Friday, August 16, 2013

The Vandalism Inherent in the Leaving Cert

First published in the Western People on Tuesday.

A creature, made of clay

The Leaving Cert results are due this week. This will almost certainly result in the children of the rich and privileged disgracing themselves out foreign on holidays, and the publication of po-faced reports of same in a fortnight’s time that will not neglect any sordid detail.

Happily, no Mayo boy or girl would do such the thing – who could leave the country while the footballers are once more on the cusp of glory? Greece, how are ye.

What is a more interesting topic than boys being boys is the actual exam itself, and how the Leaving Cert, like Irish society itself, has changed with the times and not always for the better.

The impossible triangle of the Maths paper made headlines back in June, but that was a once-off blunder, and one that is unlikely to recur. What is of greater worry is the state of the syllabuses themselves, and the dumbing down that is getting more and more apparent as he years go by.

For instance, Project Maths is the great fashion now, rather than the old method of students swallowing their theorems and formulae whole, like so many boa constrictors.

The theory behind Project Maths, that of awakening the mathematician within, is fine but every maths teacher who has spoken to your correspondent about Project Maths does not think it’ll work. On the bright side, they are looking forward to a bull market in grinds for as long as it exists, and the grinds will be conducted in the old fashioned way. Open wide, scholars.

Irish is a tricky one. People involved in the promotion of Irish are generally very reluctant to confess any bad news about the language, and this prevents honest discussion of what’s actually happening.

The press looks no deeper than whether or not Peig Sayers is still on the syllabus, and take her exclusion as a sign of progress, without ever wondering what will replace her. Suffice it to say that the ancient language remains in mortal danger in our schools, Gaelscoileanna notwithstanding.

And then there is the sorry state of the English syllabus. The teaching of English, like so many other things, underwent no small upheaval during the 1960s. Prior to that unhappy decade, there was a Great Tradition of Literature, with every age adding its Great Writers to that Tradition.

The sixties, being the time of revolution it was, had no time for anything as unhip as tradition or standards, but did manage to generate a righteous fury that the so-called tradition was actually a power-structure that supported Dead White Males.

Fifty years on, nobody is really sure what a “great book” is anymore, and that level of insecurity is evident in the current Leaving Cert syllabus. As a matter of fact, the syllabus is so insecure about what a great book is that some of the books aren’t books at all. By the clever use of the word “text,” you can now go to the movies and call it school.

There are six films listed as prescribed texts for the Leaving Cert, ranging from Citizen Kane to Blade Runner, and they have no business there at all. The fact that each film lists its director as its author shows that not only does the Department not know that a film isn’t a text, the Department is equally unaware that film is the ultimate collaborative art form. Who signed off on this?

Bad and all as that is, a look at the poetry section is even worse. Geoffrey Chaucer is the man who wrote the Canterbury Tales, the poem that established English above Latin as a language worthy of literature. There is no sign of him on the latest syllabus, due for 2015.

The gallant and courtly Andrew Marvell – no sign. John Milton, second only to Shakespeare as a writer of blank verse and the only man to successfully write an epic poem in English, Paradise Lost, doesn’t make the grade.

Alexander Pope, “little Alexander the women laugh at,” the greatest of the Enlightenment poets? We don’t want his kind around here. George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron, a man whose celebrity in his time echoes the madness of our own? Not good enough for the Leaving Cert.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron’s great contemporary and the man whose Ozymandias gives the culture its great lesson the importance of worldly power? His poems are no good here. John Keats, the last of the great Romantic Poets to be the born and the first to die? Nope, sorry.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the twelfth British poet laureate and the man whose poem “Ulysses” Judi Dench’s M quotes in the blockbuster James Bond movie Skyfall, goes right over the heads of children we now consider educated.

Patrick Kavanagh, second only to WB Yeats as the greatest Irish poet of the 20th Century and the authentic and eloquent voice of rural Ireland? A mystery to those who will sit their Leaving Cert in 2015.

And who’s there instead? Greg Delanty, Kerry Hardie, Liz Lochhead, Richard Murphy and William Wall are all on the syllabus for 2015 and there isn’t one of them whom your correspondent could pick out of a lineup.

This is an appalling state of affairs. Verse is the highest expression of language, any language. English has tradition of poetry that is over a thousand years old, predating even Chaucer, and that thousand-year tradition is being sidelined, and ignored, by the current Leaving Cert syllabus.

The great works are touchstones of what we consider important in life, once the dinner is eaten and the mortgage paid and we sit back and wonder what it is to be human. These poems have travelled down the generations and given wonder and consolation to countless people where-ever English is spoken.

Irish children are now being denied that heritage for reasons that are impossible to understand. This isn’t education. This is cultural vandalism and it’s time someone called a halt to it.