April 2016        

The Murder Machine: Pearse and education

Graham Harrington

Amid the pageantry of the 1916 centenary, the revisionists and West-Brit media are on overdrive to present the rising as a failed, delusional blood lust. One of the defining characteristics in this is the omission of the real ideas of the leaders, not least Connolly’s socialism and Pearse’s concept of education.
     The latter is worth study, as it helps us to understand not only the crass misinformation being presented to the public about the centenary but also the serious lack within Irish society of a true education system, making the ideological attacks on any progressive thought an easy job.
     Pearse articulated his views in his article “The Murder Machine,” written in 1913. While the article was addressing the effect the British-imposed colonial education system had on the natives, its message is as pertinent today, in both the southern Irish state and the northern statelet, with its British education system being one of the main barriers to developing integration among young people of the two main communities divided by British-imposed barriers—the modern example of Pearse’s lessons on the murder machine.
     “Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame. Education should harden; this education is meant to enervate.” With these words Pearse sums up the contradiction facing the education system. The system seeks to take human beings, with their intrinsic desire to learn and develop, and churn them out as semi-sentient beings whose sole purpose is to serve the system. It seeks to create obedience and docility, rather than encouraging the student to better themselves and their society: “the system has aimed at the substitution for men and women of mere things.”
     The pupils and students within this machine are mere instruments in the grander designs of this system. In our country today we have children learning business studies as a secondary-school subject, in preparation for the ever-promoted business degrees at the third level. Yet we have very little emphasis on studies in citizenship, classes on participating in democracy, or how we can improve ourselves—certainly nothing encouraging membership of trade unions!
     The reason is that it simply does not suit the system to have an educated people; the youth must be apathetic, numb to reality. The schooling system indoctrinates; it does not foster. Workers are developed only to the degree where they can serve the system; anything else is superfluous.
     A teacher cannot deviate from their assigned programme. They must follow a strict curriculum that they have no say in forming. A teacher who breaks this rule and seeks to encourage a pupil’s desire to pursue an interest not contained in the testing system faces the blame when that pupil does not perform adequately. A student is forced to learn things by rote: they cannot question the information handed out, they are engaged merely in an exercise that involves replicating this information. Most of the information is not related to everyday life, and as a result it is forgotten not long after the exams are finished.
     The pupil cannot break from this seemingly pointless exercise: to do so risks failure; to seek to educate oneself in the realities of life outside the machine is to “distract from your studies.” No wonder we see teachers involved in the dispute over Junior Cert reform in the South: they have little say in forming the testing system best suited for them and their pupils.
     Pearse says that “our children are the raw material” of this system, an impersonal, inhumane system. He sees little distinction between those “ordinary slaves” who are churned out in the school system and the “higher slaves” churned out in the universities. All are victims of the murder machine; no amount of money or bending the knee to the masters will see the benefits reach society. The individual can be liberated only by breaking free of the murder machine.
     Pearse does advocate an alternative. His suggestion arises from the fact that liberation in the education system is not something foreign to the Irish, or “the way things have always been.” He points to the ancient Irish áiteachas system of education. It was based on a fostering approach, as opposed to the training approach of the murder machine. Pearse sought to update this system and introduce it into modern life: “What is needed here is not reform, not even a revolution but a vastly bigger thing—a creation.”
     He desired to create a “Boy [and girl] Republic,” where pupils would elect their own officers and participate fully in the decisions the school would take. The school would be tailored to suit the interests and abilities of the students, not vice versa.
     Pearse saw two essential parts of this as “freedom and inspiration.” He advocated “freedom to the individual school, freedom to the individual teacher, freedom as far as may be to the individual pupil.” This would prepare them for their future participation in democracy, giving them responsibility and creating a culture of participating with their fellows in improving their school, their community, their country. It would be an answer to the individualistic and oppressive approach of the murder machine. In doing so, it would create a cohesion as opposed to anarchy. Pearse pleads for “that true freedom which can exist only where there is discipline, which exists in fact because each, valuing his own freedom, respects also the freedom of others.”
     The responsibility for inspiration would largely be on the teacher, who must “seek to discover the individual bent of his pupils, the hidden talent that is in every normal school”; to discover this and to cherish this, “that it may in the fullness of time be put to some precious use, is the primary duty of the teacher.” This reclaiming of the educator’s status as a fosterer would challenge the existing social relationship between student and teacher, for the teacher a mere nine-to-five slog for a pay cheque and for the pupil an uninteresting chore.
     For Pearse this would result in “literature enjoyed as literature and not studied as ‘texts’.” The benefits would be to society rather than to an alien and oppressive system. Education would set the student free. It would give the pupil an everyday engagement in things greater than the self, fostering inclusiveness and participation. It would seek to create a happiness hitherto not seen in our society—a system where a poet could write poetry, the writer could write, the explorer could explore, the person may truly live. It would create, not destroy.
     Pearse did not see this as merely abstract romanticism. He put it into practice in St Enda’s school for boys and St Ita’s school for girls, which he founded. Here he implemented his ideas and did his best to challenge the murder machine. He made St Enda’s bilingual, seeing Irish as paramount in the independence and character of the school and the new education system he wanted to create. Doing this in the midst of the cultural revival, he made the school operate in accordance with the movements in society at the time, rather than keeping it isolated—a vital point.
     He encouraged the pupils’ participation in gardening, fostering a love and appreciation of nature and their surroundings, again challenging the individual-focused system. He had a disdain for public examinations, preferring to see the students evaluated according to their personal development rather than as a number on a script determining their future.
     These objectives make it no surprise that we learn none of this in our schooling system, lest we begin to question why such an alternative system is not implemented and in consequence begin to question the foundations of the existing system itself.

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