Education: The View From Here

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The Independent Online
In the early Eighties, when there was an over-supply of teachers, a booklet came out entitled What can teachers do other than teach? It described possible alternatives, utilising cognate professional skills, for novices who had been unable to break into their chosen careers.

I was reminded of this handy tome when a fellow academic, comprehensively browned off with his current job, described himself and his profession as "a bunch of parasites". His argument was that academics happened to be lucky that their particular skills and dispositions fitted in nicely with being a university teacher/researcher, for where else could clever obsessives earn a living?

It set me wondering first whether it was true, and then how mobile and flexible people in other jobs might be. Does Paul Gascoigne lie awake at night wondering whether he could have painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel, had football not existed? Might Franz Schubert have been a hard- tackling centre back, good in the air with high crosses, for Salzburg Rovers? Is John Major currently in deep angst about whether to take a job as reader in Old Norse at Heckmondwike University, should his ship go down on 1 May?

University academics are exceptionally clever in their field, are paid to teach and research it, and have to handle the administration that goes with their daily work. So could any of this intricate package of knowledge and skills be transferred elsewhere?

Academics have switched to careers elsewhere with some degree of success. Only a few have made it running their own businesses, managing to transfer their obsessive pursuit of knowledge into an obsessive pursuit of profit.

More have gone to work for someone else outside the university world, usually directly employing their knowledge of science, or whatever. Some have moved into fiction or information book writing, broadcasting, journalism, various branches of the arts and media.

A few years ago, when universities were under financial pressures, I suggested setting up an academic sperm bank. Ambitious parents could pay pounds 500 for a nuclear science pedigree, pounds 1,000 for medical wizardry, and even the odd tenner for some potential expertise on Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

It might have given new purpose to the university's standing committee. One vice-chancellor remarked that the idea could be a runner, provided potential clients did not ask for a photograph of the donor.

This is the problem. The public stereotype of academics is of clever weeds, frail consumptives, hunched myopically in their attics, poring over tedious manuscripts that no one else could possibly find interesting. Yet Lewis Terman, the American psychologist who monitored a large sample of highly intelligent people over several decades, showed that exceptionally clever individuals tended to live longer, enjoy better health, and have more successful relationships, than the rest of humanity.

Even some uses of the word "academic" are not flattering. In everyday language it tends to mean something that has a purely theoretical and non-practical bearing on a matter. "We mustn't get relegated," the football manager says, "but whether we stay in the Premier League by one point or 10 points is academic."

"Just a minute," pipes up the anorak in the corner, "I've analysed the last 50 years of football league tables and the odds of going down the following season are in fact significantly higher for teams who ...." Anorak escorted away by stewards while spectators chant "Get him off", and, "Who's the bastard in the gown?"

Yet it is the "academic", rather than the sound bite answer which comes closest to the "truth". When the extra hour of daylight was kept throughout winter as an experiment a few years ago, some newspapers ran regular reports of children who had been killed in road accidents on their way to school during dark mornings.

This emotional campaign had a powerful effect on politicians, who then voted to end the experiment. Subsequent, more painstaking, analysis showed that, in fact, more children were killed in darkness on their way home from school, and that lives would have been be saved by keeping the extra hour of daylight throughout the winter. Sadly, these conclusions were thought to be "academic".

I have met academics who would be a great success in alternative careers, but simply choose not to make the switch. I know several who would have made better politicians than our present bunch. Indeed, when I met the Norwegian minister of education last year I was very impressed by his knowledge and enthusiasm. He was a university professor.

The one Achilles heel is rapid decision making. University bureaucracy weighs people down irrevocably, as talent is submerged under windbaggery and paper mountains. The prospect of a university senate trying to decide what to do with a free kick on the edge of the penalty area is too awful to contemplate

The writer is professor of education at Exeter Universityn