Birdwatcher-watching

 

STARBUCKS, it was reported this week, is considering introducing electronic displays so customers can play Angry Birds, the world’s most popular mobile game, while they sip their macchiato.

Perhaps this tells us something about the evolution of social mores. Recently enough it was bad manners to use a mobile phone in a cafe; now you can use your mobile to fire birds out of a slingshot at enemy pigs, while the other patrons in the cafe look on and maybe even, on the happiest of days, applaud.

Angry Birds has been downloaded some 350 million times, so this is probably just a simple matter of majority rule. Even British prime minister David Cameron is reportedly a fan of Angry Birds, which will be a comfort to those who look to the Bullingdon club for guidance on proper behaviour in polite society.

It’s funny, then, the way having an interest in actual birds is still so very uncool. It’s that time of year again, when the birdwatchers arrive in south-west Clare. You forget all about them from one autumn to the next. Then one morning you wake up and ten men in nylon jackets are leaning over your garden wall, looking through binoculars and pretending they can’t see you.

This is a place so windy that what few trees we have are all reaching longingly toward the more temperate east. Nevertheless we have birds which, like proper locals, we don’t appreciate. For many of us, there are really only three species of bird – ones that look like crows, ones that look like seagulls and ones that look like sparrows. The latter group includes robins; everyone knows robins.

“Oh look, there’s a kittiwake,” say friends who come to visit. “What? Where? Oh, you mean that seagull thing?” we reply.

One year a Canada Warbler got blown off course and ended up here by mistake, and apparently this is no place for a Canada Warbler. Bird-watchers flocked from all over the world to see it. This was an event so momentous in bird-watching circles that it even brought about a relaxation of the stringent rules governing birdwatcher/non-birdwatcher interaction. Customarily, when they see you coming, birdwatchers fly away, or attempt to make themselves invisible in the hedgerows, but the beatific presence of a stranded yellow bird led to a social breakthrough. They actually let us look through their binoculars.

There it was, a tiny yellow body sitting motionless on a low branch. The excitement was palpable. “Wilsonia Canadensis, you say? My word, how interesting.” The birdwatchers preened, visibly pleased at having impressed us. A new mutual regard became a possibility. Maybe this birdwatching lark had something going for it after all. Better go home and lock the cats up.

Then it emerged that nobody had a rescue operation in mind – nobody, not even the birdwatchers who had flown in from Canada, and so, you would think, might have been in a position to give a doomed Canada Warbler a lift home. Birdwatchers don’t interfere; nature has to have its way; the bird must die; they simply observe it in its last wretched hours and write what they see into their wretched notebooks.

It is at moments like those that you realise you will never be a birdwatcher. You can, however, become a birdwatcher-watcher. Why do they all have the same plumage? Is there a shop that specialises in navy rainproof clothing for birdwatchers? Except that one there, look – do you think that high-vis vest is an attempt to attract a mate? Shh, don’t laugh, you’ll startle them. Why are so few of them handsome? Is that why the handsome ones stand out so much? Why do none of them have young? Come to think of it, where are all the females?

Sometimes the bird-watchers arrive in such great numbers that the experience calls to mind wading through the pigeons on St Mark’s Square. Only by clapping your hands sharply can you get them to move out of the way. To their credit, though, it must be said of them that they leave very few droppings.

At night, tired and thirsty, they make their way in V formation to the local cafe bar, where they sit for two-and-a-half hours with one half-pint of Guinness, thereby subverting years of carefully-placed propaganda about the benefits of tourism to the rural economy.

Meanwhile, back in the real economy, the man behind Angry Birds will fly into Ireland next month. Mikael Hed, chief executive of the game developer Rovio, is attending the Dublin Web Summit on 27 and 28 October, which may be of interest to people who follow the migratory patterns of tycoons. This could be a chance to pitch him the Angry Birds spin-off – Angry Birdwatchers.

 

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 25 September 2011

The idea of a university

 

THE makers of Countdown are in for a bit of a shock. The new generation of students will not have either time or inclination to get stoned in front of daytime television; they will be too busy sucking up to captains of industry.

Dublin City University this week announced a new programme to make its graduates more attractive to employers. Professor Brian MacCraith, president of DCU, was quoted as saying,“It’s our responsibility to ensure we’ve done all we can to make sure they are developing the attributes that we know employers want today”.

Apparently there are six of these ‘attributes’. Graduates should be “creative and enterprising, committed to continuous learning, solution-oriented, effective communicators”… zzz… sorry I nodded off there for a second. Where was I? Oh yes, “globally engaged and active leaders”.

Clearly, the ability to put together a sentence that is not an affront to lovers of the English language is not among the attributes. Still, I suppose we should be thankful that at least DCU didn’t mention that accursed box, outside of which all exemplary thinking is said to be done.

It should be put on record, so that the graduates of tomorrow can some day tell their grandchildren about it, that there was once a time when education was an end in itself. You spent a few years finding your way around the ancient Mediterranean world with no obvious purpose in mind; you embedded yourself in the sort of mathematics whose application was neither here nor there; you flirted incautiously with Nietzsche and Rimbaud. You followed it up with some assiduous travelling, and the whole experience was enough to make a graduate of you.

DCU, like so many other third-level institutions, doesn’t promote that sort of learning. At DCU, you can get a degree in Sports Science and Health, which entails “Putting science into physical activity”. You can also get a B Sc in Multimedia, in which you learn how to “Use technology to create tomorrow’s interactive media” (though it’s not clear what, other than technology, you might use for that purpose).

This raises the question: can universities have it both ways? Can they encourage people to spend three or four years studying something that teaches them nothing about the human condition – something that is, in fact, neither more nor less than vocational training – and then expect them to be “rounded”?

The education minister, Ruairi Quinn, praised DCU for its “vision and foresight” in this, as it now seems to be common knowledge that employers don’t want your mind broadened, really. In fact, it would be ideal if every graduate was just broad-minded enough to regard a job bridge internship as a wonderful opportunity. ‘Got yourself a first-class-honours degree? Put that “global engagement and active leadership” to work for €50 a week on top of your jobseeker’s allowance! And be thankful!’

Under the so-called Generation 21 plan, every student at DCU will have a digital portfolio to monitor their development. They can then show this “validated record of personal development” to employers and,“if the portfolio is blank, that tells its own story”, according to DCU’s MacCraith.

A validated record of personal development probably is not appropriate for most students, whose personal development consists in updating their Facebook status, drinking, cramming, being hungover, pretending they’re not crazy about people they secretly are crazy about, living in abject filth (because unless everyone observes the cleaning rota then no one can), watching reruns of Antiques Roadshow in an ironic way, learning to speak like an American, and eating cheeseburgers because, oh man,they could, like, totally murder a cheeseburger right now. Students know intuitively that, as Oscar Wilde would have it, nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

In contrast, DCU’s model graduate – its Stepford graduate, if you will – is a generous player of team sports and is magnanimous in both victory and defeat; he drinks in moderation and takes regular exercise; he keeps up with current affairs yet reacts to them with neither anger nor despair – he doesn’t believe in anger or despair, he thinks you should Get Out There And Do Something ; he votes the way his parents vote; he is not discouraged by failure; he thinks trade unions are anachronistic; he says “entrepreneurialism” instead of “enterprise”; he runs marathons in aid of sick children; he is a walking Kipling poem; he is a massive pain in the neck.

The Generation 21 plan gets under way at the start of term next week. Is it too late now to switch to a different college? Because there may still be universities out there in which the object of an education is to produce outstanding citizens, rather than outstanding employees.

 

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 11 September 2011