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Education for what?

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Norway Now, summer 1996

As predictably as the slow but irreversible merging of the fair Nordic summer into a darker and crisper Nordic autumn, the horrors of student admissions into institutions of higher education begin in August. To the prospective new students, the horrors consist simply in not being admitted to their preferred school - being offered, for example, a place at the Finnmark College of Aquaculture when what they really wanted was to become a doctor. To the teaching staff nationwide, the horrors consist in the student numbers, which seem to grow wildly and uncontrollably every year.
The four universities, in particular, now announce that they have reached their level of saturation. Many departments cannot, for sound reasons, increase their number of students. If they did, standards would inevitably decline, and even if they were offered additional funding, it is in many cases becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified teaching staff.

These problems are temporary, the politicians tell us, and in a few years, the pressure will for demographic reasons diminish. That may well be the case. But there is a growing feeling, not least among teachers at colleges and universities, that the politicians no longer have an educational policy. If they did, the shortage of student places would not have been most critical in the professional studies for which there is still a strong demand in the labour market; and the humanities and social sciences, where unemployment is already substantial, would not have ended up as the most overcrowded lines of study.

At the moment, nearly one per cent of the total Norwegian population are students at the University of Oslo only. We seem to be evolving into a society where "student" is the most common profession. It is doubtless true that investment in education is generally a sign of foresight and planning. But that does not mean that any kind of education will do.

There is something distinctly unreal about the situation, and it seems appropriate to approach it by way of a science fiction allegory. Here goes.

In Anthony Burgess' short novel 1985 (published in 1978), the protagonist is a history lecturer who has just been laid off because the government has decided that it is by and large unnecessary to teach a useless subject such as history. Instead, he is offered a job as an unskilled worker at a chocolate factory. Our hero quickly realises that not only does his salary increase due to this unexpected career move; he also enjoys a higher standing in a society which has grown suspicious of learning and intellectual mumbo-jumbo.

As the title suggests, Burgess' novel was chiefly intended as a fictional response to Orwell's 1984. Actually, his predictions were less accurate, and were much more quickly disproven, than were Orwell's. Above all, Burgess did not realise that Britain was, in the late 1970s, about to become a postindustrial society, where the growth in information processing equals the decline in traditional industry. As a matter of fact, anyone would be hard up to find a job at a chocolate factory in 1985. On the contrary, if Burgess' protagonist had stayed at his redbrick university, he would soon have lived through the most spectacular student explosion since the sixties. In this kind of society, fewer and fewer persons are employed in manual work, and an increasing proportion of the working population cut each other's hair, teach each other German verbs and attend endless and boring meetings.

In a city like Oslo, the transition from industrial to postindustrial society is expressed powerfully and highly visibly. The old shipyard at Aker Brygge was closed down in the early eighties, the skeletal buildings refurbished and re-opened a few years later as a large shopping and entertainment centre with a slight maritime slant. More to the point, two of the city's largest breweries have recently been turned into colleges. Where workers in blue overalls lugged crates of Schous beer, lecturers in blue jeans now talk about marginal profits and intercultural communication to impressive crowds of students. Where sweaty workers used to have coffee and cigarettes, academic books are now sold by the ton.

Who are the students? I am not arguing that they would necessarily have been brewery workers rather than students of intercultural communication in a bygone age. But it is a cause for some alarm that many of them educate themselves for unemployment and that many of them would indeed have been unemployed, had the State not found it possible to educate them.

Incidentally, the factory pipes are still standing erect; but they only function now is that of smoke-free postmodern decorations.

As a result of the educational explosion, it may soon be difficult to find an ordinary post as a bureaucrat without a doctorate (in my parents' youth, you had an education when you were through with secondary school). The mantra of the Norway of the nineties is kompetanseutvikling ("competence enhancement"), but few ask what kind of competence we want.

Let me ask again: Why do we educate ourselves so intensively and seemingly aimlessly? Well. Perhaps I don't want to know the answer. But, fortunately, the securing of jobs for candidates is not the only aim of higher education. Many of the students who are shooed into faculties of humanities and social sciences because they would otherwise go unemployed, even run the risk of becoming decent people with a sound understanding of the world. Indebted and underprivileged, perhaps, but decent.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1996