Amid all the stress of career fairs and personal statements, Laura McGrath issues a reminder of education’s true purpose.

My formal educational experience began somewhat in-extraordinarily and quite like anyone else’s in this country of ours; I entered junior infants at the age of about five.

As a naïve, keen infant, I stepped through the doors of an ordinary, archetypal primary school, ready to begin my education. Armed with an open mind and a childish innocent, I journeyed through each progressive stage, completing the syllabus, performing what was required of me, all the while being subconsciously reassured (and then consciously aware as I entered second level) that success at each stage afforded progression to the next, always towards some tangible goal.

I was always striving, always reaching for that “end result” of education; be it freedom, the dream job, or entering the “real world.”

It has been drilled into us since we could barely utter the word ‘school’ that the sole purpose of formal education is to secure a good, lucrative job in the real world, for stability.

This is the purpose of education, is it not? It is common belief that a college or third level education is the key to upward mobility, maximising your income, and beginning your adult life. And while all of these statements do hold some validity, I must tenaciously contend this viewpoint for I believe we have lost our perception of what the purpose of education is; particularly a third level education.

Nowadays, people are more ambitious than ever; science is more advanced than ever, and some would argue that education is at its prime. So after all this I find myself asking, why are people more ignorant than ever? Our perception of education is flawed and an alternative discourse of what its purpose is needs to be discerned.

“What do I do with my life?” The pressing question on each and every Leaving Cert student’s mind. The question which torments the dreams of career guidance teachers nationwide, nightly. I disagree vehemently with this question. This is where the root of our skewed perception of education lies.

Firstly, to ask such a question implies that adulthood is this monolithic, unitary, unchanging thing in which you acquire your life, your chosen job, your family and you simply ride it Career-Fair-handshakeout until the bitter end. The empty and terrifying morass of adulthood, and the reason we are so petrified by this question, is that we are instilled with the absurd idea that we are only going to ever be able to do one thing. Realistically, you will always be figuring out what to do with your life, adapting to circumstance, dealing with the ever present tension between idealism and practicality.

Okay, yes each time you make a decision you are narrowing your possibilities, so if you are studying Nanoscience, the chances of you becoming an Architect are very slim. But who’s to say you can’t be a scientist who volunteers part time for a charity who builds houses for the disadvantaged?

Another prominent question of secondary school leavers is whether or not to go to college. Is it worth it? Current Zeitgeist would indicate that college is a necessity and mostly, those who can afford it will go. Again, the majority believe it will provide better job opportunities with increased chance of upward mobility, which of course is accurate, but beyond that, what is a college education?

Too often we view higher education as an industry, a phenomenon aided by statistics and the media, but higher education is not a business model, and students are not its customers.

The way I look at, college is exclusive membership to a unique club, a distinctive network of individuals to which you have been granted access, no matter what your chosen field of study is, you are part of this idiosyncratic space of learning.

Students are so focused on the outcome of their opportunity that they are unable to acknowledge and appreciate the indispensable resources they are exposed to. End result aside, if utilised properly, a college education succeeds in developing an educated personality for the individual which far exceeds the skill set required for a chosen field.  The opportunity to study in a formal, dedicated way is still a gift, albeit an expensive one. It nurtures the formation of an inquiring, critical mind, for as Aristotle said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

To participate properly in a democratic society, we need to know things, to understand and express things and to be understood in an efficient and coherent manner. This creates a more robust democracy and refined society, a skilled workforce being only a by-product. It is our duty as citizens of this world to exercise good judgement, to become a better and stevejobs2more informed observer of the universe. College education facilitates this. The parameters of academia should be departed by students armed with the skills needed to be a participant and not a spectator.  

Most students may appreciate how lucky they are to have received access to this exclusive world, while others may not but this fact is irrelevant. We have received this running start in life, we are privileged, and with privilege comes a degree of responsibility. It is necessary that we use our erudition to contribute to the advancement of our society.

All this said, I can’t help but wonder, then, are we actually maximising our potential from this advantageous position? This opportunity is afforded to us by chance, by luck, but are we cashing in on this wealth of knowledge which surrounds us, or are we striving myopically for our individual end goal?

Broadly speaking, I doubt the motivation of most students nowadays. Since third level education has become more widespread and attainable, I question how seriously students are taking their education. It becomes an inordinate task to even get students to read the textbook never mind further reading.

A further inquiry beyond the motivation of students is one that questions if we are qualified enough upon leaving third level. And what constitutes being qualified enough? To these questions, I am afraid, I do not hold the answers but can only merely offer my perspective on where I feel our focus should lie if we are to maximise our potential.

To finish with the words of Nelson Mandela: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

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