Critical debate

The Pied Piper Of Sheep
Image by Kman999 via Flickr

Reading about the Nyberg report into the banking collapse, I was struck by one of its main findings; that a lack of critical debate about the boom in Irish society led to a herd mentality.
Teachers, particularly at third-level, have been clamouring for years at the way our education system encourages lemming-like behaviour. The system does not encourage us to think for ourselves, to problem solve, to examine critically a theory or belief. Instead, children learn by rote and repeat without questioning the ‘wisdom’ of their elders. Teachers of new third-level entrants in our colleges despair at their students’ inability to question or to learn independently, and, often, this ability never develops because it is left too late.
Our highest achievers, the ones who get the most points, and who end up in prestigious jobs in law, accountancy, auditing, business, medicine – in other words, the elite – are merely proven to be the best at rote learning. They are the ones running the place and they have been educated purely to believe and repeat what they are told.
A questioning nature is not innate; it is nurture, not nature, that causes us to be investigative, critical and skeptical.
So the Nyberg report’s highlighting of ‘groupthink’ and a ‘herd mentality’ leading to the greatest self-inflicted catastrophe in Irish history is instructive. Many commentators have previously alluded to this, but having it laid down on paper will, hopefully, be useful. Particularly having it laid down on paper by an expert, who isn’t Irish, because the same herd mentality has led us to be deeply dismissive of our own critics, like David McWilliams and Morgan Kelly, both of whom predicted the bust.
Irish culture actively discourages whistleblowers.
The recent Garda ‘rape tape’ in Mayo was a terrible indictment not just of ignorance among the Gardaí, but of a weakness of character that is replicated in all sectors of Irish society. There is nobody who will stand up and say ‘that is wrong’.
Not one of the Gardaí in that car said ‘that’s enough’ when the rape joke was made, and repeated, and not one of our leading politicians (including the then Opposition, now Government) shouted ‘stop’ when the Government pumped the property market further and further.
This should be the last report.
What we need now is results. While I agree with Mr Nyberg’s findings that a majority of people in the country did not want the party to end, I think we already knew that.
We need to tackle both the roots and the results of what has happened to us.
The few who instigated the disastrous bank guarantee scheme and wilfully fooled an unprepared and under-educated government into putting the country in hock should be punished properly, and if that takes a referendum to allow parliamentary scrutiny, so be it.
But to tackle the roots we need to change the culture that operates here. Our children must be taught that questioning is good and that learning is a matter of opening your mind to all the possibilities and not accepting the first one presented. Only by changing how we think can we prevent this happening again.



  1. I’m going to make a small plea on behalf of the one subject, much neglected cos “it’s so hard” that you can’t do well in by rote learning. Maths. You simply have to learn how to do things so you can work out what the answer, not what the answer is.

    And pause for a moment and look at what subject is most missing from the professional and educational background of the vast majority of our public reps, from all parties. Maths doesn’t make a person immune from being wrong but it does make one less likely to argue the impossible.

  2. While I concede that groupthink and herding behaviour exist among human beings, there is no reason to presume that this is any more so in the Irish population than in that of other countries and I certainly cannot accept that it is a direct result of the Irish education system.

    Though rote-learning does exist as a tool of learning, it is not paramount and is much maligned due to the misconception that it is without lasting value. Adults of a certain age, for instance, will be aware of the value they still derive from having learned maths tables by rote as children; many see that younger people are unable to cope with (or even attempt) everyday mental arithmatic because they did not rote-learn these foundation-stones. Many maths teachers tell me they pin-point this educational change to the introduction of calculators in state exams – a move opposed by teachers at the time, but their objections were ignored, as is often the case in such matters.

    Knowing facts is important for life and this is reflected in the memorisation element of many subjects during a person’s education, but to dismiss the system as mere rote-learning is erroneous and this notion, itself, is in danger of becoming a new group-think in itself. It ignores the more important elements of investigation and critical analysis in the study of English literature, for example. I have even heard media commentators claiming that a student can rote-learn and regurgitate the answers on the Leaving cert English exam. I accept that it is possible that one might succeed in doing this if luck conspires to have all the questions and tasks magically suit whatever specific answers have been prepared, but it is terribly unlikely and, having taught English for twenty-two years, I can state that this is a very risky tactic and one that I have never employed with any of my students.

    I had the great fortune of studying under the late John Devitt in college and I carry a maxim of his with me always: “There is no substitute for lack of familiarity with the text.” This does not refer to merely memorising the text at hand, but to knowing it intimately; actively reading and engaging with a text, living with it, thinking about it, questioning it, discussing and internalising it. These skills and the application of a hermeneutic of suspicion to everything they read/see/hear are the mainstay of my approach to teaching. I am not alone. Indeed, any other approach is in the minority in mainstream schools in Ireland. The rote-learning/regurgitation mentality appears to be an aberration emerging from the grind-school business, which is less concerned with education than it is with colouring-by-numbers to make a profit.

    During the so-called “Boom years”, there were people who behaved like lemmings; there is no doubt. They were in the minority. The vast majority of people did question what was happening when they saw the banks relax their rules of lending only 2.5 times salary for a mortgage. Most did realise that there was madness in the peak-time purchase of a house at ten-times its original cost when new. There is a growing danger of the Lenihan “We all partied” mantra becoming the new group-think as we are bombarded with it daily in often very subtle and insidious ways.

    Many people questioned and challenged the mentality of the celtic tiger years and that of the property bubble. I recall it as a recurring theme at Annual Teacher Conferences from 2000 onwards. The dissenting voices were certainly there and numerous. Sadly, they were largely ignored by “official Ireland”, which held and still holds the levers of power and the mass media.

    • Hi Tim,
      Some valid points there but I have to disagree with you on the rote learning side of things. I did my Leaving Cert in 2002 and most of my subjects were done this way, with teachers drawing charts of what questions had come up every year since dot and calculating odds of what topics would come up. This was in a very ordinary country school, not a grinds school.
      I am a product of the rote learning system – I got high points as a result of it – and I have spent the time since I left college attempting to learn to think for myself. I studied Law with French and Sociology in college and my classmates, who all achieved high points, almost all did worse in French & Sociology than in Law because they were subjects we couldn’t learn by heart.
      I agree with you that there’s a role for rote learning – tables are the perfect example. But it should be a foundation and not the entirety of our education system. I did have a couple of teachers who encouraged critical thinking but not enough – they were the exception rather than the rule.
      I do agree that there were dissenting voices – my mother, also a teacher, was almost ostracised by certain people for suggesting the bubble could not last. That is probably part of the reason I ended up in journalism – the perspective in Irish media can be incredibly limited.

  3. You learn too late in life to question everything because, more often than not, there is a hidden agenda or a bias behind what is being said. I should know I work in PR!

  4. My own tuppence worth, is there is a culture with-in any group in any society, not just Ireland, of the lack of respons I bility and accountability for and to one’s own actions.

    During the boom years there were people who looked at the insanity and questioned why the Central Bank of Ireland came out with very soft warnings, I did, however, no one wanted to listen, they looked at me with pity in their eyes, as though I was brainless! (“The God help us” attitude/ look)!

    Not listening is a major flaw human beings employ when in denial about anything, in Ireland’s case, it was the Banks, property developers et al in collusion with the Government, who did not listen to the likes of David McWillaims etc. I’d like to ask why they didn’t listen? What made it so difficult for them to hear ?!? Did they have a gain in NOT listening?!? Was it really down to their GREED?!? There was a hidden agenda! (That hidden agenda still prevails) Those groups are profiting today, while the average person suffers financially.

    During the boom, I used to feel like the only person who shouted “The King has NO Clothes”! However, I have since learned, that a lot of you were shouting the same thing. No one listened then and they are not listening now!


    And what is the gain in not listening?

    Not listening means not learning, if these people were to learn from listening, that would necessitate they take respons I bility and be accountable for and to their actions!
    Hence there is gain in not listening.
    Even the Nyberg report didn’t hold anyone responsible or accountable!
    (But who paid for the Nyberg Report!)

    “They would not listen,
    They’re not listening still,
    Perhaps,they never will”

    Maybe the group/herd thinking needs desperately to listen in order for positive creative progress and growth to occur within each of us towards maturity, where it then becomes safe for each human being to be Responsible and Accountable. If we allowed this, then Ireland will finally have grown into a mature society.

    P.S. Well said Tim.

  5. It seems to be common to selectively hear only what corresponds with what we want to believe. Many critized us for continuing to rent property when we returned to this country late in 2005. Why anyone thought it was acceptable to borrow in excess of 7 times their salary to purchase a home which couldn’t possibly hold such value is beyond comprehension. Why lending institutions encouraged this behaviour is baffling. How gov & regulators sat on their hands is infuriating. But it all fed into the frenzy to accumulate *more stuff*. Like a little kid let loose in a sweet shop. The kid was unfettered, the parent didn’t dare chastise & the shop owner just wanted a big sale. There were onlookers who protested but they were dismissed because their protests were not what the others wanted to hear. The change will only occur when everyone takes a big bite of reality. Will that happen? Can that happen? At the moment reality is biting us all in the ass, but if some event sidetracks everyone & it’s the kind of thing that will be selectively heard, will it blind the same *herd mentality majority* as before? People in general acknowledge only what they want to accept. If the pill is too bitter humankind has an uncanny tendency to spit it out.

    • Very interesting point Kate. I am already seeing a sort of wilful blindness to the consequences of what has happened and to the ability to change it for the future. The distressed property auction of a couple of weeks ago was the perfect example, and more particularly how it was covered in the news. I found myself shouting at the radio when Marian Finucane (a fine broadcaster but one whose salary and privileged position puts her very much in the category of those who are not suffering as a result of the crash) started talking about the good value people were getting…!
      If the banks had money to lend, there would have been a thousand people listening to that show who’d have gone out to get the ‘good investment’.

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