BEYOND UTILITARIAN UNDERSTANDINGS OF EDUCATION

BEYOND UTILITARIAN UNDERSTANDINGS OF EDUCATION

Brother Martin Browne OSB, Headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School

 

Much has been said here about how our republic has been and continues to be less than it might be.  And as one whose college years were spent studying Irish History, I have found much of the analysis fascinating.  This kind of looking back is necessary (though I won’t get into debating with the Minister for Education about whether the subject needs to be compulsory at Junior Cycle or not!).  Whether we all need to learn history may be a moot point, but that we, as a society, need to learn from history is surely beyond question.  The well-known words of Maya Angelou come to mind:

‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’

There’s a need to look back and to analyse.  However, after all the diagnosis, identifying the best treatment is a different and difficult task, and I find myself on uncomfortable ground.

The Summer School’s project for today, as set out in the programme, is a daunting one: ‘This is a day for looking forward, for seeing how we can draw on our own resources, how we can use the wealth that is still there, including, but not only, financial wealth, to build a better republic…’   In the midst of the social scientists and social entrepreneurs gathered to explore the question on this evening’s panel, I must look like an unusual participant.   And not just because I’m wearing a monastic habit. For one thing, I’m a minister of the Roman Catholic Church, which would hardly be the first organisation most Irish people would look to when it comes to re-building our republic. Secondly, I’m a monk, living in a monastery and so I am in many ways removed and protected from the worst of the challenges facing many Irish people.   Thirdly, I work in and run a secondary school, which though open to students from all religious or non-religious backgrounds, is proud to be a Catholic School.   And fourthly, the school I lead is a fee-charging boarding school, and is thus open to charges of elitism and privilege.   I am very grateful that the organisers of the Summer School have seen fit to include a voice such as mine in this evening’s conversations.

We have a somewhat stunted public intellectual tradition in this country.   And as Olivia O’Leary sometimes reminds us, this has perpetuated a poverty of civic consciousness and of public discourse. (The unique beast that is the Irish Summer School being an honourable exception in this regard).   Nevertheless, Irish people have traditionally prized education very highly indeed.   Don Thornhill, Brian MacCraith and Brigid Laffan have all highlighted this fact here. Successive generations of parents have striven to provide the best possible education for their offspring, often with great personal sacrifice.  Sadly, that education, too, often functioned as a visa for foreign shores but the high value which Irish people have traditionally attached to education still endures.  We need to continue prioritising education.

There was some discontent from the floor yesterday that the focus was primarily on third level education.  Though we are all inclined to think our own sector is the most important, and I’m no exception, I was actually more concerned and disappointed at the focus on education as the acquisition of economically useful or technical skills.  In the necessary effort to climb out of our economic hole, let us not abandon altogether the idea that education is of value for its own sake.  We need skills, for sure.  But we also need soul, wisdom and human flourishing.

Finland is, with almost tiresome regularity, often cited as an example of an education system to be emulated.   I was gratified to hear Professor Brian MacCraith point out yesterday that it was precisely in response to a banking crisis and subsequent recession that the Finns chose to give priority to their education system – as a pathway out of recession (an example, perhaps, of austerity not being the answer?).   According to a 2012 EU report on Finland, ‘every pupil has the right to receive their education and the interpretation and assistant services, teaching and pupil welfare services, and any aids required for participation in education free of charge’.  That includes the school doctor, school psychologist, school dentist, school therapist, and school social and health care worker.   In addition, textbooks and other learning materials, school transport and daily school meals, accommodation and full board for all those who travel long distances to school, as well as treatment of injuries sustained in accidents at school or during travel to school are also free of charge for all pupils.

That’s what a properly-funded education system looks like – one where there is no difference in resources between different types of school.  The Minister for Education and Skills seems likely to continue increasing the pupil-teacher ratio in fee-charging schools –  a topic of some concern to me personally.   The trajectory seems to be such that many of these schools will in time be forced either to come into the free system or close down altogether.

I don’t want to go off on my hobby horse too much but I have to say that, amidst all the fashionable media-friendly arguments about elitism and equality of opportunity, the reality is missed that penalising those who choose to send their children to particular schools does not provide a tide to ‘lift the boats’ of the majority attending other schools. Talking about the funding of fee-charging schools also diverts attention away from the inequality of funding in second-level education generally.  Government funding for non-fee-paying voluntary secondary schools – those under Catholic or Protestant patronage – is approximately €90 per student lower than in community schools and €200 lower than in vocational schools.  This is iniquitous, but merits scarce mention in our political discourse.

The Minister admitted here yesterday that the greatest problems are in second-level education.  Taking money out of the system to make an ideological point then is pure folly.  It’s a kind of race to the bottom, and to quote a phrase used by Brian MacCraith yesterday, a ‘slide into mediocrity’ – the equalisation of under-resourcing….. The reality is that our education system is underfunded and is at breaking point.  Classes are getting bigger and requirements such as Posts of Responsibility, Learning Support, Special Needs Assistants, Guidance Counselling and so on are being cut all the time. That cannot continue if we are to transform the educational experience for our young people – a transformation to which the Minister is clearly personally committed, and for which he should be commended.

Much is being reformed, and many initiatives are being rolled out – too many at once perhaps.  There is a danger with all the reform, much of which is welcome, that teaching and learning and, still more, creativity and enterprise, will be drowned in a tide of forms, reports and compliance requirements.   Under-funding and over-regulation is an unpleasant cocktail.

I was relieved to hear yesterday that progress will soon be made on reforming the CAO points system, which, though neutral and objective, does have the effect of making second-level schools almost like factories – forcing teachers to concentrate excessively on exam papers and reducing students’ educational reports to a tally of their points. Some lines by a very famous Irish educator come to mind:

 ‘Our common parlance has become impressed with the conception of education as some sort of manufacturing process. Our children are the “raw material”…’

In fact, that text dates from over a century ago, and comes from Pádraic Pearse’s famous pamphlet The Murder Machine.  It’s a withering and bitterly polemical work, full of rancour towards England for the iniquities of its education system in Ireland.   I won’t get into trying to assess what the education system was like in 1912, and how justified Pearse was in his critique of it.  However, the disturbing fact is that our native education system of today is not entirely immune to the criticisms he was making a century ago: 

‘They have planned and established an education system which more wickedly does violence to the elementary human rights of Irish children than would an edict for the general castration of Irish males… The teacher has not been at liberty, and in practice is not yet at liberty, to seek to discover the individual bents of his pupils, the hidden talent that is in every normal soul, to discover which and to cherish which, that it may in the fullness of time be put to some precious use, is the primary duty of the teacher.’

When you strip away the anti-English polemic, that’s not a million miles away from the contemporary second-level educational experience.   A reform of the points system by 2016 would be a suitable centenary memorial for Pearse.

The failure to fund education properly, and the utilitarian way we tend to view school as a mere means to admission to third level, rather than as an important part of life in itself, does in fact mean that schools are frequently under such pressure that, in Pearse’s phrase, ‘the hidden talent that is in every normal soul’ can get missed out on.

I was glad to see an article in yesterday’s Irish Times, calling for the teaching of philosophy in schools.   Anything which would equip our students for critical thinking and with a love of wisdom and learning is to be welcomed, and might help move us beyond excessively utilitarian understandings of education.

As a Christian educator, I can’t help thinking of education as being like the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel.   Jesus weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus, and then calls into the tomb, Lazarus, come forth!   When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus orders, Unbind him! Let him go free! 

That should be the experience of our students – not battery chickens or cogs in the Murder Machine, but precious individuals led out into the light and set free.   Liberated. The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin verb, educare – to lead out or draw out from…. It can be either about drawing knowledge out of the student, or leading the student him- or her-self out of somewhere.   Jesus drew Lazarus out of the tomb.   And so, in restoring him to life, and in freeing him from the ties that bound him, Jesus was educating him. 

I think that’s a wonderful vision of education – a personal call, drawing a student out from the tomb of death into the light of life.   I also want to suggest very strongly that faith-based schooling would be a positive, enriching and ennobling dimension to any reformed education system we may develop for our republic (You could hardly expect me to think otherwise, I suppose…).   I am conscious that this is not a universally held viewpoint, and so I want to talk a bit more about it.  In doing so, I want, too, to acknowledge the painful and scarring experiences which some people have had in church-run schools and express my sorrow over them.  Yet, I passionately believe that faith-based education, and in my own case, Catholic education, should not just be tolerated as a historical legacy, but should be celebrated and encouraged.

The Jesuit theologian Gerry O’Hanlon begins his book on Theology in the Irish Public Square, with somewhat of an understatement:

‘The voice of religion, in particular that of the clerical, Roman Catholic tradition, has often been experienced in Irish public life as authoritarian and harsh. Little wonder then, especially in the context of the significant erosion of authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland due to the child sexual abuse scandals, that there is scant evidence nowadays of nostalgia for those days when religion played a significant role in public discourse.’

 It is right that the days of crypto-Rome Rule (or Drumcondra Rule?) are gone and that our society has become more open, pluralistic and cosmopolitan.  Yet there are those whose cosmopolitanism seems to be open to pretty much everything except religion… Quoting Gerry O’Hanlon again,

‘there is a post-modern toleration of religion in the private sphere, but considerable suspicion of any attempt to bring a critique to bear on public life from a religious perspective.’ 

There’s a maxim from another era, often associated with Jesuit schools, which I want to mention.  There are various versions but at its simplest it goes something like: Give me the boy and I’ll give you the man.  Though once a proud summary of a particular vision of education and formation for life, it is now more often seen in a negative or pejorative sense.  Some would now understand it as suggesting that Catholic education is some kind of nefarious and underhand exercise in brain-washing and mind-control.   And while many people are now rightly seeking more pluralistic patterns of patronage, particularly in primary schools, in some quarters the pendulum is swinging further, almost to the point of suggesting that a faith-based school is an inherently bad thing.

In this very forum a few days ago, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin suggested that we have a segregated education system in the Republic.   I would argue that he is over-stating the case. We have a variety of types of school, many of which happen to have a religious ethos (and at second level they are the least well-funded) but we don’t have segregation. The idea that our young people are being kept apart on religious lines is pure fantasy. Deputy Ó Ríordáin went on to argue that:

‘We have allowed a situation to evolve where the determining ethos governing the vast bulk of our State-funded schools is a religious one. We have out-sourced education to patron bodies who continue to have huge influence over the manner in which our children are educated.’

He doesn’t say it outright, but it’s hard not to infer that he views the predominance of religious-ethos schools and religious patrons as negative features of our society.  But there’s nothing particularly unusual about church-run, state-funded education!   Even in über-liberal Holland, something like 60% of state-funded primary schools are church-run. In the laudable project of ensuring more pluralistic structures and service provision in our new republic, we need to make sure that we don’t slide into an illiberal totalitarian kind of state regulation and ownership.

Gerry O’Hanlon gently suggests that:

 ‘Perhaps it is a good moment, at this time of national and global crisis, to re-examine the possibility that a non-fundamentalist religious voice may have significant wisdom to contribute to public discourse’.

I agree, and gently suggest, too, that now is also a good moment to affirm that non-fundamentalist Christian and Catholic education have significant wisdom to contribute to the building up of our society.  They are part of the non-financial wealth we already have, which the Director of MacGill has charged us with highlighting tonight.   Catholic schools have a particular vision, and at times of crisis and insecurity, vision is a key resource.

Dermot Lane has written that:

‘…the Church is committed to education in virtue of her conviction that the Gospel of Christ is a living reality which frees and liberates, heals and saves, reconciles and transforms human beings’.  

That’s the kind of school I’d wish for anyone I loved.  And that’s the kind of community which my colleagues and I in my own school and in countless other Christian schools are daily trying to bring to life.

In spite of the external pressures… In spite of scarce resources… In spite of the burden of our sometimes dark history… In spite of increasing administrative demands… In spite of human weakness and sinfulness… In spite of the commodification of education…In spite of any number of other factors that pull us down, we believe that we have something to offer and which can be improved all the time – schooling that honours the individual as a child of God, made in his image, that calls and enables students to belong to a community of learning and exploration, that equips them for living as well as for college or work, and that, as in the case of Lazarus, gives them life, unbinds them and liberates them.

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