Where has the joy gone?

I never liked school much. I still have nightmares about my Leaving Cert Irish exam. It’s two days before the exam and I’ve only just gotten hold of the poetry book. I am in a blind panic knowing that I’m going to fail the honours paper. I wake up in a cold sweat. Now, considering I did my Leaving Cert in 1983, that’s a long time for a nightmare to last.

I didn’t like University either. I was doing a BA in Accounting and Finance and couldn’t even balance my chequebook on the best of days. Talk about a mismatch! I never did pass my Cost Accountancy exam so it was just as well that I got a paid pensionable permanent position with the Bank. I was later drawn back to school to take a Certificate in Public Relations and then another in Counselling and Communications. Clear career paths have always evaded me.

For want of something better to do one winter in Valdez, Alaska, I signed up for an Associate’s Degree in Office Management Technology – a piece of paper that says, in an nutshell, that I, too, can type. Going to school in the evening became such a part of my life that I signed up to do a Certificate in Safety Management. Fast forward a couple of years and yet another career change and you’d have found me at Oxford Brookes doing an MA in International Publishing. And that still wasn’t enough. I’m now getting ready to start my dissertation for an MA in Contemporary Diplomacy.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally lectured (in Safety Management and in CSR) and have found that the best and most engaged students are mature students – those students who are in the classroom by choice and not because their parents sent them there. Education is addictive. Study is addictive. Homework and assignments are also addictive. But only perhaps when you choose them.

As I write, I’m on break from a workshop in Malta on Modern Diplomacy for Small States. Today, the 21 course participants from Commonwealth Countries are giving short introductory presentations about their countries and the challenges they face. And it’s fascinating. They’re all here for 10 days and each one of them is eager to learn, actively sharing their experiences, and ready to benefit from the best practices of others. They’re here out of choice.

I wonder, as I’ve wondered before, if students had to work for a year before going to University, would it make a difference? If they had to work for three years before taking a post-graduate degree, would it make a difference? It seems as if the litany of degress is moving with the tide. Back when I did my Leaving Cert, that was all you needed to get a job. Then you needed a BA. Then you needed an MA. Prettymuch now, you need a PHD or an MBA. Has the joy gone out of education? Has it become a means to an end?

What I didn’t know about Ireland

Seaweed beds on the west coast of Ireland

As Ireland’s national day – St Patrick’s Day – draws near, and people around the world get ready for the ‘wearin’ of the green’, the papers will soon be full of retrospective pieces on Ireland’s recent descent from economic grace. I’ve been Irish for as long as I’ve been alive. I may not have lived there full-time for many years, and yet I still consider it my home. I thought I knew quite a lot about my country and its interrelations with the rest of the world. But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

Last year, I took Diplo’s Diplomacy of Small States course and chose Ireland as my focus country. Over the next few weeks, I looked at Ireland’s diplomacy from a variety of angles: structure, security, economic, environmental, multilateral, and regional. Each week, I learned more and more interesting things about Ireland, things that I’d never known before. For instance, I had always thought that neutrality is enshrined in our consitution: it isn’t. I never realised that the Republic of Ireland doesn’t exist except as a soccer team. Ireland (as in the 26 counties) is known as Ireland or Éire. As the weeks advanced, the shame of what I didn’t know was soon overcome by the wealth of knowledge I was accumulating. And not just about Ireland but about each of the other small states that my classmates had focused on.

There's no place like home. There's no place like...

I unearthed a newfound pride in my country, at a time when the Irish psyche was taking a beating having gone from being Europe’s posterchild to one of its PIGS. Taking just one area – multilateral diplomacy – I discovered that in the late 1950s, Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken had pioneered the cause of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation at the UN, a contribution that was recognised by the UN when Minister Aiken was asked to be the first signatory to the NPT.  At the 2010 Review Conference of the NPT, Ireland chaired the body charged with making progress on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.  Other notables include Irish diplomat Sean MacBride (Nobel-Prize laureate and co-founder of Amnesty International) who played a key role in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights; Seán Lester, the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, who handed over the flame at the birth of the UN; and Edward Phelan who played a key role in founding the ILO in 1919 and was Director General of the ILO in 1941.

While much of our lives are spent looking backward instead of forward, this course helped give Ireland’s current woes more context. Set in what I had come to understand as Ireland’s standing in diplomacy, our past achievements gave me hope that we would, indeed, recover and live to tell this tale, too. When I visit Ireland, I no longer feel dismay as how we have let ourselves go. Instead, I see a nation ready to shoulder the consequences of its actions and move forward. I sincerely hope that we have learned our lesson and I wish that more people at home would take the time, be it in a structured course like Diplo’s Diplomacy of Small States, or in private study, to learn about our country and be proud of the contributions we have made. It is only by understanding our role in the world that we can fully appreciate the power of our people and by gaining a broader appreciation of the roles other countries play, we can better measure our own progress.

First published on  5 March 2012