When asked about how he would react if a student of his own produced a megaphone in class, Andrew Phelan, the teacher who disrupted Ruairi Quinn’s speech at the ASTI conference last week, told the Irish Independent that “it would entirely depend on the context”. To me this remark expresses infinitely more intelligence than the sum of all that was said by the host of voices who denounced him for his actions last week by posing the question: what if a pupil did that in class?
It is so basic that you would wonder if it needs any explanation at all. The fact that so many people criticised Phelan’s actions in such terms, on screen, on air, in print, online, illustrates a glaring absence of critical democratic faculties in public discourse, and an authoritarian streak a mile wide in Irish society.
Why is it so difficult to imagine that a classroom and a trade union conference are entirely different situations? You would have to be an idiot to believe the same norms and rules should apply in both cases.
In fact, you have to wonder what kind of person believes that a really existing school classroom -with its emphasis on hierarchy, instruction, rote learning, obedience and uniformity- provides the ideal template for running society. Anyone who thinks the school classroom is the ideal basis for society has no interest in a society populated by critical citizens -for want of a better word- capable of thinking and speaking for themselves. Rather, they want little go-getter yes-men.
No surprise, then, that the Irish Times, the bastion of liberal opinion in Ireland, weighs in heavily on the side of those who think society ought to be run like a classroom. In its editorial last week, titled ‘Turbulence on the teachers front’, it depicted the Minister of Education as a warrior on the field of battle -‘bloodied’ and ‘unbowed’, and bitterly denounced the actions of the ASTI protesters, writing:
For teachers generally – and the public – the most distressing aspect of their conference season was the embarrassing scenes at the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) meeting in Wexford. In a civilised society guests are not insulted by their hosts. Neither should a Minister, as guest of the union and as a representative of the people, be treated with the discourtesy that Mr Quinn was shown by a minority of ASTI members, who attempted to shout him down. Teachers are role models, who lead by example, not least in keeping order. Pupils who behaved in a classroom as these teachers did in Wexford, would risk expulsion. What sanction do those union members face for their disorderly behaviour? Certainly, the distractions caused by that controversy and the divisions that it created between union members meant less attention was given to educational issues of particular concern.
It is as if a fox were writing an impassioned treatise out of concern for the welfare of chickens in coops. Do you imagine that the Irish Times and other Irish media institutions would have devoted a great deal more time to the matters of Special Needs Assistant cuts, cuts to capitation grants, pay cuts, maternity leave cuts, the removal of Traveller Education and Refugee Education Centres, class size increases, and the introduction of JobBridge schemes -to name a few matters- if only Andrew Phelan had not produced a megaphone? If you do, I have a very interesting monorail proposal for your town, or your teaching union.
Let us bear in mind as well that the Irish Times is just as much of a media spearhead for the privatisation of education as Independent News and Media, which at least nails its colours to the mast with its Independent Colleges initiative.
The Irish Times lends proceedings a more respectable veneer with its ‘league tables’ that repeatedly show -as you would expect- fee-paying schools emerging as superior in sending children to university than non fee-paying schools, thereby enforcing the idea of education as a commodity to be bought and sold, the object of consumer choice, rather than a citizen right.
It speaks volumes about the Irish Times’s commitment to anti-democracy that in the context of its broader commitment to supporting neo-liberal austerity -which tends towards the obliteration of any kind of collective solidarity and labour rights- as a self-evident necessity, it should present a minor act of dissent, on the part of a few teachers, as a grievous act of lèse-majesté to be punished by union authorities, because of the primary importance of ‘keeping order’.
It speaks volumes about the dull-mindedness of those journalists who treat it as their vocation to enforce this regime of fiscal sadism -of which the Minister for Education is a senior figure- and destruction of democratic rights that they should think society should be run like a classroom. You have to wonder what kind of school these people attended.
What makes the Irish Times’s stance in this matter all the more ridiculous is its claim to know what a civilised society looks like. It has been the uncritical supporter of social and economic policies that have placed an additional 180,000 in poverty since 2007. There are now 375,000 children living in poverty.
What has the Irish Times ever done to defend the social rights of these children? Nothing. Has it ever been as outraged at the assault on their dignity as it was regarding that of the Minister for Education after a bit of heckling? No. It is far more concerned with making sure that order is kept in their dilapidated classrooms, with their teachers and parents and communities bearing the cost, in order that the elite groups who benefit from the social, economic and educational policies promoted by the Irish Times can continue to enjoy an easy life. It hates democracy that much.