Examinations and qualifications and educational choices are much in my mind these days.
This is partly because I have just bid farewell to the 2014 class of students in my Master Brewers Program; we had a happy graduation luncheon last week following the three examinations of the Institute of Brewing. Also, we attended the Davis High School graduation ceremonies on Friday evening that was special for us as our grandson crossed the stage and, finally, our whole town has enjoyed the unusual traffic associated with the UC Davis graduation ceremonies. It’s just that lovely time of year.
But all this made me uneasy; maybe I can explain why though I have to start nearly 65 years ago.
When I was a small boy I knew I had three seminal events ahead of me that would define most of my options and opportunities for the rest of my life and so would determine, to a large extent, what I could do and what I could become. I think most of us youngsters understood that, even at that tender age; we could either give those seminal events some serious attention, or not, as we pleased or, more likely, as our parents taught us and insisted.
The first hurdle was the 11+ exam. I have no recollection of taking this exam that was given to 10- and 11-year-olds. My guess is that it merely separated the reasonably literate small boys and girls from those who were less so or cared a great deal less. This may seem a young age to start sorting the sheep from the goats but that is the way it was. That 11+ exam determined whether one could attend a grammar school (for the literate) or a secondary modern school.
The grammar school was the better educational option.
The second hurdle hove into view at the age of 16 when we grammar school kids sat the General Certificate of Education exam with English and mathematics and choosing (if I remember rightly) four or more additional subjects; those choices skewed toward either the arts or the sciences. This exam determined whether one could continue to the sixth form and so walk onto the trail that potentially led to a university. The alternative was to leave school and go to work.
The sixth form and the science skew were the better educational options.
In the sixth form we carefully chose the few subjects we would study because, after two years we few survivors, now about 18 years old, would take the GCE at the “A” (advanced) level. We qualified in those three subjects that were oriented either to arts or to sciences. My topics were biology, chemistry and physics.
That seemed to me the better educational option.
And so to study biochemistry and eventually to UCD.
The DHS graduation was fun, in parts, and it was grand to see so many beautiful, vibrant and joyful young people all in one place at one time. But I had the uneasy thought that few of these students truly understood what a seminal moment this was for them because of the choices they had already made or would shortly make in college; that is because they have not been subject to the rigorous sorting experience that I survived.
Choices have consequences.
What those graduates are equipped to do next, or are able to do next, or what they choose to do next will have the same effect of shaping their futures and defining their option and opportunities as I first experienced at 10 years of age. I feared they are not well prepared to make wise decisions because they have arrived at this advanced age and are graduating without having to make those sort of hard and deliberate choices.
And, absent powerful parental input, they will have no help in making wise decisions.
Ringing in their ears, as they go off to colleges near and far, will be some of the worst advice they will ever be given, from, for example, well-intentioned speakers at the graduation ceremonies, who, with a distinctly 18th century view of education, encourage them to explore widely and find themselves at college, find their muse, find what they love and pursue it, and above all be happy (without saying when or how or defining what that is).
Then at college they may choose vacillating I-can’t-decide options at the University of California, for example, where they can be students of “exploratory” or “undeclared.” These are perhaps the worst programs the university has ever offered; for crying out loud these are 18-year-old adults and it’s high time they got some focus and got on with it. They will have four years at university; I had three.
We didn’t think we were too young for the educational decisions we had to make because the system did not infantilize us and that was the expectation. That was the road that a student could choose to walk or not walk.
Those were the educational options.
It seems to me that students who are off to universities and colleges need to get on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) track ASAP. Learn to do something or make something. In this modern day and age, men and women with STEM degrees are needed and they find work in an ocean of unemployment. There is a shortage of people with necessary STEM skills.
Some might say “Ah! Ugh! You moron! Education is not about getting a job but about expanding the mind and exploring the wide world of knowledge and fulfillment and intellectual satisfaction and finding happiness.”
Well, if an education is not about the future that will contain work on five of every seven days what in goodness’ name is it about?
Happiness does not grow out of under-employment, nor poverty, nor work below one’s intellectual capacity and presumed pay scale, so the decision to undertake a certain educational path must weigh the employment options at the end of four years of study.
Trust me on this, new graduates, STEM subjects rock! It’s the better educational option, because it permits more choices and opens more opportunities.
Some 40 young people come to me every year to study brewing science. Many must take remedial STEM subjects before admission to the program because it is fair to admit (and take money from) only those with a reasonable chance of success. For this reason, although we are not selective or exclusionary, we prefer to admit students with STEM degrees; also we know full well that, when the big breweries come calling for recruits, only those with STEM degrees need apply.
Those students have the most options and the richest range of employment and career choices. This is worth thinking about for students about to embark on four more years of study.
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com