There must have been a collective sigh of relief in the halls of Ireland’s well-heeled, fee-paying schools yesterday, when the case brought by Mary Stokes against the practice of schools reserving places for the sons and daughters of past pupils was kicked out of the Supreme Court.
Had she won, it would have caused mayhem in many schools.
Certain schools like to see themselves as maintaining societal traditions and as tradition implies something that is passed down, it’s not hard to see why they equate families with continuity. In fact, it may sound not very politically correct, but given that the admittance policies to schools is the educational equivalent of the school’s HR department, maybe getting the family to do your hard work for you isn’t that stupid on the part of the school. And, at least in the eyes of the school, it minimizes the risk that the tradition of the school will wither.
It isn’t just wealthy schools that adopt this approach. Most schools in the country use the family and family connections as the first filter when it comes to assessing who gets in and who doesn’t.
This may not be right, but it’s a fact. Therefore, we should deal with it. But what does continuity do to the dexterity of the society in the face of challenges?
Before we answer that, let’s go back to the foundation of many schools in Ireland.
In Ireland, and particularly in Dublin, the fee-paying, rugby-playing, hockey-playing secondary schools were largely set up to manage the transfer of power from the British to the Irish in the last part of the 19th century. The big Catholic schools were established to make sure there was a Catholic professional and managerial class ready for Home Rule when it came. They were set up precisely to make sure that the professional middle class was not exclusively Protestant when the time came.
The Christian Brothers schools, beneath the more swanky Catholic schools run by orders such as the Jesuits, were established to create a clerical class that could be deployed in the service of the new State and would feed into the elite Catholic class.
In fact, an interesting way to look at the 1916 Rising is not that it was a revolution of the Irish against the British, but that it was a rising of Christian Brothers’ boys against Jesuits and was all about who was going to run the place when the British legged it.
The Christian Brothers won and went on to control the civil service. Even though the fee-paying schools were set up to run the country, you won’t find many members of the fee-paying schools in the Irish public administration. After the Christian Brothers’ victory in 1916-1922, the fee-paying brigade went into the private sector rather than the civil service. They went into the professions.
I know: I went to one of the fee paying schools, had a great experience and made deep, life-long friendships. But I was aware at a young age that these schools were self-perpetuating institutions whose aim was to reproduce and bed down the next Irish officer class.
In this regard they are very successful and are not too different in their objective to the old-fashioned military schools such as Sandhurst in Britain or West Point in the US.
The key objective is to create stability and a class buy-in to the state.
But the problem with stability is that it rewards the stable man. He is the man who is respectable and who won’t rock the boat. The professional man is trained in a certain way of thinking, creating consensus and conventional thinking.
The economist JK Galbraith, in ‘The Affluent Society’, his study of 1950s America, described “conventional wisdom” as a way of looking at the world that has become so ingrained that challenging the convention becomes an affront to reasonable people rather than what it is – a practical attempt to question whether we are doing the right thing.
Conventional wisdom is an idea that has broad acceptance.
When ideas become accepted, these values and ideas can become so entrenched that they are rarely challenged.
It is at this point that they have achieved that unassailable state of grace. They morph into conventional wisdom. And even when facts are presented in opposition to the conventional wisdom, the facts are discounted.
For an idea to be accepted, it must be familiar. So it needs to be articulated over and over, by serious people like academics, members of the commentariat, senior civil servants, lobbyists, lawyers and powerful politicians.
Once an idea is familiar and accepted, it seeps into the ether and becomes a simple “truth”.
If we create a schooling system that is geared towards stability and rewards conventional thinking and a certain way of looking at the world, why would you expect the society to create dissenters? The tradition that we try to pass on is a form of societal ballast. It stops the boat from rocking at a much more profound level.
The Leaving Cert system reinforces convention by rewarding a certain type of brain and penalizing another. This is how you manufacture consent.
Whether she knew it or not, Mrs Stokes touched on something far, far deeper than prejudice against Travellers in the Supreme Court yesterday.