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Column Sludgy and outdated: Why our education system is like a septic tank

Tests, tests and more tests – but schools and colleges aren’t giving us the creativity we need in this crisis, writes Kate Katharina Ferguson.

As student unions warn that radical fee increases could keep thousands out of university, Kate Katharina Ferguson argues that the problem runs deeper – our educational institutions just aren’t giving us the skills we need to cope in this crisis.

I’VE SPENT THREE-quarters of my life being educated and the last two years educating others.

Since I began school at the age of four, I’ve associated education with evaluation. First it was stickers and stars and rubber stamps. These evolved into report cards with little boxes beside the words: poor, fair, good, very good and excellent. Next came the letters of the alphabet: A, B and C. Then fractions and percentages arrived and after that, points. At university, marks were converted into classes and you could be first, second or third.

Compulsory education – like the septic tank – originated in the nineteenth century. While both aged tolerably well, of late they have begun to fail us.

After all, as educational theorist Ken Robinson points out, the current system of education was conceived in the intellectual era of the enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution. Like the septic tank, it has failed to keep up with the times, often producing impenetrable sludge before practical distillation. (If you need proof, try understanding what on earth some academics writing in humanities journals are trying to say).

It’s not that our education is of poor quality. Instead, it’s that we haven’t decided whether education is a journey focussed on itself or on its destination. Let me explain.

Up to recently, education was a means to an end. You walked out of school and into the workplace. If you went to university and got a first class degree, you got a first class job.
Now things have changed. We have too many people educated in areas with too few jobs.
In the past, a university education was a luxury afforded to the wealthy or the highly-able poor. Now it has become a standard expectation. Unfortunately the labour market has not caught up with the trend.

‘You could see the situation as a social leveller’

It’s a case of social progress outrunning institutional reform: a first-world phenomenon.
You could see the situation as a social leveller. Now unemployment is for everybody, not just the least privileged.

The difficulty is that we still believe that the higher your educational level, the loftier your career expectations should be.

The traditional labour market in Ireland is now effectively closed for business. Companies are downsizing, employees are working harder and turnover is shrinking as the cautious hold onto their jobs. If you want to work in the public sector, you will have to wait for the recruitment ban to be lifted.

With such a closed labour market, we need to be creative and opportunistic. Rather than moulding ourselves to suit roles which are not open, we must use our innovation and creativity to fashion and justify new ones.

Many people, late into their 20s and early 30s, particularly those working on doctoral theses in the humanities, still have their work constantly evaluated by a supervisor. Well into adulthood, we are being taught to mould ourselves to a standard which we had no part in setting. The narrow system of evaluation to which we have become accustomed in our educational system, often curtails the kind of creative thinking which a difficult economic environment particularly requires.

It takes a certain kind of intellectual confidence to create a job which isn’t there. And that confidence doesn’t come from decades of trying to please. Sadly, we have students spending more than twenty years collecting stamps and stars and letters and numbers only to find that they don’t add up to a job.

Their experience calls into question the very purpose of evaluation.

After I finished university and before I moved to Berlin, where I am living now, I worked for a year in Dublin teaching English as a foreign language and as an instructor of “highly gifted” students at Dublin City University. The transition from pupil to teacher taught me that evaluating students is rather arbitrary. Often, I wasn’t quite sure what I was measuring at all.

‘In a secret ballot, students wouldn’t vote out tests and exams’

I am not advocating getting rid of grades. They are important in their own right as motivating posts and as a method of keeping track of material covered. Furthermore, as human beings, we are hooked on limited comparisons, even if we know deep down that such assessments are at best an arbitrary measurement of our talents. I guarantee that in a secret ballot, students wouldn’t vote out tests and exams.

Science backs it up too. Research has shown that the pleasure circuits are activated in advance of finding out a result. We thrive in conditions of uncertainty, so waiting for a test result is like waiting to see if you have won at poker. Ultimately neither tells you how well you have played or how much you have learnt, but rather how well you have performed relative to others.

It’s time we took a step back, though, and considered whether our educational system is too placing too much emphasis on grades and too little on fostering innovative thinking, which is less open to measurement.

The right to education is one of the great privileges of our age. While its original purpose – to lay the foundations for economic subsistence – has been eroded by the unprecedented pace of progressive reform relative to growth in employment opportunities, we must take time to remember what has been so long neglected: the timeless, immeasurable pleasure of learning for its own sake.

I believe that we have forgotten that the principal focus of learning should be for pleasure’s sake alone. And I believe that if we remember this, we will free ourselves to become more innovative, more inspired and more open to new ideas. It is precisely this kind of thinking that is required in a time of crisis. And it’s this form of thinking which I believe a narrow system of evaluation curtails. Could it be that indulging ourselves in constant measurement against others is doing us more harm than good?

Andrew Bird, an American folk singer condenses the possibility beautifully in the song Measuring Cups, which opens:

Get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game. Come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain. We’ll give you a complex and we’ll give it a name.

This generation, more intensely than any other before it, has experienced education as a closed system of incessant measurement. For many that measurement has not amounted to more than restlessness and disillusion. Learning for its own sake has been forgotten amidst the obsession with making ‘it’ which means ‘making money’.

If teaching taught me one thing, it’s that the responsibility to evaluate is nothing compared with the possibility to inspire. The teacher’s job is to encourage before it is to instruct.
Pupils are not watering cans: we can’t fill them up without their consent. They must want to learn, not in order to get a good grade or to become rich or to sound clever, but because, as Merlin in TH White’s The Once and Future King reminds us, “it is the only thing that never fails”.

I have the following words pinned to my bedroom wall:

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.

There is only one thing for it then, to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the Mind can never exhaust never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.

Equipped with this original joy of learning, and a quieter, more humble confidence, our young people may be more inspired to carve an independent niche on the side-lines rather than enter the desperate rat-race of out-performance.

Let’s make our recovery less sludgy than a septic tank. In remembering why education matters for its own sake, we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Kate Katharina Ferguson is an Irish journalist working in Berlin. She writes at and you can follow her on Twitter at @KateKatharina.

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