Expression begins in our schooldays

The principle of freedom of expression – which has been violently attacked and vigorously defended over recent days – depends very much on the ability, not of those in the media, but of ordinary people, to express themselves well and clearly.

Freedom of expression is not just for writers and cartoonists, for politicians and pontiffs – it is for everyone. But I have my doubts that the education system in recent years has helped to promote this ideal to the fullest possible extent.

I can still remember the look of shock on a teacher’s face when I suggested to her that a basic ideal of education should be to teach young people to write an effective letter of complaint to a government department. As her shock may be shared by others, perhaps I should explain this.

When the first schools began to be established here towards the end of the 18th Century, reading, writing and arithmetic were subjects very much to the fore, as was the case in the national schools when they came along. The aim of the Christian Brothers, whose mission was to the rising class of Catholics, was to train young men to be effective clerks and later to train them to pass the Civil Service exams.

What these demanded was a skill in expositional prose writing and précis work. The whole of the economic and administrative life of these islands revolved around the promotion of these skills. This remained the case down to about 1965.

Then there was a change in the nature of how English was taught. The prose anthology for the Leaving Cert took another direction. Out went essays and expositional prose; in came short stories and novels for class work.

The focus moved from practical writing to “creative” writing. Students were encouraged to express their feelings rather than thought. The result has been a rash of novelists and poets. It does not seem to have done all that much for the quality of thought in general.


Creative writing, drawing on emotional expression, inevitably suits girls better than boys. Girls are more organised and more mature than the boys in their school years. They revel in creative writing. Indeed, I suspect the reading of novels and poetry in school has in all too many cases closed these pleasures off for many maturing males.

The result may have improved our cultural life, but it has meant that the ability to write clear prose, to make a précis or an abstract, to avoid jargon and lies – the twin banes of public life – have almost vanished.

This has, I suspect, damaged the country. For instead of empowering future citizens to enable them to assert themselves against the authorities of State and Church, education paralysed them.

A recent survey in England has shown that text messaging is again changing the nature of what young people write in school and college – and later in work as well. As a result, clarity and truth are in short supply.

Those who cannot express themselves verbally have only a resort to violence to express themselves. Terrorism arises from an inability to command attention through one’s intellect and the arts of verbal persuasion.

Media folk

Freedom of speech is not for media folk and politicians only. It is for everyone. The more clearly one can express oneself, the more deeply one understands the state of the world. What others say may well be offensive. But as we used to say when we were small: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt.”

Catholics are all too often offended by what is said about their religion. But we are commanded to turn the other check to all that. The real answer to the contempt of others is self-expression, but it has to be worked at from our earliest years.

As for writing a letter of complaint rather than ringing or emailing: when a department or a company receives a letter, a file has to be opened and opening a file can often be the first step to achieving a solution – or changing the world.