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Looking At The Issues Of Inequality Religion Essay

Article 42 of the Irish Constitution states The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children (Government, 1937), giving every child in The Republic of Ireland the fundamental right to education. It must be noted that although the rights of parents to educate their children is acknowledged in the Constitution, Irish parents have not have a history of direct involvement in the educational system (Coolahan, 2005, p. 6). The family do however hold a very important place in Irish society, a society which has gone through considerable changes since ‘The Constitution’ was drawn up back in the early days of the new ‘Free State’. The same can be said for the educational system. There have been substantial changes to the ‘State’, the ‘Church’ and the ‘Family’ in the past two decades, with these changes not only having a major impact on these three major elements of Irish society, but also on the Irish educational system.

Ireland has the historic label of being ‘the land of saints and scholars’ and this implies a tie between the Church and the education of Irish people. It is acknowledged that the denominational schools and the various religious bodies, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, played a key role in the provision of education throughout the history of Ireland.

Later, the Constitution of 1937 was formally to recognise the role of the state as subsidiary ‘to private and corporate initiative’. Even if any of the new leaders had other ideas it was very prudent in the context of an Ireland divided to civil war not to antagonise such a powerful entity as the Catholic Church. In the event there evolved a great relaxation in church-state contacts on educational affairs with no conflicts on policy issues (Coolahan, 2005, p. 73)

The power the Catholic Church held was reproduced through the education system. Indoctrination was systemic in the denominational schools. Having said this, one of the objectives of the church run schools was to provide a basic education to the lower classes. This was achieved, albeit at personal cost to the students from the lower classes who were mistreated, bullied and treated as second class citizens to the middle and upper class students. There are many harrowing stories of ill treatment by some, but not all, of the nuns, brothers and priests who taught in the denominational schools in Ireland. There was a distinct class system in operation throughout the education system, with the ‘better off’ going on to complete their education and the lower classes leaving after primary school to get a job. As the vocations to priesthood, brotherhood and sisterhood steadily decreased over the last generation in the Roman Catholic Church (Sharrock, 2008), it has lead to an increase in the amount of lay teachers and an opening up of the mindset of the educational system in Ireland. Teaching has only been an all graduate profession since the early seventies in Ireland (Drudy, Developments in Teacher Education in Ireland, 2006). The ability to attend university was, up until recently, linked to the ability to pay for a graduate education and not an easy task for those less well off.

One has to question if education had a role to play in the questioning of the authority of the Catholic Church. People no longer lived in fear of the local priest, monsieur or bishop. People started to think for themselves. The separation of church and state increased and continues to increase, even more so with recent events on clerical abuse, (a separate issue for another time, but mentioned as indicative of the significance of the separation of State and Church in today’s Irish society). Although changes were ongoing throughout Irish history, society and the educational system, has undergone notable change since the 1990’s (Coolahan, 2005, p. ix) (Drudy, 2001, p. 363) (Drudy, Developments in Teacher Education in Ireland, 2006, p. 3) (Smyth, McCoy, Darmody, & Dunne, 2007, pp. 145,146 & 154). The history of the educational system in Ireland and the changes it has undergone in such a short space of time have an important relevance on the structures and agencies involved in it today. The past plays an important role in the way we move forward. History is a valuable learning tool.

Education – Opening the mind

What we learn, we pass onto our children. A child’s mind is like a sponge. What we teach our children shapes and moulds them into the adults they become. They look to us to guide and mentor them through the difficult years of learning, to pick them up when they fall, to advise them of the pitfalls of everyday living, to provide them with the necessary tools to go out into the world, when they are old enough to stand on their own two feet. What we teach them will shape and form their opinions on learning and how to survive, shaping their identities in an ever changing society. Having three young children at home, it is simply amazing to watch them grow and develop. They way they grasp new ideas, copy and mimic the adults in their lives, enthusiastic to learn new things. This enthusiasm must be nurtured and developed. A culture of reading has been established in our household. If questioned about something I do not myself know or feel unsure about, we go and look it up together. Two of them are in primary school and have not yet developed the prejudices of the society they live in. The older sibling has just started secondary school and keeping his mind open is a challenge. Education is the key to opening up the mind to life, society and the world.

Without education, one cannot grasp the intricacies of life, cannot question, cannot compare and cannot give an informed opinion. A good example of my thinking on this is the answer I provide when constantly asked why I allow my children to be Catholic, when I do not follow, or practice, the Catholic faith myself. My children were initially raised to practice the Church of Ireland faith. Since we moved back in my home town after marriage break up, the children now attend Catholic schools and practice the Catholic religion. The answer provided is simply, that they need to know something before they can make an informed decision when they are old enough to do so. They can use their experiences and knowledge of something they know as a measuring stick to make their informed decisions. How can anyone make a decision on something if they know absolutely nothing about it? In an ever changing society every little bit of education is crucial and life is one of the best educators of all.

A good firm basis of education is to enquire, question, think, enquire some more, question, think again and then form your own opinion. As C. Wright Mills said in the first chapter of his book ‘The Sociological Imagination’, people often feel their lives are a series of traps, with their lives bounded by their private milieu. It is only by looking at their own milieu and comparing it to what is happening outside this milieu that people can open their minds, using their own history and biography to move forward . He goes on to say

The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women....neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both (Mills, 2000, p. 3)

Mills was right, in so much that, if we close our minds we never venture outside our own milieu and we are stuck in our own man made traps. Education is the way to open up our minds to that vast world of knowledge and the tool we can use to change our personal circumstances, the tool we can use to stand up for our families and for what we believe in and not allow history to repeat itself. As Todd Gitlin suggests in his afterword on Mills aforementioned book,

He hammered home again and again the notion that people lived lives that were not only bounded by social circumstance, but deeply shaped by social forces not of their own making, and that this irreducible fact has two consequences: it lent most human life a tragic aspect with a social root, and also created the potential – if only people saw a way forward – of improving life in a big way by concerted action (ibid, pg.230)

In other words, lives can be changed by opening the mind to the other possibilities and educating the mind to the infinite possibilities is a way forward.

The Irish Education system, a way out?

The quote accredited to Phyllis Diller that “we spend the first twelve months of our children's lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve telling them to sit down and shut up” is appropriate to go some way to summing up the educational system in operation in Ireland up until the 1980’s. This system is slowly changing and any change is welcome. The educational system should create an atmosphere for learning which is user friendly, easily accessible and available for all students from all backgrounds. As Kathleen Lynch suggests, the state control of schools in Ireland creates a universality of experience for all types of pupils and this should preclude inequality (Lynch, 1998, p. 157), ensuring every student gets an education that will support them throughout the rest of their lives. This was Lynch’s view back in the mid 1990’s before the changes to curriculums and the system when the amount and diversity of subjects were more limited and subjects such as religion and civics now known as CPSE (Civil, Social and Political Education) were not exam subjects. At last, the minds of young people are being opened up to the ideas of a sociological and political imagination. It is an area which had to be addressed when the understanding of society was whether you came from a working class background or not, or whether or not you were going to accept your lot in life, or aspire to better and how much would this cost? The basic democratic right to vote was also controlled by the family, with the political views that were handed down by your father’s father, generation after generation. The mindset of political view point in Ireland is still strongly tied to the way the family have always voted and must be addressed to encourage change, both social and political in an age when we no longer just operate in our own local milieu. Globalisation has caught up with ‘The land of saints and scholars’, although it could be argued that Ireland has been global for centuries, sending our people worldwide to educate, find work and build roads. The Irish people saw that education could bring about change to personal circumstances and encouraged their offspring to ‘get a good education’; even if it meant that their offspring would eventually emigrate to get work with their education.

The educational system cannot just operate to teach the basic three R’s and Irish language. It must strive to open the minds of the Irish people to bring about change in their own country.

Informed decisions in an information age cannot emerge from a populace whose intellectual scope has been restricted by a narrow education. Diversion of academic resources to limited utilitarian goals alone will lead to unbalanced social development (O'Carroll, 2008, p. 47)

As stated in Barnardos (Ireland’s leading independent children’s charity) ‘Written out Written Off’ campaign, education is crucial for children’s self esteem and a proven route out of poverty (Gibbons, 2009, p. 1). The inequality in Ireland’s education system remains in existence. Unfortunately, the outlook does not look any better with cuts to funding for education, University grants, social welfare and child benefit in the December 2009 Budget. Although some efforts have been made to alleviate the problems of educational disadvantage in Ireland, these may well very well be eroded by the cutbacks. The effects and implications of these cuts on social deprivation within the education system still remain to be seen. In order to prop up the banking system, those already vulnerable are penalised. In the Barnardos report, they point to the fact that social class still affects the outcomes in the educational system in 2009. Education remains key to breaking the intergenerational cycles of poverty (Gibbons, 2009, p. 6) It also goes on to substantiate the argument that education not only influences the odds of achieving employment, but better quality employment.

In Barnardos view, shared by others, these cuts will adversely affect those children who need the best start and help in their education in order to break the cycle of Poverty and disadvantage (Gibbons, 2009, p. 19).

The children affected by educational policy in Ireland are themselves a very diverse group, characterised by differences based on factors such as gender, social class, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, to mention but a few (Drudy, Developments in Teacher Education in Ireland, 2006).

Conclusion

The issues of inequality being addressed by education, yet at the same time education being central to the reproduction of inequality has been addressed by looking at the history of education provision in Ireland. The right to education in being embedded in the Constitution and every parent’s right to have their children educated. The relationship between the Church, State and the educational system has been discussed. This link along with Irish history has given rise to inequality being reproduced in educational system. However, education has changed and continues to change society in Ireland. This essay has examined the circumstances and some of the reasons why inequality is evident in our education system, which in turn, gives rise to inequality in Irish society. The children are the future of Ireland and need all the educational assistance they require to become the future. It is suggested in this essay that education can address inequality by opening up the mind. Rather than focus on a particular area of education or level of education, the educational system was discussed. The education system in Ireland is still evolving. It still has to shed the shackles of its inherited colonial class system and the more recent neo-liberalist and capitalist system of education. It is still finding its feet, but one hopes the opening of people’s minds leads to questioning, thinking and acting and not just sitting back accepting.

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