The working class is classified long before it starts working. Education is the great divider.

I had two groups of friends when I was a teenager. Some attended the grammar school, and some attended the comprehensive school. Before we were segregated – most of us attended Middle School – our grades, performance were similar.

The kids who went to grammar school took what the Guardian have called the “brutal and divisive” 11+ exam to ascertain how clever they were, and if they should be allowed a place in a school with prestige. British educational psychologist Cyril Lodowic Burt, who created the 11+ system, believed in inherited intelligence. He believed that intelligence, whatever intelligence is, was part of our lineage, and was not related to socioeconomics. If you had inherited intelligence, then you should pass the exam and be ready to wear a blazer. In our school only certain (it happened that it was the better-to-do-children) kids took the 11+ exam, so I guess it wasn’t that divisive. We were already divided.

We might be reminded of the saying by St. Francis Xavier: “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man”. I don’t think intelligence is inherited – although I do believe we all have different skill-sets. The problem with dividing the kids, in Thailand (where most schools have fees) or England is children are needlessly segregated, and it so happens that a life is almost determined for them.

Years later when we all took our GCSEs our grades couldn’t have looked any more dissimilar. Segregation showed that grammar school paid off. At 15 most of us were polarized concerning where we were situated in terms of education. Class had also crept in, we called each other names according to where we studied “Snob”, “Scrubber” etc. The grammar school kids all achieved – in line with their school’s high ranking – top grades. Most of them went on to do A levels, and most went to university, and now as I write this most of them are probably half-heartedly teaching, or working as financial advisors of some sort in an office outside London. Many (some kids took their A levels) of the comprehensive school kids left school at 15, worked in factories, buildings sites, shops, pubs, took on various trades. More people than is statistically appropriate died young from drug overdoses, or ended up in jail. Then there’s the dole, that strangely humane man-eater. I don’t believe in predestination  or predeterminism, nor do I believe in hereditary intelligence as a fool-proof device, but I know if you showed me various students from the two countries where I’ve lived longest, Thailand and England, and explained something of their backgrounds I could tell you something about their future, and I wouldn’t be wrong most of the time. From a young age we set-off down a track laid between high walls, education shapes our destination, an education that is perverted by our inequitable social system.

If parents didn’t have the money to execute some kind of miracle it was likely, though not certain, their comprehensive-fied children would be leaving school at 15 and for the rest of their life be fighting the stigma of their poor education. I have lived to see the proof of this. In effect, no education at all is better than a bad education when grades are tantamount to knowledge. See how many of the haves in Thailand level at the have nots the utterly specious defamation that they are ‘uneducated’. They think they are superior because they hold degrees in superiority; they have a stamp of approval, when in fact it would be very difficult to argue that their behavior is intelligent in the slightest. Their behavior is more likely a result of excessive indoctrination (a marker of education, but definitely not intelligence), and also a fear that their benefits might one day be stopped.

At school and university we meet our patrons, our connections, our bosses, and our lords. That’s why most parents pay the money for an expensive education. It isn’t so their children will possibly go and live out in the forest and write as profoundly as Henry David Thoreau, but so they don’t end up smoking meth in phone boxes as the sun breaks through the horizon of a run-down ghetto. It’s an insurance against poverty for many families, more than it is a means of acquiring knowledge. Parents want their children to stay on the right side of the tracks. I don’t blame them.

Without an academic stamp of approval most people would find it difficult to even explain themselves in an interview. To get their foot in the door. That’s a fact you can read on job boards all over the world. No degree=persona non grata. If you don’t have an ‘education’ no matter how many books you’ve read or years you’ve spent studying moth behavior your application will be tossed out of the bowl like a rotten piece of lettuce once the interviewer spots the great imperfection in your life. An imperfection whose root cause, in my mind, is the clarity of a birth defect: social class.

We should give everyone a chance. If I’m a prospective employer, and I’m educated enough, I’ll know how much talent you have after we meet and I assess you. I don’t require your grades. I want to see a body of work, and I want to talk to you. If however, you intend to apply for the biochemist job, then it’s probably better you submit your thesis on testosterone and obesity, rather than throw at them your pocket book of transcendental poetry. Giving everyone a chance doesn’t mean we would all start applying for jobs we couldn’t possibly do. It values proven ability above everything else, as it should.

If you haven’t been graded, you’re degraded.

When the educated are released into the wilds of the employment industry they have with them their rolled-up certificates as their weapon of choice. The better (ranking) school they attended, and the higher grades they achieved, will protect them against the spectre of failure, abasement, poverty, etc. Others may only have their hands and minds as their only weapon and so will face various ignominies if they are brazen enough to compete with the so-called educated class. It’s simply unfair. It deters people who have natural talents from studying, it oppresses people and they don’t even bother learning anything other than the learned behavior that they are somehow below/under the certificate holders. An example of learned behavior, or learned helplessness in Thailand, is crouching, especially in front of teachers!

People are also un-learning this kind of behavior, they are educating themselves. But this often means forgetting some of the things we learned in what has been called ‘The Hidden Curriculum’: what we unconsciously learn at school, such as (sometimes discriminatory) attitudes, ways of speaking …and crouching. In the UK sociologist Basil Bernstein believed that there was/is hidden code in the way we speak, move, act, and much of it is picked up at school. The working class and middle class he believed use various codes and these codes belong to the education system and are poured into our children’s minds. The rules, codes, separate the rich from the poor, the educated from the uneducated, and children believe wholeheartedly in their differences as they become more educated. Listen to the inflections of the wealthy and the poor in England or Thailand, watch people’s mannerisms. Listen to the Hi-So rhetoric, so much of it is learned in school.

In philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich’s book ‘Deschooling Society’ he writes:

“The pupil is thereby schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with confidence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.”

The education system, he feels, is failing us because we have begun to equate knowledge and education with grades and certificates. Education, in Oscar Wilde’s terms, Illich feels confuses price with value. It’s no surprise then that the best schools are expensive.

“School is obligatory and becomes schooling for schooling’s sake,” he says, “an enforced stay in the company of teachers, which pays off in doubtful privilege of more such company.”

The student he means becomes institutionalized, a problem far wider-ranging than getting into debt.

He writes – and this criticism is leveled at the Thai education system in weekly editorials these days – that school is also a process of indoctrination. We remain children in the school system, he says. Let us not forget in Thailand university students are still seen as ‘dek’.

“Curricular goals,” he writes, have a vested interest in educating students the ‘right way’.

Curriculum has an agenda.

I saw how students had daubed the word ‘freedom’ on the Chiang Mai American Consulate wall not long ago. Some critics would argue there’s an agenda there, or that the legal vandals had been taught what freedom means only in what we might call American English, a language game with a strict set of hidden rules.

Illich believes most of what we learn is done in everyday life, it’s casual, as was language when we first started to master it. We are all autodidacts, and we’re better than we think, but we’re still somehow dubiously reliant on education systems. It’s in the interests of the state that we study, and not hang out in forests like Henry David Thoreau.

Because the educated become more tightly woven into a system of (hidden) rules and decorum, more so than those who leave school at 15. Economist and behavioral scientist Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in their renowned books on the science of human behavior wrote:

“The school system promotes conformist students who submit to authority by attaching achievement and value on those students who display a submissive consciousness.”

Bowles and Gintis also wrote that “individuals who submit to authority” appeal to employers who wish to retain prestige of a company. We might be reminded of Thai students being graded on politeness, or the way they dress. The educated are more pliant, they can be ordered around. Watch the SOTUS dance at Thai universities and you can see pliancy in effect.

Richard Pring, a retired ‘philosopher of education’, writes that our children need a more practical education, an education that creates self-awareness, enhances creativity, an education for life. This echoes one of John Dewey’s famous quotes:

“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”

An education that doesn’t just teach us how to make money in this age of neglectful and plainly injurious mass-consumption, but an education that teaches us things such as how planned obsolescence or bare-naked greed adds to the weight of global economic and ecological disasters. How our actions, desires, motives might affect others, how our political decisions are shaped by our environment, how music and art are the great opiates of the soul. Let us de-code our learned discrimination and learned helplessness. As arts and humanities departments are scaled back Pring writes that it’s “art, literature, music and drama” that we need more of. He criticises “performance targets” that not only stress and depress teachers, but perverts knowledge acquisition. If education is where we learn our differences, it can also be the place we learn our connectedness to each other and the earth we are so busy destroying.


James Austin Farrell