Boys Do Cry – A Gonzaga Education

Boys Do Cry – A Gonzaga Education

Revelations of sex abuse in all-male private schools in past decades have been powerfully conveyed across the Irish media. That barbarism should not, however, deflect from other enduring problems. I believe grave damage is still being done to the development of boys in ostensibly civilised institutions. Moreover, unequal educational provision widens inequality, and underpins a pervasive competitive individualism. I draw on painful memories of my own educational experience in Gonzaga College SJ to provide a personal critique of private and all-male education.

In his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s boyhood character disparages children from non-private schools as “Mickey Muck and Paddy Stink”. We have an enduring educational snobbery, and many a privately-schooled chap still dons the proverbial old school tie.

By the 1920s, one of the leading Dublin Catholic secondary schools for boys of its time, O’Connell School on Richmond Street, recommended its pupils in the following terms: “Your ‘Richmond Street’ boy makes a good official. In the first place he possess the necessary academic qualifications to place him high on the examination lists. He has, in addition, certain qualities which make him a good colleague. This is an essential point. However clever an official he may be, he has to pull with the team …”. The abiding ambition of most all-male private schools remains not only to produce good examination results, but also to develop a cast of mind disposed to “pull with the team”, rather than swim against the tide. Jesuit institution have led the way in this regard.

Since independence a disproportionate number of high office holders in this state have been educated in Jesuit schools, Clongowes Wood SJ in Kildare, Belvedere College SJ in Dublin, and after its foundation in 1950, my own alma mater Gonzaga College SJ, also in Dublin. All three of these are all-male and private, while the first is also a boarding school.

The appointment of John Marcus O’Sullivan as Minister for Education in 1926 marked a tipping point such that non-combative Clongownians in the Cabinet outnumbered veterans of the 1916 Rising. Simon Coveney and Richard Bruton continue a long line of Clongownians, though the former was expelled, seemingly for under-age drinking.

This elite education is now more likely to produce managerial material in a thrusting private sector than diligent civil servants. But in these academic hothouses, creativity is still conflated with rebelliousness. After school, positions of influence, and wealth generation, are preserved by ‘old boy’ networks. Pressure is felt in middle class families to reproduce this status in their sons and, to a lesser extent, daughters.

A dominant Catholicism permitted horrific abuse against an older generation in Ireland. Nonetheless, professional lawyers applying Thomistic principles built a State founded on principles of universal justice. For good, and ill, Bunreacht na hEireann – our Constitution – is promulgated “in the name of the Holy Trinity”. The 1960s was the advent of an era of unprecedented judicial activism. By then most of our judges were drawn from all male, Catholic, especially Jesuit, schools. They “discovered” “Unenumerated Rights”, based on a Catholic Natural Law interpretation of the Constitution, an expansive approach the Court has since grown wary of.

Moreover, Fine Gael’s “Towards a Just Society” document, conceived by Belvedere-educated Declan Costello in the 1960s, aligned closely with Catholic social teaching after Vatican II, contemplating a society built on socialist principles, including state ownership of banks.

There are still Jesuits, such as the visionary Father Peter McVerry, who maintain a missionary vocation for social justice. But arguments for a fair distribution of wealth did not figure prominently during my own ‘Jesuit’ education, where charitable activities tended to be characterised by noblesse oblige, and an assumption that it was valuable to witness how ‘the other half’ lived. Class divisions were, if anything, upheld by an awareness of a pronounced economic fault line.

The 1990s was a peculiar era to be a teenager as Irish society embraced the conformities and staid hypocrisies, of 1950s America, which the beat poet Allen Ginsberg decried in his “Howl” (1954). He asked: “What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”. In both, a hypocritical conformity was maintained. We abided: “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”. Binge drinking – and later bad hashish – were our preferred responses to a creeping sense of purposelessness.

We stared agog at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and encountered foggy notions of an End of History. A pervasive popular culture, beholden to Mammon, including the exotic promise of sex in the sun played out on Australian soap operas, leached away instincts towards radical politics.

The Leaving Certificate-obsessed and rugby-besotted Gonzaga I encountered demanded a dull conformity that did not give room for progressive post-Catholic ideas to flourish. Free-ranging speculation of a sort associated with the intellectual, or poet, was widely scorned. We passed from strangling religiosity to Neoliberal vacancy without coming up for breath. This has hobbled some of our best minds.

Well before revelations of serious sexual misconduct, a Catholic ancien regime was already creaking, their pronouncements at odds with an upwardly-mobile generation of businessmen, who really ruled the roost. The emerging financial and technological sectors also boosted the professional classes, many of whose earnings spiralled.

Gonzaga College SJ is still among the leading all-male secondary schools in the country, claiming a thoroughbred stable of academics, lawyers, and politicians such as Anthony Clare, Michael McDowell, and Peter Sutherland, the so-called “father of globalisation”. A sense of meritocracy was based on an entrance exam and Leaving Certificate results that often bred a preening elitism, without consideration of the worth of either.

In my time, shades of Eton and Oxford co-habited with bog-Irish institutionalism, dissolving individuality into a corporate body toughened on rugby, and kept in check by cruel humour. Endowed with superficial polish, for many, meritocracy provided a fast train to plutocracy.

For ten years I spent most of my waking hours in a gilded cage: surveying the copper beech on the front lawn we were prohibited from setting foot on; running a gauntlet between the cynicism of peers and the naked ambition of certain teachers who saw students as examination numbers, or fodder for the rugby trenches. Fortunately I found interstices, where kindness and humour were weighed in the balance.

When I began the secondary cycle I dared opt out of playing rugby, and despite obtaining the necessary parental permission – I believe – I was selected for humiliation by the coach, who was also a teacher. As an awkward twelve-year-old I recall being ordered to stand with my back to the door for some minor infraction in one class. He warned menacingly that if anyone entered the room I would be stabbed in the kidneys by the knob. This version of Russian Roulette did not last long – the door never opened – but it had the desired effect.

In Gonzaga the real nastiness was expressed not in physical bullying but in contempt and exclusion – the not-so-subtle suggestion your face did not fit. This method honed a capacity for cutting speech advantageous in subsequent managerial careers. I acquired a forked tongue myself too, and am sadly aware that at times I threw my weight around.

Still, I recall tears welling inexplicably when it got too much. The memory of a “scrap” one lunchtime lingers. Tears flowed as a delighted crowd bellowed “AG-AGR-AGRO-AGRO”. My opponent repeatedly came at me with fists, which failed to land. I responded by putting him down with headlocks. At the end of ‘the fight’ he boasted he had won, because I had cried.

I hold an abiding image of stern-faced boys seated in rows down the classroom. Creative self-expression was left to a small group of self-identifying eccentrics who seemed unaffected by the constraints, but paid a price. They never had a hope with the local convent girls, put on occasional display as fragrant reward if you kept your head down, and kept shovelling at the Leaving Certificate pile.

Some years after leaving school, one of that rare breed was the random victim of what appears to have been a gangland initiation in windy Chicago. In my memory now he retains a mystic glow, insulating him from the petty egos in his midst: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix”.

Another offbeat character from my class died of cancer last year. I still remember him standing up to a suburban bully intent on giving me a beating. But in school he would eventually face exclusion once the bitching started. I probably played my part.

I lived with a sense of being devoid of intelligence for many years. As a contrarian teenager I viewed homework with suspicion, but would work hard if I found a subject compelling. This brought inconsistency: I fell behind in mathematical subjects, whose contents read like manuals of machines I had no use for. The contest we were involved in required a loser, and that’s how exam results often portrayed me.

In later years, my worst experiences came in English class, where a teacher shredded my self-confidence as a writer. This in a subject that should have transcended the educational trough I felt I was feeding from. His poignant remark at the end sixth year was that he never liked me for accurately mimicking him.

We were embedded in the white noise of a Catholicism that had lost its lustre; chained to catechism that nobody bothered uttering. We bowed before creaking totems of authority, choking any wonder in a divine creation our youthful minds might have conjured. There were a few Jesuits still teaching in my time, but they had none of the vindictive clarity inspiring James Joyce’s Portrait. Instead we found inchoate conviction in some, and angry pedantry elsewhere; no manifest evil, but misplaced servitude.

For a period in the early part of my schooling, a cabal of rugby coach-teachers instituted a system of chastisement known as the “Levels” (proceeding unimaginatively from one to three), requiring us to copy out meaningless texts for designated offences. It was nostalgia for the biff on their part: offending boys were compelled to queue up after school to await the sanction, and its accompanying venom. It worked as well at rehabilitation as most forms of punishment.

The power of dominant teachers was inversely proportionate to the authority of those more sensitive, whose lives we made a misery. Our shrill arrogance is still probably ringing in their ears. Alas, the unquestioned authority of the disciplinarians demanded this sacrificial contrast.

Human warmth was rare in those insipid corridors, least of all in toilets emitting such noxious odours that some pupils avoided defecating over all their years in school. I took to smoking in the bike sheds as a palliative to the recurring blues of each morning’s bell summoning us to classrooms loaded with the tedium of the syllabus. The Leaving Certificate was a results business, and Gonzaga was primed for that purpose.

In a throwback to another age, Gonzaga maintained instruction in Classical languages. I revolted instinctively against Latin as the language of oppressive scholasticism, but at least I was exposed to the pagan marvels of ancient epic, when Classical Studies was introduced to those who bridled at conjugations. The muses whispered through the cracks of a frigid structure, their contemplation assisted in later years by a female teacher who brought quietly subversive, feminist ideas.

Another teacher I encountered with genuine charm taught biology. There at last wide-ranging speculation was permitted, of a type usually denied to us in religion classes. I became an atheist when the simplicity of genetic inheritance was explained, cohering with a growing contempt for an institution that drew legitimacy from blind faith.

Of course it could have been a lot worse, more violent anyway. For me at least, the first ever lay headmaster who arrived in my fourth year felt like a breath of fresh air, conveying a decency usually sorely lacking. An occasionally mincing authority figure, he probably made being gay seem less of a mortal sin. However, he might have contributed to the entrenched elitism of our “little Eton”.

School life grew more tolerable as the years passed: livelong summer afternoons playing pick-up games of football on the back pitches come to mind, and activities with neighbouring girl schools diluted the overpowering maleness. I rose to officer class, performing in plays, once even captaining a rugby team.

Thankfully, I was excluded from the full-blown hypocrisy of being made a prefect. This prohibition came about after a friend and I recited a salacious poem at an inter-school debate: “expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull”.

In rugby, a sense of duty, not fun, was instilled, and certain coaches seemed to look favourably on a capacity for violence. In one senior second’s game I recall a member of our team kick an opponent full-force in the head. This required an ambulance to be called to the pitch. The next week the offender was elevated to the senior team.

I had been subjected to a similar attack in an earlier age group, when an opponent from another school stamped on my head, missing my left eye by half an inch. The next week I made my debut for the As, seemingly for sucking it up. Nevertheless I came to enjoy the game, on my own terms, mainly for the comraderie it brought.

I enjoyed the company of brilliant people growing up. Wits and raconteurs who would leave you breathless with laughter, but for anyone to emerge from that experience as an artist, or even entrepreneur, probably required purgation, and maybe a trip to a psychedelic Underworld. Sadly, great talent has been lost to artless corporate jobs. We were not encouraged to look askance at that grey world of conformity. It took me many years to escape that fate, and confront my background.

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Children require space for new ideas to germinate, especially as the social and economic fabric of post-Second World War societies unravel under the weight of grotesque inequalities, climate chaos and the epistemological confusion wrought by the new medium of the Internet.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, all-male private schools have long incubated an upper stratum, who accumulate wealth and set cultural norms. But a simmering violence and sense of entitlement damages many students, ossifies class divisions and muzzles creativity.

I shudder to think of societies of hundreds of young boys co-existing for years without an admixture of femininity. Most of us hardly set eyes on girls of our own age, who were not family members, for months on end. Studious boys, especially, didn’t tend to hang out with other kids in their neighbourhoods. Many of us have, I think, found it difficult to develop meaningful friendships with that dangerous creature referred to as the “opposite sex”.

All-male educational institutions, including Gonzaga College SJ should be abolished altogether. Men may come together positively of course, even through rugby, but to segregate boys and girls from one another entirely throughout their formative years creates unhealthy gender divisions. Statistics show boys perform better academically in mixed environments, and measures need to be taken to address the growing preponderance of girls in higher education.

Moreover, when all-male environments coincide with wealth and privilege this taps into energies that are the source of much of the corruption in the world. This seems brutally apparent when the aggrieved male ‘winner’ brings a sense of entitlement into his sexual relations.

The damage to many boys is also apparent from the number of young men who commit suicide in a society where all-male education is the norm. Survival in that social milieu often demands emotional suppression: the tears that welled inside me were the accumulation of years spent in a setting where showing your feelings was a sign of weakness.

Embracing best practice would see all abilities being taught in a single classroom until the age of sixteen. This is what the Finns have done, while topping European league tables in reading and science for fifteen-year-olds. The great benefit of this approach is that weaker students “scaffold” their learning on those who excel. This could play a vital role in generating wider equality.

It seems an odd situation where the state pays the salaries of teachers alongside fees averaging €6,000 per annum for a private day school in Dublin. This is an added burden on anxious middle class parents who fret about their children being disadvantaged by attending a state school.

A Gonzaga education did not involve the infliction of torture on me – or any contemporaries I know of – unlike other institutions have done. But it is at the apex of an educational system that encourages a competitiveness that is the foundation of our growing inequalities, and where an often clandestine violence smoulders.

Gonzaga carried the pretence of a Liberal education with its copper beech and Classicisms, but it merely equipped some of us for financial success. It did little to encourage the pursuit of social justice the Jesuit order claims as their vocation. Moreover, originality was – in my team at least – conflated with rebelliousness. Above all, it strove for its pupils to achieve high Leaving Certificate grades, and pull with the team.

Gonzaga was the worst, precisely because it was the best where savagery was expressed in taunts rather than blows: the apotheosis of all-male private schooling justifying the rest.

Green should mean Red

Green should mean Red

The leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan has written an article for Village Magazine on the origins and current orientation of his party. I welcome references to seminal influences such as Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to the environmental damage wrought by industrial farming; and to 1960s ‘systems thinking’, culminating in the Club of Rome, which used the latest information technology to measure future use of resources, thereby showing the finitude of economic growth.

As a lifelong supporter, however, I bridled at his contention that Green economics ‘is not easily categorised on a left/right ideological divide’. In my view Green ideas build on Red for a better world, but with crucial differences.

Left-wing ideology has tended towards over-reliance on narrow socio-economic data, which underplays the wider human experience, and often diminishes empathy. As Isaiah Berlin puts it:

the calm moral arithmetic of cost effectiveness which liberates decent men from qualms, because they no longer think of the entities to which they apply their scientific computations as actual human beings who live the lives and suffer the deaths of concrete individuals.

That is not to diminish the value of carefully-collated statistics, but selective citation of economic data was a recurring failure of the Old Left, as was denial of natural capital, and the value of individual wellbeing.

A problem with Marxist theory, and ‘historical materialism’ more generally, is a view of the progress of man, and his happiness, in isolation from Nature, and divorced from a spiritual life, which Marx castigated as an opiate. The idea of anything being sacred, including Art, is generally dismissed. Thus Terry Eagleton writes: ‘Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value distinguished by certain shared inherent properties does not exist’.

Communist regimes caused enormous damage to the moral fabric of societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Rather than fostering empathy, they had the opposite effect of incubating materialism, and more selfish behaviour than might otherwise have arisen. The response of people brought up under Communist regimes to the plight of Syrian refugees has been instructive, and a theoretical dislocation from Nature permitted wholescale ecocide, including Chernobyl.

Eamon Ryan makes a valid point that Green ideology: ‘values our quality of life rather than just increases in the quantity of goods that are consumed’; and the pleasure my 85-year-old English friend Richard (pictured above) derives from his life bears out this point.

Richard prefers to spend the summer months living out of doors in a tent, and chooses to wrap up and take plenty of exercise, rather than pay heating bills during the winter months. Having given up driving long ago, he takes public transport or cycles, and has been a Vegan for over thirty years. Despite not flying, he is on holidays much of the time, including a recent four-month stint in the French Alps, where his advanced years gave him a free ski pass! He’s mostly joyful, and in rude health, while living off a meagre income.

While not everyone would accept the perceived privations that Richard happily embraces it has been established that monetary wealth only brings an individual to a fixed point on a graph of happiness. But everyone’s wellbeing, and survival, is now threatened by something far deeper, which is the devastating impact of mostly Western consumption on the planet. Richard himself is outraged and wants to organise a mass march on London to protest against government inaction.

Vast wealth now co-habits with shocking poverty in Ireland, and in fairness to Eamon Ryan he acknowledges this with his criticism of the American economic model. This battle against inequality must be put centre-stage, however, as merely focusing on environmental questions without first addressing social context risks making the party an irrelevance to the majority of the population.

Government parties argue that the population enjoys adequate social supports, notwithstanding the current housing crisis. But this is useless when lives are beset by anxiety over economic status, after sophisticated advertising techniques manipulate our behaviour towards ever-greater consumption. Many luxuries are now seen as necessities – not least owning a car – to the benefit of a declining number of beneficiaries, whose wealth is virtually untouched.

Marxist theory, relying on David Ricardo’s labour surplus theory of value, is correct that a free market leads to accumulation of wealth. That is the important justification for taxation of individuals and companies.

Seen ecologically, we have allowed a situation to develop wherein a small number of individuals are leading the despoliation of the Earth’s resources. Picture humanity as a forest that has spread over most of the biosphere, but within this forest there are certain trees that draw a disproportionate share of the water and minerals that sustain life, like Giant Redwoods towering over the rest, while everyone is running out of resources, and time.

That is not to say there isn’t a role for individuals, like Richard, who minimise their impact on the planet; but we need top-down structural changes to bring the giant interlopers down to a manageable scale.

Much of the power of capital now resides in a capacity to dominate the media space; we can see this in our own country where the white noise of news agendas infects the body politic, producing politics of incoherence and theatrical bile. To Eamon Ryan’s credit he is one of the few politicians who rarely engages in ad hominem attacks, and concentrates on addressing the important issues.

I believe, however, he must go further, and not simply in order to harness the anger over homelessness, and the absence of housing policy. Green politics arises as an extension of Marxist critiques of wealth and power, while acknowledging the limits of natural capital, and a human yearning for meaning through spiritual and artistic practice.

The influence of unchecked capital is evident in the deficiencies in our health system, which does nothing to promote health as opposed to treat diseases. As one general practitioner friend of mine forlornly observed: the health industry is indistinguishable from the wider capitalist economy. It is dominated by avaricious pharmaceutical companies and private insurers that sow fear. Leading Irish oligarchs such as Denis O’Brien (the Beacon) and Larry Goodman (the Blackrock Clinic) have stakes in a sector displaying the same wage disparities as in the wider economy.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s response to the obesity pandemic has been no more than a long-delayed, and tame, tax on soft drinks, which I called for four years ago. Moreover, the Irish Livestock-Industrial Complex has been allowed to dictate dietary recommendations, and the burden of disease grows each year. There is an important role for Green approaches to the health of society, as living Green invariably confers health, as Richard’s example shows.

Today a Neoliberal discourse holds sway which says that a conniving state is inherently inefficient at spending resources. This was articulated by Sunday Times columnist Niall Ferguson in his book Civilization (2011): ‘Private property rights’, he says, ‘are repeatedly violated by governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing our incomes and our wealth and wasting a large proportion of the proceeds.’

The use of the seductive “our” is revealing: Ferguson is really manipulating the low paid worker into a low-tax alliance with the Super Rich. This is a formula that the Republican party have turned into an art form in the United States. That is not to say that there aren’t serious problems with the way an étatiste elite wields power in Ireland. The salaries of many state officials are still disgracefully high. This is the legacy of the failed policy of the Tiger – boomenomics – and the grave planning failures that concentrated too many jobs in the capital city, driving up property prices as a result.

Green economics would embrace degrowth, and an aggressive response to the consumer economy, focusing initially perhaps on ending the use of plastics made from crude oil. That is a battle requiring more than a consensual approach, but it will be to the ultimate wellbeing of the collective, and Nature.

I share Eamon Ryan’s enthusiasm for a revolution in energy, which will bring an end to the use of fossil fuels, but the understandable worry is that the fruits of any windfall will not be shared evenly. In rural Ireland people don’t feel invested in alternative energy, and continue to fuel their cars with toxic fossil fuels that generate horrendous overseas conflicts, while many continue to extract peat from the precious remaining peatlands.

We need more than a technological revolution. A revolution in mindsets is required such that acquisition of monetary wealth ceases to be an overwhelming ambition. This will only come about when we alter a destructive relationship with the natural world, and see wealth in river banks not bank balances. A radical change in the way we ‘do’ education is called for, with far greater focus on human development than non-sensical state exams.

I welcome Eamon Ryan’s acknowledgement that we are losing the battle to save our natural world, including in Ireland, and I believe we cannot concede any more ground on this. The Green Party is primed to take on the Livestock-Industrial Complex and it should not shirk this challenge. To be an extremist in this cause will be a badge of honour to wear before the generations that follow: ‘What did you do in the Great War against Climate Change Grandpa?’

I anticipate a time when the Green movement becomes a mainstream political force committed to ending an exploitative relationship with Earth, and the patriarchal structures that underlie this. For this to occur we must take on the oligarchs, and their drones in mainstream media. We require a mass political movement that reverses the course of the great battle we are facing to save Nature, and humanity.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn showed that a leader imbued with principle, and poetry, can speak directly to a population when given the opportunity, especially through social media. The Green Party should be ambitious enough to take on the Byzantine political parties that dominate our dysfunctional system. These parties stand for nothing, and as we see this week, can fall out over anything.

The Leaving Certificate Mind

The Leaving Certificate Mind

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.