“And Alexander proposed a drinking contest of neat wine, wherein the winner was to receive a crown”
I’ve lost my well-rounded education. Over the past year, I’ve become more familiar than I’d like with the ‘culture’ of the Leaving Certificate than I’m comfortable with, a culture based on inducing fear and a sense of prophetic, apocalyptic terror in 18-year old students, a group of people well known for their ability to cope with stress and not buckle under pressure from outside influences.
I inflict the education supplements of the Times and the Independent upon myself weekly. These attempt to fuse the experiences of some 20,000 Leaving Cert students into one “Mark-Maximalisation” pamphlet. The articles are written in a perpetually bubbly, optimistic patter with a “Let’s keep on trucking, guys!” attitude that seems to target some mythical confluence of the average sixth year: an in-the-realm-of 400 points student from the suburbs (I always imagined Dundrum) going perhaps for UCD Arts or at the upper end of the points scale UCD Commerce.
They definitely leave me cold. It seems pointless, though, to complain that a gaggle of journalists and the collected heads of the Independent Academy don’t appeal to my 18 year-old self. It might just be my exacting standards after all. Perhaps there’s someone out there who cracks open the Leaving Cert Essentials Guide every week and thinks “Finally, somebody who gets me. It’s like they hate the Leaving Cert too but they realise we just have to just get through it. Sweet, tips for study breaks!” Given the amount of time spent marveling that “People actually think we talk like this?” I suspect not.
Ultimately, however, the papers are helpful. Patronising and but helpful.More often than not, their efforts to endear themselves are touchingly pathetic, like Grandpa Simpson burning his tongue when he tries to drink Cola. Of all the creatures the Medusa of Leaving Cert culture has spawned, the education supplement is a lovably witless troll.
I’m going to expand on that analogy. If the education supplement is a troll, oafish but hard to dislike, then his sister, the study tips guest speaker, is a leech: unpleasant, parasitic and ideally burned off with cigarettes and sharp pointy things.
Now, I’m sure everyone in the year knows to whom I’m referring but for reasons of tact we’ll just refer to him as Alex H, or A. Hamilton if you prefer. With the ruthless acumen of a Dickens villain and the cod-charisma of a motivational speaker he shook us by the ankles to see what would fall out. Offering us the ‘inside-track’ on studying for the Leaving Certificate, he organised a number of motivational talks. For only 30 euro a head, he would presumably read out the contents of a Revise-Wise book for several hours before concluding that we have to ‘maximise our effort in the time remaining to acquire the marks that we need’. The main selling point of these lectures was that they were delivered by actual-factual ex-Leaving Certificate students with experience of doing exams as oppossed to our parents and teachers who presumably got into university through nepotism, phrenology-based entrance exams and some sort of Lottery-scheme.
And this is the worst aspect of the satellite people that orbit around the culture of the Leaving Certificate. Playing upon a fear that rightly shouldn’t exist to sell students (for the low, low price of 30 euro a head) something that they don’t need in the first place. I sit at my desk, surrounded by vague predictions, past exam questions and areas to prioritise. The Ancient Greeks used chicken entrails to prophecise the future, I have Institute-endorsed exam predictions. Both are probably equally as effective at auguring the future. At some point, the Leaving Cert stops providing us with an education.
As a case in point, I think everyone can remember being told that we shouldn’t use words such as ‘good’ and ‘fair’ because they are boring. There was a textbook-endorsed term for them, too. ‘Used’ words. As if their use in common speech merited doubting quote marks about them. Certainly no budding writer could be content to describe a day as sunny when ‘the light rays gambolled across those bountiful plains as I gallomphed through the forest, ebulliant in the rose of my summer.’ I took this idea to heart and it will serve my language score well in the English exam so long as I can describe my day as ‘celestial’ and ‘rambunctious’.
It goes without saying that this is a silly policy for anyone who wants to write something that isn’t impenetrable. Sometimes things are just good. Condemning people for describing something as ‘nice’ or ‘fair’ leads to them using ‘awesome’ or ‘epic’. The idea seems to be that a good writer will be able to use ‘sentence-enhancing’ words, the more archaic and obscure the better. The logical conclusion of this is that a piece of writing becomes exponentionally better the more overwrought, decasyllabic words the writer can shoehorn in there which is effectively the same as saying that a tramp becomes exponentionally more appetising the more ranch dressing you slather him with.
But such is the way to success in English and most of the other humanities. It doesn’t equip us to write anything and it’s far removed from the intended architecture of a well-rounded education.
A well-rounded education. That’s a quaint little concept these days, a relic redolent of petticoats, phenology proponents, the printing press and other things from the past.