- 09 Sep 19
A new academic year offers a fresh set of challenges – but also the opportunity to achieve great things…
For those stepping across the threshold of a college campus for the first time, it can be daunting. School doesn’t prepare you for this, not even remotely.
Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of teenagers who develop a powerful sense of where their talents lie and who understand what it means to become immersed in maths, science, computers, music, writing and so on, and to develop their innate capabilities to the utmost.
I met Kevin Jansson, a young concert pianist from Cork, earlier this year. He is an astonishing player, technically brilliant but also capable of unlocking a special kind of emotion when he plays. Back then, he was preparing to do the Leaving Cert. But he is already at a level where you know that it is potentially within his grasp to go on to become one of the greatest musicians this country has ever produced.
There are other young men and women of outstanding talent, dozens of them, coming through the second-level school system. It might be in music, sport, science or poetry that they excel. But talent is only half the battle. We all know from sport in particular that the rate of attrition can be extraordinarily high. A uniquely brilliant kid is signed by a Premiership football team. The future looks rosy. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Only a very small proportion of those singled out for inclusion in the academy system will succeed as a professional footballer. Even young genius has to be guided and nurtured. And in the end, each and every one of us has to find the inner strength to be the best version of ourselves that we can be – in every sense of that somewhat overworked cliché.
In truth, there is no shame in deciding that the life of a professional footballer, model, actor or musician isn’t for you. Or even in giving it your all and finding that come selection day, you are among those discarded by what can be a brutal system – and one in which those making the decisions are often misguided, judgemental or just plain wrong. But what is true of potential elite performers is also true of the rest of us. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, women and men alike are going through a period of extraordinary change, development and – in many cases – transformation. Some people flourish. Others less so. But the reality is that second-level education does little to prepare the majority of us for the world of adulthood, into which we are plunged as students.
TOO MUCH DISCLOSURE
The Leaving Cert is like a boot camp on a grand scale. Students are encouraged to take a narrow view. What do I have to study to get the points? And, in general, they follow the logic of that approach through to the end, bitter or otherwise. You can earn 600 points and still feel, in your heart, that you really know very little about anything.
College offers the possibility of going beyond that. It involves a step up, into a different way of looking at the world. Very few of us are programmed to take that step with ease. What we have to hope for, then, is that the process will result in the minimum number of casualties. To shift from a regime that is strictly exam-focussed into one where you are to a very large extent in charge of your own time, and hopefully your own destiny, is just the first of the many difficult learnings that have to be negotiated by college first-years. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach to it that guarantees success.
Colleges and courses vary greatly. Being one of 500 doing English in a university the size of UCD is completely different to starting a course in Beauty Therapy in Ormond College, Kilkenny. But all third-level courses have this in common: when push comes to shove you are on your own.
In school, between parents and teachers, a certain level of discipline might be imposed. You can be poked and prodded: most teenagers accept that it comes with the turf and allow themselves to be cajoled and helped to do more, to work harder. The assumption in college, however, is that you are an adult. No one is going to force you to do the work. You’re either up for it or not.
It is best to embrace that message from the start. Inevitably, some first-years lose their way. People discover that what they have chosen doesn’t suit them. Plenty end up asking themselves: what was I thinking of?
The truth is that we all make mistakes. It is hard to know at the age of seventeen or eighteen, when the CAO preferences have to be declared, what the hell you want to do in five or ten years time, never mind thirty. No one has any idea what the world will look like then, so how can you know what you might want to do to earn a shekel? So if you start to feel disillusioned, don’t panic. It has happened to hundreds of thousands before you, and many of them have gone on to become hugely successful in their lives and their careers.
Life is complicated. And more so than ever now. The stresses on students, incurred in different ways almost around the clock, are greater than ever before. The loss of privacy into which the whole world, more or less, has unwittingly marched is a curse. The pressures involved in having to live a shadow life online, in which a falsely glamorous version of yourself is routinely projected by most people (though, in fairness, not by all) is a whole other tribe of monkeys on our collective backs.
But even where there is no attempt to re-invent ourselves as more attractive, interesting and enviable than most of us really are, well there is still the problem of far too much disclosure. People interviewing you for a part-time or a summer job will almost certainly look at your social media accounts. So will the teachers in your college if you are late with a project. Or, as became clear in a recent court case, employers might too, if you take a day off work. I could go on. The extent of people’s indiscretions online is mind-boggling. Try to avoid being that dope if you can.
Meanwhile, the apparent impossibility of escaping from the constant messages, alerts, notifications, pushes and blatant advertising scams, foisted on us in the most exploitative way by social media companies, makes it harder for students to think, to concentrate and to get on with the work that has to be done. And in college, it has.
But here’s the rub. Everyone who is on this particular Titanic got on board willingly. There is no point in imagining yourself a victim when almost everyone else is in the same boat. And the truth is that you have the power to change things for the better, in your own world – and maybe for other people as well.
The first thing to realise is that, if you are a third-level student in Ireland, in relative terms, you are privileged. It mightn’t feel like it a lot of the time, but this is true of the majority of Irish citizens. By global standards, we are a wealthy nation. Compared to most our tax system is progressive. Our electoral apparatus is among the most effectively representative in the world. By any index, in 2019, we rank among the most liberal and tolerant societies. And the percentage of Irish people going to college is extremely high.
This is not to imply, for even a second, that things in Ireland could not be far better than they are. We have been sucked into the Neo-Liberal world order, in which CEOs of big companies (in Ireland as elsewhere) are paid stupid amounts of money that neither their talents nor their work remotely merit. The spectre of racism is lurking. Not enough is being done to assist those who are struggling. The housing crisis represents a grotesque failure on the part of government. In particular, for students, the situation in relation to rent is a nightmare.
But the truth is that when you look beyond parts of Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, you realise that Ireland really is one of the best places in the world to live right now. In many ways it sticks in the craw to say that – but it is true.
So when it comes to victimhood – unless Brexit queers the pitch completely, and it might – right now, people living on the island of Ireland are close to the bottom of the global table.
The implications of this are clear. We can all benefit by thinking less about ourselves and more about people who are really disadvantaged. This is true of every sentient human being. But it is especially true of students. Studying isn’t easy. But most students are still in the unique position of not carrying the burden of responsibility that is heaped on people who have jobs and children and families to think about.
College is a time to discover the extent of your own capabilities. It is a time to join a band, act in a play, help to run the film society.
Sometimes these things can be transformative, as the experience of the extraordinary emerging generation of Irish college bands – like Fontaines D.C. and The Murder Capital – has shown. But it is also a time to explore how much you can do for others – like helping families that are homeless; bringing meals to elderly people in need of assistance; contributing in a tangible way to making Ireland a more sustainable place – and so on. Being miserable about our own lot is part of the human condition. But people who give of themselves to help others generally avoid the kind of narcissistic absorption in their own grievances (whether real or imagined) that seems now to be afflicting a greater number of people than ever before.
And, of course, we can get political. That doesn’t mean forming lynch mobs on social media to silence anyone with whom we disagree. It doesn’t mean bullying and shouting down the opposition. It doesn’t mean deciding that no one else is entitled to a point of view. In fact the opposite: within a college environment, it means respecting the importance of disagreement and debate. It means being strong enough to allow our ideas – and ideologies – to be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. It means accepting the democratic idea of free and open debate, without enabling hate speech, racism or incitement to violence.
Look at what is happening in Brazil, in Hungary, in Turkey, in Poland, in the U.S, in Britain even. Democracy may be a flawed system but it is by far the best available and it is under threat. As it happens, our system of Proportional Representation via the single transferable vote is the most robust and fairest on the planet.
We have seen, over the past five years in Ireland, just how much can be achieved by young people taking an active interest in wider society. Without the passionate, campaigning engagement of voters between the ages of 18 and 24, the Same Sex Marriage referendum might not have been passed. We might not have successfully repealed the 8th Amendment.
But there is no reason to stop there. There is much else that needs to be changed in Irish society. The best – the only – way of driving that change is by becoming politically conscious and socially active. By protesting, by marching, sure. But ultimately – and this is the bit that really matters – by using the ballot box intelligently to effect change. There is an election on the way. It may well happen during the new academic year. It is up to you to play a part.
In the meantime, there is one other thing that is worth considering. The climate crisis is an issue of over-arching importance that no one in his or her right mind can afford to ignore. But another crisis is arguably as disastrous in its impact and its consequences for us all. Surveillance capitalism has been enabled and encouraged by compliant governments in a way that presents an immediate threat to the very idea of freedom of thought and action.
Tech companies have positioned themselves as new world superpowers. They have knowingly facilitated the lies unscrupulously spread to further the interests of the far right. And they have shown themselves to be utterly cynical in pursuing their own anti-democratic agenda. We can no longer afford to remain asleep at the wheel on something of such far-reaching importance.
The option is there for everyone who complains about the corrosive effects of social media to get off the platforms. Or to actively seek redress for the appalling liberties that social media companies have taken with all of the accumulated details of your life and movements that they have stolen from you, your friends and everyone like you, to turn it into coinage that will sit in their banks. It is vital that we begin to rise up and demand that this can no longer be allowed to happen.
In Hot Press, we stand for freedom: for individual choice, for collective responsibility, for the full separation of Church and State, for the equality agenda, and for the primacy of the democratic system. We are against fascism, racism, sexism of every variety, oppression of minorities, and nationalistic jingoism of whatever hue. We are for art, culture, music and self-expression. We are for good sex between consenting adults of any gender and none.
And we are for students having a good time, as well as playing their part. Is that too much to ask? It shouldn’t be. It really shouldn’t.