Today’s blog post is about education in general. Whether it’s the Leaving Certificate (the final course in the Irish secondary school system), SATs in the US, O- and A-Levels in the UK, or Le Bac in France, I’m sure you’re familiar with the day of reckoning just-finished second-level students are facing about now as their examination results are published in advance of matriculation for third-level and university places, as well as those former students who intend to go straight into employment, or take a Gap Year to figure out what they really want to do with their lives.
Now read on…
In Ireland, the examination results are published tomorrow, and soon after they’re released in the UK; tuning in to Irish and British radio and TV broadcasts over the next few days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re on the edge of a natural catastrophe (well, apart from the monsoon-like rain we’ve been experiencing for the last week, but that’s another story).
You may be familiar with the format:
- Images / sounds of students opening their results envelopes and shouting for joy / groaning with disappointment
- Vox-pop of said students as they discuss their plans now that they’ve achieved / failed to achieve the marks they needed
- Special focus on ultra-smug high-achiever who’s managed to blag seven A1s “…oh I didn’t do anything very special at all. I was very organised in my study, and sure I was lucky with the questions.”
- Outro from reporter which goes along the lines of “… you might not have got what you wanted, but it’s not the end of the world, you know” before an short excerpt of some successful local businessperson describing how they left school at 15 with no qualifications and worked their way up from the post-room to CEO of a transnational organisation, and / or irritatingly young whiz kid who’s just sold their app / YouTube channel to GAFA, Inc. (before giving out the number of the local helpline worried parents can call for advice about what little Johnny or Mary can do next, now that their years of pretending to study have been cruelly exposed).
While I completely understand the need to sympathize with devastated young adults who see their hopes, dreams, and career options evaporating before their eyes, I believe that to glibly state that “it’s not the end of everything” simultaneously devalues the emotional and psychological impact of performing poorly in such an important life event, and provides false hope that somehow it will be all right.
Sadly, the reality is that in the 21st Century knowledge economy, a less-than-average result in state examinations seriously affects most young peoples’ ability to move forward with their lives – particularly in these increasingly straitened times. As the world transitions to a Digital Age where the primary asset an individual possesses is their knowledge and expertise, a misstep on this lowest rung of the ladder has the potential to damage an otherwise bright, intelligent individual’s potential to both contribute to, and make their way in, their society.
For every business leader who “did it the hard way” or “learned from the university of life,” there are ten frustrated employees working in the wrong career, and maybe ten times that number pumping gas, or just about making enough to hang in there, not really living, just existing. Unless you’re in a position where you have the financial resources, the family or social contacts, or just the pure dumb luck to break into your chosen path, you have to pretty much generate your own career based upon your abilities and talents – hopefully enhanced by what you learned in school.
I never cease to be amazed by (for example) politicians who state that through hard work and perseverance they finally got elected and rose to the position they’re in now… while omitting that their father held the seat before them and they’re based in a traditional constituency where the electorate has voted for the ‘name they know’ for generations, or the businessperson who was a millionaire by thirty, through their ceaseless efforts and dedication …and the fact that they come from a wealthy family with the resources to set them up (cough **Trump** cough).
I heard one such person on the radio yesterday who asserted that “all you need to be successful in your chosen career is to be focused on your goal and to be passionate about what you want to do.”
Try this experiment: say for example you want to be a project manager – send your résumé to as many organisations as you like, outlining your passion, enthusiasm, and lack of formal qualifications in the field. Then, wait for the employment offers to roll in.
But don’t hold your breath.
Passion is great, but in many cases it’s the last resort of the incompetent (look at all those candidates on TV programmes like The Apprentice who, when about to be fired protest that they’re “passionate about what they do”). Enthusiasm is an admirable quality, but certainly no substitute for expertise, ability, and experience: organisations understand this (though professional competence is boring and makes for poor reality TV).
One of the primary reasons I take such joy in my career (and it’s not even a logical reason) is that it puts me in a position to see people reach their potential. Aristotle (Politics and Nicomachean Ethics) believed that education was fundamental to the human condition: the fulfilled person was an educated person.
Perhaps this week, more than at any other time of the year, it is wise to remember Diogenes Laertius’ attribution to Aristotle in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers:
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The root of education is bitter but the fruit is sweet.
is at it’s most evocative and apposite.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics
Diogenes Laertius. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book V. Internet. Available from: <https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lives_of_the_Eminent_Philosophers/Book_V#Aristotle>
Radio Telefís Éireann image library