Emerson and education

Having evacuated his system of the degree to which he believes Sinn Féin still need house-training, the Irish Times’s tame unionist Newton Emerson today explains the north’s educational system to us. It’s a mess, he says. He knows this, he says, because businesses are repeatedly reporting “a lack a basic employability skills among graduates.”  Behind that, he criticizes the different entrance tests used by Catholic and Protestant schools. And he criticizes Catholic parents who have resisted the efforts of the Catholic Church to provide comprehensive education for Catholic children.

All of which I’m in agreement with. You might even say in surprised agreement with.  Because Emerson has been putting himself forward as an authority on things educational for some time. About fifteen years ago, I was on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster with him, discussing the morale among teachers. At the time, I was supervising students in secondary and grammar schools placement. This invariably involved discussion of the student with the supervising teacher, and as often happens, we talked of wider educational matters as well, including how teachers were feeling these days. I was also working in the evening with teachers who were taking a part-time Master’s in Education, and since the degree was based on a notion of action research, the teachers talked about and analysed their own school and their part in it.

So my discussion with Emerson was about teacher morale – how were they feeling, were they content or frustrated in their work. I said many of them were feeling themselves to be under severe stress, with form-filling and continual assessment being two of the main sources for their unhappiness.

Emerson disagreed – teachers, he said, were happy in their work and schools were running smoothly. I asked him how he knew this and he said he had been in schools and had seen teachers at work. After further questioning, he explained, with no sense of irony, that he had been back at his own school and had been given a conducted tour of it by the headmaster.

There really is only one word for someone who would believe that a tour of your old school with the headmaster would be likely to give you a full and frank notion of teacher morale, and that is the word dim. Well yes, Virginia, there are several other words I could use, but let’s stop with dim.

That was back then. Now Emerson appears to have graduated to become myopic. Not that I should blame him – it’s a condition many, maybe most of those who discuss education suffer from.

Firstly, they see the main aim of education as being the production of students who will be able to obtain interesting work when they graduate.  Education which gets you a job is highly desirable, but it’s not what education is for. Education is to develop the person, to create an informed, enquiring mind, open to the wonders of the world around them and capable of making good decisions for themselves and for society. In other words, education is or should be focused on the pupil, not the future worker.

The other matter which Emerson ignores, although to be fair to him so do the great majority of educationalists, is the content of the curriculum. There are exceptions, but most subjects stuff the heads of most young people with content which has no bearing on their lives. I’m talking calculus here, Virginia; I’m talking mathematics, I’m talking chemistry. Of course there are some pupils who will go on to make mathematics their life-work, and some who’ll do the same with chemistry. But the vast majority won’t. These are hoops constructed long, long ago by some out-of-touch mandarin, and like with the emperor’s new clothes, most people are too lazy or too scared to call out the truth, which is that, in secondary and grammar schools, pupils’ heads are pumped full of this garbage which they then unload into their examination answers and then forget. Do that successfully and you’ll get an A. Unload your garbage badly, or fail to reproduce enough garbage, and you’ll get an F.

Don’t get me wrong. Emerson is no doubt a much-loved figure in his own household. But when he opens his mouth to talk about education or politics, stand clear. Your good shoes could end up an awful mess.  

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