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Talk-ED: The agony of the pathway decision

Stuart Middleton
21 March 2011

I do not read those Agony Aunt pieces in the media in which people write of their problems to receive advice as to how to deal with them (Never!) nor do I think that they give advice that is sensible (How do I know this?).

But it leapt off the page in the newspaper [1] the other day – a reference to Ms Middleton-Stuart. What is going on here I thought? It was a short column in which a “celebrity” mother and her “A-list” daughter both answer the question.

The question was this: I wish to study English history at university but my parents say it is a waste of time and I should work towards the future not the past?

Celebrity Mother advised: “As I was brought up in London, English history was rammed down our throats by our history teacher, the haystacked-haired Ms Middleton-Stuart, and all I remember was all the girls were called Anne, Katherine or Elizabeth and all the men were Henry and Thomas. I thought all the men were sleeping with their sisters for years. But now I love it to bits. They were all crazy egotistical maniacs – nothing makes for better reading or studying.”

A-List Daughter weighed in with: “Isn’t there a saying about knowing your past in order to venture into the future? Even if that’s not the case, you’re the one going to university. Your parents shouldn’t have control over your decisions at this point. It’s your future, not theirs. Let them cool off. They’ll get over it.”

There is a touch of irony about this in light of our recent chat about careers advice and all that. What was the worry that this daughter/parents discussion seeks to address? Is it the value of the study of History (and perhaps by extension subjects like it)? Is it about the pragmatism of subject selection in a modern world – getting a job, earning a living, and all that? Is it a matter that should simply be dismissed as a point at issue between a daughter and her parents?

History, all the arts subjects (and many of the sciences) have a value that goes well beyond the ostensible content of a course. They develop not only skills related to knowledge of that area but also of thinking and analysis. They develop an understanding of the world as it was and as it is. It is the point of a university degree that it should lead students to these higher levels of intellectual activity.

Bob Jones, businessman, one-time party political leader and commentator argues strongly for the value of such courses and can be snide about the narrow focus of many of the new degrees universities have poured into their offerings. It will be seen as one of the mistakes of education in the late 20th Century that university education became increasingly vocational. There was a time when vocational areas were postgraduate courses which were taken after a general arts or science degree. Now many are first degree specialism. And we ask the question whether those engaging in that activity would make a greater contribution had they first studied a general degree?

The extent to which subjects should be chosen for their “usefulness” seems often to be closely concerned with the ability to get a job and earn a living? Eventually this must be kept in mind remembering that high level academic activity such as research and teaching is at one level simply earning a living. Considerations of how the package of subjects studied at university might come together to form a substantial basis for future activity and progress for the students should be in the mix of factors that inform students decisions about pathways.

There is a contradiction in the parent’s position that studying history is not “working towards the future”. How can we understand the future if it is not based on an understanding of the past, of its history, language, legal practices, culture and development? If you grapple with the future on its own there is a danger that uncritically it is thought to be the pinnacle of civilisation and thinking.

I dismiss as petulance the advice for the parents to “clear out of this decision, it’s your life!” and the exhortations to “let them cool off” and “get over it”. This is Generation Y sludge – carry on like this and they will soon be talking of “seeking closure”!

Families should be involved in discussions about directions and courses and futures – that is after all the advantage that the middle classes and the rich have over everyone else, a control of their own destinies and that of their children. They have always been concerned about it and parental concern has always quite properly been valid and useful. This is not to say that I endorse the behavior of “hover parents” who cannot let their little ones go when they set off to college and who continue to exercise a level of surveillance and control which probably exceeds that which they had when their children lived at home. It is quite an issue for some colleges in the US.

An agony aunt’s history teacher called Ms Middleton-Stuart, Prince Harry to marry Catherine Middleton – I see auspicious stars aligning with the moon. I may even consult an Agony Aunt. Better, I think I shall set up an Agony Uncle Advice service – but my Mum is not around to help, she would have sorted them out.

[1] Weekend Herald Canvas Magazine, 19 March 2011

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