For the dishwasher or the microwave to breakdown just before the family descends for a long Bank Holiday weekend can be a disaster. An older generation is made painfully aware that their children know little of those time-consuming household chores that were such a feature of their own childhood – washing up dishes, peeling potatoes, preparing the stew, collecting apples, cutting grass and hanging out the laundry. We have become so dependent on labour-saving devices that we have lost that multiplicity of little learning opportunities that made youngsters of only a generation or so ago largely self-sufficient.
In 1948 the Times Educational Supplement published a little article entitled What Every School-leaver Should Know. Amongst the eighty or so items were: how to behave at meals, at a concert, in a railway carriage, in church or at an interview; how to dance a quickstep or a country dance, take care of clothes, recite a poem, or ‘amuse small company for five minutes’. Youngsters in 1948 were expected to know what to do about a frozen pipe, a blown fuse, smoky chimneys, a leaking roof or an over-flowing WC. They were expected to know how to grow and store fruit and vegetables so as to give a balanced diet throughout the year, to make porridge, kill a chicken humanely, skin a rabbit, set up a picnic or carve a joint. In addition they should know ‘how to clean a room, make a bed, wash up, use an iron, and lay and light a fire’. It was seen as necessary also to be able to get the best out of the policeman, the postman, the doctor and the refuse collector. Finally they should be able to ’detect crooked thinking, false analogies, illegitimate extraction, and arguing from selected instances’.
“How I wish my children could do that” we wail before admitting shamefacedly that we too would fail pretty abysmally on such a list. Not so my own grandfather, born in 1889 who died only some thirty years ago, a farmer descended from countless generations of Devonshire farmers in the Axe Valley. To him that article would have been a waste of newsprint. He could do all those things without having to think about them, and expected everyone around him to be equally competent. He had left school at the age of twelve because “the teacher had taught me everything he knew”. He could carry out the most complex mathematical calculations without writing any of it down, and wrote a fine copperplate script. He listened assiduously to the radio, and could recall the ups and downs of farming over the past century as easily as he could recount episodes in the Old Testament. Growing increasingly rheumatic in his eighties he would still hobble around the garden with his two crutches and a basket hooked over his arm to receive the apples that he hooked off the trees with his other crutch.
When I was aged about nine he thought me a wimp because I couldn’t (nor wouldn’t) kill a chicken. Of wet afternoons he would send me to straighten out once-used nails, recover brown paper and string, store apples and sit politely for hours listening to the endless stories of aged and distant cousins. Eventually I must have passed muster for he thought well enough of me, my own father having died young, to fund me to go to university.
Just what he would have made, however, of the recent news story that showed that, of the 1.2 million students who had graduated from university within the last ten years, a third of them were not even earning fifteen thousand pounds a year and consequently hadn’t started to pay off their student loans of up to twenty thousand pounds. Fifteen thousand pounds would have been a fortune to my grandfather. It is still a fair amount of money even now, but it is what a well-organised house cleaner equipped with dusters, a vacuum cleaner and a furniture spray can pick up in twelve months. It’s not much more than the minimum wage.
England is awash with under-employed graduates who, as they were leaving school, were sold one of the most mischievous pieces of false information, disguised as a statistic that reflected what had happened in the past, and then falsely proceeded to interpret this as a valid projection into the future. Ten years ago England took the findings of the OECD which suggested that university graduates could expect to earn between 20 and 100% more than non-graduates, resulting in a bonus of at least a hundred and fifty thousand pounds over a lifetime they were told. Despite the difficulties that many recent graduates have experienced in getting good jobs there was a 9% increase in students starting university this year. England needs not just well-educated people – it needs above all else well-educated people who can actually do something… men and women who can link thinking with doing, and don’t have to wait to be told what to do.
Which takes us back to the kitchen sink. Not literally, of course, but to those conversations that once took place between parent and child about what the youngster was really interested in, and what plans they were developing for the future.
A mixture of bio-medical and psychological research throws fascinating light on the importance of this. It seems that in late adolescence, youngsters who are carried away with their enthusiasm for something that really matters to them, something probably deemed by others to be beyond their actual competence, develop what psychologists refer to as a state of flow. Flow is a fascinating phenomena, as anyone who has ever experienced it will understand. During the state of flow the basic rules of bodily and mental functioning are suspended. That crippling sense of tiredness which grips you when you press yourself too hard to do something that you don’t really want to do, is replaced by a kind of fifth gear – a kind of overdrive where the brain works at such a level of efficiency it literally “flows” and burns up less oxygen – the normal cause for feeling tired. For hours on end such youngsters can just keep on going and going and never really feel tired. On entering flow they go further and further on less and less “fuel”.
Schools that over-teach their pupils, just as much as parents who keep their children wrapped up in cotton wool, end up trivialising the entire learning process. Since the days of the first parents children have come into adulthood because they have had tasks to do, and challenges to meet. Happiness comes in knowing that you have done something which really is an achievement, not in doing something which is simply too easy. Youngsters who experience flow in late adolescence (most often through an extra-curricular or informal activity) find it far easier to enter flow in adult life than do those adults who never experienced such a thing when they were younger.
So what does flow suggest about under-employed graduates? Quite simply this. We know that human instincts have been honed over aeons of time to give each generation the mental capability to survive. Survival in changing circumstances is frequently dependent upon willingness to think the unusual, and then do something about it. If the discipline of school leaves little space for self-exploration, and if the instinctive needs of adolescents are dumbed by simply entering university to do something that doesn’t really “grab them”, then they will emerge in their early twenties lacking that essential “hunger” to succeed. They will have little determination to leave any stone unturned for their dreams give them no energy. Flow links dreams to energy.
That is what happened when earlier generations worked together on the ordinary projects of everyday life, around the sink, maintaining the home, digging the garden, or selling home-grown vegetables in the market, and being active members of community. And that is why today’s young people often discover what they want to do in life, not at school or home or on the beaches of Thailand – none of which challenge them – but by hands-on experience of having to do something for themselves.