The instrumentalisation of Irish education: or, as God moves out, Mammon moves in

With the gap between church and state in Ireland finally beginning to widen, the Catholic Church's control over education will only weaken as time goes by. But, as Mark Cullinane argues, rather than grasp the opportunity to institute something resembling a liberal education, we have chosen merely to swap one dogma for another - the worship of Capital.

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'Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame. Education should harden; this education is meant to enervate.'

 - Pádraig Pearse, The Murder Machine

The Taoiseach's riposte to the Vatican in the aftermath of the publication of the Cloyne Report has provoked a flurry of commentary that Ireland's relationship with the Catholic Church has now irrevocably changed. One dimension of this relationship particularly ripe for change is in the education system, where the present coalition has signalled an intention to recast the role of the Catholic Chuch as bit-players rather than monopolisers of the nation's schools. This has fuelled a growing sense that Ireland is on the cusp of total liberation from the yoke of clerical meddling in the affairs of the nation. Latter-day Saints Enda and Eamon will, so the story goes, liberate us decisively from the serpentine form of the Vatican, whose clericalism, conservatism, hypocrisy and failure to deal with child abusers within its own ranks has let Ireland's people down so badly.

In a country that likes to think of itself as a modern liberal democracy, the close interlocking of church and state in education has, for good reason, become increasingly unpalatable. Although likely to be a torturously slow process (for pragmatic economic reasons as well as clerical foot-dragging), it is perhaps not too much of a supposition to suggest that the medium-term future of Irish education is one that will see a State-enforced withdrawal of the religious orders from management and patronage of Irish primary and secondary schools. This will have profound consequences for ethos and religious instruction in such schools.

If God must shortly cede His position of dominance in Irish education, it seems reasonable to ask what will take His place? It seems to me that we need not speculate, for the new deity of Irish education is already upon us – and his name is Mammon.

The shape of the brave new reality in Irish life (which the education system is merely internalising and replicating) is familiar to regular readers of these pages. It comes in the form of an acquiescence to the imperatives of a capitalism that, regardless of how apparent or how destructive its internal contradictions are, comes to be stripped of its ideological content and presented as the only possible reality of modern life. Any idea system, including neoliberalism, which seeks to pull off such an extraordinary feat - that is, winning over the hearts and minds of the masses whilst denying its own contingency - cannot succeed without implanting the seeds of a particular kind of individual subjectivity from an early age. Mass public education is the obvious way to do so. This article will explore a few ways in which broad, liberal education - never strongly embedded in Ireland in any case - has given way (with surprisingly little fuss or comment) to a neoliberal model of education, which seeks to cultivate the individual not as a public-minded citizen, but as a consumer and entrepreneur geared towards the needs of the labour market.

Get the points, not the point

A cursory glance at the quality of public debate following last month's announcement of the Leaving Certificate results reveals much about the narrowness of thinking that holds sway. The narrative has become tiresomely predictable, wherein the only substantive issue tackled is that of perceived failure in mathematics and the sciences - and even then, the failings are dealt with solely in terms of examination results.

RTÉ's news coverage the night before and day of the results announcement is just one case in point. In a classic piece of self-fulfilling prophesying, newscaster Eileen Dunne announced on air the evening before the results announcement that 'The performance in maths is expected to be the big focus this year'.1 (We might reasonably ask whose expectation is being referred to here. The obvious answer is that it is nobody in particular but everybody in general - it is the big Other of capitalist realism.)

Sure enough, the following evening, Sharon Ní Bheoláin's opening proclamation spoke of a 'Moment of truth for Leaving Cert students who must work harder in maths and science'.2 The news story that followed fixated on the issue of maths, with the subject mentioned by name no less than seven times in a two-minute package. No other subject was mentioned.

Without meaning to disparage the value of mathematics, it is worth interrogating the underlying assumption that guides this kind of coverage. Media coverage tends towards the unproblematic acceptance of the idea that our collective futures are somehow bound up in maths and science. What lies behind this discourse is something more specific and tangible: it is the idea, albeit rarely directly articulated, that given Ireland's high dependence on American manufacturing industry, our education system should primarily orientate itself in the service of such industry.  Generally, these wishes are expressed through industry bodies like IBEC and the American Chamber of Commerce (both of whom shot to the top of the queue in the Irish Times this week to put forward their prescriptions for transforming Irish education in the service of business) or businesses like Intel or Hewlett Packard whose views on education reform are routinely afforded high levels of media prominence.

Without critical reflection and open debate on whether industry-driven education policy is desirable or appropriate, we are left with the familiar Irish mentality of the colonised. Sometimes this mentality of (unproblematised) dependence on foreign capital is given open expression, as was the case last month on RTÉ News when, commenting on the implications of Google's purchase of mobile phone manufacturer Motorola, reporter Paul Colgan casually reminded viewers that 'of course, Ireland's interests are tied up with those of Google'.3 Ireland (the nation) and Ireland Inc. (the tax haven for foreign capital) have evidently ceased to be distinct entities.

Recent moves to push adoption of higher level mathematics at Leaving Certificate level by awarding students bonus points demonstrate the way in which education policy is now considered an instrument of Government policy which is to be used, quite openly, in the service of providing a conveyor-belt of suitably-skilled students ready for industry.

Privileging particular subjects this way - maths, and possibly the sciences in the near future - sends a powerful message to students about the relative importance and intrinsic worth of different endeavours. All education is becoming vocational - knowledge for knowledge's sake, or for the sake of something that is not concordant with the espoused goals of the 'smart economy' or the 'innovation society' is deemed an indulgence that can no longer be afforded.

Despite the well-established (very unchristian) alliance between capitalism and Roman Catholicism, it is still perhaps timely that these changes are coinciding with the retreat of the Catholic Church from education provision. After all, given that loaves and fishes are so out this season and penny apples are all the rage, the ideal role model for emulation has ceased to be Jesus Christ and become Bill Cullen.

chocolate laxativeThe chocolate laxative

Whatever about the gradual central changes in curricula design and the points race, private businesses are quietly muscling into the education system to help accelerate the production of suitably-minded individuals.

Junior Achievement is an American organization that seeks to provide schoolchildren with skills in entrepreneurship, work readiness, and financial literacy. Funded by a veritable who's who of the corporate world, from fast-food purveyors to pharmaceuticals manufacturers, oil giants to brewers, and everything else in between, Junior Achievement claims to work with 70,000 children in no less than 500 Irish schools. Even the most cursory of glances at the programmes offered by Junior Achievement demonstrate that for all their talk about the 'boundless potential' and talent and creativity inherent in our youth, when they say that their goal is to help students 'fulfil' their 'dreams' what they mean is that they want to help them make money.

For example, Junior Achievement and HSBC Bank are currently collaborating to bring the 'More than Money' programme to nearly 1,500 children in Dublin schools. According to the blurb, the programme is designed to represent a first step for ten year olds 'toward achieving a healthy relationship with money'.

Although presumably more focused on cultivating the ethos of saving rather than schooling our precocious youth in the mystic ways of derivatives, it might reasonably be asked: when did it become de rigeur for interested corporate bodies - other than the church - to just show up in classrooms and engage in what can only be viewed as practices of indoctrination? And why is it that one institution which has, quite deservingly, faced such public opprobrium, is to be cast out from our schools, whilst programs devised and delivered by banking institutions - like Merrill Lynch, Citibank, and HSBC, arguably more discredited still - are now being welcomed with open arms into classrooms?

Junior Achievement are not alone - the Student Enterprise Awards, billed as the 'largest competition in any area of the school system in 2010' encourages second-level students to start mini-companies and develop a product or service from idea to market research to production and marketing.

One final example neatly demonstrates the blurring of boundaries between Government and business, school and enterprise, student and entrepreneur, and - as it happens - fantasy and reality. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs recently launched the 'Every Job Counts: Youth Solutions' initiative, which challenges 15-22 year olds to 'devise business plans which lead to job creation'. The project is being run in collaboration with TV3, whose 'Every Job Counts' campaign has sought to highlight what they describe as the 'great work that so many of our business people are doing against the odds'.

Asking teenagers to solve Ireland's economic crisis not by proposing political solutions but by means of business plans is the natural, gruesome, conclusion of the limited mindset which produces wheezes like Your Country Your Call. Part Apprentice, part Dragon's Den, ideas like these are the product of a real bankruptcy of ideas. The promotion of entrepreneurial culture myths of wealth creation and trickle-down economics is a desperate roll of the dice in a political environment where there are no big ideas left. After all, how can there be any big ideas at the end of history? They place the responsibility of economic 'recovery' at the feet of individuals, who are called on to be 'innovative' and 'wealth generators' in the hope that the wheels of global capital will once again grind sufficiently fast as to return us to what we are told were the halcyon days of economic prosperity. This is the mode of thinking which for Slavoj Žižek called to mind the idea of the 'chocolate laxative' after encountering such a product in the United States - the idea that the very thing that causes the damage should be the medicine.

Taken together, these interventions, sanctioned by both the individual schools that take part and the State that facilitated them, represent further efforts to shape young minds in a very particular way in the service of a very particular economic model. If these efforts succeed - and we should recognise that this is a big 'if' - let us be in no doubt as to the kind of young people that will tend to be produced as a consequence.

Robert Frank and his colleagues memorably produced evidence4 hinting at the self-fulfilling prophecy that is human nature, showing that freshmen college students who studied economics, compared to their colleagues in astronomy, became less co-operative and more self-interested over the course of their studies. Given that conventional economics tells us that individuals are self-interested utility maximisers, it is hardly surprising that those students began to behave as if it was true. Human 'nature' is surely what we make it to be, and this, if for not other reason, is why the instrumentalisation of education is such a dangerous enterprise.

And, in the absence of countervailing processes, the instrumentalisation of education becomes self-reinforcing. If the education system is only for securing points or vocational skills, then parents, and indeed students, will tailor their subject selection around it, discarding subjects deemed too 'difficult' or economically irrelevant, and distancing themselves from extra-curricular activities. Wealthier families send their students to grinds, and grind schools, which are laser-focused on examination success to the exclusion of anything else. The examination system's focus on rote learning thus privileges those who can afford it; and robs everyone of a rounded education in the process.

Yet, Irish education's increasingly tight embrace of the necessities of capitalism does not extend to any discussion whatsoever of capitalism itself, be that the mechanisms of the economic financial system, the merits of our economic model or the mysterious movements of what newsreaders call 'the morkets', whose hunger must be sated at any cost, lest economic armageddon be wreaked upon our land. To even ask these questions is treasonous.

Modernity's trap

Yet, lest we think these processes of change are brand-new, let us turn to one of sociology's greats,  C. Wright Mills, for some historical precedent. For Mills, modern man is in a serious bind. The rapid pace of change - social, technological, political, economic - has outpaced our ability to either understand the complexities of the world around us or to orient our values in the light of quickly changing circumstances. Shorn of the ability to comprehend and connect the relationships between the personal troubles of individuals and the structural issues which impinge upon them, modern men, as a result, 'often feel that their private lives are a series of traps'.5 Moral ambiguity, confusion and disillusionment flourish, as, overwhelmed by a world that seems to make little sense, we increasingly retreat into our private spheres.

What is needed, according to Mills, is a set of sensibilities and values, fostered in our education system, that arm us with the abilities to recognise the links between our private troubles and public issues - this is what he termed the 'sociological imagination'. This disposition enables its possessor the ability to recognise the contingent nature of our social reality, to navigate the practical and moral complexities of modernity, and to behave as full members of a democratic public.

He pours scorn on the systematic confusion between vocational skills and liberal education, both of which he sees important but as quite distinct - and absolutely not to be conflated, as we have done in Ireland. Schools, he says, have become 'mere elevators of occupational and social ascent, and, on all levels, they have become politically timid'.6 Most damningly of all, Mills goes to the very heart of the most important question about education – one that is so rarely asked. He posits that schools have settled for 'an ideology of life adjustment' that encourages happy acceptance of mass ways of life rather than the struggle for individual and public transcendence'.6 Although Mills wrote these words in the 1950s, his warnings retain their potency.

In Ireland, the only school subject with the remotest potential of providing students with any sort of broad awareness of their place in the world is CSPE (Civic, Social and Political Education). My own direct experience of CSPE suggests that it is seen by both schools and students as the ultimate in 'soft' subjects, which, at least in my school, was haphazardly shunted around the school timetable and not taken seriously. The subject is typically granted one class period per week and is only taught at Junior Certificate level. Even if it were taken seriously, the 'political timidity' of the curriculum is apparent from a cursory glance at recent examination papers (which can be viewed here).  Aside from the mundane, processual, fill-in-the-blanks factual character of much of the exam papers' questioning on Irish and European politics, the most distressing dimension is the highly limited way in which we are encouraged to think about politics. 'Active citizenship' discourse of the happy-clappy variety predominates, which tells us that the solutions to the world's political and environmental problems can be found in the bravery of Bono and Bob Geldof, Fairtrade products, and unplugging electrical items to save electricity. The power is in our hands - all we need do is buy the right products. Insofar as exploration of systemic and structural issues as systemic and structural issues is foreclosed, the curriculum is highly limited, unchallenging and conservative: the 'approved version' of the story of modernity, if you will, where the benevolence of Western capitalism, the virtues of representative democracy and the positive, inclusive nature of the European project are emphasised.

Shorn of critical examination of the battle of ideas that has shaped our past and present, it seems likely that Irish public education will tend towards the production of conformist thinkers who cannot link private troubles with public issues or understand the true genesis of either.

The consequences of narrow, instrumental, conformist education are profound. Rather than producing legions of identikit bright-eyed, bushy tailed go-getters, the failure of the education system to inculcate critical awareness has shorn us of a faculty without which survival in this strange world becomes substantially more difficult.

Bereft of the ability to understand our political options, this failure of education manifests itself not just in populist voting patterns and widespread disillusionment with the ability of the political system to chart a path for a better future, but in the private troubles of individuals, for whom the state of unemployment is felt not as a structural feature of the economic system but a very personal indictment of individual failing. This was powerfully highlighted in a recent UCD study which demonstrated the powerful psychological impact of unemployment to the extent that for some, their very sense of belonging and place in the world was profoundly shaken.

It is but a short hop from here to pervasive anomie and alienation - from the world, from fellow man, and from oneself. Oliver James7 has written on the pyschological conflicts engendered by modern capitalism's imperative for individual 'flexibility'. His analysis concludes that the unfulfillable aspirations stoked up by incessant promises of material affluence collide with the realities of precarious, short-term employment and the diminishing prospects for social mobility to greatly contribute towards an explosion of mental distress - notably depression - since the dawn of neoliberalism three decades ago.

Education should be a bulwark against this, but highly instrumentalised education cannot fulfil this crucial function. Education as 'life adjustment' is simply not enough. Our critical imaginations are stunted so much that, as Žižek unforgettably put it, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.


(1)  Nine News, 16 August, RTÉ One.

(2)  Six One News, 17 August, RTÉ One.

(3)  Nine News, 15 August, RTÉ One.

(4)  Frank, R.H., Gilovich, T. & Regan, D.T. (1993) 'Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?' Journal of Economic Perspectives, 7(2), pp.159- 171.

(5)  Mills, C. (2000) The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

(6)  ibid, p.319

(7)  James, O. (2008) The selfish capitalist : origins of affluenza, London: Vermilion.


Part two will be published tomorrow.

Image comp top: Eadaoin O'Sullivan.

Chocolate laxative: Leeds Museums and Galleries.