Poor Bob. That’s what his family used to call him.
It probably started in high school when he failed a year or two and the counsellor called in his parents and showed them a graph.
A good boy, a hard worker. But he was – here the counsellor cleared his throat and pointed at the graph creeping along the baseline – not really what one would call academic.
Thus diagnosed, the infection spread rapidly. Bob became Poor Bob in a matter of months, and when he scraped through Matric by a percentage point or two, Poor Bob became, for a time, Poor, Poor Bob.
It went without saying that university was never going to happen for Poor Bob. Still, there were things Poor Bob could do. Things “with his hands” – the old, middle-class euphemism for getting dirty. Surgeons and pianists use their hands too, of course, but Poor Bob was never going to be one of them. No, “doing things with his hands” meant sticking them up exhaust pipes or down drains.
These days, nobody calls him Poor Bob any more. That’s because he’s now a plumber and every time he reaches into a blocked pipe he pulls out fistfuls of money.
As a humanities graduate, I find the story of Poor Bob more and more interesting.
Partly that’s because I’m starting to be haunted by the suspicion that I should have learned a trade. When you’re 19, with no conception of age or permanence, you imagine that you’ll be writing or creating at the same pace for the rest of your life. But now that I’m ancient by undergraduate standards, I have to admit that it’s going to be difficult to write a column for the next 15 years, let alone the next 30. So yes, the idea of making a pile of slightly piquant dosh and then employing an apprentice sounds pretty good right now.
Mainly, however, I find Poor Bob’s story a useful insight into something many people have been grappling with over the last few months.
We South Africans enjoy emotive, empowering rhetoric. From the EFF’s chest-thumping sound bytes and the Fallists’ battle cries to Oprah-esque bonbons about being the maker of your own destiny, we’re fond of believing that we’re a nation of doers; of self-made, self-motivated superheroes.
Which is, I would humbly suggest, not the case. And Poor Bob is proof.
a place of rigid destinies
Dig a little deeper, apply a little pressure, and you’ll find that most of us are not living a South African copy of the 20th-century American Dream, where you can be whatever you want to be.
On the contrary, this is for the overwhelming majority a place of rigid destinies and strictly policed social positions; where Victorian notions of class and human worth have combined with ancient beliefs in royalty and blood purity to create a society deeply invested in hierarchies.
Which is how Bob became Poor Bob. If he’d been German and unencumbered by Victorian class prejudices, his counsellor would have had good news for his parents: Bob was a prime candidate for technical school and could look forward to a long and stable career making high-end technology. But in South Africa? Cue the sound of embarrassed whispers behind fans in the drawing room.
Of course, some anxiety is understandable. We don’t have technical schools or training colleges, so if your child isn’t going to university it’s easy to worry about sending them off into a howling void.
But the fact is, “working with your hands” was a euphemism long before the collapse of these institutions. The whispers go back generations.
Which is why it might not be enough simply to blame an incompetent government for the current graduate-or-starve dichotomy. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge our own part in this situation, and to consider the possibility that a collective, unconscious snobbery has helped push us into this corner.
So where to from here? Well, for starters, let’s climb down off this high Victorian horse and see tertiary education for the useful little donkey it is. Let’s be honest and admit that, barring a few postgraduates and the odd philosophy student, almost nobody is going to university to get an education. They’re going there to receive specific knowledge about one small niche, so that they can be comfortably streamed into a similar niche in the working world. A humanities student can graduate without knowing anything about money or machines. A medical student can study for seven years and never read a poem. These are not educations. These are qualifications.
If we can admit that a qualification is simply a qualification and not evidence of being a higher life form; if we can agree that knowing how to build an engine is just as impressive as a PhD in political science; then we’ve got a chance to push for the kind of education system we need. The kind that turns Poor Bob into Rich Bob.