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Education should be seen as an absolute necessity but our obsession with qualifications gets in the way of understanding the value of experience, argues Geoffrey Heptonstall.

In all the debate about the meaning and purpose of education there is one point on which the crustiest Mr Chips agrees with the most liberal experimenter: Education is more than qualifications.

When I worked in publishing one of my tasks was to assess French language manuscripts. I do not speak French very well, but I do read French. I’m not naturally a linguist. I did French at school up to A-level. It was hard work. It seems to me that the more impressive qualification is contained in my four or five years writing detailed reports on untranslated work. There is the clear evidence that I have advanced knowledge and skill that I can apply in a practical way, a commercially useful way.

But were I to approach an employer with this evidence I am quite certain it would be the certificates that would count far more than the experience. Like a friend of mine, a graduate in English Studies, whose university teachers included a professional playwright. My friend wrote performance pieces. He worked with distinguished names in the theatre. He became Head of Drama at a reputable school. When he applied to another school they refused to shortlist him on the grounds that he lacked the right qualifications.

Of course it is important to be qualified. Study means something more than skill. It means an understanding of the ethos, the values, and the purpose of the subject of study. It is not about mugging something up to get through the exam (and then discarding all that theory as useless.) It is about encouraging the intellect to gain an overview of the situation. Someone trained for a certain task may perform the task well. Promoted, they will be confronted by problems requiring perspective of a kind that task-training cannot offer. But practical qualifications, the proven ability to do something, may imply an advanced awareness that may be the more impressive for being learned by experience, by personal discovery rather than simply repeating the accepted formula.

To put another way: every newly-qualified professional knows that there is a lot to learn as they sit the other side of the desk for the first time. They may be addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ by people twice their age. But we know on whose experience the newly-qualified will rely. The most foolish thing ever said to me was, ‘You’re qualified: you shouldn’t have any problems.’ Knowing is not doing. There is no doing without the knowledge, but learning is gained, at least in part, by doing.

The point is that we are losing the appreciation of experience. This is partly because the world belongs to the young. It is partly because there are so many more qualifications. Or, rather, they are of a different kind. A letter written in 1911 recommends my grandfather as manager of the business he ran and subsequently bought. Today he should need a Business Studies qualification. That letter of recommendation was his certificate gained through application and diligence. He had background knowledge through the manuals he read and went on reading. (One, published in 1948, warned of the coming danger of an American retail idea, the supermarket.) He never stopped learning his trade.

Others of his generation undertook all manner of work that today would be the exclusive province of the professionally-qualified. Yet society functioned with these people in charge. Of course many who had never been near a university did have an advanced education. Often it was through evening classes. Sometimes it was in a technical institute that was the foundation of a modern university. This was an education integrated within the conventions of work and living in a community. In one respect the socially-integrated education was more fulfilling than formal study in a specific locale. Knowledge and skills were gained as part of ordinary life, not as a privileged access to a higher social stratum.

Education should not be regarded as a privilege. It is a necessity. A qualification should not be a mark of superiority but, rather, of service. Knowledge and skills need to be for the social enrichment of everyone, not the personal enrichment of the advantaged.


Geoffrey Heptonstall writes regularly for The London Magazine. He is a widely-published poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist.

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