Comment & Analysis
May 31, 2022

What Trinity Taught me About Education – Both Formal and Informal

I am a different person to the one I was a year ago, because of my education – both the one I receive in university and the rich, informal education that I receive every day, writes Cormac Watson.

Cormac WatsonSenior Editor
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

Staff and students hated the Trinity Education Project (TEP) when it was implemented – and often with good reason. It became synonymous with Trinity decision makers being out of touch with how the university ran in practice. I hated it too. I thought it was full of banal, corporate buzzwords and gave me less time to do extracurriculars.

But, according to the architects of the project, one of TEP’s goals was that it should ensure that students finishing university have a passion to continue learning. Trinity saying that is kind of subversive.

By my estimation, the school and third-level system captured “education”, at least for as long as I have been in that system. “Self-learning” is celebrated but only within the confines of the education system. People “get an education” so that they can get a good job. Economics professors are terrible for this mentality. I remember an economics professor once proudly showing my class a graph comparing the incomes of college graduates to non-college graduates, as if this was proof that formal education was a good thing.


This outlook strips education of curiosity. People then see education as a set of stepping stones – built by an institution like the economics profession – that they need to walk along in order to earn lots of money. Education becomes a means to an end. But employability is a byproduct of education, not the reason for it. Trinity, or any school, does not have a monopoly on education and graduates should leave Front Gate with a desire to keep learning and broadening their mind.

People then see education as a set of stepping stones that they need to walk along in order to earn lots of money

After all, for the vast majority of human existence, schools and universities as they are now did not exist. Education belonged to people. People taught themselves to read, interrogated religious texts, debated with each other, learned new skills and languages. None of this was done to pass an exam, but instead for practical reasons or just because it was enjoyable, satisfying and expanded the fullness of their humanity. The TEP architects are, therefore, saying that College can teach you things, but getting “an education” is a much broader and lifelong pursuit. They are right – although I suspect people hundreds of years ago could have told you that without all the buzzwords and flow charts that TEP used.

Aside from economics, mathematics is also a serial offender when it comes to reducing what education means. A few years ago, the government decided to award higher-level maths students an extra 25 points in the leaving certificate, because they thought that the economy needed more STEM graduates. This made maths a purely transactional subject. Some nerds (like myself) enjoyed maths and did higher level because it was fun. But most people did it because ordinary level put them at a disadvantage. “When am I ever going to use [insert mathematical method] in my everyday life?” was a common phrase in my secondary school. And in a sense, those students were right. In my everyday life, I have yet to use the Pythagoras’ theorem or had to whip out my formula book to figure out the circumference of a circle.

As I near graduation, I feel like the lifelong nature of education is the best thing that Trinity taught me

But what maths does tell us is that there are all of these mathematical formulas and axioms that govern the world around us. Things fit into rules that are seemingly handed down from on high. Which raises so many questions. For example: what or who made up these rules? Why do they work? These are questions that maths teachers don’t touch with a barge pole but they allow us to think in a new way about the meaning of life, religion, science, philosophy and so many other topics. Imagine if you didn’t know that maths existed or that there was a mathematical way to measure the length of the lines in a triangle. The world, I suspect, would seem to be a much stranger place.

So when we learn new things, they are never useless. It’s just a matter of figuring out what to do with them. Most importantly, they open up new avenues of enquiry for us that we never otherwise would have considered exploring. I learned Portuguese for a while on Duolingo. I know no Portuguese. I do, however, know that Spanish is similar to Portuguese but sounds different. This has opened my eyes to how weird language is and made me question where languages come from and how they change. Cue multiple late-night Wikipedia rabbit holes.

So, as I near graduation, I feel like the lifelong nature of education is the best thing that Trinity taught me. It doesn’t end when I finish College. In fact, it’s just beginning. Education isn’t this boring, transactional thing that I have to do to get a good job. Education is 10-year-old me borrowing novels from my primary school library, or doing maths sums because they felt satisfying to complete, or having a conversation with someone that totally changes my perspective on things. I am a different person to the one I was a year ago – or even a week ago – and that is because of education. Not only my university education, but also the rich, informal education that I receive everyday.

Tara Westover – author of Educatedsaid: “I suspect that education is less about knowing more than someone, and maybe more about knowing someone – really knowing someone – who is not like you.” So, as I leave Trinity, this is my goal: knowing a lot more than I know now, but also better understanding myself, other people and the world around me.

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