The Leaving Cert and the 21st Century
Motor cars, aeroplanes, space travel, antibiotics, anti-virals, DNA technology, MRI scanners, TVs, Relativity, GPS systems, telephones, mobile phones, stem cells, Quantum Mechanics, organ transplants, IVF, lasers, digital computers, nanotechnology, chemotherapy, brain surgery, Fermat’s Last Theorem, plastics, nuclear power, the Hubble Telescope, the Internet itself! I could go on. What’s the common thread running through this list? – the 20th century.
Before we get over-excited about the 21st century and how different it is, let’s give credit where credit is due and just think for one minute about the 20th century. There is a perception these days that some sort of ‘big bang’ occurred at the Millennium and we are now expanding into the void that is the 21st century. In fact, the big bang occurred in 1900 and what we are seeing now is a continuation of that. Perhaps we are seeing inflationary growth in some areas but nearly everything we see today is ultimately based on 20th century science. Even the XBOX is just an evolution of the Space Invaders of the 1980s.
Let’s just think about how utterly different the world was in say, 1939, as compared to 1914, or how different it was in Italia 90 compared to Mexico 1970. Each decade brought profound change, change that made the world unrecognisable in very short timespans. In 1984, I went to Cornell University and every few weeks I might catch a glimpse of a copy of the Irish Times in the library. In the 1990s I was connected to the world and using words like ‘Yahoo’ and ‘AltaVista’ and’ HTML’ and ‘Java’ and ‘Applet’ and ‘jpeg’ and ‘download’. In medicine, people who had no hope one decade were, the next, planning for their futures thanks to medications with the word ‘recombinant’ on the box. Kids who one decade were playing ‘Risk’ and ‘Monopoly’ were playing ‘Mario Brothers’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ the next.
The 20th century was the century of change par excellence. No century before was comparable. Change was constant. Old jobs became obsolete with mechanisation and new jobs emerged alongside new technologies. If ever there was a century in which the “jobs of the future don’t even exist yet”, it was the 20th century.
Almost tragically it would seem, the 20th century ended and this fed the 21st century fixation. This completely arbitrary boundary between eras spawned an entirely illusory notion that the world was now a radically new place, one that was characterised by an unimaginable rate of change. In this new era, we would have to totally re-think our approach to business and, crucially, education. Gone was the staid old 20th century when it seems that rote learning would get you by. Now, 21st century skills were needed; creativity, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, the ability to work in teams, the ability to think outside the box. Somehow we have to be able to prepare our young people for jobs that don’t even exist! Haven’t we been here before actually?
21st century mania rears its ugly head every year at Leaving Cert results time when everyone who has ever been to school becomes an expert on education and proceeds to tell us how we’re getting it all wrong. We are bombarded with claims for the need to ‘teach’ problem solving, creative thinking, teamwork, adaptability, to ‘learn to learn’. Rote learning is frequently derided (understandably) but it is as if rote learning was a policy of the education system and not an unavoidable consequence of the need for a robust and transparent examination system. And of course, the ‘knowledge economy’ is frequently mentioned.
It is easy to dismiss the term ‘knowledge economy’ as just another meaningless bit of jargon. But I think the term is a revealing one. I think it stems from fear and desperation and the realisation that this country has some serious problems ahead of it. The term ‘knowledge economy’ is an expression of denial.
Throughout its history, Ireland, has consistently failed to create a sustainable economy. Social cohesion has been maintained largely through the safety valve of emigration. Now in a western world in which many traditional forms of work have been outsourced to emerging economies, even greater challenges lie ahead in sustaining a viable economy, especially here in Ireland. So, we have created a sort of mythical future – the ‘knowledge economy’ in which everyone is educated to the hilt especially in STEM subjects (whether they like it or not), where they work in creative and innovative ways, providing the world with knowledge and expertise and high tech ‘stuff’. But this is the stuff of fantasy and the 21st century fetish is just part of it.
But why do people constantly obsess about the apparent deficiencies of the education system and why it is not fit for purpose in the 21st century? There is one simple reason: the education system is being asked to do the impossible. Mainstream education (primary to secondary to tertiary) is a one-size-fits-all approach to education that, in reality, only fits a relatively small percentage of the population. And this homogeneous approach is being consolidated by the 21st century fetish which sees the ‘knowledge economy’ and its ‘highly trained graduates’ as the only way forward. The old methods of education don’t work these days not because of the requirements of the 21st century but because no single approach to homogenously structured mass education can work. The solution is not to be found in theories of ‘teaching and learning’ because there is no solution. The system needs a much more diverse education ‘network’ to meet the needs of the many but in the absence of a realistic and coherent vision for our economic future it is hard to know how to construct such a network. So, I fear we will continue the same old mid-August discussions and IBEC, CEOs of multinationals, politicians and even third level institutions themselves will continue to peddle 21st century nonsense.