Yesterday I dropped off €115 to the children’s primary school, to cover the cost of materials. This payment is on top of the hundreds of euro already paid for school textbooks.
As I may have mentioned before, this is something of an alien practice to me. In Northern Ireland, where I went to school, the costs of school materials are covered through general taxation.
There are advantages to school materials being paid for through general taxation: for one, it fastens the principle that education isn’t a commodity but a public good. Here, not only is getting a good education good for you, but it is also good for me and everyone else, and so everyone contributes to the education of everyone else. The reality of the UK education system as a whole does not quite reflect this principle, of course, yet the principle, for most people, is still worth having.
In the Republic of Ireland, the fact that school material costs have to be paid for by parents fastens the contrary principle: education is a commodity, not a public good. According to this, your education should, at the end of the day, come at your own expense. Anything else is a temporary concession, not a right.
When, in your childhood years, and somewhat beyond, it comes at your parents’ expense, this is bound up with the sense that you are your parents’ property, a commodity in their portfolio to be developed. In so far as you pay for the education of others, this is thought of as an unwelcome imposition, more than anything else. From this perspective, the State supplies education services as a consumer good. You pay for them through your taxes because this is the most cost-effective way of acquiring these services.
In practice, all the best people in the Republic of Ireland pay for their own children’s schooling out of their own pocket because educating your child means getting everything for them, even if it means nothing for everyone else. Well, not entirely out of their own pocket, mind you, since the cost of teachers in the exclusive fee-paying schools they use is borne by the State. And why shouldn’t the State pay for it? Aren’t these parents making a far greater sacrifice for their children than those who send their children to fully-funded state schools and who prefer buying cigarettes and alcohol to shunting their children further upwards the ladder of respectability?
While we’re at it, why shouldn’t the State incentivise top executives, who wish to move to Ireland to create jobs, by effectively subsidising them in sending their children to private schools? I am pleased to report, once again, the State actually does this at the minute. If you’re a top executive in, say, Apple, then Apple can pay your child’s private school fees up to €5000 tax-free, for each child. Better that the money goes in that direction rather than, say, providing school materials free to the undeserving, or making the gilded offspring of top execs endure the indignity of learning alongside the great unwashed.
I had a brief exchange on Twitter recently on related matters with a government TD, Noel Rock. Rock claimed that it was wrong for people who had to make do without a third level education to be paying in order for others to receive one, as would be the case if third level education were paid for through progressive taxation. Well indeed: and while we’re at it, why should older people pay for younger people to learn how to make the world a better place, when they’re going to be dead anyway? Let old people pay private firms through the nose for all their geriatric medicine before they die, and to hell with them if they can’t. Sure didn’t Christine Lagarde say people were living too long anyway. Conversely, why should the young contribute toward the pensions of the old, who have already had their chance? With intellectual heavyweights like Rock to the fore in politics, at least the war of all against all will be short.
The other night I was putting the school textbooks into the children’s bags and I opened up the Senior Infants textbook ‘Grow in Love’. It is a religious education book. It cost us €8.99. Earlier in the day I had read posts from people who were -rightly, in my view- incensed that the State broadcaster RTÉ had shown live of Mother Teresa’s induction into Heaven’s Hall of Fame. Well, here’s what they teach 5 year olds in Ireland’s state-funded schools in 2016, so it’s not as if RTÉ was doing a solo run on this. Just as you pay your licence fee to RTÉ so that it tells you why you need to give up your auld sinful attachments to pensions and universal benefits, you also pay for your children to learn to admire someone who thought the poor accepting their lot was a beautiful thing. But it doesn’t stop there: the child is supposed to read it with her family. So you are, in fact, paying for your child to proselytise to you about the virtues of charity.
‘Help us to learn from the lives of Mother Teresa, and other holy men and women’, says the prayer in the textbook made for the five-year-old in a State-funded Irish school but paid for by her parents because it is the responsibility of parents, not Apple and not Denis O’Brien, to pay for their children’s education. Many people who were poor lived in Calcutta, the tableau informs, as if they could just as well have lived in Blackrock or Foxrock but somehow wound up in Calcutta. The Catholic tradition of selecting and venerating saints has a very dubious history, to say the least. Most such saints either came from the upper orders in the society in which they lived, or, they were lowly figures whose sainthood was bestowed because they learned to accept their lot in life. And of course the example of their sainthood is usually contrasted with the venality and fallen nature of the rest of us. There is a kind of continuity, then, between the worship of saints and the cult surrounding stupendously wealthy CEOs and celebrities. There is something singular about them, something that confines us to individuality, not collectivity. The simple account of Mother Teresa in the book for five-year-olds is not all that different from the way such stories are presented to adults, either. You are led to forget, in Mother Teresa’s case, but also in the case of glittering billionaires, that most of the work was not done by them but by the great many others who elevated them to prominence.
All this has the effect of loosening you up to believe that if the likes of Apple have accumulated vast profits, then it is because people like Steve Jobs or Tim Cook have conjured them out of an unpromising nothing, something you, o lowly one, could never do. Or, as Marx puts it, the more value we create, the more valueless and worthless we become. Hence, maybe they are entitled to that money after all, and maybe they are right when they say that they pay tax because the people who work for them pay tax, and that in fact it is the rule of capital that gives life to us as political beings, and that we should just submit to it once and for all, less this life be taken from us altogether.