I heard a story the other day – apocryphal, I’m sure, but so much the better – about a Japanese girl who came to the US on a high-school exchange. She was working like crazy, because back home she wanted to pass the extremely stiff and competitive exam for teacher college.
Later, her hosts found out she hadn’t made it. Bitterly disappointed, she reluctantly settled for second best: medical school.
We speak of the teaching profession, but the term is sadly strained. If I had my way, teachers would be paid more than doctors. I’d make them the highest-paid professionals, the most valued members of society, so that the brightest and best would be competing to qualify.
We’re facing all kinds of problems, and education is all we’ve got to help us solve them. We need to create a situation where kids know that as teachers they would be rewarded with status and esteem and stacks of money.
'I'd make all education free'
I’ve got no complaints, but it saddens me the way our best schools so quickly succumb to the myth of Oxford and Cambridge, as though that were the pinnacle of human achievement, and their pupils could aspire to nothing greater. King Edward’s was founded in the 16th century by four local businessmen. I’d like to see it channel their dynamism and energy and stay true to that entrepreneurial spirit.
Now I fund an assisted place at King Edward’s in the name of my parents, whose sole ambition for their four boys was to see them get the education they themselves were deprived of by circumstances. I’m happy to do so. But I shouldn’t have to pay for anyone’s education. That’s the government’s job.
I would make all education free and, as a wrinkle on that, I’d reintroduce the old technical colleges and pay kids to go, so they were fired up and scrambling for places. We need people who know how things work, how to make things and make them well.
I’d like to see a reversal of the old hierarchy. I’m a writer. I love words and etymology. I’m all for Latin and Greek. Greek should still be there for anyone who wants to study it, but I see no reason why it should have privileged status. The prestige should belong to the kids studying to become precision metalworkers. I’d get the apprentice engineers placements in industry, but I’d make sure the companies understood it was a two-way street. Listen to these kids, I’d tell them: they’re your inside track to the future.
Protect the book
I get the idea of a broad curriculum, but the curriculum now is broad in a trivial way. Education should do two main things. It should give you a command of basic knowledge, and it should teach you to think for yourself. My state primary taught me writing and arithmetic, and if I’d never had another day’s schooling after I left Cherry Orchard I’d have got on just as well.
Kids should learn how to manage their financial affairs. My father worked for the Inland Revenue, and when I was starting out as a writer after 18 years in television, his advice was: “Don’t forget the taxman cometh, shovel in hand,” and “Put the last penny you are allowed into a pension scheme.” (This was in contrast to my Irish grandfather, who told me: “Spend your money before it runs out.”)
I would build more libraries and protect the book. I went to the local library every week as a boy, and devoured books so hungrily that my parents took out an extra library card for my dog Timmy – named for the dog in The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton – so as to keep me fed and watered.
Nobody gets to go to university unless they’ve been to the library when they’re three or four years old. And our political leaders have a better chance of being decent human beings if they’re readers, too. I remember Bill Clinton saying that he read books to help him “learn how to do it better”. Barack Obama’s the same: always reading.
The book is under tremendous pressure on the high street because landlords have jacked up the rents so unfeasibly high. It’s not that people don’t love books – they do – but they can’t buy them fast enough to compete with cosmetics and designer handbags. But there’s nothing better than getting lost in a book: you’ve got the whole world in your hands.
Seeing the whole world as your classroom
I was lazy at school, like my fictional alter ego, Jack Reacher. Reacher sees school as an assault course. If the pass mark is 60 per cent, he’ll get 61 per cent. Why waste energy? Either that or full marks – there’s nothing in between.
Reacher sees the whole world as his classroom and, like me, loves to collect information. He has a phenomenal memory. In Make Me, he wanders into a bookshop when he has concussion and, in Past Tense, he hangs out in the library. So you’ve got to assume that, between his annual adventures, he’s doing a fair bit of reading.
He quotes Balzac and Marcuse in Echo Burning and, in Nothing to Lose, discusses Zeno of Cittium and Stoicism with policewoman Vaughan. When he’s gearing up for a fight in the desert, he ponders the etymology of “xerox” – from the Greek “xero-“, meaning “dry”: so, copying without wet chemicals – just because he happens to be surrounded by sharp-leaved xeric, or xerophilous, plants.
But my favourite nerdy moment comes in Bad Luck and Trouble, where Reacher recalls a pedantic schoolteacher somewhere in the Pacific who once explained to him that first comes twilight, then dusk, and then night, and that if he needed a generic word for evening darkness he was to use “gloaming”. Which he duly, and dutifully, does.
You can learn a thing or two from Reacher. Not just how to calculate the winning angles in a one-on-five punch-up.
Lee Child is the internationally bestselling author of 24 Jack Reacher novels. He was speaking to his biographer, Heather Martin. The Reacher Guy: The Authorised Biography of Lee Child is published by Constable at Little, Brown