Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Should We Be Teaching Our Children This?

I recently attended the final of the Aoife Begley Secondary Schools Debating Competition in NUI, Maynooth, not out of any great love for the art of oral duelling, but because my daughter, one of the participants, seconded me as transport provider. As a weary parent of two teenagers, who frequently argue with each other, the prospect of viewing an expanded version of this did not exactly set my pulse racing, but, being the dutiful and obedient father that I am, I resignedly took my place in the auditorium of the brand new John Hume Building [named after the Northern politician, John Hume Building.]
The format was simple enough – four teams of two and four single speakers would debate the motion that membership of the EU should constitute membership of a European army. I kid you not. I was hoping for something along the lines of “Should Posh stand by her man?” or “Are any of the trolleys in Dunnes, Blanchardstown in working order?” Instead, the participants were expected to wax lyrical upon a subject that would rival “The Inside of a Ping-Pong Ball” in the Annual Most Uninteresting Topic of the Year Award.
Each speaker had to argue his or her case for seven minutes, for five of which the opposition were allowed to jump up and shout “Point of Order!” to try and put them off. This, I suppose, is the academic equivalent of trying to keep your balance on a log while people are throwing beanbags at you, so beloved by Stuart Hall on “It’s a Knockout.” I could only sit back and admire the cool way these irritating interruptions were dealt with. Me, I’d probably have lost it completely and thrown a wobbly, which apparently is not highly regarded in debating circles.
Teenagers, in general, get a very bad press. They are perceived as sullen, lazy, selfish and totally unintelligible, except when demanding money or lifts. Each generation apparently spells the death-knell for modern civilisation, and always has done. I am sure that Charles Stewart Parnell was berated for “playing that Wagner rubbish too loud,” with added admonishments that it was “tuneless” and “you can’t hear the words.”
Of course, one of the great ironies of life is that children grow into their parents, no matter how unthinkable that seems in their formative years. It is another example of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Now that we, as parents, are in charge, we conveniently forget our own stomach-churning behaviour as teenagers, and try to mould our victims into mini-forty year olds, forgetting that being obnoxious and insufferable is a vital part of growing-up.
As the competition got under way, a myriad of differing emotions swirled around my head, obviously looking for a way out. My most overriding emotion was complete inadequacy. Here was I, extremely reticent about asking a fellow passenger on the 70 if the bus goes into Littlepace or not, listening to these calm, assured and very persuasive young people, who appeared to have no qualms at all about standing up before an audience of 200 complete strangers and espousing their views on world terrorism and defence budgets. Compared to them, I felt like an amoeba on the backside of a salmon.
On the other hand, I also felt strangely comforted. The future, as projected by these ambassadors of their generation, was in good hands. To counteract the joyriders and the cider-drinkers, here were Hugh McCafferty and Neil Reynolds of Castleknock College, intelligent and articulate spokespersons of today’s youth. Wisdom and assuredness belying their years, their arguments made me want to rush from the auditorium and sign up for the New European Army immediately.
They were ably backed up by Ciara MacNally from Pheasant’s Run whose clear and determined support for future military involvement convinced me totally that my years as an armchair pacifist had been totally misguided.
Speakers came and speakers went, and the standard never faltered. One girl, Dasha Emelyanova from Blakestown Community School, had even reached the Final, despite the fact that English was not her native language. And yet, such was her passion and persuasiveness that the slight trace of an accent did not detract from a faultless performance. We were truly in the presence of greatness.
And then, another thought wormed naggingly into my brain, burrowing persistently through the soft, squishy layers of my cerebellum. What was happening here was totally unnatural and potentially very damaging to life on this planet as we know it. Something was definitely rotten in the state of Ireland.
For it is in the nature of the Circle of Life, that teenagers are teenagers and adults are adults, and never the twain shall meet. Teenagers demand to be allowed to go to the Plex wearing a few bits of cloth and elastic, and parents refuse. Parents win because we are both the judge and the jury. We adjudicate on moral issues, and teenagers slam doors and sulk in their bedrooms. These roles are written in the stars, they are predestined and inviolable.
However, when we train our subjugated offspring in the subtle art of debating, the train goes off the track. Instead of sullenly retreating to their Walkmans [Walkmen?] and mobile phones, they will be able to argue cogently and logically about the merits of going to a house party in Clonsilla until four o’clock in the morning. Parents, defeated, will retreat to their bedrooms and turn up their Jim Reeves and Frank Ifield albums to horrendous levels. May God have mercy on the souls of the parents of the sisters Aoife and Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin, who so eloquently represented Castleknock Community College in the Final. If these girls can successfully argue against the merits of forming a New European Army, what chance will their mother and father have when faced by a double-sided onslaught in favour of ordering Apache Pizza at two o’clock in the morning?
As a famous but fictional character once remarked, the country is in a state of chassis. When we tinker with the natural process of evolution, when we produce these genetically modified teenagers, when the Circle of Life is broken, strange things are liable to happen – mountains crumble, aeroplanes fall out of the sky, Iarnrod Eireann announce they are building a carpark at Clonsilla Railway Station. This is Armageddon time, with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding bareback down the Main Street of Blanchardstown.
Driving home after the competition, I mentioned this theory to my daughter, Louise. Naturally, she shot my argument to pieces, with a few well-thought out and logical ripostes, for which I could think of no intelligent answer.
You see what I mean?

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