The Message: School Of Life

Your student years are a wonderful prospect, offering the possibilities of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll – but there is far more to them than that...

What does it mean to be nineteen? To be in that zone between leaving school and finishing college where absolutely everything seems to be up for grabs? To have the tantalising vista of future greatness shining still in the bountiful vistas of the imagination? To know that, out there, is a world of abundant possibilities – and that there is the prospect of both fun and fulfillment to be found in the pursuit of even some of them?

This is the first of two special student issues of Hot Press, in what we have designated Student Month. Inside you will find numerous pieces about what lies in store, as the academic year starts to unfold. In a sense, however, we are all students. There is always something else, or something more, that we can learn. There are disciplines to be mastered, languages to be studied, technologies to be understood and applied, new things to be discovered about health and exercise and staying strong. 

I often make the point to people who are involved in third-level education that many of the best and most talented writers ever to work for Hot Press didn’t go to college. Some of them didn’t even pass the Leaving Cert. These renegade spirits are so numerous in the history of the magazine that it would be futile to start naming names. The point, however, is this: education is a means to an end – and it is not very much use to you at all, if it doesn’t get you anywhere near whatever goal you’re aiming for. We will come to what that might be later.

It isn’t only in the field of what, as a kind of shorthand, we will refer to as rock journalism, that people of no tangible qualifications have been known to thrive. For example, busloads of hugely talented young musicians take the option of pursing their art full-time, rather than spending years going the academic route. In fact, precious few of the greats of Irish music went to University. Let me count them: Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Philip Lynott, Bob Geldof, all four members of U2, Sinéad O’Connor, Enya, Glen Hansard, David Holmes, Imelda May, The Script, The Strypes – I could go on, but none of these people had, or have, degrees to their name. Some of them barely got the primary cert. But, in their formative years, they shared a powerful desire to learn about music, to master the craft of playing an instrument, and to express themselves through words and songs and melodies. It is the desire to really learn that defines us.

It is a chastening thought for anyone who has chosen to enter the third level system. You have to ask: why am I here? What is the purpose of what I am doing? Am I really learning? Have I chosen the right career option? Are there better or more productive things that I might be doing with my life?

As a student operating within the system, you are directed along certain pre-ordained, sometimes narrow channels. If you want to become a doctor, there is a long road to travel before you get the letters after your name. There is an argument for a different kind of approach, which would allow for shorter courses in specialised areas of medicine – but that’s a debate for another day. Given that doctors frequently end up dealing with life and death issues, it probably makes sense to err on the side of caution. Courses have been worked out which aim to equip everyone who qualifies with a broad understanding of the human body, how it works, the way in which illnesses take hold and develop, the different approaches to alleviating or curing sickness – and so on. Specialisations come later.

Up to a point that’s fine. But only up to a point. One of the obvious challenges of being a student is that you have to negotiate your way through the system effectively, in order to come out the other side with a degree to your name. It is vital, however, that this need to conform should not, ever, act as a barrier to our ambition to be the best that we can possibly be. 

For a start, we should acknowledge that going to college is a privilege. It might not feel like it during a mind-numbingly boring lecture, at 9am on a Monday morning in bleakest January, but it is.

As a student, you are being afforded a unique opportunity to open your mind, extend your potential, expand your knowledge and develop new skills. If you are studying architecture, you can, of course, focus your energies purely on the discipline itself: there's a lot to learn. But the opportunity is there also to explore the related worlds of history, art, drama, philosophy, interiors, materials, fabrics, craftwork and so on. Indeed, architecture is a very good example of a discipline into which almost every strand of knowledge can feed.  

The fuller your understanding of human life, the more likely you will be, as an architect, to create buildings that work for people, and enhance the lives of citizens, grappling with the business of trying to stay sane in an rapidly changing world.

This is the key. To repeat the phrase, the fuller your understanding of human life, the greater will be your potential to thrive in whatever is your chosen discipline. The instinct to study hard is a good one. But there are other modes of learning. In dramsoc, you get a feel for stories and an understanding of teamwork and camaraderie. There are insights to be gained too into how to mount a production and how to promote it. There is confidence to be gleaned from stepping out in front of an audience and exposing yourself to ridicule or to failure. 

Similarly on a football field, you can get an insight into your own limitations – and how, potentially, you might transcend them. You can learn the importance of working hard for the collective good. You see – and have the opportunity to display – courage, first hand. With a bit of luck you gain an insight into the sweet taste of victory – but you also learn how to cope with defeat.

Through reading, you build a finer sense of the arc of human experience, of the ways in which dramas unfold, lives are changed and time catches up on all of us. Spread your reading wide enough and you can begin to get a perspective on different cultures, what makes them tick – and what we as a society can learn from them. 

These are just three examples. Getting involved in politics, working with the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, contributing to the student newspaper – these are all ways in which we can add a vital other dimension to what academia offers. Everyone is different. And so, as individuals, you will hopefully find diverse ways in which to add to what you are taught during your academic work. But it helps if we all start with a couple of fundamentals: so let’s acknowledge here and now that social justice matters and that equality is something we need to fight for – on behalf of those who are discriminated against or disadvantaged, rather than merely for ourselves.

And what is the goal of all this furious studying? Early in the career of The Boomtown Rats, Bob Geldof summarised the band’s ambitions thus: “We want to get rich, famous and laid.” But of course he was being funny. For sure, most people want to do well and to earn a decent living – and lots of extravagant sex is a hugely desirable bonus. But there is far more to life than all of that too. 

Starting into another academic year, it makes sense to think positively: if we work hard at being open-minded, curious, generous, thoughtful, kind, supportive and engaged in what we do both inside and outside college, we are far more likely to emerge from our studies as rounded human beings capable of contributing in a real and meaningful way to making the world a better place.

That, in the end, is the fearsome challenge that faces us all...

 

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