For Freedom’s empty name to die….

Sons of a desert, hoping to withstand

All the joint forces of Darius’ hand;

Fools, fools, the king of millions to defy,

For freedom’s empty name to die

*An excerpt from “The Battle of Marathon” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning*

It’s been well over 2000 years since the army of Athens, outnumbered by thousands, defeated the invading forces of the Persian Empire, and so defended their democracy. Athens has always been considered the birthplace of democracy. On that day, where the lone army of the city faced off against the marauding hordes of Darius, defeat meant the certain destruction of their people, and with it, possibly the great bastion of democracy in Greece. The battle will always be associated with the legend of Pheidippides, a Athenian runner who in popular legend ran the 26 miles or so from the battlefield to tell the city of their victory, only to collapse of exhaustion and die. The real story of the Athenian runner is often disputed, but the significance of the battle is not. Democracy endured, and then flourished.

On May 22nd, the fruits of the Athenian victory will be ours to use once more. Here, now, over two and a half millennia later, the power of a vote belongs to us. Democracy, and the freedom of even the most common person to have their voice heard, has always fought against tyranny. However, oppressors and dictators have not stemmed the tide of people who have rallied to democracy’s all-welcoming banner.

In the Bixby letter, which Abraham Lincoln wrote to the mother of five sons who were thought to have died in the American Civil War, he quotes

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

It’s a common argument that “one ought to vote because people died for us to get it”. We think back to the 1916 Rising or the War of Independence, whose casualties are not yet dead in the ground 100 years, and it seems to make sense. Yet, in reality, the blood needed for our democracy and our freedom was not spilled over a couple of years, more so poured over centuries. Wherever injustice and cruelty have festered, good people have laid down their lives to oppose it. They have written us a cheque with which to vote, but here in 2015 it seems some people are unwilling to cash it.

The Marriage Referendum on May 22nd is a defining moment for our nation. It is our Battle of Marathon, effectively. We can either go quiet into the night, and be unheard, or stand up for what is right and cast our vote. The LGBT community will be there to make their stand, so the question really is are we going to let them stand alone?

People often say things in passing like “sure my vote won’t matter”. I can see how someone would come to that conclusion, but when you consider the countless lives who have been torn apart by inequality and discrimination in the LGBT community, I believe it must matter. It matters because every YES is another person in your own nation who is saying “Yes,  I am accepting you for who you are, and I support you”. It matters because every YES is another person in your own nation who is telling you “I will stand up for you. I won’t let you be a target”. It matters because every YES is another person in your own nation who is reminding you “I fought for you and alongside you when it mattered, and we won”. In this referendum you have a choice. You can either be the ally at the shoulder of your LGBT brother, sister, neighbour etc or you can be the Athenian who slipped off from the battle when he saw the numbers stacked in front of him.

It’s easy for us to stay quiet and not make ourselves vulnerable. It’s easy for us to look the other way and try to ignore this. But the issue of inequality isn’t going away. It is now more than ever that we need to rally together under one banner.

For those who are feeling inclined to tick no, I would say to you, if you feel it is your civic duty to vote because people died for that right, then I would argue you must vote YES, because those deaths were wagered against the promise of freedom. Voting NO does not honour their sacrifice. Voting NO does not promise freedom.

People did not storm the Bastille so that you could hold your prejudices against others’ happiness. People were not riddled with bullets even as they lay dead at Omaha Beach so you could stand in the way of equality. People did not fight at the GPO, or climb out of trenches at the Somme or march on Washington so that you could stand on the shoulders of the LGBT community and dictate their futures.

Ten years after the battle of Marathon, a Spartan king named Leonidas, with 300 of his men, led a small Greek force against a Persian army at Thermopylae. The Persian mass numbered over 100,000, and despite holding on for days on end, the meager Greek force eventually succumbed. Like the Athenians before them, and countless people after, they died for their freedom and ultimately for democracy. If you visit the site, you will see a memorial stone dedicated to them. And perhaps knowing how you voted in the Marriage Referendum, you may stop, even if only for a second, and hear them whisper what is wrote there on the wind

Go tell the Spartans, passerby:
That here, by Spartan law, we lie

Let’s re-define marriage, not education

On May 22nd, we the Irish people are going to be asked whether we are going to allow marriage to be re-defined. I think re-defined is a bit of an ugly term for it, considering marriage today focuses on love, shared values, respect and family-no matter who it involves. Therefore, I don’t believe we have to re-define marriage to involve the LGBT community in this fancy notion we call civil rights, basic equality, or recognition in the eyes of your fellow Irish people. I will be voting YES, but I digress.

The real re-definition that stands to occur is in our education system, after recent announcements by Minister Jan O’Sullivan about the future of the Leaving Cert. The Leaving Cert, which is a state exam that basically no Irish person wants to think about after finishing, is not a perfect system-by a country mile. It is a be all and end all kind of system, where basically 14 years of education are stacked, weighed and credited on two weeks of grueling exams. It is a marathon, and has undoubtedly contributed to the mental health issues of countless students since its inception.

Therefore, I was hopeful when I heard reform was on the horizon. Change is good, after all, and even though I was never bothered by the Leaving Cert system, people aren’t exactly complaining just to pass the time. But while some of the recent announcements seem like a step in the right direction, overall it looks like we’ve just done a Project Maths on it. How does one do a “Project Maths” on something, you ask? It’s quite simple. When faced with a colossal problem (e.g. high failure rates at higher level maths/people dropping on the day of the exam), instead of logically thinking through the issue, asking real students where the answers lie, and insuring a solution is created that helps but maintains standards, you just re-hash the entire system to maximize the amount of people getting through it. After all, nothing says improvement quite like “less people are complaining”. If only life was that simple.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Project Maths was a massive failure for Irish mathematics. It was announced with fireworks and pretty ribbons as a new age of maths, where students would be given real challenges, exposed to real life mathematical situations, and supplied with a kind of everyday maths toolkit that would be envied the world over. Instead, students got a rushed programme, about six different maths “strands”, a robot arm, and no theorem.

It was reform like Project Maths that made me worried for Irish education. After all, the government celebrated it as a huge success. Failure rates at higher-level maths plummeted. What the government failed to realise was that if you warp a system in favour of students falling inside a pass grade, you haven’t exactly solved anything. Sure, people haven’t technically failed, but the education they left with has only gotten worse. And in an age where people are leaving school unprepared for the challenges of the real world, that isn’t a huge success. Put the champagne down, politicians.

It seems the new reforms are going to follow a similar trend. I wholeheartedly support a system where students who fail exams can still get CAO points. I mean, the CAO and the Leaving Cert have always been sickly entangled, so it would be nice to see the route to college even slightly less hindered by a “bring your A game” set of exams.

However, the re-definition of a pass grade is touching unexplored territory. Now, at higher level we are going to have pass re-defined as 30%. It appears no plans have been made for similar things to occur at ordinary level or foundation, and more importantly no third level institutions have announced a drop in their levels (with most standing at 40%-but some courses as high as 50%). As a result, we’re again changing the system to get the results we want.

In the real world, if we say “actually we’re changing the definition of high blood pressure”, you can’t expect people to suddenly believe that the problem has gone away. That’s what the government are doing with these proposals. It’s a lazy, I-wasn’t-bothered kind of attitude that says instead of finding out what is so wrong with the leaving cert, they’re just going to make it easier for people to pass higher level and hope we stop giving out about it.

The government is at least not alone in the western world for it’s sick obsession with progression to third level. We, the most self-entitled generation in human history, have really convinced ourselves that a university education is a right, and to deny somebody that would be a regression. As a result, we keep pouring our bucket of young people into the already overflowing pool of college graduates, with the hope that if we continue to raise the percentage of young people going to third level, that we’ll paint a picture that looks nice and pretty on the fridge that is world politics. Well, that’s a load of shit. A third level education is not a right that you are born into, it’s a feat to be attained by those who are genuinely interested. Recent suggestions that the “social aspect of college is as important as the academic side for young people going forward” are right in the sense that development occurs because of that, but completely wrong as a factor as to why somebody should go to college. After all, I’m pretty sure I can point to my parents as shining examples of developed human beings, and I don’t remember either of them wasting three or four years sitting in lecture theatres hungover or making sure they got wedges as a chicken roll filling.

But, in the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that “treating people with dignity and respect” can be easily changed to “giving people whatever reality they ask for”. I mean, failure is a part of life. Does Jan O’Sullivan think that lowering the bar to 20% is the next option, or did her university education teach her that it’s 30% that allows us to weed out the lower socio-economic classes while still allowing Mr. Privilege’s underachieving son to go blow a couple grand a year on cheap vodka and KCs? In life, we as a generation have to quickly learn that everything might not turn out the way we want it, and that when knocked down, we have to get back to our feet, get our guard up and keep punching. As it stands, we’re on the ropes here. Instead of spending that 18 years or so of education learning how to dig in deep when the guns start firing, we have been more than happy so far to get by with thinking our elders will fix it for us. I remind you, the generation of people whose parents had Selfie Sticks and Venti Lattes as standard are on their way. We don’t even look remotely prepared to educate our own children, because so far we’ve been part of a system that thinks a good change is the kind of change where people don’t have to stand up and take responsibility for dropping the ball.

The education system does need developing. Children need to learn to think for themselves and have that almighty self-realisation that working hard in school might not be as un-cool as we think it is. If anything, I’m shocked that people who want the LC re-developed are those who can’t manage with the current system. All we hear about is how “real intelligence” and “real skills” should be examined. Honestly, if you don’t have enough intelligence to realise the LC is the easiest system in the world to game (points to medicine student with an A1 in geography), then your performance in a supposed “real intelligence” exam would be pretty woeful. The ability to rote learn is fairly ubiquitous; the ability to be truly intelligent is not.

I’m not sure about the reduction in the number of grades. While I do remember with horror the days of trying to fit inside small percentage brackets, the minister actually said “it would stop people trying to gain minimal percentage increases”, as though striving to get the best grade possible was some sort of sin. That being said, an A in college is 70-100 in most places, and so maybe we should standardise.

The Irish Times, which holds the title of “not the shittest newspaper in the land”, actually printed this in an FAQ on the matter

Question C: So will students get marks for a “fail”?Ah, that’s very emotive language. The notion of failure is something educationalists try to avoid nowadays. As Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan says, “All examination results are a measure of a level of achievement.

The notion of failure is something we try to avoid? I’d imagine icebergs were a notion the Titanic tried to avoid, but when it hit one it didn’t help that the molly-coddling ship builders had only put a handful of lifeboats on the frikkin boat. What’s the phrase I’m looking for “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”?

Nobody is saying we should point at students and say “You failed you idiot”, but school should be about learning how to be a member of the world as much as “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. Not acknowledging or trying to put a twist on somebody falling below standards is the worst preparation somebody can get for our world.

All examination results are a measure of a level of achievement? Yes, true. Some results show zero level of achievement. Sorry, hate to burst your “all our kids are intelligent in their own way” bubble. If we want to really motivate our children to be the best version of them they can be, then telling them that striving to improve is optional is the wrong way about it. I mean, sure, when you play U-9s football everybody gets a game, but when it’s the All-Ireland Final no manager wants to throw someone on full-forward who is only there because nobody had the heart to tell him the game wasn’t for him ten years ago.

But, whatever encourages people who aren’t capable for Higher Level (who should be in no way ashamed of that) to take on material just so the government can say “look, we made your children better”.

Some people are calling it “dumbing down the system”. I would call it “playing God with the future of millions of Irish children, just so we can move up a couple slots in the next world rankings”