Hot showers or Shakespeare?

If we want more young people to study it, it’s time to put the glamour back into engineering, suggests Hilary Moriarty

Here’s a talking point for your next dinner party or prefects’ meeting, or even assembly. Suppose you had to make one of those choices, at the behest of some evil power in the universe: Shakespeare and all his works or the availability and very existence of hot showers. Hand on heart, which would you choose?

The question came to mind on reading of an article written by Prince Phillip for New Scientist, in which he said of engineering that it “has made a greater positive difference to human life than almost any other human endeavour”. Writing to promote the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, a £1 million award for exceptional advance of global benefit, he praised the engineer’s capacity to see a problem and be a problem-fixer. The rest of us moan; the engineer says: “I can do something about that.”

The prince’s article rattles off a list of things which would not exist at all without engineers – power stations, roads, bridges, railways, mobile phones and sewage works. It does not take long to make a very long list.

A £1 million prize is substantial, but the truth is, the event is more likely to get brief, careful coverage in the heavy press than a six-page ‘Wow!’ feature in a magazine.

And that is surely one reason the prince is moved to write at all (and I really hope every single word was his own): because he perceives an ignorance about and apparent neglect of engineers, unsung heroes of the modern age – and the medieval one too, one might add. Brunel, Marconi, Bell, Dyson will come to most minds, but after that? (Another dinner party/prefects’ meeting question, perhaps?) We grab as if they were our birthright the goodies the engineers produce, and curse the 7.40 to Waterloo if it’s crowded and fret if a plane is delayed, forgetting the glory and sheer amazingness, the OMG! wonder of the train and the plane in the first place.

And in the careers office? What is it about “You could be an engineer…” that just does not cut it against “You could be a lawyer… an accountant… an actor…”And even if the careers officer said it, would the student dismiss the suggestion in the certain knowledge that his or her parents would have exactly the same reaction? And if so, why is that?

I am the daughter of an engineer and the wife of another. My father left school at 16 and did a five-year apprenticeship in motor engineering. That took him into the navy during the war. No more cars, but plenty of ships to keep moving across the Atlantic in the convoys dogged by U-boats and in the Mediterranean relieving Malta.

At the same time, my mother was a civil servant, actually a super-fast shorthand typist, working in London through the Blitz. Brave as that probably was – bombs dropping into the Thames as she crossed its bridges – as a child I did not quite understand why my mother’s occupation had higher status than my father’s.

My mother said it was because he got his hands dirty and she may have been right. But getting your hands dirty is how you fix things, and if something is broken, most people are pleased to see it fixed. A character in a Terry Pratchett book, asked if he would save the people or the machines in the direst crisis, said he’d save the machines, because if you lost them, there might be no one left after armageddon who could recreate them.

“Surely people are more important than machines?” came the protest.

“No, leave a few people together for long enough and they will reproduce themselves. If a machine is gone, it may not be replicable – maybe because of parts, more likely because of skill.” He had a point, and I think of it every time I flick a switch and nothing happens.

My father’s transferable skills as a mechanical engineer took him finally into aero-engineering, which he described as like everything else he had dealt with, but bigger. A useful person, my dad.

If someone had suggested I follow in his footsteps, my mother would have had a fit and it was impossible anyway: I was no mathematician. Even then, I was all words. But I married a civil engineer and saw how that qualification changed lives: a hospital, a church, the M4 and many, many homes. How vital to our wellbeing is a roof over our heads? I can read poetry on a hillside, but I’d rather do it in warmth and comfort.

I almost wrote “It isn’t a writer or an actor or an accountant who conjures a home out of thin air”, but of course it’s not as simple as that. The world needs the accountant to be the wizard with money as the engineer is with the dimensions and tensions of a bridge, and there’s many a businessman running a building firm who is no engineer. Every piece of society’s jigsaw has its place and its purpose. It’s just a pity that some of the pieces have the glamour as well, while the less glamorous may actually be changing our lives (mostly) for the better.

Taking A levels in maths, further maths, physics and English, my elder daughter wanted to be an engineer. So she was sent to Glasgow for a week in a shipyard, under a scheme designed to promote girls into engineering. It finished her interest completely. Game over. If it sounded crazy to me in the first place – “How exciting!” I recall saying – Abby’s experience proved my point. She did a degree in law and sociology, followed by an American master’s in law and criminology – and lo! She credits A-level maths with helping her survive the American postgrad system, which differs from the British in requiring breadth of study and capability across the usual arts/science subject divide. So studying subjects qualifying her for engineering was worth it in a completely unpredictable way.

And now there is anxiety about science and mathematics being unpopular at A level, and with girls in particular. They need rescuing – the subjects, not the girls: promotion, the glamour make-over to make them desirable so that Britain might again, perhaps, be a maker – remember when Britain made things and exported them? It seems in the 21st century as if Britain makes money, mostly in the south-east corner of the country, while the high seas fill with tankers as big as a town to bring us the stuff which other people make, quite possibly getting their hands dirty as they do it.

We could have a poster campaign to remind our young charges of the engineering giants who have forged the world they live in, we could hold balloon debates in which pupils research and explain why their engineer-character is worth keeping, we could remind pupils that the world is a plastic and physical place, as well as a springboard for poetry, philosophy and abstract wisdom.

And we could ask the question: Shakespeare or hot showers? And the answer would probably provoke a whole new debate.

Hilary Moriarty is an education consultant, following six years of headship and eight years as National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association

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20 April 2021, 11am BST