Kevin Myers: While I'm paying for the education of young people, I want to see them learn useful skills
PERHAPS the most important recent observations about Irish life were uttered by the former boss of Intel, the American Craig Barrett. One way or another, he said, we've just about blown all the human assets we once had, and all that remains is a good tax base.
So that's it. Neither our graduates, nor the mathematics and scientific degrees that they flourish in front of the camera, are good enough. And if the accumulating disadvantages of Irish society outweigh the diminishing benefits of our low-tax regime, why, then goodbye wealth, and hello Haiti.
Minister Batt O'Keeffe, perhaps having learnt his lesson from having closed down the entire educational system on the basis of a weather forecast that didn't even promise snow for half the country, has cautiously established a "review" of exam grades. Google's John Herlihy said he was "thrilled" at this. Good. But it was the response from John White, the general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, that encapsulated the culture of smugness, unrealism and downright silliness that helped turn the Celtic Tiger into dog meat. He said that accusations of "dumbing down" in Leaving Cert results were "unsubstantiated", and were "unfair" on those young people (poor lickul uzzums) who had worked so hard to reach their potential.
"Knee-jerk reactions to improvements in Leaving Certificate results must be avoided," he said, in his own knee-jerk reaction to the minister's rather modest suggestions. Worse was to come: far, far worse. "In addition," the ASTI man said, "the second-level curriculum has been broadened to facilitate all kinds of interests and abilities, which means students can choose more subjects which they find interesting," he declared. "Teaching has changed and syllabi" -- and yes, he actually said 'syllabi' -- "have been modernised."
A key lesson in life. When somebody gratuitously uses a foreign word, or drags in a foreign plural into a sentence in English, start counting your spoons. Anyone who says that the plural of stadium is stadia, or the plural of syllabus is syllabi, could well end up declaring that the plural of "te deum" is "te dea" and of "omnibus" is "omnibi". For if you embark on foreign plurals for some words while you're speaking English, then you must also be confident about the plurals for all foreign words -- such as shampoo, hashish, kamikaze, jihad, taboo, blitzkrieg, tatoo and ombudsman.
Moreover, education in the 21st century is no longer about enabling "students to choose more subjects which they find interesting", not while China, India and Israel are in the same global marketplace as we are, and most certainly not while the State is giving away free university education. That infamous and disgraceful concession to the middle classes of Ireland by the Labour Party was the very first of the death knells for the Celtic Tiger. This was proof that the perception had taken political root that the world really did owe us a living. (Best of all, in the voodoo-lexicon of Irish political life, showering benefits on the wealthiest sectors of Irish society, in the Pembroke, Rathgar, Sandymount and Kingstown wards of Dublin, went by the name "socialism").
Now I'm sure that Emma and Conor and Ian and Jessica and Keith and Melissa would love to attend Trinity or UCD to study Victorian stage design, or 17th-century horticulture in Kilkenny, or Irish hats in the 1950s. Which is just fine -- provided mummy and daddy are paying for it: that's what they were put on this Earth to do, after all.
BUT while I'm paying for the education of the young people of Ireland, I want to see the production of economically useful skills, and I certainly don't want to see taxpayers' money going into the creation of dole queues that consist of experts in the court music of early Geraldine Kildare, or the wallpapers of Georgian Dublin. And yes, you can talk about Newman's idea of a university and quote Plato to me until you are green in the face. But they're not going to put any bread on the table -- not least because the universities of Peking and Bombay annually produce battalions of 13-year-old mathematicians who can calculate the speed of light using just their toothpaste, a mirror and the angle of the moon.
We actually don't have very long to continue this conversation: because in just over two months' time, our schools will close for that now almost mythological season, "the summer". And then ASTI's members will depart for their annual three-month break -- yes, try explaining that to the Chinese -- so that Craig Barrett will find himself talking to just Batt O'Keeffe and John Herlihy, and maybe even me. Then the Leaving Cert results will be released, with the usual self-preening revelation, yet again, that our mathematicians, with AAAAs across the board, are the equal of the Indians, the Chinese and the Israelis. Sorry, but they're not -- nothing like. And worse still, to judge from the complacency and the self-regard of our universities and teachers' unions, Irish mathematicians will finally be a match for Messrs Patel, Wong and Cohen, at around the same time Offaly sends its South China Seas fleet up the Missouri and successfully bombards Montana into joining a united Ireland.