Recently I started a new job in Belfast, namely as a question writer for a TV quiz show. As you might expect it’s a conversation-starting occupation, as proved to be the case when talking to a taxi man a few days ago. When I jokingly asked him if he’d ever take part in a quiz on telly and maybe win a bit of money, he said back without much consideration: “Ah sure I’d be no good on things like that, I don’t have any qualifications or that."

It’s an attitude that is sadly pervasive. Be it through a lack of opportunity, a lack of application at the time, a lack of self-esteem or a combination of both, there are a distressing number of people who link intelligence to knowing capital cities or remembering what an ox bow lake is. Worse yet, they underplay the talents they actually do have and won’t be convinced they’re anything but a social misfit. Never mind the fact that maintaining one’s calm while navigating round a city center at rush hour is a pretty invaluable skill, that taxi driver thought of himself as stupid.

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I’ve seen this all my life in Donegal. People of an older generation were spat out of schools where being given a clout across the head featured heavily on the syllabus, where the focus was getting a job, inevitably in a factory or some such, getting some money into the family home, and that was about it. Bettering yourself was not an option, and if it was it was often actively discouraged through ridicule and a significant dearth of opportunities in the first place. Sometimes it’s so severe that even when opportunities do appear they aren’t taken up: Donegal sometimes feels replete with men of a certain age who turned down offers to play football abroad because they didn’t have the confidence to make it stick. That bad educational experience has in a lot of cases transmitted to their children’s generation, and low self-esteem dogs them for the rest of their lives. 

If the value of education can or should be defined at all, it should be to widen people’s base of knowledge and to pursue the fields people enjoy without obstacle of any kind. More than that, it should widen the base of things we deem worthy of study and pursuit. Up and down the country there are people young and old with talent, talent submerged and undermined and eroded. Helping those people is the smartest thing we could possibly do.