Learning the truth of education

Schools are viewed as instruments of social engineering as much as institutions for the transmission of knowledge

The Teaching Council of Ireland recently tweeted a quotation from Fr Peter McVerry, the well-known Jesuit priest who works with the homeless: "The single most important objective of education should be that students leave school feeling good about themselves." This quotation was enthusiastically re-tweeted by many people. However, while accepting the good intentions of Fr McVerry and the tweeters, I'm afraid I must strongly disagree with them. The primary objective of education is surely education itself, ie students learn new knowledge. Students feeling good about themselves is, of course, a secondary objective of education but making it the primary objective damages the overall education enterprise.

The philosopher Roger Scruton uses soccer as an analogy to illustrate this point. The primary objective of soccer is to score goals. There are various secondary objectives to playing soccer, including exercise; joy, learning teamwork, socialising, and so on. All of these secondary objectives are automatically achieved when soccer is played with the primary objective of scoring goals. Now suppose it was decided that the primary objective of soccer is exercise. Soccer would go into serious decline and probably disappear, thereby achieving no objectives, as the competitive instinct encouraged by trying to score goals is dampened down.

Egalitarian policies have been implemented comprehensively in educational institutions in the western world since the 1960s. Schools are now viewed as instruments of social engineering as much as institutions for the transmission of knowledge. This has seriously diluted the primary objective of education with predictable negative consequences. Curricula, exams, discipline and admission have all been revised with a view to eliminating distinction and unfair advantage. The previous equality of opportunity approach, designed to eliminate advantages some children enjoy over others due to circumstances of birth, was replaced by equality of outcomes, a goal that in practice schools can neither supply nor even approach coherently.

The new equality of outcomes agenda is well-intentioned but has produced a levelling down rather than a levelling up. Exams and syllabuses have been dumbed down and standards have fallen. For example, teachers are encouraged to always praise the child regardless of the quality of the work. But unless this approach is bolstered by coaching the child to do better, the children don’t know where they stand and will not improve. This modern egalitarian approach also undermines the pursuit of excellence by neglecting to exercise and challenge the gifted students.


So, how should the educational system work? I believe the primary objective should be pursuit of knowledge for its own sake with every student helped and encouraged to do his/her best. The overall ethos should be that every student who tries hard is performing excellently. Obviously, some students will perform with excellence, the majority will perform more or less adequately and a minority will struggle, but teachers must ensure that every student who makes a decent effort feels good about himself/herself.

It is a mistake to think that students who struggle with academic subjects must necessarily feel poorly about themselves as a result. We are all able to cope sensibly with our lack of talent in particular areas. For example, I love the visual arts but I couldn’t paint a picture or sculpt a statue to save my life. I play tennis but I’m only a plodder, and so on. But I don’t worry about these things because there are some other things I can do sufficiently well to satisfy me. If a student struggles with maths perhaps he/she will do very well in music. For those students with a pronounced aptitude for doing practical things and who would struggle with a “full-on” academic curriculum there is the Leaving Cert Applied programme. Everybody can do something well, nobody can do everything well.

Well-established channels leading to employment should dovetail with the education system, facilitating students to enter employment appropriate to their particular skill-sets. We should stop worshipping the limited range of professions so widely accepted as the ultimately desirable careers (eg medicine and law) and we should drop the notion that every young person must go to university – it is good to see trade apprenticeships being developed again. Egalitarianism must be pursued without sacrificing quality of education.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC