This reflection is for teachers, parents and everybody that is interested in the education system in Ireland. Possibly elsewhere too.
Knitting helps to organise my ideas. While my fingers are occupied, my brain idles and goes to the young people in uniforms that I passed this morning. I am a language teacher at university level. I am also the first year coordinator of the language I teach. That is probably why these young people in uniforms matter so much to me.
First year in college is a challenge, for most everybody. It was for me, when I started my English Philology degree, back in Spain in 1994. Things are done differently in college. No one monitors what you are actually learning – or if they do, the onus is on you to keep track of your progress and improve your weaknesses. You need to be independently driven to study and to improve. There are new people all around you and most of them seem to be more intelligent, more mature or know more than you do. You need to be confident in your own abilities to overcome fears and challenges. There are many things to do that seem to be more appealing than locking yourself away in a library or in your bedroom and tackling the difficulties of the challenging courses. You need to be disciplined and capable of managing your time by putting an efficient study plan in place. Moreover, if you have moved out away from your parents and old friends, there is the cleaning, the cooking, the washing and the homesickness. You need to be self-sufficient in the basics of life. All in all, I am not painting a pretty picture. So, why do you put yourself or your child through so much hassle? Why do people want to come to college?
Here are the reasons that I have ascertained from the 15 years I have taught at university level in Ireland and elsewhere:
Some people are not sure about what they want to do, so they come to college to see if it will help them decide. University is a very stressful experience, most of the time. You have a very defined timetable with quite a few tasks and tests to do throughout the academic year. It costs a lot of money. There are not just tuition fees, but living in college, books, technology and everything that makes your learning experience more enjoyable, in general, is costly. I know some people need stress to make decisions, but for me stress is the worst aid for decision-making. It clouds my head. In other words, when people ask me for advice, I normally say that if they are not sure about coming to college, they should figure it out first. There is no reason why you should not attend lectures or ask a teacher if you can sit in in a class or two to see what the subjects are about. Drop in to introductory lectures in the first weeks and have a think about college for the following year, maybe. You can even ask some teachers if they can send you a course outline or class materials and start looking at them in your own time to help you make up your mind. If you have just finished your Leaving Certificate and you are as lost as I felt then, I would highly recommend this: http://www.vsi.ie/volunteer/longterm/evs.html. The European Voluntary Service is not something widely advertised but is a great opportunity for 18-30 year-old people to learn a new language and get some fully-funded work experience.
Some people want a degree or they are very career-oriented. This group of students is mixed. The career-oriented people are very good at finding out what they have to do in order to pass courses and they will be the experts spotting loopholes in the marking system. They are in college because they want a degree and they are going to pay for it. Most of them believe that once they have a degree, they will get THE job that goes with it or will have a chance of getting a better job. A degree definitely helps you widen the range of jobs to which you have access, but unfortunately in most cases, it does not guarantee that you will succeed in finding a job related to your degree or a better job than what you had before. Do you want examples? Have a look at Spain, Italy and Greece. Millions of well-educated lawyers, architects, translators, etc. are au-pairing all over Britain, Germany and Ireland; or cleaning toilets, making beds and serving food or drink in Sweden, Norway or Denmark. If you really want a well-paid job, with a defined short career, take my advice and go into politics!
I should say here that I have nothing against au-pairs or waiters. I come from a family of construction and hospitality workers and their jobs have been essential to improving the lives of other people; it is just that they tend to be poorly-paid, have few benefits and no job security. As the job market does not seem to be veering towards an improvement of the conditions of these skilled jobs, people tend to avoid them in favour of other careers, whose entry is restricted by the possession of a degree. This is definitely the major reason why our parents send us to college. Mine wanted me to have a ‘better’ job than they did. But I would not credit my primary degree for the privileged job I have. Other more serendipitous circumstances or fortunate choices I made after finishing my degree led me to where I am now. I guess that what I am saying is this: The desire for a degree or a career may not be enough to carry you through the challenges listed above.
Some people want the social life in college and the Erasmus year. This is the reason I find least acceptable. This kind of social life is part and parcel of the college experience, but my problem is that we have focused so much on it that sometimes we tend to clog the young students’ minds and they start thinking that a social life is what college is all about. Do not mistake me. I believe students need to be social with one another if they want to learn something; especially in the subject I teach: languages. We are social beings and we learn socially and many times we learn best in groups; so yes, social activities should be part of college life, but to what degree?
I am extremely tired of Ireland’s drinking culture, deeply embedded in social life, because I have seen too many students drinking themselves silly; some of them with terrible consequences. I come from a drinking culture too, but in Spain you do not drink to get drunk. You may get drunk, by accident, and it is normally embarrassing and annoying to be drunk so you tend to manage your alcohol intake without going over what we call ‘the point’. I am not trying to give anyone lessons on how to drink. I am just asking you to think twice about the role of alcohol in your life, as a parent, as a teacher, as a student; and the way you talk about it. At least, in the city where I live, it is costing way too many lives for us to continue avoiding this conversation.
Finally, my favourite group: the people who are passionate about learning and about what they choose to learn. I know you have heard it many times. Do not study what you do not enjoy. Here is the issue. It is important to learn things you do not enjoy too. Even in a subject you enjoy a lot, there will be things that you enjoy less. Let me give you an example: I love playing guitar, but I do not enjoy spending long hours on finger picking patterns. Once I give in and put in the hours, though, I am so happy that the song sounds so good. We live in a very fast-moving society and we tend to appreciate things that take little of our time so we can do things that we enjoy more or give us more pleasure. But is it not more rewarding to learn how to enjoy most things? I enjoyed my time in college because I love learning. I did Honours Science subjects in the Leaving Cert and I studied an Arts Degree. Now, I am picking up piano and knitting and Irish. In other words, it does not matter what I do. I am happy when I am learning. And this learning is guided by my desire to be more who I am, to be happier, to live better in my own bones. In all these years teaching, I have seen students that struggle a lot with a language. Language learning is one of the most time-consuming activities and as adults, not everybody is willing to go out of their way to practice and draw attention to their mistakes in order to improve. It requires long hours of self-study and the confidence to go out and practice, either in the region that the language is spoken, or through Skype, or other devices. The students that always persevere and continue improving are irremediably the students that love the language and love learning in general. Without either passion, they would have succumbed sooner rather than later.
So, this is how this whole spiel came about. I saw their young, uniformed faces going to school and I could not help thinking this: teachers, parents, please, if you cannot teach them anything else, just teach them the love of learning. They will do the rest. I am sure of that.