Who are our role models?

I remember attending an informal get-together a few years ago with some local young people near the university of which I was then President, Dublin City University in Ireland. Those who are familiar with DCU know that it is situated close to some very deprived neighbourhoods on the northside of Dublin. The intention was to make the young people feel positive about the potential of a university education. Anyway, the discussion moved to role models; who did these young people look up to? Two answers have stayed in my memory: one suggested Britney Spears, while another voted for ‘anyone who drives a BMW’.

Two things to note here. Britney Spears never went to university, and at the time that this conversation was taking place was just going through a very public personal breakdown. As for the BMW drivers, the young people in the room were probably seeing a few of these, but the chances were that in many cases these were drug dealers. So in the lives of these young women and men, role models diverted their gaze far away from education.

More recently, the New York Times invited young people of 13 or over to suggest their role models. There was a significant response, but the overwhelming majority of those commenting listed parents, friends or relatives as their role models. This looks better, but what you get from it is that people seek to emulate their parents or relatives; and if the family background is one of disadvantage, this limits educational ambition. And actually, if your background is one of privilege, you are probably attracted to safe jobs in the professions, for which there is no longer any urgent social or economic need.

Why does all this matter? If we are to have an impact on education and career patterns, we need to be aware of the impact of role models, both good and bad. If we want to attract people from poorer backgrounds into higher value jobs and lives, there may be all sorts of social and cultural influences pushing the other way. Young people need to hear from those they admire, and who set out for them the benefits of higher education, and the desirability of more entrepreneurial careers. We need to persuade them that to be an engineer (where we have serious skill shortages) is as good a choice as, and maybe a better choice than, being a show business personality.

We need to make our culture converge with our social and educational needs. And we need this to be led by people who know and understand the influences and pressures that young people face.

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7 Comments on “Who are our role models?”

  1. Vince Says:

    I’m not so sure you are taking or even that this debate is taking the correct starting point.
    People see what they know and they are ambitious for what they believe they can achieve. Ergo the BMW. While Britney and J-Lo, chicks off the block are sold to unemployed class girls as an achievable goal.
    Look at it this way. If your entire background is tied up with a regiment at whatever social level. If, say, your Dad/Mam was a foot soldier that your vision is to the Sergeant as a goal. If your dad/mam is a captain then the colonel is about as high as you see.

  2. Al Says:

    The “our” part of your question is the hardest part of your point to digest. It assumes a commonality of viewpoints and values, etc. One persons villain is another persons hero.
    Should the state license role models?

  3. Polly Says:

    The State (or its representatives) does license role models. If I remember correctly, it was An Snip Nua which recommended removing the tax incentives for artists, but retaining them for sportspeople ‘because they’re role models for young people’. I remember at the time wondering a) whether a sensible government wouldn’t want to encourage physicists or doctors as role models, and b) just how many soccer players it is who’ve been convicted of rape and/or domestic violence over the years. So yes, obviously one person’s villain is indeed another person’s hero.

  4. Regina Says:

    Starting with parents as role models is not a bad place. It has certainly proved to be a more effective model than, say, reform institutions, orphanages or experimental boarding schools.

    What is important to bear in mind is the trajectory: what begins as an aspiration to complete primary school for one generation, might become the completion of second level for the next. What used to be grim, miserable cities in these islands in the days when Coronation Street was still in its infancy, have transformed into highly desirable, sophisticated hubs for urban living. Thus each generation clings to the idea that the next will be somehow better educated, less unhappy, better nourished (give or take obesity), taller, reproducing later, and will live longer than the previous–and indeed statistics certainly bear this out. If we look back to our grandparents’ generation the advances have been incredible. Those grandparents would never have imagined what their children’s children would achieve. No, they haven’t all turned out to be university presidents, but their horizons have expanded enormously. So instead of berating ourselves about lack of progress, and apples-falling-not-far-from-the-tree, we should be thinking of the generation after next, visualising what an improved quality of life and more equal society should look like, and implementing the mechanisms and nurturing the relationships to get us there. Starting, retrospectively, with the known.

  5. anna notaro Says:

    *we need to make our culture converge with our social and educational needs* Although I understand the rationale for this I find this ststement, in principle, rather problematic…convergence might be a technological goal (our gadgets are a great example of this)but when it comes to thd kind of allignment mentioned here it’s an altogether different matter…besides it cannot be underestimated the role that media play in the lives of young people and not just..

  6. James Fryar Says:

    I have to agree with Anna. The role of the media is paramount to this issue and has had a quantifiable effect.

    Increases in the number of students applying for law degrees directly coincided with an increase in the number of US legal dramas on TV stations. In Ireland we observed an increase in applications for analytical science degrees on the back of the popularity of the CSI series. It was no coincidence that several Irish universities developed daughter courses ‘with forensic science’ during this period.

    Physics is another area where there has been a renewed interest. Although the reasons for this aren’t clear (although students tend to return to the ‘old faithfuls’ during times of economic downturn), my own belief is that it is not coincidence that this has occured right about the same time as Prof. Brian Cox started doing series for BBC.

    I have long argued that our Irish broadcaster RTE is part of the problem. Current affairs and soaps are fine, but when was the last time anyone remembers a serious science, art, history, literature, music, culture (and I don’t just mean cinema and youtube clips) series on RTE?

    One final issue I’d raise is one as old as the hills – we need to stop talking about increasing the numbers of male primary school teachers and actually do this. If the only image of masculinity some pupils have is what they see on TV and play in Call of Duty then we’re in for problems …

  7. Vince Says:

    In fairness James, what with the cock-up made of the place with the last lot, and so far by the current lot. How can you in all honesty complain when TV shows are used for guidance. Do you really think CSI will do any more depredation than the fetish on property related studies over the last twenty years. Heck, what with the volume of auctioneers being shelled out the rest of the world could have halted all training in real-estate. Ditto, crane drivers and other trades. And if FAS had its way we’d have a space programme, and it sure wasn’t for the want of cash we’ve not one right now.


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