An Irish education

Frank McCourt famously started his Angela’s Ashes biography with: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. Worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

An Irish Catholic education is equally miserable. I cannot blame my school (which was average, but could have done better…) or my teachers (who individually were not cruel or wantonly ignorant). Indeed, in many respects, I had some brilliant and inspiring teachers.

It was partly the fault of the narrow curriculum of Irish, English, Maths and a couple of options thrown in, like Economics, Physics, and French. And it was partly the absence of enthralling subjects, like Anthropology, Art History, Astronomy, Philosophy, or Ancient History. But most of all, it was the fault of rote learning, the stultifying modes of repetition and brainwashing, and the unconscious dogmas of utilitarianism that dragged my education down to the level of the miserable.

Edward de Bono was recently surveyed in an Irish Times supplement extolling the virtues of training children how to think. We may quibble with his own methods or his terminology (the coy Thinking Hats sextept can be annoying) but surely we are bound to agree that getting people to think better is intrinsically worthwhile.

For the academically capable, an Irish education is like a perpetual sack race for an elite athlete: needlessly restrictive. Where were the wide-open spaces, the glittering sparkles of creativity, the intricate spiders’ webs of logic? Only after leaving school did I learn of Plato’s World of Ideas, Russell’s atheism, Darwin’s “dangerous idea”, the fallacy of the appeal to authority, the reasons for the French Revolution, the collapse and fall of the Roman empire. Nowhere since have I had need to recite four proofs that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides in a right-angled triangle.

de Bono is right to say that information is everywhere, facts abundant. We should not cram our children with facts, but focus on giving them the passion to seek for facts. Most adults are literate only in the narrowest sense: they can read and write, but choose not to. Where is their passion, their hunger for knowledge, their creative streak?
There should be an emphasis on thinking, creativity, building an historical perspective, scientific analysis, philosophy and psychology. It should be a curriculum supplemented with practical matters, like healthy eating, managing personal finances, sexuality and relationships. A curriculum with creative exploration at its very core. A curriculum that stands not on what a child has learnt when they leave school, but on what that child learns through their entire lives.

And, dammit, every child in Ireland should be writing a blog by age fifteen, and drawing and making music and exploring and building things. And none of them should cause to regret what they fail to know when they’ve grown up. None of them should leave school without feeling the need to redress any regret they do have.  



  1. Derek Slater said,

    January 18, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    Shazgood – very eloquent.

    I am grateful for my education but nevertheless amused by certain limitations in the curriculum. In all of American history, according to my 10th grade textbook, only two people actually died. (One was a Civil War general whose expiration was gently noted; I forget the other but think it was JFK.) Also I was in college before I knew anything at all about the civil rights movement of the 60s. It’s US history all prettied up for the schoolkids (who meanwhile were watching Friday the 13th etc on the weekends).

  2. Peter G said,

    February 12, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Absolutely spot on.
    The reason nothing has changed in Irish education is Mary Hanafin.
    Putting an ex-teacher in charge of education was ludicrous.
    She stifled every single change initiative and has defended the Leaving Cert (an international joke).
    Girls memorising theorems to excel at maths is something that menopausal trout is proud of.

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