The Leaving Cert and anti-intellectualism

In Ireland, this is the day when every punter who has ever been to school and thinks they know a thing or two about education, appears out of the woodwork to give their tuppence worth on the Leaving Cert. I hate it but I can’t stop myself getting involved in pointless debates on Twitter.

The tweets I hate the most are the ones that make the totally unsubstantiated accusation that persons unknown judge the “worth” of a student on the basis of their Leaving Cert results. Who are these people? I’ve never met anyone in the education ‘business’ who judges students, in a holistic sense, on the basis of their exam results. In fact, as a general rule I would say that the students we admire the most are the grafters, the ones who get that 2.1 through sheer hard work; or the emotionally intelligent ones who say “thank you” after a lecture or the few who give you that small gift at the end of their final year project. We all know what exams are: they’re an imperfect test of a student’s knowledge at a given point in time but they are by-and-large a reasonable test of academic ability and academic work ethic. That’s all.

The second type of tweet that I hate are the “I got 37 points and now I have my own business, employ thousands of people, and live in Foxrock with a nice yacht in Dun Laoghaire”. These tweets ignore the blatantly obvious fact that although it is possible to succeed in life without succeeding in education, succeeding in education opens so may doors that to say it is not important to do so is to exist in a state of denial. It’s a simple matter of statistics. Just as smoking makes it far more likely that you will get cancer, having a good education makes it far more likely that you will live a happy and healthy life with a good income.

But in Ireland, we have this odd attitude to success in education. The Leaving Cert is dismissed as nothing more than an exercise in “regurgitation”. If you do well in it it’s because you only have a certain “type of intelligence”. A few years ago celebrity economist, David McWilliams, even went so far as to blame the financial crisis on the Leaving Cert! Celebrity education gurus, like Sir Ken Robinson, claim that academic achievement is inconsistent with creativity despite the fact that the vast majority of entrepreneurs these days have at least a tertiary education while many have PhDs.

The contrast with our views on sport is stark. While we love the sportsperson who can perform under pressure – the Roy Keanes of this world – we say nothing good about the student who can perform under the pressure of an exam. Instead we focus on how unfair and stressful exams are. Whereas our sports commentators focus incessantly on player’s “character”, we never use such words when it comes to education. We’re far more likely to put student success don’t to ‘cheating’ in the form of attending grind schools.

There is a strong anti-intellectual streak in Ireland and it rears its head at regular times during the year. This is one of those times.

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