life and art

It’s confusing when you’re young and your Whole Life is Ahead of You. When I was young and my Whole Life was Ahead of Me, I didn’t really know what to do with it.  The only thing I’d ever thought seriously about was writing, but that didn’t seem like something I’d even be able to do, let alone make a career of. I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, even though I had the academic stuff to pursue any of those careers. I didn’t have much ambition, career-wise, at all.

Even so, I ended up going to university and getting a degree, which didn’t make a lot of difference to my prospects – I still found myself working in jobs where the qualifications required were basic maths and English. (It did give me a chance to go to Japan, though. If you want to work abroad, having a degree can help with getting work visas.) Some years later I went back to university and did a PGCE, which I thought would professionalise me, give me a career and some job security. Then the government cut most of the funding for the courses I teach, withdrew its political goodwill, and pushed colleges into becoming profit-making businesses, which meant that I was only able to get work on temporary contracts, only paid for my teaching hours and given few opportunities for professional development. Or I could work in the private sector, where wages for an hour’s teaching can be as little as £8. Finally, last year, I decided to do an MA in creative writing – not because I thought it would improve my career prospects! I thought I might learn something, though.

So I’ve done the whole education thing. And I think, if I had been smarter from the off, and if I had been braver, I wouldn’t have bothered.

Here’s the thing. Getting degrees didn’t open a lot of doors for me. Employers don’t care that I have a first class degree. It’s not in engineering or maths or a specialised subject, so it’s meaningless – like every other humanities degree. Even a professional, vocational qualification like a PGCE doesn’t get you very far when the only decent teaching jobs are at universities where you are expected to have a PhD just to teach on a sessional English course.

What opened doors for me, gave me opportunities, and made it possible to support myself over the years? Being able to touch type. Secretarial skills are the skills I have that are marketable and usually in demand. And those skills, in my case, are entirely self-taught.

Here’s what I wish I had understood back then: If you’re an artist, be an artist. If you’re a writer, write. Get a job that pays the bills and doesn’t corrode your soul, something you can do without giving your heart. Travel and live cheaply, seek out adventures and experiences, find out what matters to you. Give up on the idea of university as a place of enlightened growth and learning. Universities are businesses now. The idea that an expensive education in the arts or humanities is going to open doors for you is a myth. That’s not how this economy works. It used to be that education was a way out for ordinary, working class people, but it’s not anymore. It’s a trap. It’s a rip off. What might open doors for you is having some kind of practical skill, a good work ethic, and no massive debts to worry about. Be more free. And good luck to you.


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3 Responses to “life and art”

  1. Ilan Lerman says:

    My grandfather said to me many times over, “Learn a trade”. I should have listened to him.

  2. Pete Bennett says:

    Eliot says that thing about only getting the better of words “for the thing that one no longer has to say” and this is nowhere more true than in formal (capitalised) Education. My generation was the lucky one, fuelled by post-war prosperity working class kids like me got into HE while it was still something you did for yourself (and was free) NOT to ‘open doors/ improve your prospects, although at the time it probably did both. Now HE is de rigeur and it’s all about what it can do for you when, as you say it actually does less and less!
    ken Robinson explains this brilliantly in his ‘changing the paradigms’ speech For me, having worked in formal Education for thirty years ‘informally’, courses are all and always ‘poxy but they can be the excuse we need to meet with others and behave intelligently, even do some valuable work. We have no respect for writing or writers so most need such an ‘excuse’: people understand writing only as a transaction: you need a reason to do it otherwise it’s suspect.
    ‘Work’ is a problematic idea, it derives from Physics and reflects something that is an ‘effort’. Lawrence said we should go to work as to an absorbing game: that’ll do for me. It’s a pity you weren’t fully accommodated by education (but who is) because you taught me a lot and your other teachers too I reckon. Not sure university versus the university of life is really all that interesting an argument on either side (which university versus which life)

  3. george says:

    I’ve definitely had a few good experiences with education – Rowley Regis Sixth Form being one of them. We read a lot, we wrote a lot, we made films, we did stuff. We talked about ideas and worked out what kind of people we thought we were. I remember you giving me and some other students a project to teach the principles of rhetoric to the rest of our communications class. I’ll never forget that. It was the first time I taught, and it was the first time I engaged with a piece of knowledge on a really powerful level. And it was the first time I felt like someone saw me as properly bright and capable.

    You were an amazing teacher, Pete. A lot of why that time was good was down to you.

    I liked my undergraduate degree, too, but it ended up being a conversation between me and my (really excellent) tutors, as the other students weren’t all that interested (and the reason why I could engage with the ideas was down to that communications class at Rowley). I got a full time job at the council and used my flexitime to go to tutorials. I wrote my dissertation about racism in news reporting of civil war in Congo/Zaire, invoked a lot of different strands of philosophy and language theory in a comparative textual analysis. It was good work, the university published it. I got a first. I don’t regret it, exactly. I just wish I had more to show for it than a head full of radical ideas and a large financial debt.

    Having said that, I did get a grant to go to university, so my student loan was for ‘living expenses’ (aka booze and drugs). I think that university being free is what makes ALL the difference. I don’t believe that I could have my undergraduate experience now – I don’t think that is available anywhere now. Universities are pure profit-making enterprises – they are companies and they have a bottom line. Students are ‘customers’. Teachers are ‘service providers’. There’s no culture of radicalism left. I think if it persists anywhere, it’s in community and evening courses. But it takes teachers like you to help create that culture, and if there’s no support for it, if you’re doing it in direct opposition to your institution’s culture, then you’re taking a massive personal risk that most of us can’t afford to take. Plus, how can you radicalise a group of people who are handing over tens of thousands of pounds in return for a piece of paper that they hope will give them access to a decent job? Which they HAVE to get because by going to university they have already committed themselves to a lifetime of debt?

    It’s hard to see things clearly when you’re in hock to the government and banks for £30,000 or whatever a degree costs these days.