Is education good for you?

by Bill Kirton

I feel privileged to be part of Authors Electric. I’ve read and reviewed several books by fellow members and they’ve all confirmed that this is a group of professionals who care about the business and are gifted, hard-working writers. It’s been interesting, too, to read their blogs, especially when they recount the journeys that have brought them to this particular point in their careers. Some time back, a journalist friend was planning to write a piece on me to help plug The Sparrow Conundrum, which was a favourite of hers. She sent me some questions to answer and the subject of the first one set me thinking about my own trajectory. I wrote a blog about it at the time and I’m cheating here by revisiting and updating it.

The question asked about my education and other influences and it made we wonder, not for the first time, whether getting an education helps or hinders a writer. Obviously, we need to learn to read and write, to find out about things, other cultures, people; we need to know the value of researching things, understanding them and being able to apply them in different contexts, but do we lose anything in the process of acquiring those skills?

I taught at a university and wrote academic articles (not because I wanted to but because that’s what you had to do). I loved the teaching bit, which consisted of sitting around with young, intelligent, interested people talking about books, poems, thinking, creativity – and I learned at least as much from that as the students did. Astonishingly, I also got paid for it. But, given that my dad was a labourer on a building site and worked from 7 am to 6 pm (and often later than that) for 5½ or 6 days a week, I never found it easy to think of what I was doing as ‘work’. And it’s that apparent (or real) gap between academia and reality that’s the problem.

I came from a background and a part of town where ‘university’ was what happened to other people. Nobody resented that or even gave it any thought, and far more important was the fact that my upbringing was full of real people, in a community which cared – individuals who, for all their lack of formal education, were wise, compassionate, philosophically astute (without the terminology), and REAL. I know it’s a cliché but their wisdom and their education came from life.

So, when you put the education I got into such a contrasting context, it’s obvious that, yes, it gave me a wider vocabulary, a new set of cultural references, and literary models I might not otherwise have come across, but it also introduced an artificiality, the notion that life was full of sub-texts, the feeling that I was talking with a different voice. Somehow, it seemed pretentious. I still think of the trawlermen and others who were around me when I was growing up as being more ‘real’ than the middle classes amongst whom I’ve moved ever since graduation. That’s not me denigrating my excellent friends, real and virtual, nor am I suggesting that I’ve been living a lie or being what Sartre called a ‘social-traître’. (See? Sartre. If I’d mentioned him back then, I’d have been slapped with a wet mackerel.) It's great being middle class, comfortable. But I do get a genuine sense of there being a gap between the spontaneous, instinctive life I led back then and the more measured, considered way I am today. The very fact that I’m choosing these words with relative care is somehow ‘foreign’.

So how has it affected my writing? Well, education constrains us, tells us the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of doing and saying things, tends to suppress the sort of individuality which doesn’t suit current fashions. At university it didn't seem that obvious but students today think in terms of vocation, outcomes, objectives and all those other perfectly good words that have had their meanings usurped by the purveyors of corporate jargon. Maybe if I’d by-passed all that, I’d have had a more natural, less mannered voice, and its more limited vocabulary would have been compensated for by its directness, its lack of artifice.

I love words and their combinations but my writing is driven by people, the compromises they make, the hopes they have (in the face of utter hopelessness at times), the complexity of their conditions. Rather than reveal them, elaborate word pictures can spin veils which hide them, which focus on speculative stuff rather than on who they actually are.

I offer no answers – I’m just asking. And, since I try not to take anything too seriously, I’ll hop quickly to my friend’s second question ‘How important to you is humour in your writing?’ It gives me an excuse to pass on to you some comments from a list the same friend (coincidentally) sent to a writers’ group of which we’re both members. They’re all extracts from letters sent to local councils in the UK.

There are some which seem to relate to an educational deficiency:
‘50% of the walls are damp, 50% have crumbling plaster, and 50% are just plain filthy.’
‘Our lavatory seat is broken in half and now is in three pieces.’

The scatological ones:
The neighbours’ ‘18 year old son is continually banging his balls against my fence.’
‘It's the dog mess that I find hard to swallow.’

And the ever-welcome surreal ones:
‘Will you please send someone to mend the garden path. My wife tripped and fell on it yesterday and now she is pregnant.’
‘My lavatory seat is cracked, where do I stand?’

Real, life-defining questions, however much my education may have elevated or debased me.


Lee said…
Life is indeed surreal at times ... still laughing! (And I must warn my daughters about tripping, especially in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg, where the pavements are still very uneven and often broken.)
Nick Green said…
Seen in a church:

"The newly appointed vergers are pinned on the vestry door."
Dennis Hamley said…
Bill, a moving and beautifully written post, every word of which chimes in with my own lifetime experience. Thank you.

JO said…
Education as in spoon-feeding information, no - that wasn't much use (though I can't see how else to learn fundamental stuff).

But education in it's widest sense - that freedom to ask, to explore, to discover - that's stayed with me forever. So your seminars with your students - you're doing so much more than sharing information, you're imprinting a love of learning, more valuable than anything else!
Chris Longmuir said…
This really struck a chord with me, and I can fully understand where you're coming from.I know that where I am today most folks think of me as middle class, but deep down I know I'm working class and can never shake that off. It also leaves me feeling, a lot of the time, that I don't really fit in. As for education - I left school at 15 with no qualifications, and only studied for my degree in mid life when my kids were grown up. I now possess that bit of paper that says I have a degree, as well as the bit of paper that says I have a certificate in criminology, but I'm not sure what good they do me. I firmly believe that being a writer comes from a lifetime of reading.
In the meantime, I'm off outside to inspect the garden path, although I rather think it would make headlines if anything resulted from a trip up!
Hmm. This is a very thought provoking post, Bill. But I fear it is a short step from the perception of the 'reality' of working class life as opposed to the 'unrealities' of a university education, to the kind of mindset that obtained in my mum's family. 'University isn't for the likes of us,' - even though they were a nice, well read, working class family. One of my aunts was a fine pianist and was offered a scholarship to the Leeds College of Music but wasn't allowed to take it up because 'people like us don't do things like that'. Even though it would have cost them very little and there were good wages coming into the house. She finished up working on an industrial sewing machine in a clothing factory but was never a happy individual. Her 'reality' wasn't a very nice one and she always seemed to me to be bursting with unfulfilled potential and deep resentment. Everything changed, fortunately for me, with my Polish dad who assumed I would be going on to university if I wanted to, even when my headmaster asked him if he was 'sure he wanted to educate and send a daughter to university, because after all she would only get married.' (If you've never seen a Pole incandescent with rage, you would have seen one on that day!) I think we forget that this is how it was in the bad old days. My dad was instrumental in persuading several of my friends that they could go on to further education of some kind - some of them obviously bright enough, but still seemingly possessed of this depressing 'not for us' mindset. It was mostly promoted by their families, alongside the idea that further education was somehow a waste of time, and you had better get a job for life as soon as possible. But it infects many of our schools even now. Why, when my son was at our local secondary school, did they only ever point them to Paisley University, and never Glasgow or Edinburgh? Why were their systems for processing the applications to these universities so much worse than our local FE college which was proud to help students progress? How could our headmaster, when I asked him why there was such a discrepancy between the good Standard Grade results and the abysmal Higher results say that 'most of the kids have shot their bolt after Standard Grade'? I often wonder if it's a peculiarly British attitude. So many of our European neighbours seem much more at ease with the need for - and value of - further education. I spent two years teaching English in Finland and even then, more than thirty years ago (God, I'm getting old!) it seemed as though there were very few divisions of the kind you cite. People were well educated, and educated to their aptitudes and to the growing needs of the country,and I found almost no snobbery of class or education. I'm told Finland still has one of the best education systems in the world. That said, I'm very sceptical about undergraduate creative writing courses and similar. I'm a firm believer in the general undergraduate degree followed by some real world experience - and possibly a postgrad course later on. I just feel that we still have an awful tendency here in Scotland to want to rush our kids through the process so that they can get out there and earn some money as soon as they possibly can. Most of them already go to university a whole year younger than their English counterparts.
Nick Green said…
A heartbreaking story in the case of your aunt and her missed piano scholarship, Catherine. I've read of many similar cases - John Lanchester wrote of people in his family being forbidden by their parents from taking a place at grammar school, as it would only make the children feel 'better' than their parents. Unbelievable! (If a son of mine were to win the Booker Prize, say, it would be the happiest day of my life... How twisted by class hatred does one have to be to punish one's own children with it?)
Nick Green said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia Bennet said…
I was the first person in my family to go to university. My parents valued education, the more so because it was denied to them by poverty. My father passed for grammar school, loved books and learning - he was publicly shamed and expelled by the headmaster because his parents couldn't afford to buy the uniform. He went to sec mod and left at 14. Years and years of nightclasses after a long day's work took him beyond degree level and to job success, but he never recovered from this humiliation, and never had all that univ brings apart from qualifications. My mother was very clever at school and though she got to grammar school (where she was among professional class girls and repeatedly shamed by teachers who'd make the girls stand up and say what their father did and mock her for having a non-middle class dad) and 'matriculated' there was no question of her going to university - she went into an office job and left as soon as she married, there was no choice. She much later trained as a teacher and was a damn fine one. I'm with Catherine on this one, all the way. The amount of wasted talent among the poorer working class was, and still is, a scandal. An enjoyable post Bill, and I take your point, but I don't see anything wonderful about that kind of reality. Education brings choices, it brings the ability to research and check up on what our 'betters' are telling us, and so much more.
Dennis Hamley said…
My experience has been the same as Bill's, Catherine's, Chris's and Lynne's. 'Thjat's not for the likes of us' was an expression which haunted my childhood.
Dennis Hamley said…
But luckily I had a visionary Head, who informed all us country bumpkins in our potty little school that not only could we get to Oxbridge but he'd put a rocket up our bums to get us there. Which he did. I owe that irascible old bugger a huge debt
glitter noir said…
Fascinating post...and comments. University freed me but also became a trap. Four terrific years of exposure to the best British and world literature, while cutting every class I could in math or science. I produced plays, had my own column in the student paper, freed of my middle class chains. But then graduation neared--and I felt the chains begin to wrap around my ankles once again: I'd raise a family like everyone else, get a cozy teaching job, forget about my writing. Instead? I dropped out of school, just a few credits short, and left the country--to force myself to continue my education and growth. Ten years in Canada became my real education. My 'degree' came with the certainty that I was born to write.
Lee said…
Well, Reb, at least you weren't 'born to write' clichés.

Oh, wait...
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks all for such thoughtful comments, which put lots of meat on the bones of my musing. (And to anyone still reading after that image, thanks for your tolerance.) I agree completely with Catherine and the others who pointed out the highly negative reverse snobbery (or stultifying deference) of the 'Not for the likes of us' school. However, that wasn't my experience. I don't deny that the spectre of class was active then but there was never any suggestion that 'people like us' didn't also have the right to higher education. Maybe I was just lucky. I've always thought that my generation has been particularly fortunate in its historical moment(s) - but I still wonder what sort of things I'd have written if I'd left school early like my parents, because I would certainly still have written.

glitter noir said…
Well, Lee, there you go again.
Lee said…
Yup, Reb, there I go again. Someone has to be frank enough to point out how ill-chosen such clichés are. What's the point of this blog if all we do is praise each other? There's an awful lot of obligatory back-patting going on in the comment sections here.

Don't fret about feuds, either. After five teenaged kids, now grown, I've learned to cope with a great deal!

And remember: criticism can be a type of compliment. I'm bothering...


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