School is responsible for ruining my brain

Opinion: The Irish education system convinced me at a young age never to think for myself

‘Any type of inventive thought stands in direct opposition to the Leaving Cert.’ Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

‘Any type of inventive thought stands in direct opposition to the Leaving Cert.’ Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

 

In June 2012 I returned to Ireland from London, prepared to lock myself away, write my thesis and complete the final part of my MSc in my parents’ attic. I had just spent a very challenging year studying alongside some of the best and brightest from across the globe.

I often struggled during my master’s degree and regularly questioned my ability to even pass the year. Despite having already completed a BA in Dublin, I knew I was at a disadvantage compared with my peers. Why did I find it such a struggle to keep up? Because the Irish education system had convinced me at a young age that the only way to succeed intellectually is to never think for yourself.

The secondary school teaching system in this country is inherently flawed. We are taught to consume and regurgitate information. Every moment of our final year in secondary school is fixated on a series of numbers that in no way reflect our ability to be well-rounded human beings.

I was happy with the points I got in my Leaving Certificate. But as soon as I began my undergraduate university course, I realised that high points meant absolutely nothing. I had the dates and years of 20th-century history drilled into my skull. I had practised writing essays numerous times in preparation for the long exam ahead of me. Never once did I question the causes of the second World War or whether the 1916 Rising was a good idea. The books knew the answers to these questions, as did my teacher. You never questioned, you just wrote.

 

Bewildered young people

In 1969 Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire observed: “Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world and with each other.” Any type of inventive or innovative thought stands in direct opposition to the Leaving Cert. People only learn and grow by questioning and critically analysing the world around them. We claim to have one of the most highly educated young populations in the western world, yet what does being educated really mean in this country?

To the CAO points system and expensive grind schools, to learn means to force information into your brain for the mere purpose of vomiting it back up during a three-hour exam. The Leaving Cert is a means of shoving as many bewildered young people as possible into third- level education.

 

The notes culture

In researching this I trawled through the countless online forums that exist for worried and stressed 17-18-year-olds. The perennial question seems to be where students can acquire notes on a particular subject. Taking notes should be a means of gaining a better understanding of your studies, yet somehow the notes culture is seen by young Irish students as a quick and easy way to force-feed themselves information.

When I sat my Junior Cert I convinced my parents that a week-long stint at a well-known grind school during the Easter holidays and the use of its perfectly formulated notes would mean I’d be sorted for the exam. My parents buckled, against their better judgment, so that their eldest could learn word for word the ideas and beliefs of a well-paid grinds teacher. Teenagers hate to stand out from the crowd or do anything considered different from their peers.

The Leaving Cert only serves to further cement this uniformity of thought. If one girl is getting English grinds, shouldn’t everyone be doing them? These classes taught me that thinking for myself would result in a lower mark.

 

Building blocks

Despite opposition from teachers’ unions to the planned revamp of the junior cycle, it is a long-awaited relief to finally see an attempt at the overhaul of our traditional, archaic examination system. However, this country’s education system has a long way to go before it can honestly boast some of the most highly educated people in the world.

Most young Irish people who leave school today have no trouble listing off a series of French verbs or reciting by heart an impressive amount of Hamlet quotes. However, ask any young Irish person in their first year of university to write a critical essay on a given topic and they will most likely respond with what has been dictated to them in books and lectures.

Lectures and literature should only be the building blocks of an educated mind. To have a real understanding, we should be able to stand back and query what is being taught. The mission statement of the Irish State Examination Commission is “to provide a high quality State examination and assessment system incorporating the highest standards of openness, fairness and accountability”. Transparency and openness are fundamental in the correction of exam papers, but if the minds of the young people writing the exams have already been indoctrinated with only the “relevant” material, then what is the point?

It took me nearly seven years after my Leaving Cert to write what I would consider a truly critical piece of analysis. It took me seven years of higher education and working to retrain my mind to think independently. Freire said: “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.”

If young Irish people want to make a tangible mark on this world, they need to learn how to embrace and properly use their young, inquisitive minds in the cause of transforming reality, rather than the unthinking fact-gathering promoted by the Leaving Cert.

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