February 11, 2003
Sean Gabb teaches the young ladies of Asia

Last Friday morning I visited what was once called the City Polytechnic, and then the London Guildhall University, and is now part of something bigger called London Metropolitan University. My friend Sean Gabb teaches there, and I was attending one of his classes, as part of my ongoing project of snooping on and talking to different sorts of teachers and reporting back to you people on what I find.

Sean's students were mostly youngish Asian ladies, a dozen of them, and there were also two young men. One of the men and a few of the ladies were European, but most of those present were Japanese or Thai. Sean stood up and lectured at one end of the room, and his students all sat around in a large rectangle of joined up small tables like the delegates at an international conference, or the managers of a company, taking notes, and listening carefully to what Sean was telling them. I'd guess the age of everyone to be about 20. They were doing a preliminary course after which they were all hoping to move on to a full university course.

Sean was telling them about free trade. I was intrigued by the way he handled his own bias, which is strongly in favour of free trade. I am strongly in favour of free trade, he said, but many others are not. He supplied many websites to the students on various handouts he had prepared, the majority to pro free traders, but some to opponents of it. One of the pro free trade websites was the Libertarian Alliance, and two of my own pieces were even cited. I do not believe that this was merely done because I was due to visit the class.

Afterwards I talked with Sean about the matter of bias, and he told me of his disgust at having been taught himself by Marxists, but by Marxists who were not prepared to say upfront that they were Marxists. He vowed then that if he ever became teacher, he would behave differently, and tell the truth about his own opinions, and try to distinguish, much more clearly than those who taught him, between fact and opinion. However, it occurred to me that the real "bias" in this lesson was not the way Sean taught it, but the fact that it was being given at all. I mean, if you lecture about "free trade" the chances are you'll be for it, right? If you are against free trade, your lecture will be called something different like "globalisation", "neo-imperialism", or some such. Nevertheless, I like this all-out-in-the-open approach of Sean's.

In general I was impressed by Sean's use of computers to aid the educational process. He used his own computer to prepared good written materials, and he told his students to use their computers to access further material. But he did not complicate matters in the class by making use of laborate slide shows or by turning his computer screen around and making all present look at that. He just spoke sensibly and clearly, very occasionally writing simple things on the board behind him with a felt tip pen.

The other interesting thing was that a mild but definite culture clash was to be observed. At various times during the lesson Sean said that he was being paid to get them to express their own opinions, rather than merely to write down and regurgitate his, Sean Gabb's, opinions. He told them that what mattered was how well they argued their opinions, not the mere matter of what they were. I dare say that to some of the dutiful and obedient young Asian lady students, it must have sounded as if Sean was telling them: "I order you to disagree with me." But I got the feeling that most of those present fully agreed with the stuff Sean was telling them, and that even if they didn't, they were determined to take their place in the kind of world that Sean was describing so approvingly, whatever their own opinions about it might be.

Here, then, was not a clash exactly, or a collision, or anything so dramatic as that. Here were two approaches to getting educated. There is education as the acquisition of pre-packaged and teacher presented knowledge. And there is education as the ability to package, and maybe to re-package, and then to present the digested result right back at the teacher again, and to fellow students. These young people were used to one tradition, of obedience. But they were having to get used to another. And if Teacher Gabb told them that such was their duty, well then they would do it. Their own tradition kind of obliged them to accept ours, you might say.

Apparently my presence in the class somewhat interrupted what Sean was trying to do along these lines, and caused all present to behave even "better" than usual, that is to say, even more quietly than usual. So in a small way, I got in the way of what Sean was trying to achieve. But this kind of teacher-knows-best deference was always a bit of a problem, said Sean, and they took a bit of coaxing to get used to speaking up and expressing their own views. I suggested to Sean later that he might try selling the Anglo-Saxon habit of argumentation as a preparation for the job of making managerial decisions when working for a big organisation or business. Decisions are not likely to be well made if only one alternative is explored. People who are able comfortably to disagree are helpful in such circumstances, even if their views are later over-ruled. But maybe that's just the Anglo-Saxon way of decision making. Maybe these students would end up participating in less raucous and argumentative decision making processes than we are used to here in Anglo-Saxonia. Even so, they were learning about more than just free trade. They were learning about another culture, in a way that was bound to be of value to them in their future lives.

I feel sure that the predominantly female atmosphere also made a difference on the docility front. Women are, in my experience – and this is fact rather than criticism – far less comfortable speaking out with their own perhaps unsure opinions in public and formal settings. (But switch to informal conversation and they start chattering away very happily.)

Sean spoke with great clarity, and although he had clearly prepared his lecture well he did not simply read out a prepared text. He extemporised around prepared texts. All present seemed determined to learn. There was no sense of anyone just being there because they had to be. In the very act of coming to this country in the first place (no English people were present, nor any people who's first language was English), all these young people had clearly taken charge of their lives and it showed in their attitude.

The class lasted well over an hour, and at the end of it, I felt that further questioning from me would not have been welcomed by these young students, although I also felt sure that they would have endured it with great politeness if I had imposed it upon any of them. These people were there to learn from Sean, not to sit about gossiping with the likes of strangers such as me. I might have learned more about Sean's methods and what they thought about Sean's methods, if I had hung around and bothered them with further talk, but it wouldn't have felt right. They had other business, I sensed, to be getting on with. As did Sean, and as did I.

That, now I think about it, was my overall impression. These people were here to do business. London was offering them a product, and they were buying it. No fuss. No big drama. They were just getting on with business.

These students are, in their own way, a highly significant part of the very process of international free trade that Sean was telling them about.

For more about Sean Gabb as a speaker and as a thinker, I also recently did a piece about him for my culture blog.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
Category: BiasHigher education