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Chronological Archive • February 2003
February 28, 2003
A mechanical evening

I've just finished listening to one of my last-Friday-of-the-month talks, given by Philip Chaston (who writes for Airstrip One), about the Mechanics Institutes that flourished in the early to mid nineteenth century in Britain. Informally organised, deeply distrusted by the Tory Establishment, they attracted huge numbers of students eager for self improvement and useful mechanical knowledge.

What did these places achieve? Were they, for example, the cause of the British industrial revolution, or were they the consequence of it? Hard to say. Bit of both, probably. The main consequence of listening to the talk, for me, was to stimulate in me a desire to learn more about these things. Philip gave us a blow by blow account of how they developed, what they did, who they taught, what they taught, and so on, and it was very interesting, but I like grand simple, perhaps over-simplified theories of how things work. I like a moral to my stories. Philip did not supply much along these lines. He spoke a bit about the parallel between the Mechanics Institutes and home schooling, but this was rather bolted on afterwards, or so it seemed to me. I grabbed Philip afterwards and asked him about this, and he said, well, yes, I guess it comes from being a historian. "I don't really do morals" he said.

The story did, however, have a bearing on this idea that "official" education systems give birth to unofficial systems which fill in all the official gaps. And here there may be a moral. For the rise of the Mechanics Institutes was not the end of the story. While they filled such a gap (basically technology instead of theology) they flourished. But then the official system finally got around to observing the same gap, got its technological act together and drove the Mechanics Institutes out of business.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:18 PM
Category: Technology
[2] [0]
February 27, 2003
Consent is what matters

Should teachers be obliged to teach violent pupils? Personally I'd like a world where teachers could refuse to teach a pupil if they didn't like the colour of the pupil's eyes, and in which pupils could reject teachers for similarly subjective reasons. In short I believe in the consent principle being applied to education, as to everything else.

So I'm heartened by this report in today's guardian.co.uk:

Law lords told teachers today that they were within their rights to refuse to teach violent pupils even if the children were legally entitled to be in school.

In a landmark ruling the House of Lords held that such action was legal under trade dispute laws relating to teachers' terms and conditions of employment.

The lords also decided, by a 3-2 majority in a related case, that an expelled pupil allowed back to school on appeal had been properly "reinstated" even though he was taught in isolation from other children after teachers, backed by their unions, refused to have him in the classroom.

The two youths whose appeals were rejected today were expelled from different comprehensives in the south of England, but reinstated after their parents took the cases to local authority independent appeal panels.

Meanwhile, blazing from the front page of yesterday's Daily Mail is a story about alleged bias by some British universities, most especially Bristol, against "middle" (odd usage that – I've always thought "upper" would be more accurate) class children from private schools with good exam results, and, usually, good offers from other universities. Bristol University doesn't like junior toffs with the trick of passing exams, it would seem.

Well I say: Bristol University is entitled to its opinion. You could argue that children who've been to good schools which encourage academic attainment may not do as well at university, where a more self-propelled attitude is required, and that children who've had to fight for perhaps more modest exam success in a discouraging environment may do better at university. You could also argue that the fighters, if that's what they've been, deserve a crack at a degree course at a good university, rather more than their luckier rivals.

You could argue, and of course the Guardian does so argue:

For too long, universities have been over-endowed with brilliantly qualified, wonderfully personable private school pupils who turn out, once left to their own devices, to have been stretched to the very limits of their mediocre ability.

If this attitude at Bristol is but the tip of a national iceberg of prejudice against academically successful children from posh schools, centrally imposed or at least "encouraged" by the government, then that's bad. That would mean that Bristol is taking these lower class strugglers not because it wants to, but because the government wants them to, and that's not consent. But if Bristol truly wants this sort of student rather than some other sort of student, for whatever reason, then it should be their right to act as they want.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:19 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
February 26, 2003
English accent lessons for sale!

Freedom and Whisky had a link to this advert at the top when I visited today.

As I keep on doing this, I'm learning that one of the big impulses behind free market education is the desire of people in all kinds of places and situations to learn English, often in defiance of their local politicians, who often come over all indigenous. This is certainly the case in India, where the state forbids the use of English as the linguistic learning medium (?) in its schools. (What I mean is, they have English lessons, but you can't do the regular lessons in English.)

This advert, in case it vanishes, is for lessons to Hispanic-Americans who already speak English, but who do it with an accent they'd like to make more native sounding.

Our Accent Reduction programs help you modify your speech so that your English is more understandable by native, American-English speakers. This program is best suited for people who already have an intermediate to advanced English capability.

My problem with other languages is the opposite. Accents I can do very well. It's all those, you know, words, that I can't do. When in France I actually have to modify my excellent French accent, to stop the French linguistically erupting all over me in a way I can't make head nor tail of. Try to imagine someone saying, in perfect English: "I'm sorry, I don't speak English", with all the diphthongs done in the elaborately elongated diphthongy English way just as they should be done. That's me in French. (Not that I care. Soon all will speak English, or human as we now say. All, I say, all!!)

And this one, for advanced English speakers, looks interesting too. I wonder if there's any significance to the fact that these products are being advertised on a Scottish blog. They do odd things to English up there, to the point where regular people often can't make them out.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:31 PM
Category: Languages
[1] [0]
February 25, 2003
How early in life does psychological testing work?

There are two kinds of test. There are the ones which you do to prove how hard and well you've been working, or which they make you do to find out how hard and well you've been working. And there are the kind which you do simply to find out what sort of person you are, or because someone else wants to find out what sort of person you are. I've been reading more of Robert Waterman's book Frontiers of Excellence (already mentioned here before in connection with Theory X and Theory Y) and he refers to all those psychological tests that Career Counselling experts unleash, provided all concerned have a bit of time and money to spend.

The tests give clues to how you prefer to interact with others, and the kinds of people you interact with best. They show whether you have a strong need to lead in some fashion or prefer to let others do so. The tests might suggest that one person performs best in chaos, while another person needs a logical orderly environment. When someone naturally suited to detail and follow-up work is placed in a job that demands developing broad strategies, then you've got a fish crawling across the prairie. That these complex but fairly distinct personality traits influence happiness at work, and most especially job performance, is to me highly obvious.

To me also. Waterman mentions various acronyms like FIRO-B, MBTI, 16PF, SIMA, and so on. I am an amateur career counseller myself, and ask questions designed to tease out, on an informal basis, just such an understanding of what makes my customers tick, or not tick and get miserable. I keep meaning to try to learn more about these tests, or "instruments" as the psychology people apparently prefer to call them. Clearly googling can teach me a lot.

But Question: How soon does it make any sense for a child to take such test? Assuming that a child is eager or at least willing to learn or to allow others to learn about how he functions most happily and effectively, at what age are the broad outlines of a child's personality, in this sort of sense, established?

You can see what kind of personality I am: better at asking good questions than answering them with good answers, and better at "broad strategy" than detail. So, people, help me with the details here?

I don't have any children myself, but the anecdotal evidence I get from all parents I've ever talked with about such things who have more than one child is that children are very distinct in their personalities pretty much from year zero. On the other hand I also hear that children change a lot over the years, especially the early years.

What follows from the answers to such questions is extremely controversial, but what I am interested in here is the simple factual question. Assuming these tests do tell us things about adults, do they also discover truths about younger people? Or don't they work under a certain age? Perhaps they can identify how a person might best set about learning things for the next couple of years, but not what strategies are likely to work for that same person in later life?

One can imagine such truths, if discoverable, to be used to unleash all manner of horrors and premature decisions on children, and in general to fill the world with yet more self-fulfilling prophecies about what this or that child is capable of achieving. Much the same point is made about claims concerning the alleged intellectual differences between different racial groups. Such objections to the pyschological testing of children are not empty. But all that is quite beside the point I'm asking about here, which is simply that I'd like to know the truth about this. Once I've learned the truth, I promise not to jump to any logically imperfect conclusions from it. Anyone?

The two people who spring to mind as likely to have helpful input on this are John Ray and Michael Jennings, the former because he is an academic psychologist, and the latter because if you ask him any question on just about any technical type subject he seems to be able to come back at you with a useful answer within about two hours. Example: portable phones in the London Underground. Seriously, Jennings is a great learning resource, a sort of super-intelligent search engine in humanoid form. I wonder what the psycho-testers would make of him? And I wonder what he was like when he was three?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
February 24, 2003
Moving academic publishing from expensive paper journals to the internet

On the day that I posted a piece here about how university teaching materials ought to be on the internet, independent.co.uk published a piece about how academics are trying to move academia away from their dependence on the cumbersome and above all ludicrously expensive apparatus of academic paper (in both senses) publishing, and onto the internet. Until recently, academic publishing, if you could only break into it, has been a licence to print not only academic articles but also money. And the price of subscribing to these journals has kept untold thousands of potential students in ignorance of their contents. But all this may now be changing.

Now, however, there are the first whiffs of angry rebellion across the labs, common rooms and book-lined studies of academe. Many academics are quietly supporting moves to publish research on the internet, where it can be accessed free of charge and yet still be subject to the all-important peer-review process.

Led in Britain by Professor Stevan Harnad of Southampton University, many lecturers and researchers are supporting the Budapest Open Access Initiative, an international effort to bypass the "greedy" publishers and provide a low-cost or free alternative on the internet, backed by, of all people, George Soros.

Another conference of academics from countries as diverse as Belarus and the Netherlands met in the Hungarian capital again last month to discuss how best to "accelerate progress in the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet".

Here, the Research Support Libraries Group – a committee set up by universities and other research facilities such as the British Library – has also been investigating the best means of disseminating academic research on the net.

About time too. I was speaking this afternoon with Alice Bachini about what the historical impact of the internet is going to consist of. This kind of thing is definitely part of that story.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:14 AM
Category: Technology
[1] [0]
February 23, 2003
Please Sir, Can I take my children on holiday?

Julius Blumfeld criticises the latest government attempt to combat truancy:

The growing trend among middle-class parents of taking their children on holiday during term time is to be tackled with on-the-spot fines, according to a report in today's Observer.

At first I thought this was to be welcomed. Sometimes it feels as though the growth of the ever more bloated Nanny State goes unnoticed by the Great British Public. But this policy, which combines in one swoop, all of the most obnoxious characteristics of modern British Government, would surely infuriate even the most torpid parents. After all -

- It is bullying. Not content with cajoling, the Government threatens criminal convictions for those who don’t comply.

- It is patronizing. Adults must obtain “permission” from other adults (i.e. teachers) to take their own children on holiday.

- It is pointless. Nobody, not even the Government, believes that taking a child on holiday or shopping during term time is likely to have the slightest adverse effect on that child’s education.

- It is mean-minded. It prevents parents from doing the sensible thing and taking holidays when fares are low and crowds are small.

- It betrays a deep distrust of people. The message it conveys is that no parents (not even the educationally-obsessed middle-classes) can be trusted with the educational welfare of their children.

- It is nakedly unprincipled. As Britain’s Education Minister, Ivan Lewis, proudly declares: “the Government would be guilty of 'double standards' if it expected its policies on truancy to apply only to disadvantaged parents who allowed their children to roam the streets”. So the reason for the new policy of criminalizing families who go on holiday is not even to improve educational standards but to protect the Government from allegations of “double standards”.

Full of naïve optimism that the new initiative would arouse the latent libertarian instincts in the British Public, I turned to the BBC's "Talking Point" column to read what people have to say on the subject.

It turns out that I was well wide of the mark. With a few honorable exceptions (David Geran – whoever you are – you are not alone!) the view seems to be that the policy is a bad idea, not for any of the reasons I thought, but because … wait for it … the Government is failing to tackle the real villains of the piece … the holiday companies who deliberately inflate their prices during school holidays.

I give up.

Julius

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
February 21, 2003
Japanese equality – etcetera

This email arrived yesterday. I'm trying to encourage such emails to here, so I reproduce it in full.

Hullo

www.hunkabutta.com is running something about equality in Japanese education. The archives also have stuff about the strictness of Japanese language schools.

Thought you might be interested.

Cheers
Christian

Hunkabutta.com seems to be mostly concerned with photographs of Japanese life, but one of the people running it apparently teaches, and has some intriguing observations about egalitarianism in Japanese education.

The reportage quoted below has two qualities that I want especially to focus on here. First, it is not from the USA. No offence to the USA, but the blogosphere has enough educational Americana as it is. Second, it describes the individual experience of an individual human being, in an educational setting. In Britain, and especially in news stories, education is far too much discussed in terms of statistically abstracted aggregates, and not enough in terms of the specific and truly accurate experiences of individual persons. By all means, as here, recount individual experiences of abstract principles (in this case "equality") but, this being the blogosphere rather than a pile of company reports or government hand-outs, keep it real.

So far my only insight into Japanese education has been via the Kumon maths teaching system, which is uncompromisingly individualistic and non-egalitarian. The work each Kumon student does is entirely tailored to the progress he or she is making, and is totally unaffected by any considerations of group solidarity. And the contrast with what the hunkbutta person describes couldn't be more total.

I quote at perhaps wearisome length because hunkabutta.com is one of many sites where, try as I might, I simply cannot work out how the hell to link to an individual item. They do not use regular blogging software, perhaps because they started before blogging did. Anyway, this bit is from the Wed Feb 19 2003:

When I first came to Japan I worked as an assistant English teacher in several junior high schools in Tokyo. Every semester I would rotate between three or four different schools and help out in every English class.

One of the things that struck me as odd was the fact that the schools didn't stream students according to ability (I have heard that this is recently changing). In every subject, all the kids, whether they were brilliant or borderline mentally retarded (and this mix did actually occur) were taught the exact same thing in the exact same classroom.

In one English class that I taught there was a boy whose mother was British. He was basically fluent in English, but most of the other kids were still trying to master 'Hello my name is ...', and a few of the introverts who couldn't even manage that sat at the back in silence and picked at their moles.

I tried to convince this boy's teacher that he should be taught separately, or that we should prepare special materials for him, but the teacher would have nothing of it. Day after day this English speaking boy had to stand up with everyone else and say things like 'This is a pen', and 'I like baseball'.

Whenever I pressed one of the teachers to explain why we couldn't treat any of the students differently, whether it be giving them extra homework or kicking them out of class for fighting, their final argument would invariably be the same: "It's because of human rights. In Japan, children have human rights too".

I never could get my head around the Japanese take on 'human rights' but I think that it had something to do with a concept of equality, and as I said earlier, equality is pretty much the same as being identical. There's a frequently translated Japanese proverb that says, 'The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.' Fitting in with the group is very important in Japan.

At one point I even found myself in the surprising situation of trying to teach English to kids with Downs Syndrome (in a special class), many of whom couldn't even speak Japanese, for the sole reason that 'everyone else in the school studies English.'

I used to get angry and frustrated by the unwillingness of the teachers to treat any of the students differently. However, in retrospect I see that I was just being the classic know-it-all foreigner. Put basically, people from here know how things work here.

I wanted to teach the half British boy advanced English, but his teacher was sensitive enough to realize that it was already amazingly difficult for this boy to fit in with his classmates, and if we singled him out for special treatment we would only make things worse. I wanted to teach the mentally handicapped kids how to do housework and use basic social skills, like we do in Canada, but their Japanese teachers probably realized that the self esteem that they would gain by studying English 'Just like everyone else' would greatly outweigh the utilitarian benefits of more life skills training.

I suppose it pays to keep an open mind, even if it is only open in retrospect.

Well, if Sean Gabb's lady students from Japan are obliged by him to express their own (perhaps contrary to his) opinions in open classroom debate, even if they don't think they have any opinions, and in defiance of their own tradition of deference to their teachers, it makes sense for hunkabutta persons to fit in when they go to Japan. On the other hand, if this is how maths was being taught when Professor Kumon first started to worry about his son's poor maths progress, it would explain a lot about why he invented Kumon maths.

I feel a General Theory of the Educational Private Sector coming on. Basically, the private sector in different places is excellent in exactly the ways in which the official local system is especially bad. Japan fetishises educational egalitarianism, and from Japan emerges one of the most radically individualistic teaching systems on the planet. Indian state computer education is parodically absurd (with students learning computer languages no longer known to anyone in the world except Indian state teachers of computer skills) and the Indian private sector is now the leading supplier of computer-capable students to Silicon Valley.

I don't know quite how this applies to Britain. Probably I'm too close to see it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 AM
Category: This and that
[1] [0]
Government solves "boredom" problem

Another posting from Julius Blumfeld:

Some interesting news. According to School Standards Minister David Milliband speaking at a Conference on Wednesday:

Boredom is the biggest cause of pupils losing interest in school … Boredom is the bane of education. Boredom is the recruiting sergeant for disaffection, truancy and bad behaviour.

Funny that. Mr Milliband must have been speaking to Brian’s friend Sean Gabb who has this on his website:

We were given some money by the Department for Education [in 1994] to find out why children play truant. According to our findings, they do so mostly because they dislike the lessons. Those of my readers who have never been exposed to the Sociology of Education may think this an obvious answer. Before Dr O'Keeffe gave it, though, it was an answer quite absent from the literature. Every other cause imaginable had been discussed - from Original Sin to lead pollution – but never the true one.
Of course, this killed the project. The officials in the DfE wanted an excuse for having more educational welfare officers in public employment by the year 2000 than members of the armed forces; the politicians wanted an opportunity for more "Back to Basics" posturing. The O'Keeffe findings, with their unspoken and remote, but still discernable, corollary – that state education should be abolished - fitted neither agenda. Therefore, the funding was cut off.

On second thoughts, I don’t think Mr Milliband has been speaking with Sean Gabb. Mr Milliband’s solution is not to abolish state education. His solution is to spend more on it. His proposed reforms to tackle the problem of boredom include a "greater role for vocational training in schools", an "extended role for information technology” and, best of all, "longer opening hours and wider access during the holidays". Absolutely brilliant – children hate schools because they are boring. Solution? Keep the schools open for longer!

Sean Gabb for Minister of Education I say.

Julius Blumfeld

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:39 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
February 20, 2003
Words from Mark

I got an email from Mark Holland. BEdBlog hasn't had that many of these as yet, so I emailed back to Mark.

Mark:

Do you have any problem with me posting this on BEdBlog?

You make some interesting points, which others might enjoy. Glad you seem to be liking it.

Either way, best regards, BM

Heartfeld sentiments, I might add. My obvious sincerity clearly got through to Mark, because this as his reply:

Well no, not really Brian,

If you think you can shoehorn it in then go for it.

Mark

Shoehorn it in? It's not hard to do. Anyway, this was the original email.

Hi Brian,

I really enjoyed your Only Hitler will do entry the other day. I did intend to comment but could really juggle the words together to respond adequately to what you'd said. I can only say I found you conclusions most plausible.

That's great Mark. You're doing fine. Don't knock yourself. Be confident.

I did want to tell you however, about a programme I'd seen on Sunday night on BBC4 called What the Germans did for us. It sounds like Adam Hart-Davis should be biking (rad-ing?) from Bremerhaven to Bayern and telling us about the great tutonic inventions like ocean currents and hypodermic needles. But no. It's really about the influence 20th Century (mostly West) Germany has had on British society. Autobahns, electronik musik and so on. They do touch on the idea that British hark back to the war because, as you say, it was this country's final hurrah as a world power. They show this in various forms from voting …

… That's British TV viewers voting …

… (half American) Winston Churchill as the "greatest ever Briton" for instance to the disgusting Achtung of the Daily Mirror during Euro 96.

All in all it is an interesting programme which ties in nicely with what both you and the German ambassador to Britain said recently about how post war Germany is all but ignored by most of Britain, especially in school history.

The programme is on again tonight on BBC4 at 11pm.

And I watched some of it. It was just as Mark says.

By the way after reading about your experience with the American-Austrian boys on the tube I've started listen to my Michel Thomas learn German cds again. I'd stopped after my holiday last August (to Berlin!) and needed a kick up the arse to get in motion again. So thanks. Although I'm still confused because to stay is bleiben and to live is leben, but maybe there's an Austrian colloquialism that as a mere beginner in the language can't grasp.

All the best.

Mark

There. That wasn't so hard. You just juggled words! That was great. (And can anyone explain that bleiben leben thing?)

About this Michel Thomas. I've heard of this guy. The thing I remember most vividly was that he just sits down and tells you the new language he's teaching you, and that's it. You just listen to what he says, and presumably (although this I don't remember this so vividly) say it back at him, and that's it. You just do it. No stressing and straining. No homework. You just have sessions with him.

He was teaching French for English speakers when I caught him, again on a TV show. He started, as I recall it, with lots of words which are pretty much the same in French as in English, and he took it from there.

Have I remembered Monsieur Thomas correctly? How good is he? And how good are his CDs? Mark, how did you decide to use him, rather than … I don't know … "Linguaphone"? How are you getting on? Juggle some more words and tell us about it. You can do it, I know you can.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 AM
Category: Languages
[2] [0]
February 19, 2003
Great Schools: The Bauhaus

I've recently bought one of these digital box things, that you attach to your television. They cost £100 or so, and beyond that, nothing more. You get your regular free TV channels, plus a few more. (I also get much better TV reception.) Blah blah, go to my culture blog and wait, if you want to know all that I think about this. As far as BEdBlog is concerned, tonight I'm watching a programme being presented by Robert Hughes, that jowly old Australian who wrote The Shock of the New, and who also did that as a TV show. The show tonight is about the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and mention was inevitably made of the Bauhaus, the German design and architecture school which flourished briefly between the end of the First World War and the rise of Hitler, where Mies taught for a time.

I hereby nominate the Bauhaus as the most influential educational institution of the twentieth century. Can anyone else better that? Stanford University maybe? That ghastly place in Russia where they trained Third World despots?

Not everything that the Bauhaus unleashed worked well. The Modern Movement in Architecture was a very mixed picture indeed. But if the Bauhaus' outdoor impact took many decades to work its way through catastrophe to something like mass popularity (which is the status of the best high-tech architectural modernism of today), its impact indoors has been much more definitely benign. Simply, the Bauhaus people invented the modern interior.

"Education" is a word that notoriously mutates into propaganda, and god am I sick of hearing some mediocrity on the TV tell the camera that "the public must be educated" into behaving the way the mediocrity wants them to behave, and buy what the mediocrity wants them to buy, instead of behaving in the way that and buy what it is inclined to. Nevertheless, the relationship between education and what is now called "indoctrination" is extremely intimate. I mean, the second of those two words gives it away.

Education can mean that which prepares you for the world as it is, or is going to be. That's mostly the sense in which I have been writing about it here. In the Bauhaus we observe education as a self-conscious and in this case also a stunningly successful attempt to change the world, by unleashing upon it a generation of art and design practitioners, and, in the absence of commissions, art and design propagandists.

And before all you right wing buffers deluge me with anti-modernistic abuse-comments (well, go ahead and indulge yourselves if you want to) be aware that I regard the Bauhaus as, on balance, a huge success. By which I mean not just that it did what it was trying to do, but that I'm glad about it. Again, see my Culture Blog in the years to come for the detailed reasons, but it comes down to this: the Bauhaus resulted in, above all, a lot of designs. And in the age of mass production, good designs can be kept and multiplied, and the bad designs can be dumped. True, it is proving very wearisome to shake ourselves free of badly designed big buildings. These are seldom mass produced over a longish period and cannot be quietly "discontinued" when they fail – they have to be blown up. Plus the politics was pretty ghastly, I do agree. But domestic furniture, kettles, anglepoise lamps, modern electrical toys (such as digital TV attachments), regular toy-type toys, tupperware, etc. etc etc. – just look around your kitchen and your living room, it's all Bauhaus Bauhaus Bauhaus. These guys invented – or maybe I mean discovered – all of that. This was a massive success and it will last.

And the social process that took it out of the individual heads where it was first imagined and turned it into a mass experience for us all was: education.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 PM
Category: Higher educationHistory
[0] [0]
February 18, 2003
The Internet as University Library

Okay this is another quota posting. Remember the rule here? Something (anything) at least once every Monday to Friday. So far I've kept to this rule, and I'm proud of that. Sometimes I feel like some grouchy old pedagogue shambling into class, coughing and wheezing, and glowering at the terrified pupils all trembling behind their ancient, inkstained desks. But I'm here, so pay attention. You, put that chewing gum away. Simpson, before you leave today, write out a hundred times: "UNDERWARE IS NOT WORN OUTSIDE" (That was last Monday, I think. I love those lines Bart does. Recent favourite: "I AM NOT A DENTIST".)

So, the inexorable decline of the University Library. Tragedy or what? Where would I be at times like these (i.e. midnight rapidly approaching) without education.guardian.co.uk?

The university where I currently teach has, I think, made a constructive move towards solving the problems of the decaying university library. Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) has a small student body of less than 1,000 undergraduates, some 800 graduate students and 250 or so professors. They are (just behind Harvard) the highest paid faculty in the country. The institute – although it lost half a billion of its endowment in the recent stock market slump – is very rich.

Traditionally, Caltech has spent lavishly on its library. Even the small cohort of humanists has prospered. Ask for a book, and it would be bought, accessioned and kept on open shelf. Recently, however, a major change of emphasis has occurred. Rather than store or keep printed materials, the library has moved to a system which prioritises delivery over storage and curatorship.

It is cheaper, the institute estimates, at around $10 a time, to get any book on interlibrary loan than to acquire, shelve, and circulate that book.

So too with articles in learned journals, which materials scientists are particularly hungry for. It makes more sense to order them in, like pizzas, rather than stoke up your own wood oven. Even if you let undergraduates in on the privilege the institute still comes out ahead. You order and it's in your mailbox next day (rush) in three days (normal). It's like rubbing a magic lamp and wishing the material into existence.

It says everything about university life that this character is actually proud that a piece of TEXT can be "delivered" – golly gee!! – NEXT DAY. (Or failing that, er, three days.) Pizzas? PIZZAS?!?!?! What century is this man living in? Perchance, the recently concluded one? And he's at the California Institute of Technology, for Jesus H. Christ's sake. I thought that in California they knew what computers can now do nowadays. Apparently not.

I'm not saying that printing off what is needed, anywhere anytime – like, you know, you could print THIS, within about three minutes of me finishing the writing of it – is going to be a total breeze to get organised. A scientific journal article probably has a few more potential glitches built into it than a blog posting, and especially a blog posting here (where I'm terrified of anything except words). And books, I do agree, do still have their uses. But couldn't Mr Caltech at least have made some allusion to the notion that treating texts like pizzas instead of like jars of fruit in your own larder is an interim measure until the obvious real answer is organised. (The nearest he gets to this is when he says that his university has "made a constructive move towards" solving the library problem, rather than actually claiming that the problem is already solved.)

The whole logic of the internet is that we all use the same giant filing cabinet, called: The Internet. Bloggers like me dream of the day when every reader pays a tenth of a cent to come here, but that will probably never happen. But surely if there's $10 available to get a book from some other University library, there are more than nickels and dimes to pay for members of the University to download academic books and articles.

I repeat. It's not that I'm saying that doing this is going to be easy to organise. I sense that the problem will be the "business model" and the negotiating with the old-line academic publishers. Once it's agreed how to do it, actually doing it will be relatively easy. What I'm saying is: it's obvious that this is what has to be organised. This is the question. And pizza delivery is not the answer.

Or to put it the other way, and approaching the problem from the other end, the future of academic text circulation is the system described in my piece about my friend Sean Gabb, only far, far more developed. Sean found free-to-download stuff that served his teaching purpose, and listed the links. The future of University teaching would make the entire contents of every University Library on earth available to everybody, everywhere.

And might that be the reason that Herr Doctor Professor Caltech might be uncomfortable with facing the obvious. Because, the logic of The Internet is that life at "universities" undergoes a whole lot more changes that just in the library.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:46 PM
Category: Technology
[4] [0]
February 17, 2003
Only Hitler will do

There's an interesting story from the Independent today about the
"Hitlerisation" of history teaching in British schools.

History lessons for secondary pupils are now dominated by the study of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War, the Government's school inspectors have found.

A report by Ofsted, the school inspection body, warned that the "Hitlerisation" of courses threatened to damage understanding of history, and could result in pupils leaving school ignorant of key events.

Of all the history lessons monitored during the last school year, more lessons focussed on Hitler's Germany than on any other topic.

For once I find myself fascinated by a national education debate.

Assuming Ofsted are telling the truth, and despite my general reservations about Ofsted I do assume this here, why has this happened? Well, I don't know all the reasons, but here are some speculations.

First, it is surely easier to teach the history of the recent past than of the more distant past. Grandfathers talk of the events in question. You don't have to rely on history books to try to provoke interest in events long past.

The significance – the "relevance" - of recent events is also obvious. Had the Battle of Britain been lost, we'd now be ruled by strutting Nazis, etc. Demonstrating that it now matters who won the Hundred Years war of even the Battles of Trafalgar or Waterloo is a lot harder.

Second, we live in a televisual age. The Second World War is the first major historical event for which television programme makers have an abundance of illustrative film footage. How much easier it would be to make documentaries about Waterloo if there was footage of Napoleon striding about the battlefield, rousing the French people to one more effort, studying maps and issuing orders! As it is, all we have is the occasional item of pre-photographic propaganda, with every detail controlled by Napoleon himself, and no real chance of unwelcome truths slipping through to posterity the way Hitler's movies now give many of his games away.

But what of the period since the Second World War. Why is that not taught more in schools? Are there not dramas there to excite children, which they can learn about from their parents, let alone their grandparents? Yes there are, but many of the most dramatic stuff is rather embarrassing, from the political point of view.

A digression. I surmise that the problem of history teaching is the teaching of boys. It may not be proper to say such things, but, let's face it, girls are more biddable than boys. They will pay attention to whatever they are told, more than boys. So boys are the problem, and how do you interest boys? Not with dreary stuff about the rise of the welfare state or the glories of nationalisation. No, you have to talk about aeroplanes and rockets, wars and conquests.

And the bitter truth for the largely left-inclined teachers of Britain is that the stories most calculated to fascinate boys are the stories which these people are least well equipped to tell honestly. To put it bluntly the truth about the last fifty years of history (of the sort involving guns and rockets) has been largely right wing. The Cold War was essentially a battle between good and evil, with the good guys eventually winning, and with the lefties on the wrong side. Decolonisation has been, to put it mildly, a very mixed story, and in Africa a serious disappointment (to put it no more strongly). All very arkward to explain if you are a lefty history teacher. Best to ignore all that.

And what of the Second World War itself? The larger picture is also a decidedly embarrassing story. The mid-1930s equivalents of CND are among those who now stand accused of having, in effect, caused the thing, by arguing that Hitler should have been ignored rather than confronted. The massive contributions to the victory of the Allies by the Americans are embarrassing, because Americans are, you know, Americans, who did far better than PC people now like to admit. And Stalin's USSR, which made a comparably massive contribution to victory, was at that time behaving far worse, both to its own citizen victims and to anyone else it got its claws into, than PC people now like to admit or even think about.

All of which leaves: Adolf Hitler. There is nothing else left (in either sense) to talk about. Only when contemplating the minutiae of Hitler's ghastly career and ghastly opinions and delusions, and ghastly crimes against the civilian populations of Europe, is the average British lefty able to contemplate the details of the recent past with some semblance of equanimity. Hitler is the answer to lefty prayers. Provided lefties can forget the national "socialist" bit, and dress Hitler up as Right Wing, as well as the ultimate in evil, which by and large they have been able to do, they can put across a story to the next generation that they are comfortable with. And there are an abundance of documentaries on the TV to illustrate the story. (And why are there so many of those? See all of the above.)

As I mentioned in my discussion of the bias honestly displayed by Sean Gabb in his teaching activities, bias is not just in how you teach this or that; it is in what you choose to teach in the first place. I speculate that the Hitlerisation of British history teaching in schools is a fine example of this fact. It's not that the Cold War is mistaught in schools, with the Soviets being presented as the wronged victims of predatory Americans obsessed with selling guns and rockets to each other and with frustrating the poor of the earth in their quest for their own various versions of national socialism. The Cold War just isn't taught at all. Too "complex". ("Complex" is always the word used by people who find the truth too uncomfortable to deal with.)

And the other reason why British national history from the more distant past isn't taught is that the PC tendency isn't comfortable with national history at all. They prefer global history. The anti-PC right has gone on about this ad nauseam which is why I have put that explanation more to one side. Besides, here I sympathise with the lefties, in the sense that I also would like to see some global history, alongside the local stuff. But Hitler satisfies me as an historical topic also, because those ghastly ambitions of his were global and he was a threat to the whole world.

But, he is also a very acceptable subject for British nationalist, anti-PC, anti-lefty teachers to teach, because the defeat of Hitler is the last truly impressive thing that the British Nation has been heavily involved with. Since then what has Britain contributed to in a big way? There's only rock and roll, really. Apart from that, very little. NATO? The EU? Yawn. So Hitler even satisfies the anti-PC anti-lefty nationalists as a history topic.

Hitlerisation can be seen as like the little bit in the middle of one of those maths diagrams where the circles of interest of the various parties involved all intersect and overlap. So, that's what is concentrated on. Hitler is someone we can all agree about.

And, there are videos.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:52 PM
Category: Boys will be boysHistoryPolitics
[0] [0]
February 14, 2003
Baaadmouthin' your professor

As you may know, I don't like to go on about the USA all the time here. I prefer to dig out local stories.

Do you live in London? Are you doing any teaching? Of any kind? (Children? Animals? Burglars? Accountants? Mass murderers? Old time dancers?) And are you proud of what you're doing? Invite me to sit in. If I share your high opinion of yourself and your teaching you'll get a plug here. If not, I'll keep it polite and find some nice things to say.

But this story, from the USA is too good to miss. And be sure to look at the stuff on myprofessorsucks.com that Professor Mary Ann Swissler was responding to. Sample complaint from a student (but follow the link and read them all – they're glorious):

The class is called Promotional Writing, and let me start by saying that there is more sleeping going on in this class than writing. No homework. No tests. The occassional press release or ad is due. The teacher makes me sick to look at, and her handwriting is worse than my lil bros (age 9). Her grey roots are gagging, and her outfits are blinding to the eye. Yes the class is easy, and thank god for the easy A, but there has to be some education that comes from class...I do pay $1500 for this damn class. Thank you Seton Hall for giving nothing but the best! Swissler is the #1 reason not to come, and the #1 reason to leave. Oh yeah--why do we have a teacher that doesn't know how to spell lead? She spells it LEDE?! wtf!! Pure crap...and I leave you with this thought--she is wearing my clothes I donated to the salvation army! (its sad-really.)

And this was Professor Swissler's magisterial reply:

All I can say is that the comments confirmed to me what I had to keep to myself all semester: that most of you mental midgets are the most immature, sheltered, homophobic, sexist, racist, lying sacks of s—t I have ever met in my life. ... Seton Hall may be kissing you're a—es now, but out here in the real world, brats like you will be eaten for breakfast.

I love that. I really do. God Bless America! It's a sublime cross between political correctness gone (and for once the phrase is not just a phrase) mad, and the Sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman: "Don't you eyeball me boy!", "… listenin' to that punk rock music and baaadmouthin' your country! …", etc.

Consumer sovereignty comes slap up against producer sovereignty. Teach how you want, and take the consequences in student abuse. Say what you want about your teacher, and hear what she has to say right back at you.

These "promotional writing" students didn't learn much about sending out press releases, or about spelling it would seem, from Professor S. But they can all write quite well. I started reading their abuse, and was gripped to the end. I think she taught them more than they realise.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 PM
Category: Liberal education
[5] [1]
February 13, 2003
Maths – even more applicable than applied maths

Just in case you don't regularly read Rational Parenting (a mistake on your part, I think, but let that pass), do go there today for an interesting piece by Alice about the maths bit of Britain's current National Curriculum. This key paragraph comes right at the end:

P.S. I've just worked out what this complicatedness is all about: the maths syllabus is apeing real life. It's trying to make itself relevant, by being applied-maths instead of just simple maths-maths. This is nuts. The whole reason maths matters at all is that you can and do apply it; the real-life situations are the applying part. Sigh.

By all means teach maths by referring to particular applications of it in real life – points totals in the Premier League, lengths of bits of wallpaper, areas of wall to determine how much paint you need, speeds of trains to determine times of journeys, etc. etc. By all means, illustrate all those universal statements. But maths itself is of such universal applicability that to embed such illustrative embellishment in the very structure of what must be learned is to limit its universality, and to miss the point of the thing completely.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:34 PM
Category: Maths
[4] [0]
The Omnicompetent Group delusion

The Political World seems to indulge in a regular pattern of focussing in on a particular category of people who between them will Sort Out The Mess in whatever situation is now a mess, Get A Grip, Take A Lead, until such time as this group of people are likewise revealed as being only human and just as incapable of doing the impossible as any other group of people.

But instead of recognising that no one is omnipotent or omniscient, and accepting the necessity of a free society in which no one is even pretending to be omnipotent or omniscient – because that would be too humiliating, and would involve admitting that too many disreputable people had been right all along and too many respectable people had been wrong all along – the answer to each crisis of failed omnicompetence is "solved" simply by appointing another category of persons who this time, this time, will work the miracle. These people, unlike all previous clay-footed gods, are so wondrously clever that if we give them unlimited powers, all will be well.

The most common manifestations of this delusion are the occasional outbursts of euphoria, such as gripped Political Britain in 1997 when our present government first swept to power, to the effect that the voters have at last identified an Omnicompetent Group of Politicians. Britain's voters have now just about got it clear in their heads that these particular politicians are not omnicompetent either, but, having now lost faith in the whole idea of omnicompetence (good) don't know what to do about it except be miserable (bad).

In the world of British education, the Omnicompetent Group is now called Ofsted, which stands for the Office of … what? … "st"andards in "ed"ucation? Something along those lines. Here's a story from the invaluable education.guardian.co.uk which shows the power that Ofsted now has.

A headteacher whose disappearance caused a police search ran away to the Lake District under the strain of an upcoming Ofsted inspection, it emerged yesterday.

Michael Ironmonger, 46, failed to arrive at his school, Nortonthorpe Hall in Scissett, West Yorkshire, on Monday. His wife Lesley, 43, raised the alarm and officers from three police forces spent almost two days searching the Pennines for his car.

Fears that he had been involved in an accident were dispelled when he telephoned home from Ambleside, Cumbria.

Mr Ironmonger was resting yesterday after returning to his home in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester.

His wife said: "It's a relief to have him home. We were worried out of our minds. We didn't realise Mick was under such pressure. He was due to receive a letter from Ofsted any minute telling him when they were going to visit the school for inspection.

"It just goes to show the effect these Ofsted inspections can have. I don't think people realise how much pressure they can put teachers under."

It's actually becoming quite hard to persuade anyone to be a head teacher in Britain these days.

A few years ago, the idea was that the Head Teachers themselves were the Omnicompetent Group. That turned out not to be true, and Ofsted has now replaced them as the focus of the educational version of the Omnicompetent Group Delusion, and stories like the above will serve to reinforce the idea that Ofsted are It, and Head Teachers are not.

But what happens when Ofsted itself is likewise revealed, as it will be, as having clay feet? Give it a few years, and they too will find themselves under that special form of intense public scrutiny – more like the bitter row between lovers falling out of love than a serious policy debate – that happens when yet again, education nirvana has proved elusive and yet another Omnicompetent Group is dethroned. After all giving Head Teachers nervous breakdowns is not quite the same as making education any better, now is it?

There is a real danger that Home-Educating Parents will, eventually, any decade now, be identified in Britain as education's latest Omnicompetent Group. This is certainly the thrust of quite a lot of Home-Ed propaganda I've read.

The people who now choose to do Home-Ed, in defiance of the conventions of their time, are mostly doing amazingly well. This is not at all surprising, given the kind of people that they are. But this doesn't mean that if all parents were suddenly badgered into doing Home-Ed against their present inclinations or desires, that the results would be nearly so nirvanic. It is vitally important that Home-Ed be pushed not as the latest Omnicompetence Delusion, but merely as one version of freedom in action, with all the least-worst type disappointments that freedom involves.

If Home-Ed parents do get installed as an Omnicompetent Group, and then revealed as being unworthy of such status and dethroned, and then subject to the kind of bureaucratic oversight that's now piled upon Head Teachers, then education.guadian.co.uk will in due course be running Home-Ed disaster stories similar to the story of the wretched Mr Ironmonger.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:51 PM
Category: Home educationPolitics
[1] [0]
February 12, 2003
Gnat's lessons

Gnat Lileks is learning. (Don't know how to link straight to today's Bleat permanently, so to speak, but it's The Bleat for today, Wed Feb 12 2003.)

Gnat has now tired of her computer games; she wants new ones. She’s exhausted the Mickey Mouse letters and shapes and numbers game, although she still enjoys the segment in which you use a water hose to knock cans off barrels. Baby’s First First Person Shooter. My wife bought a triptych of Mr. Potato Head games, and she’s done with those. So just in time I got a box from Amazon with two new games – a Curious George adventure that teaches coordination and deduction (fling your feces at the yellow hat!) and a Winnie-the-Pooh game that will delight her mightily tomorrow morning.

It’s just astonishing how easily they take to these things – I never showed her how to shut the programs down, but she figured that out; she figured out how to return to the home screens, how to tell the program she doesn’t want to save before quitting, how to double-click to launch a program. She’s figured out dragging and dropping. Put her in front of my laptop when it’s running iMovie, and she clicks on the button that starts the show. This summer I plan to give her an old 8mm camcorder - why can’t three-year-olds make movies? Wouldn’t you like to see a movie of your day you’d made when you were three?

TV? Eh. She doesn’t have time for TV anymore. When she’s done with the computer she sits on the sofa and reads a book. (By read, I mean she looks at the pages and describes the action based on her recollection of the story.) Then she asks me to write ABCs on her little blackboard easel; we arrange her stuffed friends on a chair and she plays Teacher, showing them what the letters stand for.

Ah, learning it by teaching it!

I watched a small child play with my computer the other day. Teachers fret – and teachers' unions pretend to fret – about what they children are "learning" from all this stuff. These computers are all very well, but are they getting any better at algebra??? Huge research programs conclude that stuffing computers into classrooms achieves nothing, ergo children playing computer games in their bedrooms is bad.

Wrong. Go and stand in the corner. Write out a hundred times: What Children Learn From Computers Is Computers. And since practically every job in the modern world involves, if you are badly paid, punching stuff into and getting stuff out of computers, and if you are better paid, making computers do even more than they do already, learning about computers is really something. And half the battle with computers is knowing what they can do. Once you know they can do something (because you've seen one do it in some idiot giants-and-elves game) you are in a position to find out how to make your computer do something similar. You can ask the question in the certain knowledge that there is an answer. You can demand that your company geeks do it, or failing that find out how to do it by asking the international geekosphere. Knowing what's possible. There's only one secret about The Bomb and it's public knowledge: It Works. Etc. Etc.

I come from the generation when if you push the wrong button, you are liable to get boiling water all over the living room and paint down the front of your trousers. Really important contemporaries of mine could blow up the world, if they put a finger in a seriously wrong place. I spent my youth hobby hours making sure I didn't glue the wing irrevocably to the place where the tail should go. But kids these days! They just click away and watch what happens! What can go wrong? The worst that can happen is something only very slightly bad, and you can undo it with your next click.

They'll learn. Once Our Gnat has put her first comment on Samizdata and then clicked another couple of times just to make sure it got there and consequently put it there three times, she'll learn that there are some things in life that can't be undone.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:37 PM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
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
[2] [1]
February 10, 2003
"Jack does not believe he is anything special"

David Farrer of Freedomandwhisky links to a story about a Scottish boy, eight years old and about to start an Open University degree.

Jack has been treated the same as any other student applying to the OU, and has had to submit some of his work before being accepted. A spokesman for the OU confirmed Jack should commence his science short course soon.

He said: "Our normal age range is 18-plus, but if a child shows exceptional promise and is able to cope with the rigour of the course, he will be accepted. Jack is certainly among the youngest we have had, but in such cases we make doubly certain that studying with the OU will benefit the child."

Jack does not believe he is anything special by becoming one of the youngest undergraduates in the UK.

"I just love lessons," he said. "And when mum says that is enough for the day, I moan that there's time for just a bit more."

Good for mum. Because she was the one doing it with Jack, of course. No mere school could have allowed Jack to get this far this quick. David Farrer reckons the difference was made by TV. They live in the wildest wilds of Scotland, and they can't get it.

Daryl Cobranchi collects stuff like this, but I'm guessing he may have missed this one.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:21 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
Multi-linguists are better educated

Yesterday I had one of those trifling yet enjoyable conversations in the Tube that you sometimes have, hardly more than the exchange of a few friendly words. Yet this conversation was laden with, to me, vastly intriguing intellectual baggage.

A family entered the Tube carriage I was in – two parents and three boys, very obviously tourists – and one of the boys was discussing where they were going to: Paddington. "Do we live in Paddington?" he asked, in a very American accent. "No" I interpolated, in what I hope was a jocular and friendly fashion. "You live in America." In my experience Americans are far happier to be conversed with like this in such places as Tube trains than are we Brits. What they hate is the way we ignore them all the time. But, said Mother, sitting right next to me: "No, actually we live in Austria. I'm an American. My husband is Austrian. And the words "stay" and "live" are the same in German, so my boys are liable to say "live" when what they really mean is "stay". "Ah, I see", said I, smiling again. (I hope I caused no offence.) End of conversation.

I know a number of bi-lingual and in some cases even multi-lingual children, and their parents tell me that this is a definite educational advantage. Bouncing around between different languages seems to stretch the juvenile brain just when it is most able to benefit from such stretching and to be least confused by it, or perhaps I mean least bothered about being confused. When they're older, these multi-linguists can get jobs as quite well-paid translators or interpreters when their friends are only slaving away in fast food emporia. Then they can be multi-lingual members of the international salariat, again very nicely paid, other things being equal.

But there is more to it than this. People who got to multi-lingualism very young have what I can only describe as a philosophical advantage. If you only speak and think in the one language, you are all too liable to confuse things with the mere labels for things. This is "a book", and a book is a book is a book. Well, not quite. "A book" is the label we attach to this particular subdivision (with quite blurry edges) of reality. In other languages, the labels refer to different subdivisions. In some languages there is no word for books that doesn't also include magazines. In some, the word for magazines includes paperbacks but makes no distinction between paperbacks and magazines, and books are only really books if they are hardback books. In some countries where you live and where you happen just now to be living are the same thing, as seems to be the case in Germany. To make that distinction you have to use a word like "home", or some such. Multi-linguists get all this, and they get it at a very early age. As a result their thinking is qualitatively better, because they have a deeper understanding of what language, the essential thinking tool of the brain, actually is, and is not.

"This is not a pipe", said René Magritte, in the explanatory caption which he attached to his picture of a pipe. This caused outrage. Of course it's a pipe! No. It was a picture of a pipe. It wasn't an actual pipe at all. This is the kind of thing that multi-lingual kids get at once.

Immigrants are famously better at artistic creativity than their mono-cultural rivals, and multi-lingual immigrants especially. This is surely because multi-lingualism focusses the mind wonderfully, and at a formatively early age, on the means of artistic expression. A multilinguist is in command of whatever language he ends up using. A monolinguist is all too liable only to be commanded by his language.

In short, multi-linguists are better educated.

Of course, it helps a lot that learning how to talk is something that is still done extremely well in our culture. Once governments seize control of children at the beginning of their learning-to-talk period rather than at the end of it, as they are now starting to do, multi-lingualism will then become a most tremendous problem, and fifteen per cent of the population (including most particularly those who have been confused by the government in more than one language) will grow up unable to utter a single word and in a state of intellectual malformation such as we can now only guess at. Have a nice week, everyone.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:15 PM
Category: Home education
[7] [0]
February 07, 2003
Mary Whitehouse lives

Julius Blumfeld puts a different slant on why he likes to home educate ...

Mary Whitehouse was a slightly sinister old lady who, until her death at 91, was a ceaseless campaigner for censorship of all the many things she disliked. I always felt she was a jolly bad thing, but I fear I am beginning to turn into her.

The problem is that I really don’t want my children to be exposed to the horrors of the modern world. I include in that category: discoes, crop-tops, any book written after 1950 (except Josie Smith), any word ruder than “silly”, the non-existence of God, the non-existence of fairies, slang, sex (of any kind), computers, most other children, popular music, mobile phones and television.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind these things for other people’s children. I don’t mind them for me - I write as an internet and TV addicted atheist who makes full use of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary when the need arises. It’s just that when it comes to my children, I make old Mrs. Whitehouse look like a 60’s Liberal.

When we started down the path of home education, my motives were largely educational. I always felt that schools were a wretched way to educate. Even the best schools tend to bore their pupils half to death, teaching irrelevant nonsense, badly (and I was lucky – I went to one of the “best” schools in the country).

But as time has passed, I’ve begun to appreciate more and more one of the indirect benefits of home education. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but for me the fact that we control what goes into our children’s minds is a very big plus. There’s always the risk that when they are older they will resent me for it, but I’d rather our children learned their values at home than from the knowing pre-teens who inhabit the modern school playground. And if that means a bit of censorship, I say “tough”.

Julius

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:01 PM
Category: Home education
[4] [0]
February 06, 2003
Anything goes in art classes

Meanwhile, over at 2Blowhards, Michael has been taking art lessons, and isn't impressed.

I went to the first class last night, and was reminded of what a ripoff most art classes are. The woman teaching it seems nice and for all I know is a good artist, so I have nothing against this class specifically -- it seems like an OK version of the standard thing. It's the standard thing that's a ripoff (and that, in a sane art world, would be a scandal).

Last night's class, like about 3/4 of the art classes I've taken, followed this model: the teacher has set up a subject, whether a model or a still life. You bring a bunch of art materials with you. You draw and paint. The teacher wanders around, giving each person a little time and a few hints. You pack up and go home.

Like I say: what a ripoff. It's amazing the schools charge for this, and just as amazing that eager students put up with it. Would it be too much ask an art teacher to do a little actual art instruction? To have a little something prepared? To structure a series of classes so that the bit you learn this week joins together with the bit you learned last week, and you leave the term having acquired some genuinely new skills, and able to do things you hadn't previously been able to do?

Seems like a reasonable thing to demand. So why doesn't that get supplied?

… I guess I assume that what it represents is a coming-together of four things: asinine progressive-education ideas (let the student discover art for himself!), laziness and convenience, the continuing-ed business, and annoying modernist (ie., anti-technique, anti-skill, pro-self-expression) ideas about art. Do you think I'm off here? Or that I'm missing some other element?

I see nothing wrong about any of that, but maybe I can add something.

Consider that bit I did here about the Army, and how seriously they set about their teaching. Or consider, for that matter, the example of another kind of teaching that Michael does consider.

… Imagine, say, a cooking school or a cooking class. Now, imagine showing up, being confronted by a roomful of tools and ingrediants. And a teacher who says, "OK, class, cook! Every now and then I'll come around and give you a little criticism and help!" I know I'd be pissed. How about knife skills? Poaching? Grilling?

Cooking - and I'm guessing here but it seems to me, etc. etc. – still retains some semblance of pedagogic rigidity, in the sense that "good" and "bad" cooking are widely regarded as being distinguishable. If you cook an omelette (one of the few cookery things I'm quite good at doing) for a minute or two and watch for when it is done and then dish it up it, you can get a very good omelette. Cook the omelette for half an hour and then give the ruins ten minutes in the fridge, and you will absolutely not get a good omelette. I don't know any omeletteer who would disagree about that. It would be wrecked. Get your cooking seriously wrong, and you might even kill people.

If the Army gets its teaching wrong, it will definitely kill people. They teach right, or people die. In such a world, the mind of the teacher is going to be concentrated wonderfully on doing the job a certain way, the right way.

But what they hell is the right way of doing art these days? The artists have spent the last hundred years trying to explain that there is no right way, that anything goes.

And the irony is that Michael Blowhard – with his exuberantly wide-ranging willingness to appreciate and to enjoy, and to pass on by if he doesn't enjoy with a mere "well it's not my thing, but if it's yours, then fine" – is now doing his bit to reinforce this atmosphere, as well as to undermine it somewhat by asserting his tendency to enjoy more traditional, that is to say artistic-skill-based, varieties of art.

I want techniques -- the "art" and "expressive" end of things I'll take care of myself. Or I won't. But I certainly don't want some teacher I don't know trying to take charge of that end of things. But techniques? I'm eager to learn, and I'll pick 'em up where I can get 'em. Yet the art-instruction establishment doesn't want to give them to me, or even, apparently, sell them to me.

When Michael says "techniques", he's not referring to the technique for writing outrageous press releases, or the technique for how to dress on TV in such a way as to cause maximum anger to the bourgeoisie. He means brushwork, etc. So does anyone teach this old-school art technique stuff? Still?

I stay "still?" because in my opinion another reason why anything goes in painting these days (can of worms opening warning force eight to nine) is that painting has, in terms of its contribution to the real-world economy out there, been pretty much replaced by photography. Painting's days of economic glory and artistic centrality are over. Anything goes in painting for the same reasons that you can, within the limits only of the criminal law, do anything you like in a bombsite.

Short second last paragraph. Big subject. Which I'll get back to, but mostly in another place.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:32 PM
Category: Adult education
[4] [0]
Bashing on regardless

As in the greatest matters, so in the smallest. Compare this, from a Telegraph piece by Charles Moore (linked to by Instapundit):

Yes, America reserves its right to act unilaterally, but it bases its policy on the paradox that it is only by convincing people of your readiness to be unilateral that you can win multilateral support. …

… with this, from me, here, the day before yesterday:

At the top of this it says: "E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages."

Do I make myself clear?

Only too clear, I guess. But don't worry, don't feel obliged to respond if you don't entirely feel like it. BEdBlog will bash on regardless, I assure you. If there are no contributions from the class, I'll just keep on chalking and talking.

Power projection. Don't you just love it?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:54 PM
Category: This Blog
[0] [0]
February 05, 2003
The British Army as a teaching organisation

The British Army is an organisation for fighting, right? Well, yes. But consider instead: The British Army is an organisation for teaching. And add: The British Army is an organisation for teaching people how to teach.

I asked my education-how-about-that? question (see posting below) to a friend of mine who is a British Army Captain. First, I got a big spiel about the decline of education in Britain generally. But then, we really got down to business, because my friend had a lot to say also about how the Army itself educates.

He started with "EDIP".

?????????

"EDIP" stands for: Explain, Demonstrate, Immitate, Practice.

First you tell them what you are going to tell them how to do. Then you show then by doing it yourself. Then you make them to do it. Finally you make them do it over and over again until they've got it as second nature.

That's what teaching in the Army consists of. But there's more. My friend then talked about how you, in general, set about teaching, about how you set up a lesson, about what you do before EDIP and after EDIP.

I need to look at my notes.

"Preliminaries, setting up – seeting plan – what are you teaching? – do you have all the kit you need?"

Before you launch in on the "explain" bit, where you tell them what you're going to tell them, you tell them why it matters, and why they personally will benefit from paying attention. Big picture, individual incentive. Incentive might mean a test at the end which they'll have ot pass. Fail and you have to do it again, etc..

After that you do EDIP, and then, at the end of the lesson, very important, you do that test. You check that what you thought you had taught them you actually did teach them. Failure to understand this distinction will risk many lives in very fraught circumstances. You have to be sure that they actually learned it.

And then finally, you look ahead to the next lesson and tell them what that's going to consist of.

Central to the Army ethos is that if you want to really learn something, there's no better way than to learn how to teach it. Thus, one of the first steps (not the final step as you might expect) in a major Senior Officer type career is that you become an instructor at somewhere like Sandhurst.

Second, although my friend the Captain made a great performance out of all this, he himself doesn't do that much teaching himself. He leaves that to his N(on) C(ommissioned) O(fficers), the Sergeants and Corporals who are the human backbone of the British Army and always have been. So in other words, the reason my friend is so fluent about How To Teach is that he has already been involved in teaching his subordinates How To Teach. Be an ace sniper by teaching sniping. Be an ace teacher by teaching teaching. The British Army is an organisation that teaches teachers.

Finally, if my prose has become somewhat excitable in this posting, this is because as soon as I started to write this I jumped back into the mood of the original conversation, which was also extremely enthusiastic and animated.

I had pushed a major Army button with this education question. I cannot promise that all of the above detail is exactly correct. I probably got important things somewhat wrong, and I can just about guarantee that I left important things out. But this I can tell you for sure. Asking a Captain in the British Army about how he sets about the business of teaching is like opening a window into his soul. To say that this is what he does, or what he thinks about a lot, is to underestimate it. This is what he is. This, minus all the state secrets that obviously can't be used by way of illustration, is it. This is the fundamental question to ask these guys if you want to know who and what they are.

Ask them about what fighting is like, and half of them don't know. The other half have no way of telling you, other than to refer you to certain books which hint at the reality of it. But ask them about teaching, and it's like uncorking a shaken champagne bottle.

I expect to be asking this question to many more teachers in the months and (who knows?) years to come, as and when I encounter them, and I expect many further fascinating answers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:11 PM
Category: Adult education
[3] [1]
February 04, 2003
You are probably a teacher yourself

One of the reasons I set this education blog up in the first place was that I hoped it would give me an excuse to ask questions of people that would immediately take the conversation above the level of trivia. And it works, let me tell you. I find that the question: Education – how about that? is often an instant ice-breaker and profundity provoker.

In particular I have taken to collecting teachers, in the sense that I am trying to identify as many different attitudes to and techniques of teaching that I can discover out there.

I recently gave a talk around the subject of this blog and its contents. Instead of just starting the discussion part of the evening by just sitting there and waiting for questions, I instead asked everyone present what kind of teaching they'd done in their lives. There was only one "teacher" present, but there was also, it turned out, a home schooler, and almost everyone had done some teaching of one kind or another, guest lecturing, staff training, or some such. There was even someone present who used to perform regularly at Speaker's Corner, which sparked off an immediate discussion about the similarities between teaching and political propaganda. Speaker's Corner, if you're wondering, is a little part of Hyde Park Corner set aside for anyone who wants to to speak about anything he wants to speak about. Bloggers Corner before blogging, you might say.

The link between regular education and propaganda, if you're wondering about that as well, is, of course, that in regular teaching you often also have to persuade, rather than just to instruct. You often have to persuade your pupils that what you want them to learn is worth learning.

Are you a teacher? You probably are. Think about it. There you go, I told you you were. You worked in a night club and taught drink serving to drink servers. You have customers, who have to learn quite a lot about the kinds of services you are providing if they are to get their money's worth, and you've learned that some techniques of "education" simply don't work on these people, while other decidedly odd ones work very well.

The underlying assumption behind all this is that the one place in the world where education is now pretty stagnant is … schools! Practically everywhere else in the world, and especially of course in the home and at "work", education is roaring ahead. And the chances are you have not only received education in such circumstances as these; the chances are you've also been a provider of it.

At the top of this it says: "E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages."

Do I make myself clear?

Only too clear, I guess. But don't worry, don't feel obliged to respond if you don't entirely feel like it. BEdBlog will bash on regardless, I assure you. If there are no contributions from the class, I'll just keep on chalking and talking. The above began life as a mere introduction to a piece about teaching in the British Army.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:05 PM
Category: This Blog
[1] [0]
February 03, 2003
To segregate by gender or not to segregate by gender

Okay, busy day today, so here's another of those BEdBlog quota fulfillers.

My friend Antoine Clarke offered this suggestion earlier this evening about what I could put here, and here it is, as best I could make it out.

Parents! You don't want any of this freedom-for-children we-only-want-them-to-be-happy nonsense, do you? No. Course not. You want the little swine to become barristers and brain surgeons and Nobel Prize winning physicists, and to blast your DNA to all corners of the earth inside long lasting and well funded dynasties. Right? Right. Ah, but how to accomplish this?

Part of the answer is to be found in managing the gender mixes. Younger children do best at mixed gender schools, so when they're young that's what you send them to. So far so easy.

But older boys, boys in the grip of the puberty hormone storm, they do best in mixed gender schools, where the urge to show off to the girls causes them to excel at worldly achievement and to bash ahead with their exams and their CV adorning extra-curricular activities the way they never would if they had only each other to show off to. (Boys impress each other by becoming criminals,) So you send your boys to mixed gender schools.

Girls on the other hand, do better at girls-only schools. Girls in the grip of the puberty hormone storm, if at mixed gender schools, neglect their school work and instead concentrate on showing off to the boys with make-up and figure enhancing outfits.

So, you need mixed schools for your boys, and single gender schools for your girls.

One of the more interesting questions you can ask about any social science finding is: what if everyone knew it? What would happen then? If all parents acted on this finding, or rather if all parents tried to, there'd be mayhem.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:28 PM
Category: Parents and children
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