Today let’s talk about the Leaving Cert (and its ugly little brother, the Junior Cert). Let’s look at the sort of minds that are rewarded by the system and the sort of minds that are punished by it. Given that the Leaving Cert is the closest thing we Irish have to compulsory national service, it’s an experience that we all have a view on.
In the past few weeks, listening to all the talk about the perils of “groupthink” in Ireland, I couldn’t help feeling that the Leaving Cert has a significant role in this.
The Banking Inquiry, for example, is full of the very people who upheld groupthink suggesting that the problem in Ireland was the very groupthink that they were propagating in the first place!
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
But if groupthink was the problem and these guys – the head of the Central Bank, the accountants and the regulator – were its chief proselytizers, where did it come from?
I believe it starts early in the education system and has, as its graduation day, the Leaving Cert.
When I think back to my Leaving Cert time in school, I remember there were fellas whose mammies stood behind them with a mallet when they were filling in their CAO forms to make sure they ticked law, accountancy or medicine. The holy of holies of this type of Irish mammy was to have her son in the professions.
This was what she had strived for all these years and “success” would be made concrete by the son’s entry into university and from then on the conveyor belt towards professional respectability and full membership of the middle classes.
Most of these lads were decent enough characters and went on to become partners in law firms, doctors, senior managers in the banks or department bosses in the big accountancy firms.
They were never risk takers or particularly adventurous. They knew that the system rewarded obedience and conformity and both these attributes lead to class respectability.
Today these types of fellas form a central phalanx of Ireland’s professional class. They have become the “insiders” in Ireland. They have grinded away, kissing ass when necessary and are now rewarded for their good behaviour by an equity partnership and a board directorship or three.
This endemic conventionalism as the guarantor of professional success is a crucial component of the Irish class system. The Leaving Cert can also be viewed as the annual perpetuation of the class system, particularly the professional classes.
At the Banking Inquiry, the exclusively male coterie of apologists – all of whom, I’d wager, got stellar Leaving Cert results – claimed they fell victim to “groupthinking”. Groupthink was therefore portrayed as an alien ailment that afflicted them, rather than being a creed which they enforced, sneering at anyone who had the audacity to think differently.
But maybe you can’t blame them? They were simply doing what they had done since they were in school. They were conforming to conventional wisdom.
The public scorecard of such intellectual conformity, which breeds conventional wisdom, is the Irish points system.
The Leaving Cert and the Junior Cert both reward a certain type of intelligence and punish another type. The conventional type of academic intelligence that is rewarded by the narrow-gauge exam structure, which is nothing more than a giant memory test and rewards the organized, structured brain that can make lists and systemically regurgitate the information in a systematic way.
I am not so sure that life – with all its ups and downs – is so generous or in awe of the systematic brain. As I get older, it seems to me that one of the central characteristics that distinguish people from one another is durability. This is an inner resourcefulness, which may or may not be heightened by encountering failure in school at a young age.
The child who can deal with failure at an early age might create strategies to circumvent conventional failure and develops these coping strategies earlier than the academically astute child.
The child that is used to academic failure from early on turns into the adult who accepts that they might not always be right. The children who are always told they are very clever in school tend to develop into the adults who never doubt themselves or their positions. This is how positions become entrenched and are so hard to shift.
Because of the nature of our education system, there are hundreds of thousands of brilliant Irish people walking around today who believe that they are stupid. How many exceptional people do you know who will say to you “I hated school”?
They hated it because it hated them.
Worse still, there are many people walking around Ireland who believe they are very clever when in fact they are very stupid.
These are the guys who ran the place over the past 15 years. Because the conventional man promotes people like himself, it’s not surprising that the system propagates itself at the top.
The system also fosters a type of conventional, linear intelligence. This is the type of mind that cultivates a ‘single-answer’ narrowness. We all know that there is rarely a single answer to anything.
At best, we could teach children to question, to realize the need to be flexible.
But our education system teaches them that they will be rewarded if they don’t question, if they learn one or two answers and if they are not flexible, but conformist. In a changing world, this is entirely inappropriate.
The odd thing about the new economy that we find ourselves in is the fact that the “job for life’ is gone. It’s a new journey. Resilience and resourcefulness are two valuable traits. How to recover from a setback, how to deal with failure and how to figure out what’s coming next are the questions that need answers.
In short, the most important aspect of everyone’s career these days is to know if you have a coping strategy.
I’m not too sure the Leaving Cert makes any effort to prepare our teenagers for this journey.