One of the most thought-provoking articles that appeared in the recent mini-supplement on third level education in the Irish Times was that of graduate Orlaith Delargy. The article was titled “What’s wrong with learning for learning’s sake”. It was a well-written and very passionate article by someone who was obviously very committed to her education. But in my view it perpetuated some common misunderstandings of the forces at work in the Irish education system
The first statement that I found thought-provoking was the following: “There is a creeping disdain for the idea of learning for its own sake.” I’ve heard quite a few people say this in recent times and, to be honest, I find it irritating. You will find no disdain for ‘pure’ learning among the academics or, I would suspect, among those ‘awful’ managers in third level institutions. In fact, I’ve never met anyone with a disdain for education apart from the chip-on-his-shoulder-guy who texts into radio shows boasting about how he failed the Leaving and now earns 200 grand a year employing 40 people in the process. Occasionally, you might hear someone (usually an academic) express a level of disdain for a particular field of study, but not learning as such.
Conversations about the evolution of education are often filled with words like ‘critical thinking’, ‘creativity’, ‘problem solving’ etc. The implication seems to be that such high-level attributes have been lost because education is now favoring the development of ‘skills’ that are appropriate to the market place. The implication of this is that there is a school of thought within the education system that our role is to simply create automaton-like foot soldiers for industry. This view is nonsense – based on a caricature of the commercial worlds – because most academics, in all disciplines, would love to see a lot more evidence of these high-level attributes in their students. Nobody is actively devaluing them. Furthermore, acquiring skills and being a creative thinker are not mutually excessive. In fact, skills are absolutely necessary to give effect to creativity. Even Einstein had to spend years learning the mathematical tools required to develop his ideas on General Relativity into a rigorous theory.
A major problem is that education has become entirely results-driven. This has happened not as a consequence of anyone’s disdain for learning; it is driven, paradoxically, by our almost obsessive belief in the value of third level education. The consequence of this obsession is that second level has become an exercise in rote learning – the result is all that matters. Society’s good intentions, namely to afford the opportunity to increased numbers to attend third level have led – inevitably – to the creation of a high-stakes second-level exam that has to be marked in a completely reproducible, transparent and fair way. Thus, from an early age, our young people learn to learn in a way that is entirely focused on the result. This view of education has permeated into third level and rather than being dismantled, it has been perpetuated. And this has happened for the following reason: third level education is now populated by a large number of students who lack the academic ability or the study skills or the commitment (or a combination of all three) to survive in a traditional third-level learning environment. Thus, we the educators have increasingly adopted second level methods and the students’ perception now is that their ‘job’ is to give the lecturer back what he or she gave them in the first place. None of us likes this – including the students – but the alternative is to adopt a traditional approach and watch the ensuing carnage. What I am saying, in effect, is that the crudity of modern education is a self-inflicted wound; but it’s an accidental wound and not one that is driven by any disdain for traditional forms of education.
The next quote that I found of interest was this: “Since the economic crisis, everything is focused on applicable skills and job-readiness”. The implication is that this is bad thing. Personally, I do worry about the job prospects of students. Consider that in 2012, 29% of humanities graduates found employment while the equivalent figure was 36% in Maths and Science. If a student cannot find employment after graduation, that to me reflects a failure on our parts even if we have delivered what one would term a high quality ‘traditional’ education. Personally, I would never apologise to anyone for emphasising employability in education. But employability and ‘pure education’ need not be mutually exclusive. Unemployment is one of the greatest scourges to face any society and it would be very odd indeed for there not to be a focus on employability during a recession. Maybe we have to be more vocal about the ‘nobler’ aspects of education but the employability of our graduates should not be dismissed as something that is driven by the needs of the commercial world. It is a societal need. When the writer of the IT article states that “employability should be a byproduct of education, not its main goal”, I have to admit that I just don’t agree. Having a job goes to the heart of a person’s self-esteem and happiness. It is not a by-product; it is an absolute necessity for people, especially those who should be starting out on their working life. Not being employed correlates very strongly with all sorts of physical and mental health problems. It is all very fine to acquire a love of learning and all of the usual attributes that one associates with ‘quality’ education but, on a very human level, those nobler attributes will soon fade to nothing if faced with the demoralising experience of unemployment.
One of my problems with much of the discourse around this whole topic is the rather annoying way in which many academics have tried to claim a sort of moral high ground in which they are the true guardians of education, facing down the onslaught from the neoliberals who see education as merely there to serve the business world. But maybe that’s just me.