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Leaving Cert and Social Value

6.08.2005

The leaving certificate exams start today and I am just considering the effect that such a moment has on the psyche of a young person. It is an arduous task to complete the examinations and do quite well. I think anyone that has done it would never return to the horrible hard labour. However I am unsure if a progressive voice in this country can afford to support the system as it exists at the moment. Surely enough the CAO system provides a rigidly egalitarian and meritocratic means of deciding college place by academic ability. However I think, and I am sure many of you might agree, that the purpose of a leaving cert is to be a more fundamental experience that reinforcing our current value model.
It is this idea of a “value model” which has been vexing me for the last few days. It comes about as I consider the effect that the leaving has on the people who are sitting it. Not alone are the exams exercises in stamina and memory, they become a symbol of how to succeed and feel worth in our new society. The value in our system is assigned vertically if you will. By vertically I mean that value is assigned on an up-down dynamic, i.e. to achieve you move up and thus gain more value and to fail is to move down and achieve less value. The obvious point here is that not everyone can move up at the same time as there is not enough space at the top, like any greasy pole scenario.
The consideration I made regarding the leaving is that it acts as a reinforcer for such a situation. It demands of the students that they face upward and begin systematically doing, i.e. following pre-ordained instructions, in order to ‘succeed’ and feel value/worth at the top of the tree. The result is a vicious scenario of students being defined as value-laden or value-less depending on academic ability only. It is not that I disapprove of education, I will come to that presently, but I disapprove of the manner in which students at an impressionable age are systematically adjudged to hold some or no value. There is no middle ground in such a scenario, a student does well and feels valued or baldy and feels alienated. The decay in class behaviour can be psychoanalysed back to alienation and feelings of lack of self worth. I am arguing that it is from the imposition of a vertical value system, where direction is up or down and value is rigidly evaluated according to single criteria, on people so young only serves to create apathy, mistrust and most seriously division. The alternative is a very opposite type of value structure and would require broad social change on the back of educational change. Perhaps it might create it a bit of chicken and egg.
This alternative is my intuitively named “horizontal” value system. The idea here is that a system which spreads outwards can have a wide variety of criteria and even categories of value. The assigning of value comes not from the success of scrambling vertically up, it can come from expanding horizontally out. The expansion here is less stable and concrete. It can come from interaction and from learning; if learning is done horizontally a better emphasis is placed on interaction and understanding not on facts and arbitrary value judgement. The system thus manages to avoid arbitrary exclusion by encouraging student to be different and to understand, the more diverse your knowledge and the more complete your world becomes the more one can feel value, on the contrary one can also live a closed, introverted existence and explore themselves and the issues affecting them, or simply learn extensively on a topic of interest to them. it seems slightly hippy-ish but that is mostly due to my exemplary application of this idea to education. one can easily transpose my ideas of vertical and horizontal value on to a broader real life situation and find that ideas like money, career, government many of the pillars of our society are based on a vertical structure and I feel there are simply too many people now to be enforcing such a structure upon, i.e. not enough space at the top for the many at the bottom. The re-evaluating of our values to align ourselves with each other in an expansive broad value system would make a major change to the lives of so many. The feeling of value, ownership and responsibility can become aligned with the need for autonomy and tolerance. If someone doesn’t conform or match existing standard they can feel they are creating a new dimension of our broad value system, not subverting our vertically minded one. It’s a fluffy idea at the moment and I am working quite hard on making it more substantial. Let me know what you think. If I have inadvertently copied another thinker I apologise, let me know who you or they are and I’ll read up voraciously.
On the LC then it seems that for kids to be best served by society and its education the values need to be turned around 90-degrees. I feel that more kids need to feel included and able to attain and achieve value. It is a subjective but one which is neglected in a rudimentary two-dimensional system of fact and regurgitation. Change can only bring hope and opportunity to our children and I think something needs to be done about the way LC views its students and assigns them their value.
Red Rover

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