January 09, 2008

The Relevance of Rigour

The Taxpayer's Alliance has come in for some criticism on this blog occasionally- however yesterday their response to the rumours that Cambridge and the LSE might rethink their attitude to some A-Level subjects was just right. It was just right because it restated what I think is an important principle- that the A-Level should not be degraded. However the TPA's analysis brings back to my mind at least the important difference between academic and vocational qualifications- a distinction that needs making again and again- though it is between two things which do blend into each other.

The point about academic subjects is that they are a different type of training to a different type of vocation than vocational subjects. They are trainings in rigour and reason. The harder academic subjects- physics, maths, history, philosophy, literature, chemistry- require years of study and intense thought. They also require learning a discipline- evaluating evidence or preparing chains of reason- in a field in which many intelligent men and women have worked before. To study one of those subjects at university is to acquire a flavour of what it means to be a scholar and consequently of what it means to reason, analyse and discuss results. Of course the subject matter is to some sense extrinsic to that- but all those subject headings really describe not so much an area to be studied, as a discipline to study that area with. They involve the use of rules which tell you how to evaluate and use reason in a particular context- as such they have a universal validity. They don't tell you how to be a good anything- but they do train you in how to reason effectively, how to analyse ideas and data and evaluate them.

If we turn from that model to look at a vocational qualification- we can see that some such ie law or engineering share that quality of being a training in a discipline of thought. Other vocational qualifications aren't training so much in a discipline of thought as they are in training another kind of discipline- physical activity for instance may not require much thought but may require a lot of skill. Take the art of cooking- cooking requires a certain degree of skill, an ability to see what should happen at a particular moment to the dish you are preparing. It does require analysis- but more instinctual analysis- the ability to see for instance when a spice is needed or a herb is required to give the dish more taste and when it isn't. You could put other crafts into that category too- from the precise moulding of a pot by a potter to the construction of a painting. They are crafts. They do not require or exemplify the same skill as say a degree in history does- not because they are inferior but because they are not that type of training.

This isn't to say that we require one type of qualification or the other to be available- its just to say that one isn't the same as another. I wouldn't trust a mathematician or a historian with a resturant kitchen, but I would prefer them to a cook when it came to being an accountant. There is no metaphsyical sense in which one profession is 'better' than another: and yet the key point here is that there is a real difference in the kind of skill that is being used and cultivated through their study. And that is precisely the reason why many people want to leave the academic subjects and do vocational qualifications- they don't want the same experience as they have at school or university, they want to do something which has more external results than the products of analysis do. Its vital to keep that distinction in mind- because it reminds us that if we try and make vocational study academic we will lose the attractiveness of the first and the rigour of the second. Rather we should look at tailoring vocational studies more precisely to the actual needs of people in jobs- looking for example at apprenticeships and other things- and we should open both kinds of study to people throughout their entire lives. Most of us afterall will have to retrain during the fifty years that we can expect to spend in the workforce now- and the government since the foundation of the Open University has recognised that fact.

Vocational and Academic qualifications are ultimately different but equal ways to acheiving different careers- reason won't knock nails into walls, a knowledge of construction won't solve a third order differential equation- its time we were realistic about education.