Recently I met with Mark Patrick Hederman, author of ‘The Boy In The Bubble: Education as a Personal Relationship’ at the Aisling hotel to interview him about all things education. Over the course of a thoroughly enjoyable two hour conversation that spanned topics as varied as US foreign policy, Gay marriage, and the excessive conservatism of the catholic church, we managed to fit in a word here and there about learning as well. So here’s what he had to say, to what I had to say.
On The System –
“The truth is that everyone wants to get a job. And there’s only one gig in town when it comes to that, and that’s the Leaving Certificate – otherwise you’re not going to get into any colleges. And if you don’t go to college, you’re not going to get the kind of work that you… Although nowadays people are realizing that they’re not going to get a job even if they do go to university!
Its a big problem and we haven’t really caught up with it yet. We’re still running a system which was invented in the 19th century – a factory model, and that’s the way it is.
So unless we recognize that every single person is different and therefore requires a different kind of education, not this ‘one system fits all’, then they’re not educated.
So we’ve a big problem on our hands, and the truth is that Ireland is a very small country, and we could provide for every child in this country the most adequate form of education if we wanted to.
If we do something like what Finland has done, invest in that, and that would be the most amazing achievement.
The trouble is that we used to think the child was the center of our education system but the child is the last in the pecking order. On top is the Government, then the civil servants, then the trade unions, then the teachers, and then, when they’re all finished having their feed, they’ll decide what’s going to happen with the children.
Even now the Croke Park agreement – things like money for teachers, holidays for teachers, overtime for teachers. It has nothing to do with the children.
A good education is not difficult. All you do, is find out what that child can do, what they’re keen to do, and them let them at it, and provide them with the facilities. Its so simple.
But we’re training people for this 19th century factory model – to be obedient and to be adaptive to the system”
On Online Courses –
“Face to face is key to education, not only that – it has to be the right face.”
On Creativity –
“Its fine to have teachers teaching creativity but that means they have to tap into their own creativity. And if people haven’t actually found their own creativity and used their own imaginations then they’ll be terrified of any child using their imagination,and they’ll tell them ‘sit down, and shut up and don’t challenge me! Because I’m so insecure and I’m a teacher and I’m in charge.”
On the impending Junior Cert Reforms –
“Well the students arrive into secondary school and the teachers say ‘they know nothing. They’re absolutely uneducated – they can’t read, they can’t write. So we have to clean them up; we have to really take them in hand and get them ready for the big time, which is the Leaving Certificate.
So that means the Junior Cert becomes a sort of a dry run for the Leaving Cert and that’s why the present attempt to reform the Junior Cert is a cop out – because what the minister has done is said ‘I’m not going to make any reforms, I’m going to leave it up to the schools’. So the schools are allowed to change that exam in whatever way suits them. But, as you say, if these children have to do the Leaving Cert two years later then they still have to be put through this shredder so they’re ready. There’s no way the Junior Cert will change for the better, there’s nothing you can do. No one’s going to thank you if a child arrives at the Leaving Cert fulfilled, creative, imaginative and getting an E.
So until we change the Leaving Cert itself, we’re stumped on everything else.
The Junior Cert is the greatest disaster when it comes to instilling competition and fear at a young age when everybody should be just exploring. If we really have to do a final exam, fine, but until then people should be free to explore all sorts of areas.”
On the Sudbury Model –
“Its fine for people who are actually up and running, but there’s other people who may have dyslexia or other problems, people who need huge attention and very special one-to-one care.
I believe people who are able to self-direct should be allowed do that and we should help them with it.
But there are the people who are their own worst enemies, or people who may be depressed or insecure – these are massive psychological problems. If every child had personal attention, we’d be fine, but we can’t afford it.
There’s no person in the world you couldn’t educate if you had the right team. But we don’t have that kind of resource.”
Responding to criticism that Glenstal is an exclusive school –
“If you can educate one person completely, just one person – you can change the world. Because they’re going to have an effect as a human being.
Its just amazing to me the number of people who are supposed to be successful, and yet they’re crippled as human beings.
You can only truly educate a small number of human beings in one place, and that’s going to cost more.”
Me – “Surely in a small Country like ours it must be possible to provide a real education to everyone? Couldn’t you charge sliding scale tuition fees where people pay what they can afford. Where we charge people in accordance with their means and then supplement that with fundraising. There are alot of non-profit schools around the world that use this model.”
Mark Patrick – “Well the thing has to pay, but we have lots of people who don’t pay and that is the same principle – those who can pay, do. But you see, when these things are done voluntarily by Do-Gooders they only last for a short time and then collapse
This should be run bu the Government. This should be our system of education. And we have the possibility, we really do.
And I’m very glad that the Celtic Tiger bubble burst. That was teaching people another form of madness. It was a different kind of unhappiness.”
Me – “Speaking of the Celtic Tiger, are a lot of the problems with education stemming from economics? I mean it already is a Government run, public education system, and the government seem to be very much in the pockets of the Troika. They seem to be prioritizing whatever area happens to have the most potential for jobs right now – say IT – and short term economic success rather than the long term holistic prosperity of the nation’s people.”
Mark Patrick – “And that’s always the way. And if the talk about creativity – they latch onto the word – they mean entrepreneurial, they want somebody who knows how to make the next gadget that’s going to make millions for Ireland. They’re not the slightest bit interested in creativity which is personal development or originality, that may not make any money till a hundred years later. So I agree.
I’m seventy next year, so I’m out of the game. But I still feel strongly that it could be possible, but I don’t know how to do it.
I don’t know what I would do. Well, I would do what I’m doing now, and that is educating any person who comes withing my radar, and that means finding out what that person is, what they want to do, what they’re potential is, and then finding the place that person should go. I mean there’s horses for courses and there’s any number of places for people to go, and if you look at the Nobel prizes that have been won, the music industry and so on – this Country is awash with creativity.
There are endless ways in which a person’s live can be lived fully, when each day is so exciting because their doing something more interesting than yesterday.
We’re singing from the same hymn sheet, you and I, but we’re not in charge. We’re the useless eejits running after the bus, complaining that we didn’t get on.”
Me – “If you were in my shoes, and you wanted to change the system, where would you start?”
Mark Patrick – “I’d start with the teachers, with the teacher training.
If a person is actually able to reach their own creative juices, their own personal fulfillment, they’re going to be a terrific teacher. Its the ones who are terrified of the people they’re teaching, that don’t really feel confidant and they have to teach a hundred students six different disciplines, that are not feeling able.”
On Change –
Quoting Margaret Meade, ‘Never doubt that a small group of citizens can change the world. In fact it is the only thing that ever has’ I asked Mark Patrick what his thoughts were on how we can go about repairing our education system, and if indeed a small group of committed citizens is what it takes to change the world.
“Well I know of one man who chains himself to the railings outside the Dáil every time the Leaving Certificate is on. To me that is a complete waste of railing space. You still have to know how to be a mover and a shaker. You can’t just go outside with a placard and stand there hoping someone’s going to notice.
There’s a book I wrote called ‘Dancing With Dinosaurs’ – we’re dealing with dinosaurs all the time, and unless you learn how to deal and to dance with them you’ll just waste your time and get your feet crushed.
Its important to be cute and knowing how to move and where to move and where the weakness is and where to push and shove. So I don’t believe in just small groups unless they actually have their act together and they know the people who matter and can embarrass them at certain points. Then you’re going to get noticed.
So how do we do that now? I don’t know. Because everybody – the trade unions, the civil service, and the government, and business, are all stacked against you.
So where do you defend the children in that situation?”
So, to sort of summarize:
– Our education system is as antediluvian as the word antediluvian and needs to change but a vast and indifferent ocean of bureaucracy is separating reality as it is and reality as it should be.
Mark Patrick Hederman is the abbot of Glenstal abbey in County Limerick as well as the former principal of the secondary school there. He is also the author of several books including ‘The Boy In The Bubble – Education as Personal Relationship’, which, if you please, you can order here. Its a funny and insightful read.