Does Ireland need to reorientate its education system to cultivate self-sufficiency and achieve a regenerative economy?

by Andrew Gillick

The pandemic has been an opportunity to rediscover our self-sufficiency and old ways of living or fall further into domestication. Ireland’s education system will play a pivotal role in preparing a citizenry that can meet the challenges of the 21st century. Taking a break from working in technology startups to go back to basics as a bike mechanic, Andrew Gillick asks whether the Irish education system, a product of the industrial age of nation-building, and its economic model predicated on Big Tech needs to change its focus to building self-reliance and critical thinking in individuals to meet the challenges of a disorderly future.

Nation building

Like other countries that have endured generations of hardship, Ireland has focused on education, examinations and degrees to lift its people and economy up in the world.

And by some metrics it has worked miraculously well, taking the country from backwater to Celtic Tiger status in a generation.

It is now the default in middle class Ireland (the majority demographic) to get a minimum BA college degree, or when one is at a life crossroads or after an economic crisis such as 2008 and 2020, to go and get more degrees. The UN in its 2020 Human Development Index estimated the expected tenure of an Irish student is 18.7 years, one of the highest in the world.

A higher degree is deemed the surest route to a secure salary and a job in the civil service is still the holy grail of job security. To trod one’s own path, learn on the job or even train oneself in a new skill is a more volatile path and is therefore deemed more risky.

But in a post-Covid global gig economy, this axiom no longer holds true and it may be disingenuous at the individual and national level to peddle it.

The head of education at the OECD Andreas Schleicher recently summated the Irish education system is in danger of “creating second class robots”. He described it as “very much a 20th century kind of education, infrastructure and architecture, quite industrial in its outlook and its design.”

This follows a 2020 report from the OECD comparing all the members’ senior education systems. The Irish system it declared is “too narrow and rigid” and inadequate for teaching kids to deal with ambiguity and complexity. The same report suggests that Ireland’s secondary education serves little purpose other than as a filter for third level education.

“Students get taught one curriculum, it’s quite heavily focused on the reproduction of subject matter content, and not that much focus on getting students to think out of the box and link across the boundaries of subject matter disciplines.”

Sound familiar?

It certainly resonates deeply with my secondary education experience at a much vaunted South Dublin Gaelscoil which taught an industrial age curriculum through a mediaeval Catholic ethos which gave me no practical skills (metal/woodwork or mechanics) nor even any digital skills (I graduated in 2006)!

Rebuilding the nation

To speak broadly, the Irish education system, like most European countries, is modelled on the Prussian system that emerged in the 19th century after Prussia’s loss in the Napoleonic Wars.

Prussian schools cultivated rote learning, obedience and patriotism in students who were trained to be diligent workers and hastened the post-war nation building and unification of what would become modern day Germany. Seeing this nation-building success, many countries adopted the framework.

The Irish system hasn’t changed much since.

After this crisis the Irish education system (and media) will again play a major role in rebuilding nationalism.

The danger, as I see it, at the individual level is if the Irish youth dig deeper into degrees in the pursuit of titular qualifications – many of which have little real-world use other than signalling to employers they are compliant workers – they will lose critical thinking and the ability to improvise and adapt in an increasingly complex world for which no school or college course can prepare us.

As the future of work trends towards a gig economy, or a global marketplace in which people complete tasks rather than hold jobs, then we must not solely teach children how to find jobs (via degrees, rote learning) but show them how to improvise and create their own work.

Credential inflation will also continue and the wage return on that PhD will diminish.

The obeisance and conformity of the Irish youth may be another side-effect of the education system.

The absence of civil protest in Ireland during the 2008 banking scandals and bailouts and the stark contrast between youth protests in France and Holland during 2020 and the compliance of the Irish youth has led the writer and poet Michael O’Loughlin to observe:

“The inability to see the State as our occasional enemy and the deference shown to government (has) a very dark side… we might want to re-examine our culture of obedience and deference, and question its origins in our past.”

Too big to function?

This deference to the state may have also enabled the bloated bureaucratic government in Ireland today.

Compared to New Zealand, a country of almost identical population size, the Irish public sector staff is 3 times the size relative to the total number employed in the economy (15% compared to 5%).

Having lived in both countries, there’s a noticeable difference in quality of government services and efficiency in New Zealand.

At the national level, if Ireland has traded high degrees and high-tech for fundamental hands-on skills and resourcefulness, the country may lack the essential skills to face rising social and economic problems in the years ahead (global food shortages, climate change, rising energy prices etc).

Another consequence is that Ireland has lost some of its economic and policy-making sovereignty at the cost of rapid nominal GDP growth as a vassal of the EU.

As UCD professor Gerry McGovern said in his recent Feasta podcast, the Irish government’s capture by Big Tech (and corporate US generally) by providing tax breaks and a conveyor belt of graduates has shaped the Irish economy and education system.

A new kind of education

So what’s after the current industrial age education?

Rather than rote learning in a STEM-focussed curriculum, a 21st century curriculum is, I believe, more of a ‘meta-education’.

It is more akin to the classic liberal education across a broad range of interrelated topics which complement each other at a first principles level. A continuous learn-as-you-need process while on the job with peer-to-peer feedback and evaluation.

Personally, I have benefited hugely from participating in mini-study stints in MOOCS, podcasts and masterclasses while working full-time in a job. It has accelerated my learning and taken my career to the future of finance in technology startups where I have no ‘official’ qualification.

Nor do many people in the startup world work in the field they did a degree in. They wear many hats and learn as they go.

Some alternative online education:

  • MOOCS: Coursera, Edx, Udemy
  • Masterclass
  • Web3 credentials: Rabbithole, Project Galaxy

What is also considered alternative education, homeschooling, has taken off around the world, for health and other reasons. But also more ‘fringe’ concepts like relearning and unlearning are gathering pace, the latter of which forgos the national curriculum altogether and seeks to undo the damage caused by it.

My own (rough) plan for my children’s education is:

If they are information/digitally inclined:

  • Find a mentor before age 14
  • Enrol them in a startup for an ‘apprenticeship’

If they are mechanically or physically inclined:

  • Find a mentor before age 14
  • Enrol them for a trade or sports-related apprenticeship

The last thing I want my kids to become is a disposable pixel-pusher that’s falsely inflating the employment numbers in public or private service. I’ll be content if they don’t utilise their talent for a false sense of job security.

Regenerative Education

If the future truly is towards degrowth and a “regenerative economy” that means we need to rediscover the ability to fix things – with our hands.

First to describe this nebulous regenerative economy!

In my eyes it describes an economy in which the underlying business models of its many constituent businesses are, in aggregate, additive rather than extractive to four critical systemic domains: physical, environmental, social and informational.

Yes that is my 3 year-old using a real saw at kindergarten!

And after several decades of planned obsolescence in our products, digital and analog, we have become conditioned to disposing rather than fixing and regenerating our goods. I fear our younger generations will have even less practical ability if they spend their formative years seeing both parents hunched over laptops “working” from home.

This is why the education system needs to pivot away from sterile textbook/iPad theory learning and get students out into the real world to get their hands dirty.

Since I’ve made New Zealand home in recent years and I’m raising two children here I’ll compare the approaches between the two cultures to education in building individual and economic self-sufficiency to prepare for the future.

Here, hands-on experiential learning has never gone out of fashion. In no particular order here’s a list of interesting local early, primary and secondary schools around me. A couple are specialist schools but the rest are mainstream public and private:

The NZ secondary examination system is continuous throughout the last two years of high school rather than the all-or-nothing Leaving Cert exams. They changed to a points/merit-based system in 2005.

Outward Bound is a becoming a rite of passage for NZ adolescents who are thrown into the wild for 2 nights to fend for themselves.

To be clear, this is not advocacy for the NZ education system as it has one of the highest school truancy rates and youth sucicide rates in the OECD. This is just a comparison of evolution between a very old institutionalised culture and a new progressive culture that is very hands-on.

While the “100% Pure” image of New Zealand peddled by government PR has long since fallen to tatters – it’s actually one of the worst polluters per capita among developed countries and the UN described its debt-fuelled housing bubble as a ‘human rights crisis’ – the Kiwi and indigenous Maori culture still hold a close tie to the land and practice self-sufficiency which may place it in a better position to adapt to a disorderly future in the long term.

Rebuilding self-sufficiency

Living in New Zealand for the past 7 years, it’s noticeable how much Irish culture and society has slid into domestication and lost self-sufficiency in recent generations.

Since its colonisation a mere four generations ago, New Zealanders have cultivated the opposite attitude to education to Ireland: they are wary of academics, impractical overeducation, and especially sceptical of bureaucrats.

Although it’s fast changing under the current regime, for decades New Zealand has minimal bureaucracy-free and paper-pushing and even today government services are very efficient. This has earned it the reputation as one of the easiest places on earth to set up and do business, ranked by the World Bank as the easiest place to do business in its annual report for five years running. Ireland didn’t even make the top 20 in 2020.

Kiwis pride themselves (with a fair bit of jingoism!) on their practical ability, tinkering and being able to turn their hand to fixing anything when the need arises, what they dub “No. 8 wire” and “kiwi ingenuity”. The country’s remoteness and lack of access to spare parts and food necessitated self-reliance and self-learning.

The country has had its fair share of engineering achievements over the decades: Mclaren supercars and F1 fame; Fisher and Paykel healthcare and home appliances; and, more recently, Rocket Lab which recently sealed a partnership with NASA.

The archetypal Kiwi is a Bear Grylls character: very self-sufficient.

Outside of the obligatory rugby duties they hunt deer, wild pigs, free dive to spear fish, surf, sail, fix their own cars and there are many smallholders who keep their own livestock for ‘home kill’. In the face of inflation many kiwis have turned to growing their own food whether on their own patch or in co-operatives.

These are attributes I believe desirable in individuals to build a regenerative future.

Rebuilding things

So, back to the role the education system will play in creating a regenerative future.

Amongst all the hype being promoted for “cleantech” – electric vehicles, solar, wind farms and geothermal drilling – to save the planet there is one glaring technology that no government or education consultant is advocating: our hands.

Fixing things should be an obvious first step in the education system to building a regenerative future: upskilling kids (or downskilling – however you see it) in the practical repair arts of mechanics, electronics, clothing, even ecosystems (i.e. permaculture) and the incentives to do so.

Fixing and tinkering also has other knock-on effects. Innovation and revolutionary technology has often come from laypeople (even clergy people) tinkering around and not from the experts within university walls as we think of them today.

Tinkering in the Irish psyche probably evokes images of caravans travelling in convoy from town to town fixing peoples’ pots and pans and the image of an ‘expert’ is an academic with an alphabet of degree titles appended to their name.

Back to basics

Personally I discovered the benefits of going back to basics working with my hands this year, swapping the ethereal world of financial technology startups for bike and e-bike mechanics with my local shop in NZ.

Going from working with leading edge technology (blockchain, AI etc) to the oldest modern technology around has had some surprisingly complementary effects in personal life, my family’s life and my work life.

A bike mechanic in the 21st century has a lot to learn, the technology has advanced hugely in the past decade e-bike motor electronics in particular. However the salary doesn’t reflect that!

Where to start?

A bike mechanic is probably not a desirable career path in any country. But as bikes and e-bikes play a massive role in the future of transport and the move to a regenerative economy Ireland should look to incentivise the bike mechanic trade through apprenticeships, even wage subsidies.

Since the pandemic bike sales have grown around 50% across all major brands I’ve talked to and E-bikes now account for a large amount of their sales.

But, like electric vehicles, there aren’t enough mechanics trained to the level to maintain and fix tens of millions of new units and avoid more landfill. We are still in the early days but there will be a tipping point when an avalanche of part failures will hit all at once.

Supersets for the brain

The sequential nature of mechanical work is totally different to the ‘general processing’ ability of laptop-based work, in which we are so used to being able to do multiple tasks in any order we wish.

This alone has had lots of crossover benefits:

  • Priority ordering
  • Setting time limits to tasks
  • Ability to focus on a single task (not jump between tabs!)
  • Setting a price to my time and work
  • Improved guitar playing due to improved dexterity
  • Improved physical conditioning
  • Quicker in the kitchen = happier partner!
  • Personal fulfilment in fixing and providing useful service to a community

Most incredible is the improvement in my relationship with my 2 year-old son. Rather than seeing me “work” smash buttons on a laptop he sees me doing something tangible and loves coming into the workshop, picking up tools, asking questions and helping out. I get an effusive welcome home – totally different to before!

He has learnt so much watching me work, doing even the basic mechanical things, and his dexterity is now far above his age. And this is how humans have evolved to learn, tactile and observational of others doing tasks. I wonder how we will evolve if we go deeper into digital learning with VR, AR.

Since returning to the world of Fintech startups I’ve also continued as a bike mechanic part-time. It’s an amazing contrast for the brain, like ‘supersetting’ muscle group workouts at the gym and the practical sequential nature of the mechanic work has augmented my online work.

Conclusion

I find it apt to end on a quote from Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia:

“The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

This was first published in 1993 and even if it is only remotely accurate almost 30 years (I argue it has become even more prescient with time) later we should take the pandemic as a chance to take out a blank sheet and start designing the new systems we need for learning and preparing for the future.

Featured image: Photo by Filip Urban on Unsplash

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

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