Friday, May 02, 2014

The Real Purpose of Education

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The trips to the teacher conferences in Easter can be a trial for a Minister for Education during hard times. The teacher conferences allow gamekeepers to play poacher, and a Minister takes his dignity in his hands before them.

Last week, Minister Quinn was like nothing so much as a B-29 bomber flying over Germany during the Second World War, dropping tin foil in the hopes that the radar doesn’t pick him up and stick a few Messerschmitts on his tail. And with the way history is currently being treated by the Department, it might have occurred to some history teachers to stockpile a few those Messerschmitts in a hanger somewhere, just in case.

The Minister’s tin foil came in three species – the ongoing debate about school ownership, reform of the Leaving Cert marking system, and an extraordinary suggestion that all National School teachers should have passed Honours Maths during the Leaving Cert before being handed their box of chalk and a few tidy cuts of marla.

Of the three suggestions, the change to the Leaving Cert grading is most likely to happen. The school ownership debate will drag on for decades, while the Honours Maths requirement is utter nonsense. But while the grading change may happen, that does not necessarily mean it is worthwhile.

The reason behind the proposed changes to the Leaving Cert grades – changing them back to ten per cent bands, rather than the current five – is that the Department feels the current system leads to too much targetting of exams, and exams aren’t what education is about at all.

Education, according to the Department, is not about cramming or learning by rote. Education is about giving students the ability to think for themselves, and not some outdated legacy-of-the-slave-trade theory about teaching students stuff that they didn’t previously know.

There are two points to note about the theory of education. Firstly, the idea that students are inhibited from thinking for themselves by the current system is usually put forward by the third level sector, who report that students are getting thicker every year, damn them.

The universities are inclined to be a little more diplomatic in delivering this bad news, but wall-to-wall thickos in the lecture halls is what it boils down to. Students, they say, are spoon-fed in secondary school, and are therefore incapable of working on their own at third level.

The evidence of this is purely anecdotal – the universities do not stoop so low as to back this argument up with figures. Nor indeed does anybody ask just how much regular feeding, as opposed to spoon-feeding, goes on in the lectures hall of Erin.

Not only are the third-level sector’s complaints about students needing spoon-feeding not backed up by evidence, there is evidence to the contrary. The fact that students target their exams so precisely is clear evidence of strategic thinking, such target-setting being an clear instance of short term operations aimed at a long term goal.

You say the students did not figure this out this targetting themselves, but are taught it in school. Very well, but what they are surely not taught how to do in school is how to get into nightclubs when they should be at home either studying or working on the land. It is in this difficult art that you find young people’s analytic thinking at its finest.

Consider two friends who regularly swapped glasses and donkey jackets before attempting to get into nightclubs in Ballyhaunis during the the Saturday nights of their youth, in the 16th or 17th Century, I believe. The baby-faced one didn’t look so cherubic without his glasses, while the donkey jacket added that certain air of maturity – he could have been just home from the buildings in London.

As for the donkey jacket’s original owner, he was sufficiently alpha in those days to wear two pair of glasses and still carry himself like Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. No lack of analytical thinking in those excellent products of the Irish educational system.

Besides. The second point is that teaching students to think isn’t, in fact, the sole purpose of education. Thinking is something that human beings are programmed to do. Education can polish it a little, but the best practical thinking is done on the feet, in the real world, when the pressure is on.

The true purpose of education is to take a body of knowledge and hand it on to the next generation. Thinking is like breathing. It’s not so much an achievement as a base requirement.

When students go out into the great world they invariably find out to their horror that employers don’t employ people to think. Employers employ people to do, which is a completely different thing.

If you are employed by the ESB, they will appreciate it if you have some little understanding of electro-physics. Accountants are often praised for their ability to do sums. And flawed though the HSE may be, they still prefer doctors who can identify elbows from other items of anatomy.

There is no way to analyse these facts, nor is there any purpose served in thinking about them. You just sit down and learn them off, just like others have done before you for hundreds of years.

As for your richer life, outside of the office, the case for the Old School was best put by Professor Harold Bloom of Yale University in his book How to Read, and Why. When it comes to poetry, Bloom makes the point that not only should you read poems but, where-ever possible, you should memorise them as well.

How did Nelson Mandela survive twenty-seven cruel years on Robben Island? Tremendous character and fortitude of course, but also by little things, like reciting William Earnest Henley’s Invictus, night after night. There was a man who was armed for the world.

Good poetry learned by heart is a gift to treasure forever. Would that the Department of Education were interested in ensuring our current schoolchildren were armed so well.