Dead Certs

Full text of Leaving Cert statement – The Irish Times – Wed, Jun 03, 2009

The candidate is at the centre of our considerations and we are doing all that is possible to minimise stress and concerns for them and their families at this time.

You could be pardoned for thinking, if you’d been half asleep when the news was on, that the superintendent in Drogheda had opened an envelope full of anthrax the other day, then proceeded to empty it over the heads of the assembled exam candidates. Security breach! National alert! Contingency plans!

There was some geezer on the radio yesterday -a guidance counsellor- talking about what students needed to do in order to be successful in their exams. He rattled off a litany of ‘you need tos’: get a good night’s sleep, make sure you’ve got enough stationery at your disposal, make sure you have enough amphetamine to get you through the all night studying sessions, make sure you sleep with a loaded gun under your pillow, that sort of thing. And it occurred to me -as it does every year the national pageantry surrounding the Leaving Cert kicks off- that I am glad I didn’t have to do the Leaving Cert.

One of the good things about back when I was doing ‘A’ levels was that wider society did not appear to give a shite about it. Because you have many different examination boards in the United Kingdom, there was simply no way that the press could whip up hysteria by announcing that today was the day that hundreds of thousands of students were doing French. So there was much less sense of national endeavour and rite of passage.

Monday morning I was listening to RTE, and there was some actor on talking about how wonderful it was that nowadays Leaving Cert students could now engage with the sensuous, erotic pleasures of the Caribbean contained in the poems of Derek Walcott. I’m not convinced. There is an argument that children get taught poetry and drama at school because it is the sort of thing that helps you to flourish later in life: you develop an appreciation for the finer things, because these things are good in themselves. I have a lot of time for this argument.

However, I was reading On Education by Harry Brighouse -which argues, among other things, that school curricula should not be subordinate to the economic priorities of the state, a position with which I have much sympathy- and he appeared to be saying that there is even a justification for teaching Jane Austen and Shakespeare through some degree of coercion, since many people who developed a lifelong love for these authors would not have encountered them had they not been coerced into learning about them.

I acknowledge that I may be making a travesty and a caricature of this argument, particularly since I haven’t finished the book, and I don’t have it in front of me as I’m writing this, but I do not have a lot of time for this argument.

Granted, some people may develop a lifelong love for something through initial coercion, but -in the case of Jane Austen and Shakespeare, the examples he cites- there is no grounds for assuming that even a significant minority of children in any given class will go on to develop such a love. And even if such an assumption were true, you will still need to take into account what the coercive effect of teaching these authors would have on the children who do not develop such a love.

(I have to say that the idea of ‘loving’ literature is alien to me, that is, I read a lot of it, I enjoy it, but I really have no feel for what love in this sense is supposed to mean, unless it means ‘find very agreeable indeed’. Even if love in this sense means an attachment, well, there is no author and no book to which I feel an attachment. This may be philistine promiscuity on my part.)

Furthermore I think the idea of coercing a group of people to learn something simply because it may at some stage result in the flourishing of some people within that group is just wrong, even though there may be some compelling exceptions, like first aid, or swimming, and even though I myself have been the beneficiary of such coercive education. (Art being a case in point. Had I not been forced to do Art homework, I would never have learned to draw and paint, and to enjoy doing so)

But, there is no reason to for the teaching of literature, or art, to be coercive. In fact, I think it more likely that children are more likely to enjoy the learning experience, and even flourish later on, when these things are taught in an environment as free from coercive pressures as possible. I recall my own experiences at school, when one teacher read Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice with us. There were kids in the class who had zero interest in reading, or in anything that did not involve repairing lorries and taking cattle to the mart, but the teacher was able to animate the reading of the texts in such a way that they were all captivated for the hours they spent learning about them. If there had been some identifiable need served by these classes, in terms of an exam certification, then they would not have approached and engaged with the stories and the characters as freely as they did.

Which brings me back to the comment about the Walcott poems. A lot, but necessarily all, of the situations in which these poems are getting taught are coercive. If you are a Leaving Cert student, even if you are studying the subject through your own choice, as you learn about them, you must bear in mind that you need to absorb what is being taught so that you can regurgitate it in the exam in a manner congenial to the State examiner. You need to bear in mind that the way in which you absorb what is being taught will affect your aggregate Leaving Cert points score, which in turn, it is understood, will determine the price at which you sell your labour power for the next 60 years. Points means prizes means money. What this means, or may mean, is that any sensuous pleasure that might potentially arise from learning a poem is bound up, blocked, by the need to do as you are told in order to get what you need. There are parallels with prostitution, not least in the sense that, like the best paid prostitutes, you will need to show the full range of desirable responses in order to obtain the top rewards.

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