The American writer, the late Gore Vidal didn’t mince his words when it came to his cynicism about U.S. society, when he said the country was “a hoax”.

“Americans are not interested in the truth about anything,” he once said. “They assume everybody is lying,” he added, citing the advertisement placed by an 88-year-old widow for a car that she had never driven.

A colourful polemic perhaps, from a man who died years ago, but I’d say he’d feel vindicated in the times of Trump.

Vidal had an equally contemptuous view of education in his country, which he said was designed to kill all curiosity. 

“I seldom encounter a boring six-year-old, but I never get to see an interesting 16-year-old,” he said.

Again, an extreme view, but Vidal had a way of expressing it which put his finger on something.

And when we look at the way our children are drilled for exams rather than being educated in the round, one wonders if there is a grain of truth in what he says about what education is for?

To gain paper qualifications, or to produce more-rounded citizens who understand the world they’re entering?

To make result statistics look good, or to unleash an individual child’s potential?

In Northern Ireland, we have some of the most creatively brilliant and gifted children anywhere being taught and guided in their formative years by many dedicated and committed teachers.

(At this point, in a week where the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, says it’s okay to further increase bankers’ bonuses, should we not be finding money to pay teachers, nurses and others what they deserve?)

Anyway, as regards our young people with so much natural ability in all sorts of ways of life, have we an education system which often doesn’t allow them to flourish, and indeed it’s been again reported this week that the way our education is segregated promotes division, both communal and social, and is so expensive that resources are scarce.

Various reports put the cost of segregation in education anywhere between £0.8 billion and £1.5 billion.

In a mature discussion about education on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback on Tuesday, we learned, for example, that adult literary rates here are the lowest in the UK, and twice as many adults leave school here with no qualifications.

It’s also a fact that in the urban east of Northern Ireland, the educational attainments of boys from the Protestant working class are among the lowest in the Province.

The numbers of students from the North entering third level education are also much lower than those in the Republic.

And yet, we do have in Northern Ireland some of the most brilliant exam results.

A paper produced by Ulster University’s Unesco centre this week looks again at our school system.

As always, the headline in Northern Ireland will be about the fact that they’re suggesting that Christian-focused RE should be scrapped, and so should the legal requirement which still exists here that any school getting State money should hold a daily act of Christian worship.

The context of this is the formation of the State of Northern Ireland 100 years ago, when initially attempts were made to have a state system which would embrace all faiths and none.

But the powerful churches ensured that the major Protestant leaders influenced the system, and the Catholic church wanted to ensure that their faith ethos and their Irishness would continue to be protected on the ‘wrong side’ of the Border.

So, even our teacher training is split along religious lines.

This, of course, is not 1921, and times have changed. For example, it is expected that the publication of today’s Census will show that a quarter of the population will say they have no faith or a faith other than the four main Christian churches.

In an era where there are increasing numbers of people without a faith, or from a Muslim background, or humanists, and so on, it is natural, therefore, that there will be a debate about the official role of Christianity in schools in 2022.

This will always make some people in Northern Ireland from a Christian background nervous, wary that their beliefs are already being marginalised in society generally, now think the move is “to take God out of schools”.

Indeed, they point to the ideals of Christianity in terms of respect and love for each other and suggest that there are children who only hear about these things in school.

Actually, as radio presenter William Crawley pointed out, one of the world’s most well-known atheists, Richard Dawkins, once said the Bible must be taught in schools.

Without a knowledge of it, people wouldn’t understand literature, culture, art and so on.

In the context of today’s society, there is room for a wider knowledge of religion, for an understanding of pluralism and secularism, so it is not a case of removing religion from schools.

It is a debate that the churches should join; so it was interesting that they did not take up an invitation to take part in that radio discussion about change in education.

My own personal preference is for a single state system where our children are educated together, where diversity is encouraged, and the human connections from an early age leads us to get to know each other’s beliefs and respect them.

But that is not a panacea. For a start, we cannot expect schools to solve all the divisive problems of a society where communities still live separately in many places.

We should also bear in mind that other views disagree that a single educational system is the right way to go.

Is there a case, for example, where Protestant communities now feel their ethos is being eroded the way Catholics did a hundred years ago and in a new system Protestants feel they would be subsumed?

Jarlath Burns, principal of St. Paul’s High School in Bessbrook, County Armagh, has adopted a policy of reaching out to the minority Protestant and Unionist community, bringing in Orange Order speakers to educate his Catholic pupils, and allowing Protestant students from the area to attend classes in his school for subjects that their own school cannot cater for.

There are many benefits to shared education, which the Fermanagh Trust took a lead on.

Someone once said to me recently that in our post-primary education, we have nine sectors: Catholic grammar, Catholic non-grammar, State/Protestant grammar, and non-grammar, Integrated, Irish medium, Denominational (Free Presbyterian type), Home schooling, and Private (Rockport, for example).

But rather than wanting a single system, he says “vive la difference, where every school thrives and excels”.

Aside from the obvious division of schools, there is a great debate to be had about other aspects of the present system.

Do we start formal education too young, whereas other countries are successful in learning through play for longer?

Do we write children off too early with selection at 11?

Are we still snobbish about grammar school education, producing social division?

Are we too geared to exams, with a “four-year cycle” of GCSEs to A-Level when some people think GCSEs are outdated and unnecessary? 

Why are we not teaching far more Irish history?

These are just a few of the questions which we should be addressing in an overall discussion about the future shape of education.

We have a marvellous resource in our own younger generation and the people within education.

In Frank Connolly’s book, ‘United Nation’, Jarlath Burns, the Armagh principal said: “It is a question of values which, in our school, are built on integrity, truth, compassion and kindness.

“We never give up on a pupil. We believe there is something special in every child.”

Does our education system bring out that something special, or as Vidal said, kill their curiosity?