It’s that time of year again when well-meaning people I know will say something like this to me: ‘ I expect you are now getting busy again.’ I usually nod politely and bite my lip. Well yes, we are busy, but frankly we’ve been pretty busy throughout the summer, and I expect this is true all over the Irish university system. In university life as in other professions there are times and seasons, but really no period (except for the week between Christmas and New Year, and perhaps the first week of August) when nothing much is happening in academic life. When the students return next month it will change the nature of people’s busyness somewhat (though not necessarily mine), but it will not be an awakening from slumber.
Nevertheless, slipping out of defensive mode, the return of continuing students and the arrival of new students is always a major moment in the life cycle of colleges. It is a time when you can almost touch and smell the sense of intellectual adventure the accompanies the start of term, before, at least for some, this is worn down by the pressures of daily life.
But while as a nation we are aware of the renewal that takes place at the beginning of the academic year, it is not quite the same national experience that can be found, for example, in France. I confess that I am not a particular fan of the French education system, and their universities in particular are surprisingly uninteresting and unimaginative. But I do like the concept of ‘La Rentrée‘, the annual phenomenon that takes over French national consciousness about this time. It means ‘the return’, and it is a reference to the opening of the educational year. But it is more than that: it involves a sense of national celebration of education, a movement rather than an event.
In Ireland the event that attracts the most attention in education is the period when students sit the Leaving Certificate examinations. But in a way, the interest in ‘the Leaving’ is concerned with performance and results, not with educational or pedagogical principle. It is not a time for anticipation and reflection, in the way that La Rentrée can be.
So as we prepare to see the return of the old students, and the arrival of new students, we could perhaps spend a moment thinking about what education means to us individually and as a country, and what we could be doing to enhance standards and meet society’s needs and expectations.