“What degree will you do?” It is the question that you will be asked a thousand times during O-Week. You are probably sick of hearing it already. I have asked or answered this question 100+ times in the past week and I have come to realise that the answer is nearly always the same. Almost unfailingly, The ANU student studies Law, Commerce or Science. Philosophy, History, English Literature students…where are you? It seems The ANU students have not the time for disciplines such as these. Except, perhaps, as a side dish to their Law degrees.This impression is confirmed by the stats. According to The ANU Planning and Statistical Services, Commerce is the most popular undergraduate degree at The ANU, followed very closely by Law and Science.
Everyone knows why study is so heavily concentrated in these three fields: students want jobs after leaving University. They figure, not unreasonably, that studying Law, or whatever, will chart a vector clear of Centrelink. It is not just The ANU of course. The other major Australian universities are very similar, if not the same. The flight to studying Law and Commerce etc. is just part of the broader flight to vocational study. It is not new either. The Australian education system has been transforming along these lines for decades. Nevertheless, this should give us cause for pause. Deep pause. For where does this leave Australian education?
Ever since the enlightenment it has been understood that an education should be more than a means to some economic end. An education should be more than a credential. What we study here at ANU should be for a greater purpose than the job it lands us and for more people than just ourselves.
Echoing the enlightenment tradition, the Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell compared educating a person to a gardener attending a great tree. A gardener nurtures and feeds the tree only to help it grow in it’s own way. An education requires treating people as “something with an intrinsic nature” who will “develop into an admirable form”, he said. The celebrated American philosopher John Dewey thought something similar. For Dewey, the purpose of an education was for the betterment of freedom and democracy. Education was an important stepping-stone to a society where “free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality.”
However the enlightenment conception of education seems to be melting into air. In Australia, those who get the school grades to study Law, almost inevitably go on to study Law. Those who do not get the grades to do Law, do Commerce or something similar. There is a sad kind of determinism to it. There aren’t just economic forces guiding the mass of students towards vocational degrees. There are social factors too: the expectations of peer group or class or pressures from family. Confronting these pressures is never easy.
Other parts of the world do things differently. For example, it is very common for top academic achievers in the United Kingdom to get the grades to study Law to choose not to. In England, the education system is a lot freer of the pressure to study something for the job of it. One of the most competitive undergraduate degrees in Britain is PPE: a combined degree of Politics, Philosophy and Economics. The most competitive is plain old mathematics. Not Law or Medicine.
Those who graduate in the UK with degrees such as PPE go on to get jobs. It is very common for British graduates in Philosophy and the like, to go on and work in financial institutions in London. Including this article’s author.This cultural difference is most stark in the case of Law. A lawyer without a Law degree is almost inconceivable in Australia. This is not so in the UK. Back in 2008, the highest paid British lawyer had a history degree. Indeed, some high profile British lawyers even speak out against studying Law. For instance, Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption QC, once warned against studying Law because it “narrows the mind and blunts curiosity”. There is nothing wrong with studying Law, Commerce or Science and there is nothing wrong with wanting a job or wanting your degree to help you get there.
The problem comes when we all start treating degrees as job certificates. When we do this, we are left with an impoverished understanding of what education actually is. We are all the worse off for it.