“We don’t need no education,” chanted Pink Floyd on their hit single “Brick in the Wall,” and to be honest, as multi-millionaire rock stars, education is probably quite a long way down their list of requirements. The prospect of Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour sipping daiquiris on Martinique and discussing the latest list of evening classes at their local community centre requires too great a leap of imagination, even for Floyd heads.
However, for the rest of us, education has always been one way of maximising our options throughout the forty odd years of our working lives. The higher you ascend the educational ladder, the more jobs you are qualified to do. And the wider your choice of jobs, the more chance you have of actually enjoying your work.
Of course, the main charge levelled at education – usually by young people who aren’t willing to put in the graft – is that it has no relevance to the world outside. And there is a large amount of truth in this. In the thirty years since I was last dismissed from class, I have had absolutely no call to write a letter to a penpal in Nantes, I have never even seen a slide-rule, let alone used one, I have never brought up the imagery in Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in conversation and I have never had occasion to mix potassium permanganate with magnesium sulphide over a Bunsen burner.
Educationalists will naturally argue that it is not what you know that is important – it is the fact that you have been able to digest, understand and, in a pressure situation, regurgitate all the information force-fed you over a two year period that makes you a good prospective employee. If you have shown the moral character to be able to write an authoritive essay on anchovy fishing off Peru (from memory) then you surely have some of the qualities required for a management role in a multinational company, the argument goes.
Right at the heart of this non-relevant education argument is the subject of Irish. Its boring, say the kids. I never use it outside school. Sure, everybody speaks English anyway.
The obvious answer is that Irish isn’t boring, just as Latin isn’t boring. What may be boring is the way that it is taught and there seems to be a perception in schools that Irish is being taught in a boring way by boring teachers. However, teachers who attempt to liven things up a bit and who avoid the tedious repetition of declensions should hold the attention of class for longer. I would even go so far as to make the use of hand puppets in Irish mandatory for all teachers.
And if you ever go down to Spiddal and ask the postmistress in the Spar for a stamp for your postcard as gaelige, you will know the great feeling of satisfaction when she responds in kind with a smile.
However the one subject that young people are taught nowadays which was totally ignored in our day is CSPE. Both my children took CSPE in school, yet for the life of me I can never remember what the letters stand for – hence the chips, sausage and poached eggs.
To be honest, I would have loved to have had CSPE in school. I emerged from school totally ignorant of the ways of the world. I could spout Iago’s “Reputation” speech to Othello but I had no idea about how a bank loan worked. I could calculate a hypotenuse with my eyes shut but I had no idea that councillors even existed, let alone what role they perform in society. And when I started work, I blindly accepted that my income tax was being deducted correctly because I knew no different.
While every member of our generation decries the appalling education standards of the current school population (just as the previous generation decried ours!) it is fair to say that the introduction of CSPE – along with Business Studies and Home Economics – is a major step forward in making schoolwork relevant. Children learn to explore – as opposed to being taught – topics like racism, immigration, trade unions, business trends, interview techniques and social welfare entitlements, which can only be a good thing. If your only exposure to immigration issues are clouded by a racist father or schoolfriends, chances are you will head in the same direction. If nothing else, at least the discussion of the issue shows that differing views exist.
What CSPE does, and what the education system in our day completely failed to do, is to prepare students to become active citizens who can participate in society in a meaningful way. Most of us are aware of our rights as citizens but not everybody is aware of the responsibilities that come with these rights. CSPE is instrumental in making children aware that life is not simply about being entitled to this and that.
In the reverse of the “Irish isn’t boring, it’s the teachers that are boring” argument, though, all the relevance in the world will not make children pay attention in class if CSPE is taught in a monotonal and unimaginative way. Droning on for an hour about Martin Luther King while Smudger and Notcher throw erasers at each other is not likely to be very productive. Though to be fair to schools, it is probably the one subject where teachers are encouraged to be unconventional, to use more teaching aids and to encourage class discussion and participation.
Having said all that, the notion that schoolwork should only concentrate on subjects that have a relevance to the real world is equally ludicrous. As my father always used to say – well, occasionally used to say – the more you know, the more interesting a person you are. We are all familiar with the guy in the workplace who only talks about football. Now, I enjoy talking about football – particularly if Shelbourne have won at the weekend – but I am confident I could join in a conversation on other subjects if they arose. Football guy can’t. Discuss share prices, the Holocaust, modern Irish poetry, golf, lunar eclipses or agriculture and he is struck dumb until the subject comes around to Robbie Fowler again. Ask him to balance his household budget and he’d probably reach for a pair of weighing scales. God help his poor wife.