THE CAO’s initial deadline passed without much ado last weekend, but some students confessed to having been bamboozled by the multiplicity of choices facing them. Well, bully for them! We didn’t have much choice in my day and most of us didn’t have any choice at all. Even if we had, I don’t think we’d have been able to handle it, so unacquainted were we with the concept of choice.
The miserable Irish childhood or what!
The absence of career choices, however, didn’t stop some busybodies from constantly reminding us of the future and the fact that sooner or later - very often at the age of 14 - we’d have to earn a living. We were always being quizzed on what we’d like to be when we grew up. It was the only way a lot of grown-ups had of communicating with the taciturn children of that gloomy decade. Invariably, I shrugged my shoulders in reply and stared at my feet, never knowing for sure whether it was best to be modest or madly ambitious, or just downright rude. As a result nobody really expected much of me, which was just as well.
To be sure, the career options were limited but then so was my imagination. But for the final couple of years of primary school - which was as far as many of us even got on the educational ladder - I harboured a secret ambition to be a nun in Liverpool, of all places. The reason why I picked Liverpool was because a nun from a convent there, who hailed originally from a neighbouring village, had visited our school looking for recruits and had impressed me greatly with her saintliness. There was also the added bonus of a boat trip across the Irish Sea – a voyage already undertaken by our emigrant next door neighbours, the Kelly family, whose ‘adventure’ was a source of much envy for me at the time.
I changed my mind about what I wanted to be several times in the following years and even in adulthood I still couldn’t figure out what it was I would like to have been if I had been given an opportunity to fill out a CAO form. ‘Whatever will be, will be’ was my philosophy then, and if it hadn’t been for Doris Day reinforcing the message on the radio every day, I’d probably never have had the courage to stick with it. Tenacity was never my strong point.
But I know what I’d like to be now. I’d like to be the Minister for Education. With the honourable exception of our own Jan O’Sullivan – and she had only two short years in the job, stymied all of that time by severe austerity – we haven’t had a pioneering, visionary or original thinking Minister in Marlborough Street, in good times or bad, since Donough O’Malley. The place needs a spring-clean at the very least.
Richard Bruton says that he wants to make us the best educated people on the face of the earth within the next decade, but I think he means the ‘most compliant’. He seems to be taking his cues from the mandarins in the Department who think that filling in boxes in the Junior Cert English examination is a far greater indicator of intellectual prowess than producing several pages of creative thinking, which might identify a future Nobel Laureate. The thing is, of course, would Google give the job to a Nobel Laureate? It is a sobering thought indeed that if James Joyce sat Junior Cert English this year, he’d probably fail miserably, not because of his spelling and grammar, mind you, but because he wouldn’t be able to fit his answer neatly in the box. I’d get a ‘no grade’ myself because I’d spend all the time looking for the box.
Now, if I were Minister for Education, I’d reward the freethinkers and give zero points to those who fitted into the box, while being asked to think outside it at the behest of multinational industrialists.
One of the IDAs platforms in attracting new industry to this country is the boast of ‘a highly educated workforce’. It might even be the only one we’ll have if Mr Trump pulls all the rugs from under our feet and our scenic delights fall victim to global warming. So it ill behoves me or anyone to be disparaging our education system. But being laden with diplomas, degrees and PhDs is hardly a sign of intellectual superiority.
You only have to apply the law of averages to see what it means. It’s obviously a sign of a dumbed down system that makes it easier for everyone to make the grade.
This year’s CAO applicants won’t thank me for this, but if I were in the Minister’s shoes, I’d cut the choices at undergraduate stage to a minimum and make specialisation a graduate option. If nothing else it would reduce the academic snobbery surrounding some high-flying undergraduate courses and give all young people a better chance to discover their real strengths and interests.
Of course, if I really wanted to create the best education system in the world, I’d concentrate first on the teachers and reward them for excellence and original thinking, rather than stand idly by and watch the best of them head off to the Middle East to help make the offspring of billionaire Sheiks the best educated in the world. Teachers here are being treated like subversives at the moment and those who protest even mildly are being sent off on mindfulness courses to cure them of their delusions. You couldn’t make it up.
Now seeing that the Minister for Education is an elected politician and seeing that the chances of my being selected to run for any party are minimal, I have to be realistic. But I do have a fall-back career option. If I can’t be Minister for Education, then give me my second choice. I’d truly love to be a prophet of doom, and I think I’d be good at it.