I came across this interesting speech by Emily O'Reilly;
The citizen and society in turbulent times" (25.05.2011)
Education:And so, as of last Friday afternoon, as the Queen’s plane cleared Irish airspace we are apparently, a proud people once again, an equal people, a tolerant people, a forward looking people, a forgiving people, an inclusive people. We are also; it would appear, from the absence centre stage of any significant Catholic Church presence throughout the event, an increasingly secular people
Almost 80 years ago, as an infant State, we hung out our brightest colours for another event, for another showcase, for the seeking of the approval for a quite different narrative around ourselves. The occasion was the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, the primary intent of which was to celebrate the Catholic Eucharist, but which instead became a major, game-changing statement of intent by the Government of the day.
That Congress would define our new State as an extravagantly Catholic nation. Our separateness from our former coloniser would be marked by the effective fusion of Catholic Church and Catholic State. This would be a narrative that would take decades to unravel and re-cast.
Accounts of that event indicate that last week’s State visit by the Queen of England was a pallid affair by comparison. The Public Address system was the largest in the world at that time, the state broadcasting system had its genesis in the power station created in Athlone for the purposes of the Congress, every major public building in Dublin was illuminated, every major street bedecked with bunting and fresh cut flowers, entire tenements were decorated in the papal colours of yellow and white. Cutting edge technology brought sky writers to the banks of the Liffey. A massive garden party in the grounds of Blackrock College had a guest list of 20,000 people. Just two thousand attended the `Convention Centre garden party last week.
And the populace lapped it up, tens of thousands of citizens slipped obligingly into their designated roles in this exciting new storyline. They prayed at newly erected shrines throughout the country, they marched hundreds deep in procession, one million listened to the Pope broadcast his message of support from the Vatican via that largest PA system in the world.
The key personage around whom much of this effort was focused, was Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, the Papal legate. As his boat docked in Dublin port, a squadron of Air Corps planes flew over it in the formation of a crucifix. As he rode into the city, 36,000 cheering schoolchildren flanked the nine-mile route.
An Irish Times report of the massive open air mass in Phoenix Park captured the moment, noted that the spell cast by the combined might of Rome and of Government Buildings had worked.
“… It was at that moment of the Elevation of the Host, the supreme point in Catholic ritual, that one fully realised the common mind that swallowed up individuality in the immense throng. Flung together in their hundreds of thousands, like the sands on the seashore, these people were merely parts of a great organism, which was performing a great act of faith, with no more ego in them than the sands themselves.”
The fallout from the Congress is familiar to all of you here. From that point on, the State did indeed march precisely in step with the Catholic Church, or perhaps more like Prince Philip, several deferential steps behind.
The effect on the Protestant people in Northern Ireland was profound. As one commentator put it, nothing could have been more repugnant to northern Protestant identity. The events of the Congress illustrated with a vengeance the great gap of understanding that existed between the two parts of Ireland. A study of the Congress can go some way to explaining why Ireland was partitioned in the first place.
In his 1973 book, Towards a New Ireland, the late Dr Garret Fitzgerald wrote, “The Irish problem is quite simply the fruit of Northern Protestant reluctance to become part of what they regard as an authoritarian Southern Catholic State.”
Yet the power of that narrative – the fusion of Catholic Church and State - held for many many decades. To stray from it was to invite domestic exile.
Its ultimate destruction perhaps did take place last week, when a woman as old as the narrative itself decreed that we were all now fit to treat each other as equals, religious and other grandstanding consigned to the dustbin of history. A Uachtarain agus a chairde.
Consider our education system. I will leave it to others to define what is needed to boost employment rates in the short to medium term, to broaden the base of our entrepreneurship and boost our indigenous wealth, but those of us with a belief in the transformational effect of education in the economic affairs of our country have a duty to propound this as loudly and as often as we can.
We can never return that to the island of saints that we once declared ourselves to be but we can certainly be a nation of innovative, groundbreaking scholars once again.
Consider Finland, a country that has become the poster child of a first class educational system without the frills, the regulation, the competitiveness, the snobberies, and the anxieties that beset so many western education systems, including their own. The Finns are not as we are, obsessing on private versus public, on Church control, on the reform of state examinations, on league tables, rather they are, in simple classrooms, with children and teachers on first name terms, with free school meals for all, with free books for all, with no hierarchy of elite or any other kind of school, with light regulation, significant curriculum autonomy, and an officer class of highly educated, highly respected teachers - getting on with the simple business of learning stuff.
Two principles apply: equity and highly educated teachers. Every teacher must complete a five-year teaching programme and have a Masters degree. Less than ten per cent who apply for the Masters are accepted. The degree itself is called Kastavus, the same word the Finns use to describe the rearing of a child by its mother, nurturing. The OECD, which measures results that have seen Finland excel believes that it is the quality of the teachers that is driving the results. Teachers are also let get on with the job, in the belief that you don’t buy a dog and bark for it.
Equity is all. There is no streaming, the focus is on helping the weak children, the strong ones can help themselves and help others in turn.
“”People in Finland cannot be divided by how smart they are, “ said one Finnish educationalist, “Finland is a society based on equity. Japan and Korea are highly competitive societies – if you’re not better than your neighbour, your parents pay to send you to night school. In Finland, outperforming your neighbour isn’t very important. Everybody is average, but you want that average to be very high.”
And it works. No doubt it would also work here, but what we are talking about is not a tinkering at the edges of our system but a radical shift in culture. In middle class Ireland outperforming your neighbour has a near sacramental value attached to it. Inter school and inter college competitiveness creates the expensive crammer school industry that in turn further widens the divide between the academically advantaged and the rest to the detriment of all of us.
To achieve what the Finns have achieved would take monumental leadership and commitment from the Government and buy in from many sectors that have a major stake in retaining the status quo. Last year saw sharp declines in our OECD rankings in literacy and in maths. We cannot hope to compete at the level at which we need to compete to drag our economy up if we do not significantly improve on those rankings.
And how we manage and organise our education system is something that is most definitely within our control. When everything else is stripped from us, we can still produce a generation of children that can excel academically.
We have an ambitious new Minister but it falls to all of us to maintain a focus Perhaps we need to name what we are trying to achieve – instead of fuzzy outcome targets that fundamentally challenge no one - – why don’t we set the bar at achieving academic standards on a par with the best of the world and move heaven and earth and everything in between to achieve those goals? No family sustainably emerges from poverty without the significant intervention of an education system. Countries are no different and mediocrity has no place in our efforts to get out from the hole we’d dug for ourselves.
Equally we might put aside latent cultural distaste for the intellect and for intellectuals and with our public pedestals now rid of the developer and banker class, reinstate the thinkers and the dreamers and the inventors, those people who, by dint of their minds alone cue each leap forward for global civilisation.
Isaac Asimov once said, speaking of the US, although he might well have been speaking of certain pockets of Irish political life, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
When Garret FitzGerald died last week, many people commented on how the single biggest insult hurled at him when he was in politics was that he was “an intellectual”. Olivia O’Leary, in a radio column, once spoke of listening to former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan play Chopin at a private gathering, musing that he wouldn’t dare do so at a party gathering. How sad is all of that?