Sunday 25 September 2016

Leaving Cert students still haven't found what they're looking for

Putting Bono on the English paper is a facile sop to a pop culture that already has too much sway, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30

Bono
Bono
Mary Robinson
Seamus Heaney
Rihanna

It's that time of year again, when the Irish media becomes obsessed to the point of tedium with the Leaving Cert. Did I say "to the point of tedium"? Make that "way past the point of tedium".

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On all channels, radio presenters offer last-minute tips to students and parents on how to take the stress out of the annual exam season; reporters hang around outside schools, badgering young people in a manner which would normally lead to the police being called; newspapers pore over the minutiae of each day's papers as if they were international peace treaties.

Most of these items could have been recorded or written at any point during the past 20 or 30 years. The advice never changes. Eat well. Get a good night's sleep. Don't panic if you do badly, it's not the end of the world, you can always resit - or do an arts degree at UCD. If this year's crop of students and parents don't know all this basic information already, it's probably too late for national radio to stage an intervention.

Though that didn't stop the Irish Times solemnly telling its readers, like a President informing the country of the outbreak of war, that those sitting Friday morning's Geography Paper should remember to bring a ruler and a HB pencil on the day. Perhaps they should also remind them to wear pants. You know, just in case they forget that too?

Here's a radical idea - why not just leave teenagers to get on with their exams in peace, whilst the rest of us concentrate on something more interesting instead? It's not as if it was a slow news week. There's something almost voyeuristic about eavesdropping on this emotional drama.

If it's your own children, you've every right to be obsessed. For those not directly involved, it's the equivalent of grown adults Facebook-stalking teenagers in an effort to relive their own youth.

There is, unfortunately, fat chance of stopping the media avalanche. Every June, coverage of the Leaving Cert on air and in print is so ubiquitous and over the top that it makes the attention being paid last week to Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner's appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair look positively restrained.

Be honest. Does anyone who isn't directly involved seriously need to know that eggs made an appearance on this year's Home Economics paper for the first time ever?

There are so many teachers around on the airwaves right now, it's almost as bad as being trapped at one of their union conferences, complete with the pervasive atmosphere of moaning and melodrama, as students who've sat through a few hours answering questions on Othello are treated like veterans returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam.

"You don't know what it was like in there." Yes, we do, you spotty little drama queens. It's just that most of us managed to do it without expecting the entire world to swoon in awe at our labours.

There's a strange interdependency going on here. The media loves the Leaving, and the Leaving loves the media; and the more that the media indulges the Leaving, the more the Leaving feeds ravenously off the media.

There was perfect example of it last Wednesday, as the feeding frenzy kicked off with English Leaving Paper I, in which U2 star Bono made a guest appearance. "My name is Bono," went the question, "and I am a… (complete the sentence in as witty and disrespectful a manner as possible)". Sadly, that's not true.

"My name is Bono and I am a rock star" was how it really went, being an extract from a speech given by said rock star some years ago at the University of Pennsylvania.

An edited extract, thankfully, because who'd want to sit through the whole thing a second time? The question which accompanied it was a masterpiece of understated sarcasm. "Do you agree," it went, "that Bono is both engaging and inspiring?" (It was sarcastic, right?)

There were some reports of groans from more jaded students when they opened the paper; but as a whole, the class of 2015 seemed pleased enough with the paper, and why wouldn't they be? Education used to be about challenging young minds to stretch themselves to their intellectual limits. Now it merely reflects back to them various aspects of the pop cultural world in which they already spend most of their time.

Last year, it was essays exploring the influence of pop music and video games on contemporary writers; in 2012, an address by - well, who else? - Mary Robinson.

Teachers love Mary Robinson almost more than they love Bono. The former President pops up so often in the Irish school curriculum, from English to CSPE (Civic, Social and Political Education) to History, you'd swear she had some kind of hold over the Department of Education.

There will generally be some Seamus Heaney or William Trevor dropped in there to offset accusations of dumbing down, but the overall thrust of the questions is always motivated by this same desire to be relevant; the same belief that anything which doesn't intersect with a student's fast-moving, funky social media world will provoke instant boredom in them, and turn them off from learning. Instead, they must be constantly gratified on a diet of modish references; shots of pop-cultural caffeine; all those endless nods to their milieu, or what is imagined to be so.

It's the same instinct that makes trendy priests drop a line from a current pop song into a sermon, or a politician try to gain brownie points by referencing some contemporary meme. In education, it's known as "culturally relevant teaching". If you want black female students to be interested in history, goes the thinking, teach them the history of black women rather than dead white European males.

If you want gay students to care about literature, let them read modern gay writers rather than Jane Austen. It's all well and good in principle, albeit depressingly reductive, but it can go too far, trapping them in their own world rather than liberating them from it. Any fool could make a pretence of being relevant by setting essays on Rihanna; the real test of a great teacher is if they can make a writer who's been dead for hundreds of years seem suddenly relevant.

As often as not, this pandering to pop culture goes horribly wrong. What self-respecting teenager looks to Bono for inspiration? That's more of a Dad thing. A quick glance at the timeline on Twitter would have shown plenty of disrespect being shown to Bono by students, for all that examiners thought they were giving them what they wanted. And to be fair to Bono, he'd probably appreciate the irony.

In that speech, he quoted poet Brendan Kennelly: "If you want to serve the age, betray it." The U2 frontman meant it politically. He wanted to expose the "phoney moral certitudes" of an era which spoke the language of universal human rights but let Africans die in their millions.

But it has cultural relevance too. It's about time we started betraying an age that thinks every student is a pop-cultural zombie who can't think in anything other than bite-sized chunks and won't be able to cope with anything that they haven't seen on Buzzfeed. They get enough pop culture at home, on Instagram, on YouTube.

Rock stars will always be part of their lives, whether they want them there or not. Aeschylus and Milton won't. Indeed, for some, who live in houses where the TV is always on, the time spent in school might be the only space in their entire lives that it isn't dominated by the aggressive intrusion of popular culture.

Why not, for that short while in their adolescence, open them up to a different, richer world to which they might not otherwise be exposed?

Even if only one in a hundred takes something positive from the experience, it will still be worth it because the other 99 won't have lost anything in the process.

As the saying goes: "Cui bono?"

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