The recent release of the 2010 Leaving Certificate results had the papers, the TV and the radio milking the education debate from every angle. In the immediate aftermath you didn’t have to listen for too long before the snobbery emerged. While I would have to concur that a university degree is certainly a way to becoming a better educated individual it is not the way nor is it the only way. I would also draw a distinct line between being an academically qualified person and a well educated one. For example the well educated tend to acknowledge and respect all levels of society, recognising the value in every strand and knowing that no one group can operate independently. On the other hand sometimes the highly qualified don’t grasp that concept at all. In their academic conceit they believe theirs and their peer group’s opinion is the only one of merit. The well educated (who can also be highly qualified) tend not to be so arrogant while the highly qualified only can sometimes be obnoxious.

As a nation we have placed the university degree and a subsequent career in the professions on a much higher pedestal than a qualification in a trade for example. We believe that those who take up courses in medicine, dentistry or pharmacy will become more educated than those who qualify as hairdressers, chefs or carpenters. I’ve also seen parents in awe of their adult children who go to university and in turn feel quite uneducated in the reflected light of their little Einstein. In some cases neither party acknowledges the financial input of the parent into this journey towards qualification; a task that requires a formidable education in itself.

Different skills

I have two siblings who both attended the same co-ed secondary school. One has two university degrees; one in English and one in Law and went on to qualify as a solicitor. The other qualified as an electrician. When we get together I never consider that one is more or better educated than the other. I marvel that one knows exactly why you can flip a little white switch on a wall and the light comes on in the middle of the room, while the other equally delights with a throwaway remark by a little known poet that sometimes sparks a life changing thought. One has a wonderful command of the English language and can verbalise thoughts with tremendous speed, fluency and wit while the other has a treasure trove of captivating experiences from both local and exotic places that will have you holding your sides at their retelling. While one went to university and consumed large amounts of alcohol the other didn’t go to university and still consumed large amounts of alcohol. The university drinking stories revolve around debating societies and philosophical conversations where points were made passionately accompanied by Jack Daniels’ chasers and sharp tongued assaults. The non university drinking stories also contain emotionally charged rants from bar room philosophers where points were made passionately accompanied by Jack Daniels’ chasers and sharp fisted assaults. Amongst these real life tales there are the wild and exciting eyebrow raising parties in places most of us would never dare visit in daylight, let alone in the dead of night. They include nefarious characters who had tread a more criminal career path, the long term unemployed by choice rather than circumstance and a host of other personalities that had a story to tell and a life lesson to share; albeit in a more treacherous and hostile environment than your average university.

Erroneous thinking

My argument though is not going to university versus not going, it’s about encouraging people to follow their dreams and their natural gifts. Nothing saddens me more to hear of someone taking up a career in medicine because they don’t want to ‘waste their points’, when what they really wanted to do was write music. Equally we have lost many potentially great doctors and vets to other paths because they just didn’t get the necessary points. Our system is highly flawed. It seems to care little for the passions, desires and dreams of the individual and the Irish attitude subconsciously feeds it. You will hear statements like “Johnny is doing engineering but Niamh just wanted to be a beautician.” This is erroneous thinking, subconsciously elevating one over the other. Engineers design and create wonderful equipment and tools, some even for the beauty industry. However if no one wanted to become a beautician there would be little point in such designs. Of course we need writers, poets, philosophers and professors but they need to carry out their work in properly lit and plumbed buildings. They need to sit on chairs and work at desks made by skilled carpenters. And let’s thank God for the people who want to work in the catering and retail sectors. Without the people who wait on tables or stack shelves the writers, the doctors, the carpenters, the engineers, the plumbers and the beauticians wouldn’t have anywhere to eat or to buy their food.

The English word education comes from the Latin word “educare” which means “to bring up” or “lead out”. Education is about exploring and developing what is already inside of each one of us. It is only in a very narrow sense that education is about stuffing information in so that we can specialise in a particular field. Being educated means developing mentally, morally and aesthetically. In a society of well educated people the intrinsic values of tolerance, peace, respect and honour exist in abundance. I also like to think that the educated display a certain amount of wisdom and as the proverb tells us, “Get wisdom; it is more valuable than rubies.”

Brendan Behan

In Irish history Brendan Behan is a prime example. He was a poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright who wrote in both Irish and English. His love of literature came from his father who was a house painter by trade but loved to read the classics to his children at bedtime. While my childhood was filled with Potter, Blyton, Dahl and Grimm, highbrow names such as Zola, Galsworthy and Maupassant were among the bedtime reading sources in the Behan household. His mother would regularly take the family on literary tours of Dublin and so birthed a love of language and words in her offspring. Brendan Behan left school at the age of thirteen and whether you agree or disagree with his politics, you could never refer to him as ‘uneducated.’ We should encourage school leavers to follow their dreams and grow their talents, regardless of the course they have to steer in order to achieve them.