Tuesday 25 September 2007

A university degree in plumbing

I was giving a colleague of mine a lift back to Luton Airport - from which he could get back to Belfast more quickly and much more cheaply than I could get back to Sussex, but that's another issue - and we were chatting about the state of things in Higher Education. Notice how I give that Capital Letters, to distinguish it from middle or lower education. He mentioned how difficult it was to get universities to recognise degrees that involved a lot of playing around with boxes (i.e. servers) and how, to a degree, pardon the pun, they are leaving the market behind, because employers want people who can actually do things, as well as think. The same sort of problem dogged the beginning of the course we both teach on, the Open University's TT280,because it was hard to get the university to recognise that it deserved a level two university status - isn't it just training, some asked. Well, there is a particular issue there, which is that anybody can make web pages, but to make web pages well, you have to be able to think. You have to have the skills that any university would recognise as worthy of one its undergraduates - to be able to think critically, analyse, problem solve, etc, etc.

The more general problem though, is that in this country - probably in the rest of the developed post Enlightenment world as well, but I can't vouch for them - we have a serious problem about separating thinking from doing. We're so hung up on dualism that we can't stop ourselves dualising. And when we do that, we have to label one as being "better" "superior", and the other as being "worse" "lower". "Thinking" is seen to be upper, worthy of university status, and "doing" is not only "lower", but to incorporate it into a university degree would contaminate the "higher" thinker to the extent that their thoughts would become worthless. It works the other way as well. Doers are dualists as well as thinkers, and there are plenty of doers who won't touch, let alone open, a book, because it contains all that airy fairy useless theorising stuff that bears no relation to the real world.

I suppose, if you went deeply into the history of it, you'd find the clammy fingerprints of class all over it. The lower classes sweat, the upper classes merely glow. Usually with satisfaction.

Anyway, I wonder what there is intrinsically to prevent there being a degree in plumbing. You need to know a lot to be a good plumber; you need to think a lot too. I know a plumber (actually I know several). He's a good plumber, in terms of putting blowtorch to pipe. He's a very nice man. But his plumbing is often dreadfully slow, and the reason for that is that he doesn't know how to solve problems. And plumbing, apart from the odd bit of blowtorching, is mostly about how to solve problems. how do we idedntify that knocking sound in the boiler? How do we squeeze that pipe round that corner and under that cupboard? How do we get this cemented in tap off that bath? (Yes, it happened in our house). And this guy has really never learned how to approach a problem logically. Maybe he wouldn't have got on very well at university; but in that case his schooling failed him, because of course we had that dualism in our schooling system for so long - grammar school versus (inferior and therefore relatively low funded) secondary modern. And while those labels have gone, we still think far too readily in terms of "academic" versus "vocational". Far too readily.


Unknown said...

Are you going to do a follow up article? Would love to know what happens next.

plumbers in doncaster

Stevenage Plumbers said...

Nicely put! I agree with you on this one. Many people are trying to downplay a plumber's job. In truth, it requires wisdom and knowledge, just like any other jobs. Some great Stevenage Plumbers I know always tell me that they are like detectives, they need to snoop around first in order to solve the puzzle.