It is worth reflecting on why criticism is not easily absorbed in Ireland. Tempers seem to flare easily, often excluding meaningful dialogue.
I attribute a great deal of this to a secondary education system which avoids profound interrogation of ideas. We lack the detachment gained from the French philosophical training in a Baccalaureate or even the English (or really Scottish) tradition of dispassionate rational enquiry. This is an adolescent nation that seems to have drawn selectively from Plato’s 4th century BC idealisation of a city state in The Republic.
The formative educational experience in Ireland comes from the Leaving Certificate, whose results divide students into the relative substrates of gold, silver, bronze and iron; the origin myth that Plato propagated in The Republic to keep people in their place.
In common with The Republic, the Leaving Certificate exalts mathematics above other disciplines, with bonus points attaching at higher level; you can’t attain ‘the maximum’ without an A1. This, however, is not an enquiring mathematics, at least in the 1990s, it wasn’t.
The tedium of text books was legendary; sometimes there were practical questions grounded in ‘real world’ solutions, such as calculating compound interest; subliminal messages woven through the text, aligning students to dominant ‘managerial’ values.
Abstract fields were entered, but given no context. We were supposed to shut up and take the medicine. I only wish I had been acquainted with the relationship between mathematics and beauty or astronomy. Then perhaps I wouldn’t have spent so much time drawing faces on my copybooks, or flicking paper balls at my mates.
I recall a fascination at the end of my transition years when a physics teacher – who until then seemed to speak exclusively in the mysterious language of equations – extemporised on the origins of the universe, and time travel. Alas, by that point my grounding was so feeble that any attempt to ignite a mathematical career was beyond me.
The poet most of us identify with Leaving Certificate English is W.B. Yeats, who was fascinated by Plato, although – to my consternation – Yeats did not appear on the English paper my year, as had been his bi-annual habit.
Yeats is said to have measured out metre with a metronome (although he was also apparently tone deaf). His sharply delineated poetry was sculpted with great precision into iambs and rhyming patterns, exacting labour he bemoans in ‘Adam’s Curse’ (1904):
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
This gives his work a musical ring evident throughout his corpus, making him perhaps the leading English language poet of the twentieth century.
It is symptomatic that in my time the transgressive language of James Joyce’s equally precious works found no place on the syllabus. Thus, Leaving Certificate English inclines towards Platonic order, rather than a questioning iconoclasm. Yeats’s Platonic idealism, notwithstanding exotic heresies, also fitted with a reigning Catholicism still inhabiting state institutions, right up to the Constitution itself.
In the humanities Leaving Certificate methodologies are a debased form of Catholic scholasticism; rather than addressing concepts with Aristotelian rigour, in most subjects rote learning is demanded: mindless, increasingly secular, catechisms.
What saved me from academic oblivion and middle class shame (that came later), was a capacity to recall that raw detail, allied with a genuine interest in history. I ascended to the level of non-mathematical silver in the Platonic scale, and became an Arts student in lumpen-UCD.
The Leaving Certificate brands and stamps you with its legacy. University results do not have the same kudos, because there, it is understood, you study subjects you have chosen rather than a wide range. Years afterwards, one is aware of someone’s Leaving Certificate results, bringing flawed assumptions of brilliance, or mediocrity.
There is much to be said in favour of a broad-based approach encompassing all facets of a Liberal education. But the narrow lens of Leaving Certificate methodologies ignores the function of education, including mathematical, that Plato identifies in his Republic, which is to develop philosopher-rulers. Philosophy is not even a Leaving Certificate subject.
Another insight we may draw from The Republic is that Plato banishes unruly poets from his putative state, and imposes his own mythology. Similarly, many Irish writers have been compelled to display the Joycean qualities of ‘silence, exile and cunning’, allowing the Catholic Church to propagate a singular
Biblical mythology. The former principal of Glenstal Abbey Mark Patrick Hederman acknowledged that Irish Catholicism was ‘bullying and insensitive’ at the time of Joyce. That demand for conformity was imported into the final state examination.
The Leaving Certificate Mind is apparent at many levels of Irish society, and seems to fit people to work, submissively, in large corporate bodies. This may be economically advantageous in the medium term, but creativity, and perhaps entrepreneurship, are given insufficient scope.
Moreover, the shadow of this submissiveness is an irrational anger where a slight is perceived. This reveals an inability to fall back on dispassionate philosophical enquiry, and often what we are left with unseemly shouting matches.