“Ireland’s turnaround began in the late 1960’s when the government made secondary education free, enabling a lot more working-class kids to get a high school or technical degree. As a result, when Ireland joined the E.U. in 1973, it was able to draw on a much more educated work force…In 1996, Ireland made college education basically free, creating an even more educated work force.The results have been phenomenal. Today, 9 out of 10 of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies have operations here, as do 16 of the top 20 medical device companies and 7 out of the top 10 software designers. Last year, Ireland got more foreign direct investment from America than China. And overall government tax receipts are way up.
Ireland’s advice is very simple: Make high school and college education free; make your corporate taxes low, simple and transparent; actively seek out global companies; open your economy to competition; speak English; keep your fiscal house in order; and build a consensus around the whole package with labor and management – then hang in there, because there will be bumps in the road – and you, too, can become one of the richest countries in Europe.”
–Thomas Friedman, New York Times
My Nigerian taxi driver tells me about the incredulous emails he’s getting from Lagos. Can this be America they see on the television; these pictures of thirsty, desperate people waiting for buses that don’t come?
They think it’s the land of milk and honey, he sniffs. As an American girl, I probably couldn’t understand how the rest of the world sees the US. It’s a fantasy to them, he says, this promised land where it all comes easy. But he had never seen homeless people until he came to America, and now Lagos sees for the first time what it’s really like to be poor in America.
I report this to Mum, back in Ireland. She tells me that the primary school where she teaches is filling up with immigrants from everywhere, but Nigeria most of all. The Junior Infants class is now about one-third Nigerian. It’s a big change after 25 years teaching plain Irish stock.
The teachers are afraid that middle-class Irish families will abandon the school as the immigrants arrive. She sees it already. Ten of the five-year-olds who were registered to start school last week didn’t show up: at the last minute, their parents switched them to the _Gaelscoil_ in town. Irish-language schools have long been chic among wealthy Irish parents, who don’t always figure out–or care–that their success comes from gathering the ambitious spawn of ambitious parents, rather than from the rigor of learning long division through a dead language full of inflected nouns. And now the _gaelscoileanna_ have become something more: a way to delicately sidestep the dilemma of “them.”
Ireland’s free public education system is far from perfect, but as Thomas Friedman gushed in the New York Times, it has been effective. Because almost everyone relied on it, the whole country had a stake in making it work. In the 1970s and 1980s, they invested extravagantly to educate my baby boom generation, and that sacrifice has now made Ireland rich.
For my generation, I don’t believe there was a reason to pay for private education in Ireland other than snobbery and social connections. In a who-you-know culture, that was probably enough. To an embarrassing degree, the power class has always been dominated by the old boys from six or seven fee-paying secondary schools (which were also fully funded by the state, as far as I know). I went to college with enough Blackrock and Gonzaga boys to know that they weren’t brighter or better educated than the kids at my comprehensive school, but like Bush, they had a veneer of confidence that only comes from early cash investment. That certain _je ne sais rien._
Ireland is so obsessed with academic results that it spawned a market for private exam coaching. First came hour-long individual “grinds,” then heavily-advertised group crammer courses. Finally, there has emerged a new generation of for-profit schools, very different to the old fee-paying rugby schools, that markets exam preparation above all else. Once people began to believe you could buy better exam results, widespread private-sector schooling was just another step. It’s human nature to value what you pay for more than what you’re given, and scrimping to pay school fees probably feels like a tangible way to share your child’s struggles with the Points System. Now fear of “non-nationals” has given an extra boost to private and selective schools.
But private education comes at a high social price.
There’s another population boom underway; the kids of my huge generation. I’m afraid the school system will break if the large middle class decides they’ll pay to make sure their darlings don’t have to sit beside poor kids, Polish kids, or Nigerian kids. If the most motivated, powerful, and ambitious parents don’t have a personal stake in public education, will they continue to fight for it? Who cares how the local primary school is doing if you and your barrister pals all send your kids to Sandford Park and Gonzaga? Might it even help your kids if the public schools start failing?
Here in San Francisco, my secondary school friend John and his wife Natasha are about to have their third baby. At their Labor Day barbecue, a squall of smallies yelled happily and bashed toy trucks into the grown-ups’ legs. One guest was pregnant with her second child, another with her third.
“How do they afford it?” people with six-figure incomes whispered.
In San Francisco, three kids means this: because of over-the-top child safety seat laws, you have to buy a car that’s big enough to flatten a moose. Childcare runs about six hundred bucks a week, I think. To pay for college, they tell you to budget about a half a million dollars per child. And if, for good reason, you decide you don’t want to entrust their futures to San Francisco’s crappy school system, you either move to Cupertino, where the lure of high-quality public schools has sent house prices out of reach of all but Steve Jobs’s direct reports, or you pay for schooling straight from your paycheck.
So Californians are in a trap of our own making. Public education sucks. Private education is exorbitant, especially when you start from the age of three. As a result, people like me, the wealthy overthinkers, dither like pandas, then finally squeeze out one precious offspring; a pair at most. It’s a risky evolutionary strategy, and so we throw all our resources at making sure this child pays off.
A friend who works for Yahoo spent Labor Day weekend at the Astrodome in Texas, helping displaced New Orleanians register online so they could find their families and friends. They were expecting to have to train people who had no experience with the internet, she said, but were flummoxed to realize how many simply couldn’t read.
“In _America.”_ says my Nigerian taxi driver, when I tell him. “Can you believe that, in America?”
Ireland has moved from being an unthinkingly religious society to being an unthinkingly materialistic society, said Senator David Norris a few years ago. In the chase for wealth–fueled by a fear of sliding backwards if you stop–Ireland has followed America down many of her blindest alleys. I hope that White Flight, and the consequent dismantling of the public education system, isn’t one of them. What we have isn’t perfect, but it’s too good to destroy through fear and greed.