One of the most useful suggestions to come out of the thread on reinventing Ireland was the notion of teaching critical thinking in schools, a form of thinking that can dissect a problem and expose the heart of it.
It might seem like an obvious idea, but to my mind, it’s one of the most radical proposals I have ever seen.
Because in this country, rational questioning thought is seen as something dangerous, something almost subversive, something to be suppressed. You can see it at work in a very superficial way when the waiter asks Irish people how their meal was. No matter how gum-festeringly foul the grub, and no matter that the entire table is swimming in a pool of vomit, Irish people will smile and nod and tell the waiter that it was Fine. Fine thanks. Here, have a big bastard of a tip.
If you have kids you’ll be familiar with this. Your child asks you to help with some maths problem, so you look at it, and your mind goes click-click-click and you try to guide the child through the logical steps to the solution.
No good. It doesn’t matter that you arrived at the right answer. It’s not the way the teacher does it.
That drives me bonkers, but it says more about the system than it does about the teacher. It speaks of a method that fears innovative, logical thinking and rewards learning by rote. Cookery-book mathematics instead of insight and effective problem-solving. The teacher is irrelevant, a product of the same numbing, unimaginative process that is now trying to blunt the intelligence of your child. What hope have we?
Of course, it’s not confined to mathematics, but I have always said this is one of the most subversive subjects that can be taught in school, because mathematics is nothing more than a process of abstracting the essential points from a problem and representing them in symbolic form so that they can be examined logically. There can be no better training of the critical mind if the teaching is done properly.
From the very beginning, our school system is based on authority instead of collaboration. In the very best of our primary schools, teachers and parents are partners, but in the majority, you’re forced to address some barely-post-adolescent junior teacher as Miss this or Mister that, even if you’d treat them as raw youths anywhere but in their classroom where they have the opportunity to victimise your child should you challenge them.
It doesn’t stop there. For generation upon generation, Irish people were force-fed a diet of facile, childish, religious nonsense, and encouraged to be passive. Not to question. Never to challenge the authority of clergy, or of anyone else in an official office, and of course that’s how we ended up with the horrors of the industrial schools, and the abusive clergy in every parish throughout the land, raping our children. Nobody dared to ask hard questions.
Why? Because that sort of thinking has been systematically beaten out of our psyche over hundreds of years.
For all our undeserved reputation as story-tellers, we Irish can barely string two sentences together when asked to stand up in front of an audience. We mumble, we mutter and we stare at our shoes. Look at our national parliament, where nobody dare speak without reading from a sheet of paper. So much for spontaneity.
Speaking is another form of thinking. It’s a way of shaping ideas, turning them, considering them from all angles, kneading them and moulding them until we fuly understand what it was we intended to express. Without words, abstract thinking is difficult. I remember years ago reading some clever old fellow who said that words are the very stuff of thought, and I think he was right.
In this country, we need to encourage our children to speak fluently, but we don’t, perhaps because we’re not much good at it ourselves. When we manage it at all, we produce plastic horrors like the Billie Barry kids, instead of natural, unaffected, confident speakers. I’ve often wondered if this is a hangover from our sense of inferiority in colonial days. Are we afraid to speak, without adopting the fake accents heard in certain parts of the capital for the last three or four generations? This is the same post-colonial malaise that right now, as I write, paralyses Brian Lenihan, sitting opposite his IMF betters and acquiescing to all their demands. Somewhere deep in the Irish psyche is the belief that a foreigner always knows best.
Pomposity is a curse on the Irish people. The inability to admit we were wrong.
Brian Lenihan is a classic example of Irish pomposity, much like his bumptious, posturing father, and I believe that a component of his current stupidity has to do with a fear of admitting he made a mistake.
Years ago, I visited various Scandinavian countries, and I was very impressed with their language. Possibilities. If this doesn’t work, we design it so that we have the possibility to …
They always had a plan B and a plan C. They had no problem confirming that humans are fallible, and they planned accordingly, unlike our people, who devise a method of working and stick with it even when it has patently failed. And that’s the difference between Scandinavia and Ireland.
How do we change all this?
When so many of our emigrants returned after the flight of the 80s, they had seen how other countries do things, and they had seen how other people live. They made a difference to the real economic prosperity of the 90s before our country became defiled by Bertienomics. But those in charge of our country, such as Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy, were narrow, limited, ignorant men, with little experience of anything outside their little parishes, and unless we tackle that problem, we’re going nowhere.
Ironically, such small intellects as Ahern, McCreevy and the rest of the FF politicians, are products of exactly the same stultifying educational structure that has hamstrung the country in every way.
We need to break this pattern, but it isn’t enough to start teaching infants to think independently. We need to break the habits in ourselves of sloppy thinking, of failing to ask hard questions, and of passive-aggressive resentment instead of open, honest, genuine challenge to the kind of certainties people would force on us.
Certainties such as we now hear day in and day out about what would happen if we told the IMF to take a jump for itself.
In many posts here, I’ve reiterated the same thing. There’s only one kind of thinking: the scientific kind, where you look at the evidence and see if it stacks up. Everything else is just waffle, supposition, prejudice or lies.
If you don’t believe me, folks I give you Brian Lenihan.
Previously: Scientific method