Will we ever learn?

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“You see,” he explained, I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

As ever, I’m on the Sherlock Holmes side of the discussion. When I was eleven I was introduced to algebra and Pythagoras. It meant nothing to me then and it means nothing to me now. I cannot think of one occasion, not one single occasion in the forty-five years since that moment that the knowledge of either algebra or Pythagoras has been of any use to me. It has never served as an ice-breaker or mood-lightener at any social event; it has never allowed me to sweet-talk my way into premieres or into the arms of anyone I fancied; it has never been raised at a job interview; and it has never proved capable of lulling either of my children to sleep at the end of a long, loud, grumpy evening.

At various stages between the ages of eleven and sixteen I was encouraged to believe that a fluency in French, Spanish and German would come in useful at some future point in my life. It hasn’t. I discovered on my first trip to France—and I think that I was about thirteen at the time—that there were no occasions during which the phrase ‘My aunt’s buns are very tasty, Sir, might I be furnished with additional supplies, please?” helped in tracking down either the Louvre or a public toilet.

Indeed, my only memories of these excursions into the languages of our European neighbours are of my late (in every sense of the term) German master. He had served as a pilot in the Second World War and absolutely detested the Germans. He spat out every word of their language as if he was removing excrement from his teeth and rolled his eyes when obliged to tell us something, anything in fact, about what he liked to call ‘Teutonic culture.’ He was also an officer in the school’s Combined Cadet Force and during rifle training (when we had to fire blanks at wooden boards with faces painted upon them) he could be heard hollering at us to: “Just aim at the forehead, boys and kill the Nazi bastards.” It was only on those Tuesday afternoons, with the sound of gunfire mixing with the shattering of wood and splinter, that he seemed truly happy.

I could never see the point of art classes, either; another form of torture I was forced to endure for five years. I mean, if it took talented artists until somewhere in the sixteenth century to get to grips with perspective how the hell was I supposed to master it between break and lunch? Week in, week out I was given an A3 piece of paper and week in, week out I produced a picture of mountains, sea, trees and cottages. That I was supposed to be tackling jugs, bowls of fruit or the art master’s foot was neither here nor there, for he knew and I knew that he would get what he always got—a supposedly scenic arrangement which could just as easily have been produced by dipping a hamster in paint and getting it to roll across the canvas. He didn’t care and I knew he didn’t care. Nor could I understand why you weren’t allowed to learn about the history of art, or the influence of art on society and civilisation, unless you took Art for ‘O Level.’

Music wasn’t much better. To quote someone whose name I have forgotten, “I have Van Gogh’s ear for music.” There may well be a difference between Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Les Dawson’s plink plonk piano, but I cannot detect the difference. I couldn’t hold a tune if the score was nailed to my palms and I still have no idea why I had to sit in the back row for years, tinkering with my glockenspiel—-oh come on now, stop sniggering!

The point I’m trying to make is that an awful lot of my classroom time was utterly, utterly wasted. I knew, even at the age of eleven or twelve that I was never going to do anything that required music, art, maths or a foreign language: and I had a pretty good idea that anything requiring the entrails of a frog, a Bunsen burner or a working knowledge of why a lump of coal falls to the ground if thrown from the Empire State Building (why would you even take a lump of coal up there?) would never be appearing on my CV.

So why do we make our children endure it? Why do we insist on boring them into a stupor for most of the school day, rather than letting them concentrate on what they really like and what they may actually be good at? Why do we insist on a curriculum which seems to be more important to professional educationalists, politicians, potential employers and agenda pushers than it is to the lifelong needs of the vast majority of pupils who are required to endure it?

What, after all, is the function of our education system? We trundle our children out of the house from around the age of four, herd them into classrooms, subject them to a mixture of rote, routine and regimentation for the next twelve, fourteen or sixteen years—and for what? Well, for those who were bright or even reasonably bright, this method of education was fine and dandy. Many of them went to university, then onwards to the pick of jobs in the public and private sector. The rest, however, particularly the less bright offspring of the growing middle-class, arrive in an employment market for which they are ill-prepared temperamentally. Some believe they were too smart for the blue collar world and others aren’t even properly equipped for that world in the first place.

Which explains why we still have spokesmen from the CBI and various employer organisations complaining that ‘our young people’ don’t have enough skills for the employment market. It’s a complaint that goes back almost fifty years, to when the first generation of the less gifted were emerging from newly built universities and polytechnics believing that the world owed them a living just because they had a 2.2 in The Bleeding Obvious from the University of NobodyFailsHere.

For the vast majority of people the education system and the core curriculum serve little real, long lasting purpose. Their once empty attics have been filled to overflowing with an assortment of junk, the sort of junk which won’t ever have value. They have been pampered by indulgent parents and governments into believing that they are a lot smarter than they are and, consequently, have deluded themselves into the belief that they deserve greater status and higher salaries than their talents merit. And a persistent hard core still emerges with absolutely nothing, other than resentment, to show for their time at school.

Every few years a government minister or Opposition spokesman will make a ‘keynote’ speech about the state of our education system and how it ‘fails too many pupils.’ For good measure they will throw in a line that a good education system is about ‘ensuring we support our brightest and best while preparing all our children to reach their maximum potential.’ The problem, of course, is that no-one ever defines ‘maximum potential’ and no-one ever faces up to the fact that the real problem is a mixture of poor teaching (from poor, uninterested, uninspiring teachers); unnecessary subjects; too little flexibility; too much emphasis on getting even the average pupil to any sort of third level education; and a disconnect of Grand Canyon proportions between what the State thinks a pupil needs for later life and what that pupil actually will need.

The saddest reality of all, though, is that our education system and curriculum is in the worst possible hands: those of our politicians. As with so many other aspects of life the only job they are doing is the wrong one, in the worst way and for no purpose higher than that of their own self-serving ideology. Their blinkered stupidity—a stupidity which seems to have leaked into the DNA of most post Second World War politicians—has turned our education system into Dotheboys Hall writ large.


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About Author

Alex Kane is a columnist for both the News Letter and the Irish News and a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph. He is also a frequent guest across a range of BBC, UTV and RTE programmes--specialising in political commentary.


  1. Matthew Symington on

    I think the reason kids are forced to learn things like
    maths, science and languages isn’t so much the knowledge within the subject as
    the mental exercise provided by studying it. That said, it is my view that a
    good knowledge of these major subjects is essential in any occupation. That is
    especially true these days, if anything is going to drag our very small and
    utterly insignificant Province out of recession then it will be bright minds; we
    have no resources worth talking about. Politicians should consider this when
    they write education policy.

    • I agree Mathematics being more universal than Mandarin, Spanish, German, French, Japanese, Cantonese and English put together is vital to trade.

  2. The fact that our Minister for Education can barely string a grammatical sentence together highlights the need to promote traditional core subjects better than any political argument.