FORGET the bankers. By far the biggest scoundrels in Irish life are the evil geniuses behind the racket known as schoolbooks.
Every year they bring out supposedly "new" editions of the same books containing minor changes to the text, meaning parents are forced to fork out a small fortune each year. It's €30 for this one, €20 for that, despite the fact there's absolutely nothing wrong with the books their siblings or friends used the year before. Subjects don't change that much from year to year. It's change for the sake of it.
Now, I don't know who is ultimately to blame for this scandal. Publishers insist they're only responding to changes in the syllabus. The Department of Education says it has no jurisdiction over what private companies do, and can only "encourage" those behind school books to do the right thing; and Minister Ruairi Quinn has, to his credit, managed to get publishers to agree a new code of conduct whereby new editions are only produced when "significant" changes are made to the syllabus. The department also says that, anecdotally, this does seem to be working. As for schools, they bat away every complaint with the answer that it's not their fault either.
But changes are still merrily being made. I once went through an entire supposedly new edition of a geography text book, and discovered that there were only minor differences, together with the odd picture here and there and some fresh graphics. A textbook that cost €20 one year had become obsolete by the next, for no obviously discernible reason, yet finding out who made the decision to do this was so complicated that it made the Moriarty Tribunal look like a walk in the park.
Then there's the fact that the books are all printed on thick paper which not only makes bags so heavy that they cause major injury to the shoulders of young people forced to carry them, but also adds even more to the cost. I can buy the complete works of Shakespeare in paperback for under a tenner but I can't get a textbook for woodwork without robbing the bank? That can't be right.
That's where the National Parents Council ought to come in. What is it for if not to defend the interests of hard-pressed parents against a system that puts them under such enormous strain each year, going into debt sometimes just to buy a few books? Unfortunately it's as ineffectual as a parasol in a hurricane. Last September, I even contacted the National Parents Council to suggest mounting a strong campaign against unnecessary changes to textbooks, but I could have been speaking Cantonese for all the progress I made; I never heard back from it again.
Meanwhile, the National Parents Council carries on issuing pointless directives and leaflets, like the one distributed last week advising parents of children entering junior infants how they should manage the experience.
The advice had to be seen to be believed. "Talk regularly to your child about their expectations and experiences of school ... talk to them about their friends ... encourage them to do their best, affirm
their efforts". It urged parents to get books and uniforms ready in good time to avoid "stress". To display children's work on the wall at home to "celebrate their success". It urged mothers and fathers to chat to fellow parents at the school gate to build relationships with others going through the same ordeal.
"Don't panic and don't let the child see you crying," the leaflet continued -- but if you do, explain that they're tears of joy. Oh, and "arrive in good time on the first day but don't arrive too early as this can raise anxieties". Turning the patronising button up to 11, there were even lectures on giving a child "healthy snacks" to eat in the classroom and "a good balanced diet" at home, as well as suggestions that, where possible, you should walk to school, because, er, having a large carbon footprint makes it harder for young children to settle in? It had nothing at all do with the issue at hand, but why hold back on interfering when you could just slip in some sly eco-nagging too?
Taken in isolation, it may all have been helpful advice, but anyone who needs to be told, step by step, how to manage basic childrearing skills like dealing with a child's first day at school probably isn't going to be reading the leaflet anyway. Instead it will be read, just as it was produced, by nice well-meaning, cardigan-wearing couples who just want to congratulate one another on their sensitive parenting skills. And to be fair, even that might not be so terrible. As bourgeois complacency, "Going To Big School" is on the harmless end of the spectrum. The problem is what it says about modern culture as a whole.
Once upon a time, we just dealt with what life threw at us. No one thought they had to take a crash course in how to send their own children to school. Now we seem to need our hands held at every turn of the way, as if we were children too. We're being infatilised by endless nannying. More seriously, we're encouraging our children in turn to make a big deal out of perfectly normal and unremarkable events such as sitting exams and growing up, which people have managed to do for generations without falling apart emotionally. Suddenly we want professionals to tell us how to think and how to behave, and as a result we have turned into a nation of worriers who even worry about the fact that we worry. We fret over the small stuff so much that we don't even trust our own natural responses.
There are therapists on hand to analyse every feeling; and if their interference makes us more neurotic than we were before, as it invariably does, then the answer is always more therapy, sucking us into a dysfunctional cycle of dependency. Every bit of normal everyday pressure is magnified into full-blown stress.
If the root of this problem lies anywhere, it's surely in the expectation that we have an absolute, inviolable right to a perfect life; not just the pursuit of happiness, a la the US constitution, but a right to its achievement too. So when situations turn out to be less than ideal, we fall apart or else start petulantly stamping our feet. People didn't used to believe that life would hand them fulfilment on a plate. They just got on with things, muddled through, hoped for the best. And as it happened, they usually turned out fine. There's a lot to be said for stoicism of that variety.
That way, when the world goes well, as the writer CS Lewis said a long time ago, we can enjoy it as a gift rather than just expecting it and becoming resentful when it fails to materialise. Maybe the National Parents Council could do us all a favour and produce a leaflet about that too? Just don't turn it into a textbook, because right now most parents, fleeced and shaken down like mugging victims after a stick-up, wouldn't be able to afford to buy a copy anyway.