Mitigating the effects of a polar education system on young people
Two summers ago I was teaching guitar in my little backass-of-nowhere Northern Irish hometown. One of my students was a shy, 17 year old kid with a better voice than the average Grafton Street busker but with the addition of actual talent to accompany it.
August came about, bearing gifts of little neatly wrapped packages of anxiety for anyone having recently completed their A Levels (That’s Northern Irish-speak for Leaving Cert – I don’t mean to insult your intelligence but it took me months after moving to Dublin to figure out that ‘shifting’, as expressive as it sounds in a sentence, does not equal sex, so…).
One lesson, having unearthed our guitars, I asked my student how he did in his exams. He responded in the same manner he usually answers questions – downcast eyes, fidgeting hands draped over his guitar, but this time with a shameful half-smile.
“Aye, I got two U’s like…”
U stands for ungradable…or something. ‘U’ is generally a useful letter in that it allows us to spell words like “Anus”, but in the context of results day, at least in the UK, the little bastard becomes weaponised into a little U-shaped virus that sticks to your self esteem and only lets go once you stop believing it matters. Let’s take a moment to listen to Southpark co-creator and me-proclaimed genius, Matt Stone talk about this (in the context of Columbine of all things), because he explains why in school, it’s not so easy to shake off a fuck up:
According to Stone, and arguably ‘objective truth’ – the moral of the narrative that’s drilled into us from day one of school is this: You fuck up, you die poor and lonely. AKA fear.
I saw myself in my student. I also got two U’s at A-Level, as well as the myriad ball-aches that come with it: meetings with the headmaster, sobbing mother in said meetings, deflecting questions, dealing with the superiority complexes of my grammar-school peers, and most importantly: the official, company-headed, government-issued document confirming my status as a failure. I remember walking out of school on results day, completely numb, condemned – like a kid with fanatical parents who’s convinced he’s going to burn for ever when all he did was stick his hand in the cookie jar.
In other words, I knew what he was going through – almost a decade later I still haven’t recovered mentally because to me, it was final, when it didn’t have to be. You can maybe understand why, to this day, I regret my response to mini-me:
“Haha! Me too! Alright let’s go over Mumford…”
Shit. Here was this kid, his world probably having just turned grey and bleak as mine had the day I got my results, and I didn’t offer a single word of reason to neutralise his newly-sprouting neurosis. I just started the lesson. I’ve since considered writing him a message, but I left it too late and now, two years on it would just be weird, but I did later project this regret on a friend who didn’t get into the university she wanted to – so that will help me sleep at night which is nice…although I’m not entirely sure how much she actually needed it.
The damage of a black and white education system arises when you look at two traits held by the majority of young people that society has become extremely proficient at underestimating:
Their lack of foresight
If you drop a ball down a slope, at the top it has lots of gravitational potential, and if you remove one of the paths it can travel down, it’s not going to stop moving, it’s just going to find another, for better or for worse. It can be a problem. For example, combine high potential with a lack of foresight and you have one of the reasons that so many young people are joining the Islamic State. Don’t let the beards fool you – just look at the demographics because their recruits are mostly young, disillusioned yet idealistic – it’s actually a reflection on our own society when for some people, ISIS is the next best thing (although their marketing is actually pretty good, I concede there).
Our young people are bombarded with subliminal messages that tell them who they are – every one of which is internalised. When I was still under the impression that all people of worth attend university, I studied philosophy and became enamoured with Emile by Rousseau, which I saw as an unprecedented standard in educational philosophy as it treated children as the creative, curious manipulators of knowledge that they are, not the blank slates that they are anything but. With some frustration I discovered that many teachers actually have to read Emile as part of their qualification.
Huh. This is the part where something changes. Right?
Nah. Emile smiles down on the current education system from an unreachable shelf, looking great but providing nothing but vague inspiration for a system that was never built to be compatible with it. The main problem being that Emile is not the manifesto of a system, but a philosophical perspective on younger generations and a kind of artists impression of what it could look like. It’s definitely worth the read.
Although I’ve vowed to contribute something, no matter how small to the reformation of education, the fact remains that nothing’s changing for a while. What we can do however, is find young people like my guitar student who for whatever reason have slipped through the net, dust them off, and give them advice that helps them reach their potential. Even basic things like:
It doesn’t end here
Creative skills are more monetisable than ever before. Hell, you can even be paid to blog. Maybe you’re more hands-on, ever heard of Etsy? Your teachers haven’t.
Can you write? Write online or write for people. Can you draw? Open a few Photoshop tutorials and design shit for people. Can you make music? Tons of indie game developers need music. You’re sorted. *pat pat*
A significant portion of the young workforce is going freelance thanks to the internet marketplace. It’s opened up potentialities for young people that were unheard of ten years ago, and you won’t hear about them until after secondary school. My sister-in-law for example studied optometry, became depressed with it after a few years and only now realised that she’s happier selling homemade gifts online.
At the end of the day, it’s not qualifications that bring success, it’s hard work, maybe a little luck, and frankly, if you fail your exams at the end of school, congratulations – you’re still free to be anyone you want.