Dumbing down warning - Education policy is the real threat

Economist Morgan Kelly’s warning that the “real crisis” for the economy may lie ahead is chilling and deeply dispiriting.

Dumbing down warning  -  Education policy is the real threat

He has warned that if the banks have to deal with bad loans to small- or medium-sized enterprises, “we could be facing something really, really terrible, quite soon”.

This society has sacrificed so much and faced greatly reduced living standards and expectations on foot of the 2008 banking catastrophe that Prof Kelly’s warning must send a shiver down the spine of anyone who has a stake in this country’s future. It also underlines the utterly disproportionate power ceded to the banks and the great challenge addressing that dangerous, untenable situation makes unavoidable.

However, Prof Kelly’s banks’ warning, in his role as national Cassandra, is not the most important he offered in recent days. His declaration that the “dumbing down” of education will eventually “screw up” the economy not only seems plausible but entirely obvious — and it is a self-inflicted, avoidable weakness.

If Prof Kelly’s education warning is considered coldly it is not difficult to see a kind of national delusion on a par with the one that fuelled the great property bubble. It is not hard either to see the great cultural insecurity that drove so many of us to become “property owners” at play, but in a slightly different way.

He warned that the quality of the education at University College Dublin, where he is professor of economics, had fallen markedly. He is not the first academic to say this and UCD is not the only institution to face such charges. He blamed efforts to make the leaving certificate easier for students who found school difficult and the redirection of colleges’ resources towards administration rather than teaching. Unquestioning idealism around open access to education and universal achievement are at the root of this modern tragedy, but the reality is that the entire system is devalued.

This trend, driven by the most naive social engineering, ignores the hard reality that, amongst many, many things, an education system is a filtering process. Systems that prepare students for life’s competitions rather than try to protect them from the rough and tumble of rejection more accurately reflect the world we all have to live in. Prof Kelly will not have endeared himself to those behind these noble sounding but ultimately self-defeating ideals but he has, once again, done us all some service by stating the obvious.

We cannot blame official Ireland for this departure from age-old realities but rather the mind set that, unlike Germany’s commitment to apprenticeship schemes, focuses almost exclusively on the career opportunities that depend on a third-level degree.

Prof Kelly’s assertion that education needs to be more demanding of students and “start failing people again” is a breath of fresh, spring air. Let us hope we are not as dismissive of this warning as we were of his prediction, almost a decade ago, that house values would fall by 40% to 60% because this time around the consequences would be even more calamitous. However, the really frightening thing is that we may, even though we all know, in our heart of hearts, that he is once again absolutely right.

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