Revolution in the classroom requires revolution in the political system

This is a link to an article by Elaine Byrne in the Irish Times today ‘ Revolution in the Classroom‘ (reference to a Sex Pistols song – 1989). It is a timely contribution to the debate on the future of Irish education and touches on one of my personal pet topics – teaching philosophy in secondary school.

It is high time that religion was replaced with philosophy in the classroom.  I have a hunch (and will one day develop a research project based on it) that one of the reasons for chronic consumerism and deference to authority in the English-speaking world (Ireland, UK and USA), and our inability to think critically about real political-economic realities is the absence of philosophy from the school curriculum. I also think there is a direct link between a whole variety of social outcomes unique to liberal market economies that are directly correlated with the absence of teaching philosophy in school. Philosophy not only encourages the practical analytic skill of thinking independently, to make independent judgements based on fact, evidence and argument but it provides a context to understand the historical evolution of ideas. It is, in effect, the history of ideas. Thus – it is not ‘philosophy’ as such that lead to particular socio-economic habits but the skills it induces amongst rational actors.

I learnt more from two modules in my philosophy degree than ten years of Irish schooling. I can categorically conclude that studying philosophy fundamentally altered my view of the world – for the better. The educational curriculum in Ireland is, quite frankly, not fit for purpose. The structure, practice and delivery of education is premised on catholic social thought – crime and punishment, sanction and reward, hierarchy and obedience. One leaves primary school with a love for play and learning to enter a school system that is premised on discipline, routine and a one size fits all approach to delivery.

I worked as the Learning Development Officer in the National College of Ireland for two years. This gave me first hand experience (one to one support and group seminars) of the rote learning, grind out a result mentality that has become instituted in the school system. I was amazed at the complete inability to make independent judgements, to analyse, to critically evaluate and to think for oneself amongst so many students. Students with huge potential but locked into a frame of mind that stifles creativity and stifles independent thinking – the essence of the hyperbolic – innovation economy.

But, it has been long recognised that the education system needs radical reform. It is not a new topic. So, more importantly one must ask the political question –  why is it so difficult to reform Irish education policy?

The easy answer to this question is – blame the trade unions. It is true that the pay and conditions of Irish teachers are quite good when compared to other countries (not least the UK and the USA). This is the result of a well organised trade union. Teachers should not apologise for this. They deserve to be well remunerated for what is, arguably, the most important public profession in a modern economy. But, teacher unions, like the curriculum, have not adapted to the need for radical reform.  Too often teacher unions act like professional interest groups that serve to protect insiders – to stifle reform.  This is not within the long-term interests of either the trade union movement (which should be leading the charge for change) or Irish education policy. Education is too important a public policy to be left to professional interests.

However, the real reason for the lack of reform is the absence of political will. The absence of a zeal for change amongst successive Fianna Fáil governments. Policy change and policy innovation in a Westminster cabinet system is ultimately dependent upon political leadership from ministers. Weak politicians and weak ministers produce weak policies. If we want revolution in the classroom we need revolution in the type of politicians we elect.

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