Summer 2012 Editorial
Editor: Bruce Bradley, SJ
This issue of Studies is largely devoted to a symposium on education in Ireland, led by an essay setting out his vision of the future by the present Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn. This is followed by eleven responses from people working, or with strong interest, in the sector. The two articles on the present state of the universities are not formally part of the response, not having been written in the light of the Minister’s contribution, but they obviously bear closely, albeit from a particular angle, on the main topic dealt with in the present issue.
This has left little space for much else – just John Bruton’s thoughtful Woodenbridge speech in April of this year at the commemoration of John Redmond’s address to the Irish Volunteers in the same place almost a hundred years ago; and two book reviews. When Studies gave over its pages to the subject of education in a somewhat similar way in the autumn issue of 1968, the then editor felt he should ask the forbearance of his overseas readers for having done so but justified himself on the basis of the ‘exceptional importance’ of the topic. The present editor hopes for the indulgence of all the readers of Studies on this occasion, and not just those from overseas! He acknowledges that, for a variety of reasons, not everyone is likely to have the same interest in education. But its importance, and not just in Ireland, has not grown less since the year of les événements and it seemed right that Studies should give it special attention now, in this time of growth-stunting global recession.
To refer to the youth unrest, in Paris and further afield, which mention of les événements evokes for so many of us (although it did not form any part of the context for those contributing to the earlier discussion in Studies referred to) is to be reminded of the particular urgency at this time of trying to safeguard and improve the quality of education in all the ways that are possible, economic constraints notwithstanding. The rising generation of young people in this country and much further afield faces exceptional challenges as it attempts to grapple with the world after school. Writing in The Guardian recently, Paul Mason, economics editor of the influential BBC programme ‘Newsnight’, allowed himself to speak of ‘the graduate without a future’. Although far from pessimistic about the capacity of the ‘Occupy’ generation to ‘make the future’ themselves (and he adduced numerous, genuinely impressive instances), he did underline the stark statistics of youth unemployment as they stand at present – 17% here, 19% in the UK, 50% in Spain and Germany. Education – not just for work but to enable people to cope with and find meaning in a world which is rapidly changing – is of the highest importance, and Studies is grateful to the Minister and to all those who have so generously contributed to this issue.
The precedent was set in 1968 when the then Assistant Secretary and Head of Development in the Department of Education (as it was more simply called at the time), Seán O’Connor, contributed the lead-article to the autumn issue of Studies, entitled ‘Post-primary education: now and in the future’. The title was somewhat revealing. The first part of the article purported, in his own words, ‘to set out the reforms introduced by the four Ministers who have held office since 1963, and to give the reasons for their policy decisions’, exactly what one might have expected a civil servant to do. There was reference to such measures as the establishment of comprehensive schools and regional technical colleges, a common Intermediate certificate and a technical Leaving, co-operation with the OECD Investment in Education report, the so-called ‘O’Malley scheme’ to provide free post-primary education, revised Leaving Certificate programmes, building plans, establishment of a guidance service, and so on. This – not unimpressive - list was the ‘now’ of his title.
But coming to ‘the future’, what he called picturesquely ‘that quaking bog’, he was at pains to stress that, ‘from this point on I am speaking my own mind and the responsibility for everything I say is mine alone’. He laboured the point: ‘Neither the Minister for Education nor his Department is accountable for any opinion, speculation or forecast that I may offer’. In this section, he grasped various nettles, including the role of the Matriculation examination for university entrance, the question of co-education, and the role of the Church and the religious orders (still relatively vibrant at the time) in the system. Other contributors, noting his distinction between the roles of mere spokesman and ostensible lone ranger, inevitably wondered aloud to what extent the Assistant Secretary was not, in truth, ventriloquising on behalf of his Minister. Was this, in fact, a form of semi-official ‘leak’?
No such uncertainty exists on this occasion. Mr Quinn willingly accepted the invitation to write here and does so on his own authority and in his own name. In 1968 the responses came from a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (it is revealing of the somewhat different priorities of the times that this was the first response), the secretary of the Board of Education of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, a union general secretary (of the Vocational Teachers’ Union), the Teaching Brothers’ Association, a university professor, two secondary teachers and a senior executive of CIE, in this instance writing as a parent. This time the range of responses is no less wide: a Jesuit educational consultant, a professor of education, a historian of higher education since 1960, a union general secretary (of the Teacher’s Union of Ireland, successor to the VTA), the general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body/Association of Managers of Catholic Secondary Schools, the chairperson of the recently formed Irish Catholic Schools’ Partnership, a Church of Ireland bishop, the chief executive of Educate Together, a comprehensive school principal, and, finally, a member of Seanad Éireann, who is also a former leading businessman.
There is universal welcome among contributors for the Minister’s willingness to think things through and to place his thoughts about such a wide spectrum of important educational issues on the record, as he has here. As in 1968, the responses are robust. But, although in most cases representing sectional interests of one kind or another, they also seek to take a larger view and to be constructive rather than merely critical and reactive. The Minister will welcome their engagement. A residual question, touched on by a number of the writers in this issue, is: what is education for? His own answer is at least implicit in a variety of ways and more or less explicit when, for example, he speaks of ‘social and economic progress’ and the capacity of the system to produce young people who can ‘participate in social and economic activities’. As he rightly says, ‘educational reform is not just about boosting economic growth. It is also about enabling students to reach their potential’. He wants them to have space, at post-primary level, ‘to think more, to take greater ownership of their own learning, greater responsibility for the moral choices they make’. He also wants them to have time to develop the life skills they need to become responsible citizens’, and he says that their schooling should allow them to become creative individuals committed to the well-being of the community in which they live’.
These are undoubtedly noble aspirations even if there is, inevitably, always the danger of a disconnect between the ends proposed in discussions of this kind and the means set out to reach them. But it may be urged that a deeper question lurks. If persons are the heart of the issue for the whole enterprise of education, persons considered both in their sovereign uniqueness and autonomy and in their relatedness to the human family in its most immediate and it its much wider manifestations (we are born to be citizens of the world), we must ask: what are persons for? What is their ‘potential’? Is the civic community the ultimate environment in which they are to exist and find meaning? To some, not least some of those engaged in educational debate, this is a question too far, either mere obscurantist philosophising that has no bearing on the project at hand or, worse, a more or less subtle way of dragging religion in through the back-door. But, at the back of my mind I hear echoes of a famous BBC radio discussion between Bertrand Russell and Fr Frederick Copleston SJ in the 1940s. The question came up as to why the universe existed. Why is there anything rather than nothing? Russell asserted that this was a question that could not be posed. The universe was just there. As Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, writing in The Tablet some years ago, pointed out, it was the Christian philosopher who insisted that he was giving up thinking too soon. Without quite wishing to use the (slightly alarming!) terms of the English Benedictine headmaster who, on being asked what he was trying to do, replied that saw himself as preparing his pupils for death, a Christian reflecting on the matter will be reluctant not to raise the further question. There is a spectrum, when we think of educational outcomes, running from the production of mere workforce functionaries, at one end, to the facilitation of a precious, mysterious journey to everlasting life, at the other, with, of course, a whole variety of positions in between. A Christian world-view will insist that, only by placing education in its widest, ultimate context, can we do it justice.
Of course, no Minister, operating in a pluralist democracy, could or should seek to implement a religious vision, Christian or any other, as such. But the question, arising from a focus on persons in their wholeness, is legitimate and even indispensable when we are discussing the future of education. Some vision of the person is presupposed in all such discussions and it is important to scrutinise what is being presupposed when people talk about education. Public policy cannot be expected to go all the way with a view of human potential based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But – without allowing the system to degenerate into some kind of sectional free-for-all in which, as John MacGabhann suggests, ‘a wide range of vested interests’ could ‘demand their own schools’ - a genuinely pluralist democracy needs to make space for a variety of approaches to education, based on their vision of the person. It is this vision which legitimately underpins and informs the different sub-communities which make up – and enrich – the national community as a whole. Such a vision, which is the source of existential meaning and not just a narrowly cerebral set of beliefs, necessarily requires to be reflected in more than a single subject in the formal curriculum, entitled ‘religious studies’. It also requires to be reflected in the arguably more important so-called ‘hidden curriculum’ of the total environment of the school. A one-size-fits-all approach is apt to do rough justice to these considerations.
This is one – and not the least important – of the many issues raised by the current debate. Ruairi Quinn is to be warmly commended for his ready response to the invitation to initiate it in these pages and for the care he has given to his own contribution. It is an invitation to ongoing dialogue, so that, as a national community, we can find the best way forward together at this challenging time. If the present Studies symposium assists in such a dialogue, it will have done its work.
Cover: The Minister for Education and Skills, Mr Ruairi Quinn TD, with, in the background, Newman House in St Stephen’s Green, where many of the early Jesuit editors of Studies and its contributors lived until 1908, when it became part of the National University.