I think I was around fifteen years old. The elderly Christian Brother teaching us Religious Studies brought us all downstairs to the video room. The lesson for the day would be a documentary on Our Lady of Garabandal, a supposed “apparition” of Mary somewhere in Spain. The key message from the programme was the Blessed Virgin’s unhappiness with the world. Unless we started saying the Rosary pretty darn quick, terrible unspecified things would happen. No discussion, no criticism. We were expected to accept all of the programme’s premises at face value.
This was a major downside of an Irish Catholic education in the 1980’s. Alongside fairly solid subjects such as maths, science and the foreign languages, we were schooled in rank superstition. This was not educational, it was anti-educational. We left school in possession of a rather toxic mindset: that if a person was wearing the right clothes or had the right prefix before his name, or the right suffix after his name, then you were expected to accept that he was telling the truth, no matter what rubbish he was uttering from his mouth.
I was reminded of this a few days ago when friends of mine were discussing alternative medicine cures for various ailments. There was no analysis, no criticism. The proof was in the anecdote and the anecdote was the gold-standard.
Then there was the hubbub at Knock a few months ago, attracting thousands to witness Joe Coleman muttering nonsense into the middle distance. Many of us might laugh, but it served as a reminder that the Ireland of the moving statues hadn’t gone away, you know.
Pick up any local paper and you will find ads for peddlers of the most outrageous woo, from Chinese medicine to homeopathic treatments to new age crystal remedies. And how could we forget the pyramid schemes and the property bubbles that hit the country over the past few years? It all points a vulnerability common to us all. You might not beat the Irish, but fool us you can, and fool us you do. Every single day.
It’s all quite depressing stuff. If you want to make make a fast buck using nothing but smoke and mirrors, Ireland is as good a place as any to try your hand.
Now, I know that belief in the miraculous, the supernatural and the magical is a worldwide phenomenon. Most societies are steeped in it and it will be with us as long as our species breathe on this planet. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be good for all of us if our kids were better prepared to accept things more on evidence than on hearsay? Wouldn’t it be better if we were taught how our brains can play tricks on us and how to avoid the more common mistakes? Wouldn’t it benefit us to quickly recognise manipulation by others? Our education system somehow avoided this aspect of our schooling and the results are everywhere to be seen.
The Irish education system, or should I say, the Catholic education system of Ireland (sadly these expressions are synonymous), didn’t dwell too much on such questions, lest we peered too closely at the shaky foundations of Catholicism’s own dogmas and diktats. We were, of course, taught to think critically, but critical thinking had its limits.
I would love to say that the system has improved greatly since I left school and that we are turning out school-leavers who have a much better handle on reality, but I fear that change has been glacially slow. I stand to be corrected in this regard.
It’s another reason why a Catholic education is not necessarily the best education for our schoolchildren. We deserve better. It’s time we got better.