1/28/2008

Murder Machine in the 21st Century

I don't know if any of you have read Padraig Pearse's wonderful polemic "Murder Machine"?

For those of you who haven't, you should!

To say that this piece of historical writing has great resonance today would be an understatement.

I bring up Padraig Pearse's critique of the Irish education system because of an article that appeared in the Irish News.

Former Attorney General Peter Sutherland was complaining about the fact that incompetent teachers are rarely sacked, a problem which he blamed on the trade union movement (an accusation with some merit)

I have a great deal of sympathy with Mr Sutherland because I happen to agree with him.

I have first hand experience of bad teaching. While in primary school I had the misfortune of having one of the vilest bastards to ever grace the teaching profession.

I can remember the way she would enjoy humiliating me in public, how she sent me to P1 for a week and instructed me to look at the blackboard. There are other examples that I could give but I'll not get in to that here.

In a way she made me a stronger person because from then on I vowed that no bastard would ever belittle me again, I wasn't going to be put down by anyone again.

My class was the first to have her, at the end of the year parents were calling for her blood but she wasn't sacked. Every year since parents have demanded that she be sacked. To no avail though, she still remains.

It eventually developed into a situation were very angry parents went to the school and went absolutely ballistic. I know of one mother who entered her classroom and told her in front of the class that if she ever sent another one of her daughters home crying again and begging not to be sent to school that she would come back and drag her out of the class by the hair kicking and screaming.

On one level I blame her personally for her sick abuse but one the whole I blame the system which allowed her and people like her to teach children. The system which exists today is the same system which Padraig Pearse attacked in "Murder Machine".

The system which we have today was once described by one of my teachers as a factory, a place where we are grown under strict conditions and boundaries. We are a result of what they want; we are never really educated merely informed on subjects and social concepts which they deem important.

"Tantum eruditi sunt liberi"

That is a line from Epictetus which means "Only the educated are free" and that is what Pearse was getting at in Murder Machine.

What freedom do we have in our education system? What freedom do students have to develop as human beings and individuals as opposed to factory farmed "grade A" students?

In "Murder Machine" Pearse wrote

"I dwell on the importance of the personal element in education. I would have every child not merely a unit in a school attendance, but in some intimate personal way the pupil of a teacher, or, to use more expressive words, the disciple of a master. And here I nowise contradict another position of mine, that the main object in education is to help the child to be his own true and best self.

What the teacher should bring to his pupil is not a set of ready made opinions, or a stock of cut-and-dry information, but an inspiration and an example; and his main qualification should be, not such an overmastering will as shall impose itself at all hazards upon all weaker wills that come under its influence, but rather so infectious an enthusiasm as shall kindle new enthusiasm."


I received what was supposed to be a Christian Brother Grammar school education. The ethos of the Christian Brothers was for you to stand up for what you believe in, never cower down to evil.

That, I felt, was in constant contradiction with the reality of the school. We had teachers who imposed their own political and moral values on others and teachers who abused their positions of responsibility.

As of result of this I began to take small actions against such frivolity. When a rule was brought in which proclaimed that students couldn't have hair any shorter than a number four blade I got a number one.

I got off being disciplined by having a hairdresser friend of mine on standby to tell them that she gave me a number four. One of my favourite teachers described me as a ghost, as I couldn't be caught.

Any rule which I believed was there to stifle personal expression was challenged. I have to say before any of you ask that I was never under detention in my entire time at secondary school. I was suspended for 55 days at the end of 7th year for attending anti-war protests but legal action cured that little ill quite quickly.

I respected most of the teachers in the school, I liked most of them as well. They tended to be the older teachers though. The sort of teachers that didn't care about promotion. Teachers that developed very respectful and educational bonds with the students or the "old school" as we called them.

I had no time for some of the younger teachers who were nothing more than arse lickers and "yes men", the sort of teachers who were only concerned with furthering their "career" as opposed to furthering the educational development of their students.

With some of these teachers the old adage of "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." was a sad reality. The sort of teacher who viewed teaching as a fall back from a jaunt in an unsuccessful career as opposed to a vocation.

Pearse recognised this failing when he wrote

"The fact is that, with rare exceptions, the men and women who are willing to work under the conditions as to personal dignity, freedom, tenure, and emolument which obtain in Irish schools are not the sort of men and women likely to make good educators"

Pupils were so spoon fed that when it came to University my school had the highest percentage of drop outs at QUB in the entire 6 counties. This was in despite of the fact that we had the best grades at GCSE and A Level in the 6 counties and were described as "The best boys grammar" in the North.

Individuality was frowned upon, you were not allowed to ask questions or debate if it risked time spent towards achieving grades. Things were done in a certain way and you were not in a position to question that.

In fact I remember an example of this mentality during a class election for Prefect. We had two candidates standing and I didn't think much of either of them so when the teacher came around and asked me who I was voting for I said I was abstaining.

She went bananas and said that I wasn't allowed to abstain; I mean this woman went off her trolley! She started snarling and snorting at the mere insinuation that I was not going to go along with the status quo.

"Thou shalt not' is half the law of Ireland, and the other half is `Thou must.'
Now, nowhere has the law of `Thou shalt not' and `Thou must' been so rigorous as in the schoolroom. Surely the first essential of healthy life there was freedom. But there has been and there is no freedom in Irish education; no freedom for the child, no freedom for the teacher, no freedom for the school. Where young souls, young minds, young bodies, demanded the largest measure of individual freedom consistent with the common good, freedom to move and grow on their natural lines, freedom to live their own lives---for what is natural life but natural growth?"


I really enjoyed my education; I had a great time and learnt a lot from some great teachers. That said, many more students were not so lucky and they are the people that are being left behind.

They are the people being destroyed by the Murder Machine!

If I had my way both Caitríona Ruane and Mary Hanifin would be forced to read "Murder Machine", it's as relevant now as it was then.

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