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Chronological Archive • May 2003
May 30, 2003
The Life! versus The Rails

I'm assembling education blogs to make that long-neglected link list, and found myself going from this, to this, the first this (try that and go to April 28) being archive-bloggered, and the second this being a piece by John Derbyshire describing the way that Kids These Days are prone to going Off The Rails and to prefer The Life! instead.

Like Derbyshire, I can see the point of both sides of this one. I see why people build The Rails. And I see why other people want to jump or slide off them. I mean, what sort of a life is it if all you ever do is live out almost but not quite the life your parents set up for you? And what sort of reward is it if you end up with a house almost but not quite as nice as the one you grew up in? Bad Behaviour – sex, drugs, rock, roll – are just the ways that some people have to use to get their parents off their backs. I'm old enough to realise how stupid and childish this sounds, but it is nevertheless a fact that one of the many things I like about blogging is that my mother, a most capable woman in lots of ways, has no idea what it is or how it works.

His teachers say he has great ability, but just won’t work. Visiting with the family, we did not see him, only heard the thudding of rock music from the basement room where he lives. Amy: “We’ve totally given up. Just can’t wait for him to leave home.”

Mission accomplished. Lucky is the child whose parents have given up.

I admire the "bourgeois way of life", but to really enjoy it some of us have to redesign it and muck about with it and make it truly our own. For that, The Rails may not be enough. You want to make your own rails.

I'm not sure about any of this. Derbyshire's is a good piece though, and none the worse for having been written a month ago. Some things don't change.

And by the way, for all those parents who reckon they aren't making any Rails for their children to jump off, here's the caption of one of my favourite cartoons – the sort of cartoon that doesn't really need the actual cartoon, just the caption: "We wanted him to be an anarchist but he wouldn't be told." (I suspect that if there is an answer to this, it is to be found in the phrase "giving up". But then they turn round and say you shouldn't have.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 AM
Category: Parents and children
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May 29, 2003
Dangerous propaganda

Home schooler Julius Blumfeld writes:

I had a row with Mrs B a few days ago. The cause was the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History. Usborne are highly reputable educational publishers who produce nicely laid out and easy to use books for children.

The Encyclopedia has a section on the Industrial Revolution. There is the usual recital of the horrors of the new towns with an illustration of a slum with a smart horse and carriage driving past and a caption with the words "The factory owner drives past quickly".

The text then continues:

Making changes Members of the trade unions and some wealthy people put pressure on the government to make life better for the poor. In the second half of the 19th century, factories became safer, and better houses were built. New drains and sewers made the streets cleaner, which helped to prevent diseases from spreading.

Going to school

In 1800, parents usually had to pay to send their children to school, so many children from poor families never learned to read or write. Over the next hundred years, laws were passed which allowed children to have a free education.

So life became better for people because the Government made it better and poor children learned to read and write because the Government passed laws to give them a free education.

To be fair to the authors, this sort of stuff is entirely conventional. Usborne are merely reflecting received wisdom. Nevertheless, I find it worrying. The book is designed for children and we all know that young children are incredibly receptive to the first ideas that get into their heads. Home educated children like ours are no different that way.

Yet when I ranted to Mrs B about the insidious dangers of this sort of statist propaganda, she looked at me as though as I was a paranoid nut and told me to stop exaggerating. So I told her she was an ideological dupe and stomped off.

I wonder who is right.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: BiasThe curriculum
[5] [0]
May 28, 2003
Learning by learning and learning by doing

As I have already made clear in my last two postings, the kind of education I am preoccupied with at the moment is my own, in the arcane art of blog "management". I have just spent the afternoon copying everything associated with this blog into my not-for-public-consumption fake blog where I can try out all the little tweaks and polishings that will eventually occur here. Later I can make this fake blog the basis of my Culture Blog. I of course live in terror of having done damage to this real blog, and if I have, grovelling apologies. In theory I was only copying from this. But in such an exercise one is only one click from catastrophe, or so it seems.

The good news is that I can feel my knowledge of this stuff starting seriously to grow.

When it comes to matters computerised, I don't have the willpower to learn things by sitting down and learning them, as if for an exam. Not unless I actually am taking an exam, and so far I have managed to avoid any computer skills exams. From time to time I do sit down and try to "learn" a programme, in an abstract, useless sort of way, with a view later to being able to do things with it, but this never works. The only way I actually learn is by doing a real job with the programme, but very slowly and with lots of mistakes and backtrackings.

I think I know why, and it has to do with the absurdly huge number of things that computers are able to do. Because of this, you want to be sure that the tiny trickle of things you do learn are things that you are actually going to be able to use. If you merely try to "learn a programme", you risk wasting huge amounts of time learning how to do several dozen completely useless things. But if you are hacking your way through a computer task which you actually want done, there is a definite chance that what you end up learning will also end up being stuff you actually wanted to learn.

One other point. When you learn in this learning-by-doing way, you seldom do things from scratch. Usually what you are doing is modifying something, rather than creating it from nothing. That way, by contemplating what you are mucking about with and by watching what it does, and then what it does when you change it, you learn how you might one day create one of these things all by yourself, from nothing.

At the risk of changing the subject too radically for comfort, I recall reading an article – in the BBC Music Magazine I think it was – about the contrast between two kinds of musician, the classicals and the popsters. The classicals learned their art by mastering abstract but at first musically empty skills, and then gradually assembling what they had learned into real music-making. The popsters, on the other hand, started out by simply copying their heroes, and just as soon as they could thrash their way through a real piece of music, even if they were only faking it, then by golly they did. The gist of the piece was that the classicals were mostly a joyless bunch of time-servers, while the popsters actually got to enjoy their lives. The classicals ended up "knowing more", but the popsters hung on to their love of music. (Although I'm sure the money difference made a difference too.)

There are many morals in among the above, but I'll leave you people to tease them out for yourselves. I'm back to my blog-managing.

Which I am enjoying very much.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:33 PM
Category: Learning by doing
[2] [0]
May 27, 2003
… and the man who helped me with the new look

… namely Patrick Crozier.

Patrick Crozier is a distinguished blogger in his own right, being the boss and principle author of Transport Blog (to which I occasionally contribute) and the boss and writer also of CrozierVision (which is more definitely his own thing). He writes very well, I think.

But more to point here and now, Patrick has recently been acquainting himself with the mysteries of how to set up, clean up and generally sort out blogs. I had the luck to catch him at that special moment when he was determined to understand all this stuff, but not sufficiently confident of his skills to demand lashings of money. He made several visits to my kitchen and together we sat at my screen, trying this, trying that, seeing if this was how to do this, and that how to do that, both of us learning as we went along. I learned how to get this looking nicer, and he learned how to get things looking the way the punter wanted.

Since I didn't have a very firm idea of how I wanted things here to look, but instead wanted the chance to make up my mind in the light of actually visible alternatives, this was, for me, the ideal arrangement. And Patrick also seems satisfied to have had an early client who didn't expect him to know everything about everything either. On the contrary, the fact that he was also struggling gave me more time to think about aesthetics.

For further evidence of Patrick's growing expertise in this field, see his recent posting on CrozierVision, which reports on the developing duel between Movable Type (my and his preferred blogging software) and Blogger.

It was Patrick's willingness to make personal use of that transport that he writes about actually to sit next to me in my kitchen that made the biggest difference. We are now at the stage where things can be done by phone, but to start with that wasn't so. (The educational relevance of face-to-face contact scarcely needs emphasising, but I'll emphasise it anyway. For some purposes, including for many kinds of teaching, there is as yet still no substitute for face-to-face communication. Imagine trying to teach the violin entirely by phone.)

Patrick speculated to me during our most recent session that, since Movable Type is now becoming "easier", serious demand for his type of services might soon diminish. But with computers there's "easier", and there's actually easier, and this change is strictly in the "easier" category. Most bloggers are far cleverer at blogging (i.e. writing) than they are at setting up their blogs, and I don't believe that the sort of thing that Patrick offers will be superfluous any time soon. Everything involving computers is easy, provided you know about it. The trick is knowing.

So, if you live in or near London and you want to get blogging, Patrick could be the perfect man to get you going. Be warned, however, that the queue is already starting to lengthen.

And credit and debit, for the new look of things here, where both are due. The visual merits of this blog are the joint work of Patrick and of me. The visual demerits are my fault, and mine alone.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:34 PM
Category: BloggingThis Blog
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May 26, 2003
A new look ...

As I write this posting, this blog is about to do a visual switch, and by the time you read this, the switch may well have occurred. On the content front, nothing has changed. The same postings as always, the same inadequate and still unupdated links (these I will fix Real Eventually Now), the same comments.

But, there's now colour. I have in mind those blackboards they use nowadays, which aren't black any more as blackboards once were, but green – although if I really followed through with that idea I suppose I'd have white text on a much darker green background. The comments section now looks more consistent with the front page, and the archives have likewise been greened. As before, I've gone for serviceable and legible and easily loaded, rather than for outstanding beauty that you have to sit and wait for.

My more serious purpose is to have a blog look that will serve as the basis, with colour changes, for my other blog also, thereby proclaiming the two of them to the world as the brother-blogs that they are, this one being the sensible older brother and the other being the dodgy artistic one. My Culture Blog is now, somewhat embarrassingly, a visual mess, co-ordination between front page, comments and archives being non-existent. So my next blog task, once I am reasonably satisfied with the look of things here, will be to get that blog sorted. Then, I have in mind to be sorting the permanent content of both blogs, the links in other words, and also to find time to sort out the categorising of postings properly, which are now a shambles on both blogs. Then I'll be free to concentrate on the daily content. But I still only promise a post (and maybe more) every weekday about educational matters. All else is merely me guessing how things will unfold.

By all means comment on the new look of things if you wish to, but my understanding of graphic design is that it should satisfy not consumers but producers. If I like the way things now look, and I do, then I'll be happy topost lots of good stuff, and that way you'll like this blog because you like what it says. That being so, you'll learn to like how it looks, no matter what you now think of it. Far better a good read in visually undistinguished circumstances than stuff which looks as pretty as a picture but which is a poor read. Many are the magazines and journals whose days of glory coincided with a decidedly quirky visual appearance, and who went down the drain as soon as they started looking prettier.

Nevertheless, I hope that you also like it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:38 PM
Category: This Blog
[6] [1]
May 25, 2003
Skairey funommernan

How long before the whole "Spelling Bee" thing catches on here in Blighty? Read Friedrich Blowhard on a documentary about this fascinating and also rather scary phenomenon.

It will catch on. Someone will want to make it happen, and although many others will be tremendously bothered, none of them will be sufficiently bothered to stop it. It's only a matter of time. This movie sounds like it could light the blue touch paper.

At which point British geek children will be allowed to compete ferociously with one another on national TV, but British sportsjock children will only be allowed to participate in ridiculous everybody-wins events. (And the day they legalise marijuana will also be the day that tobacco is finally totally illegalised.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Spelling
[3] [0]
May 24, 2003
More stuff to annoy Rational Parenting with

Yes, it's Guerrilla Parenting.

Do your children RESPECT the hours of hard work that you invest in them? No! Children EXPLOIT THEIR PARENTS in much the same way that MCDONALDS CORPORATION exploits the poor and weak people of Canada's rainforests. It's time to TAKE MATTERS INTO YOUR OWN HANDS and force the LITTLE BASTARDS to behave properly. The time for calm exhortations and promises of extra cartoon time is over. Use our stencils to decorate your neighborhood with messages that will MAKE your kids BEHAVE and STOP treating the place like a GODDAMNED AMUSEMENT PARK.


This was bound to happen, now that absolutely everyone who remembers the sixties is old.

Sorry, make that "More stuff WITH WHICH to annoy Rational Parenting".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:24 PM
Category: Parents and children
[0] [0]
May 23, 2003
The decline of design teaching

There's a sad essay about the decline of Britain's art colleges in the latest electric Spectator, which contains, in among the obvious regrets about conceptual art (i.e. crappy videos), some facts about these places in their better days which I sort of knew but didn't fully appreciate.

The artist Ian Welsh (born 1944) is ideally situated to comment on the situation. Besides making his own work (Welsh is a distinguished painter specialising in the depiction of water and reflections), he taught for 25 years in the public and private sectors because he believes that art schools can offer a unique education. He himself studied painting at Chelsea School of Art (1963-66), when it was in its heyday under the enlightened direction of the painter and art historian Lawrence Gowing. He then studied sculpture as a postgrad with George Fullard (1966-67), after which he began to teach himself. He returned to Chelsea to do an MA in printmaking in 1976-67, and was finally appointed head of printmaking there in 1992. He gave up teaching in 1993, utterly disillusioned with the way art schools were now administered and structured.

Welsh recalls a very different situation 35 years ago. ‘When I first started teaching there were about 20 kids on the Foundation course at Harlowe, and there was a very good chance that three of those would be fine artists and the rest designers of one sort or another. At that time there were something like 28 disciplines in design you could do a degree in — there was Foundation Design, for instance, which was for undergarments, corsetry and so on. Later, when I was at Norwich Art School running the Foundation course, the then shadow minister for the arts came to talk to the senior staff of the Art School and the University Art History Department. He looked around at us and said, “The trouble with you lot is that you all live in ivory towers.” Where do you go after that?

‘The sad thing is that he missed the point. In the mid-Seventies, when the British car industry was disappearing fast down the plughole, there were something like 200 senior design posts in the car industry throughout Europe. Of those 200 key people, 180 had been through the Royal College of Art — which has a very fine course in automotive design — but they were working in Europe and not the UK. The government was looking at art schools and thinking they were full of painters — people who sit around smoking dope waiting for inspiration — whereas 75 per cent were design students, like the graduates in furniture who went to Milan. The quality of British art schools has been completely missed by those in positions of real authority.

This all sounds very similar to what my friend John Washington told me, about the decline of crafts teaching in schools. The difference being that whereas it is now reasonable for most people to leave school knowing more about assembling kit furniture than they do about actually making furniture for themselves from nothing but timber, glue and nails, someone still has to design all that kit furniture.

But all may not be lost. I keep reading that about half of the British rock and roll aristocracy attended British art schools. Those guys didn't learn how to design cars or corsetry, or it they did it didn't do them much good, nor did they get any lessons in guitar playing or rock electronics. What they surely got was (a) intelligent on-the-make mates to do things with, and (b) bags of attitude. All these highly trained conceptual artists can't all just become conceptual artists, and the smarter ones must know it.

As art, I believe "conceptual art" to be pointless and meaningless junk, but this does not mean that those who make a successful living out of such "art" lack skills of any kind. On the contrary, as self-publicists, as zeitgeist surfers, as deluders of those with more money than sense, as manipulators of the media including and especially (in a sort of public relations version of kung fu) the media that most hate them, Britain's conceptual artists display great virtuosity. And if it is true that "training" for conceptual artists is not now costing the nation very much, then who is to say that what little money is still being spent on "art education" will not turn out to be money well spent?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:42 PM
Category: Higher education
[1] [0]
May 22, 2003
Grammatical argument

Professor Instapundit links to this piece about the teaching of grammar. (If that link doesn't work, try this and then scroll down.)

It's not about how to teach grammar, merely about whether to teach it. Dennis Baron apparently believes we shouldn't bother, because other things about writing are, he says, more important. Ralph A. Raimi of the University of Rochester, NY, vehemently dissents. Raimi's concluding paragraphs:

Yet Baron's argument is more pernicious than the mere observation that good grammar does not guarantee good writing. This unarguable beginning progresses, and becomes an attack on learning grammar at all. This he is not entitled to do. It is as if a music student were advised against learning anything about scales, arpeggios and modulations, on the grounds that expression and nuance, really, are at the heart of music. And more recently, in the schools, the doctrine that arithmetic is no longer important (now that we have calculators) since mathematics is a science of patterns, big ideas, higher order thinking skills.

Then, having demonstrated that learning grammar is a no-no, Baron ends with an attack on testing grammatical competence, with an argument implying that those who would test this competence believe "grammar tests [alone] measure writing ability."

In this last quotation it was I, not Baron, who inserted the "[alone]." I plead guilty, and merely exhibit my take on the general tenor of his article. Read it for yourself, and consider how many such you have read in your time. Arithmetic skill [alone] doesn't lead to better mathematics; music theory [alone] doesn't lead to artistry in composition; Teaching Grammar [alone?] Doesn't Lead to Better Writing. You can cover your flanks by omitting the "alone", sure, but the message is clear: Clean up the curriculum; stick to what's important. No more arithmetic; no more arpeggios; no more grammar. Bah!

So there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:54 PM
Category: Literacy
[6] [0]
A pictorial elephant trap

Jackie D (in her first posting on May 21) at au currant, as well as in general being very lively and worth regularly looking at, in particular has a couple of choice pictures via the telegraph and the timesonline of our beloved Education Secretary being upstaged by one of the extras. I mentioned this announcement, but missed what was clearly the big story here.

The habit now regularly perpetrated by politicians of having themselves photographed with children when announcing political schemes is not pleasant (although of course it's not new either) so it's always good to see it going wrong. Kids and animals, eh? They won't be told.

And speaking of animals, I seem to recall a Newsnight reporter that evening talking about how Clarke was too clever to get caught in an "elephant trap". So funny ears are clearly going to be a regular feature of all Clarke coverage.

(By the way, is it just me, or are individual postings at au currant hard to link to? If I'm wrong, deepest apologies, but if that's right, it ought to get sorted because this is otherwise a very promising blog. Jackie D is doing everything else right, like not being dull, like putting comments on samizdata to get noticed here in London, etc.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:07 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
May 21, 2003
Today's big story – I don't know the story

Today's big British National Education Story is about a school in Croydon which sent its pupils home early because it couldn't afford to teach them, this being because it couldn't afford substitute teachers.

My problem is that when I see a nationalised industry resisting "cuts" by this time honoured technique, which is basically to treat the exact people for whom it all is supposedly being done with maximum and very public neglect, I smell technique rather than reality. If your job is seeing to widows and orphans and you want more money, the standard procedure is to round up a few of your saddest looking widows and most appealingly photogenic orphans, and some newspaper photographers, and chuck the widows and orphans in the gutter in front of the newspaper photographers, and stand next to it all wailing "Look what you made me do!"

Lacking detailed inside knowledge of this particular school, I have no idea whether this is grandstanding or a genuine cry for help.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:32 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
Another example of rational parenting?

Over at Rational Parenting, Alice dispenses wholesome advice to wholesome people, and links to things like Attachment Parenting: A loving and compassionate approach to raising children, which is only right and proper. Here at Brian's Education Blog I am probably a tad more pessimistic about the long term educational and child rearing trends in our society. Home education is all very well and good, if your home is nice. But what about the education being supplied in this home?

POLK COUNTY, Fla. -- A 35-year-old Polk County woman admits she chained her sons to their beds at night to keep them out of trouble, according to a Local 6 News report.

Karen Abe, 35, said her sons would break into and steal cars while she was at work so she tethered her 13- and 15-year-old sons to their beds with heavy chains and padlocks.

Even though her ex-husband was reportedly inside the home at night, the boys were chained from 9:30 p.m. until 6 a.m.

"When I left, I just put them on the chain," Karen Abe said. "They just laid down and said 'mom we understand.'" "I told them before I put them on the chain, 'get what you need.'"

Yes, yes, all very terrible and all that, but I think this woman could have done a lot worse. If she was telling the truth about the reactions of her two darling boys ("we understand"), then, well, … Put it this way, what does Rational Parenting or other such websites and authorities on niceness recommend that would actually have worked any better?

Advisers. Try not to say only: "I wouldn't start from here." Suppose you are starting from there. You've done your best, you're doing your best, but your devil brood are out nicking cars every night as soon as your eyes are shut. What do you do?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:00 PM
Category: Parents and children
[1] [0]
May 20, 2003
Testing politics

I'm watching Newsnight report on today's big education story, which is the government's relaxing of the ferocity of testing for primary school children. We are now, the government is saying, going to let teachers themselves make more of the assessments themselves. Schools will set more of the targets themselves.

Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, says that the big reason why things have got better in recent years, where they have, is because "we" have had objective information about which schools are doing well and which are doing badly. The new system will blur that information, and make improvement harder. The government, he says, is caving in to the teachers, or to what in the USA they call (and Woodhead likes this phrase also) "The Blob", although he didn't use that phrase on TV this evening.

Now Jeremy Paxman is grilling Stephen Twigg, Education Secretary Charles Clarke's number two, about just how definite the government's educational targets are. Will anyone resign if they aren't met? asks Paxman. Blab blah blah blah no blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blahblahblahblab – says Twigg.

Politics as usual, in other words. Will the nationalised education industry be run badly in an atmosphere of neurotic norm-fulfilment, or in an atmosphere of old fashioned, who-the-hell-knows-what-the-hell chaos.

If you're literate enough and interested enough in education to be reading this, teach your kids yourself at home, I say.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:59 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
Dalrymple (and me) on the need for consistent correction

Remember that boy called Ali whom I once taught maths to? Well, of course you don't, but I do. The gist of what I said about Ali was that I thought he had been misinformed by inconsistent correcting of his work. After all if you tell a kid that 2+2=4 and not 5, but leave 2+2=5 unmolested elsewhere in the same piece of homework, what is he supposed to think? Confusion is bound to follow.

This was why I had a special place in my affections for children who always got the same sum wrong, but with the same wrong answer. They may not have got the right answer, but at least they had grasped that there was a right answer. They were merely wrong about what it was.

Anyway, I've been reading more Theodore Dalrymple on education (see below). And guess what? – have a read of this:

I was told of one school where the teachers were allowed by the headmaster to make corrections, but only five per piece of work, irrespective of the number actually present. This, of course, was to preserve the amour propre of the children, but it seemed not to have occurred to this pedagogue that his five-correction rule was likely to unfortunate consequences. The teacher might choose to correct an error in the spelling of a word, for example, and overlook precisely the same error in the next piece of work. How is a child to interpret correction based on this headmaster's principle? the less intelligent, perhaps, will regard it as a species of natural hazard, like the weather, about which he can do very little; while the more intelligent are likely to draw the conclusion that the principle of correction as such is inherently arbitrary and unjust.

Which is taking it a stage further than I did, but the procedure I was complaining about is what Dalrymple also attacks. Either way, inconsistent correction is a recipe for confusion and ignorance.

In my opinion one of the most basic educational principles is to understand that correcting error is not the same as launching a wounding personal attack on the corrected person. On the contrary, every time a child is told to stop doing something wrong and to do it right is a step in the right direction for that child and a potential cause for celebration and congratulation, rather than for woe. It all depends how you do the correcting.

Sometimes, I suppose, a little aversion therapy is in order. This was how I was taught to drive, by a man sitting next to me who shouted and hit me with his pencil every time I made a mistake. I stopped making mistakes. Given what can happen to you when you make a mistake when driving a car, this is not an unreasonable way to teach driving skills, I'd say. It certainly worked for me, and it did so after I'd been unsuccessfully prepared for the test by a kinder but less relentless and unkind instructor whom I eventually stopped using.

But correcting doesn't have to be hurtful in this way. No, not like that. Like this. Well done! Very good!

There you are, teachers. That's not hard, now is it? Cretins!!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: How to teach
[1] [0]
May 19, 2003
Theodore Dalrymple on education

When I returned from my trip to France on Wednesday of last week, I brought with me a copy of Theodore Dalrymple's book Life at the Bottom, kindly lent to me by my hosts out there. It paints a picture of a class who, with their mere physical survival needs taken care of, and with their brains rotted by second-hand versions of bad liberal intelligensia ideas (don't be "judgemental" - sexually anything goes (or should go) - criminals are not to blame for their crimes, and so on), have descended into a hell on earth.

The moral for those of us concerned about education and its alleged failures in recent decades is that if isn't fair only to blame teachers for the failure of education to get very much better. If the underclass is both sinking into hell and expanding in numbers, it is hardly reasonable merely to blame teachers for people not knowing to the nearest two centuries when the Second World War occurred, or who fought the Battle of Hastings and why, or what six times seven is.

If you talk to an average teacher, this is pretty much what he will tell you. The world is going to hell, so don't blame us for everything.

But Dalrymple doesn't exclude educators from his criticisms, or to be more exact he does not exclude liberal intelligensia thinking about education. He notes that his father, who was born in a slum, singled out for his particular gratitude certain teachers for having shown him that there was a better world beyond the one he was born into. Chapter Seven of Dalrymple's book is entitled "We Don't Want No Education". It's final paragraph reads thus:

In one sense (and in one sense alone), however, the underclass has been victimized, or perhaps betrayed is a better word. The educational absurdities foisted on the lower orders were the idea not of the lower orders themselves but of those who were in a position to avoid their baleful effects: that is to say, middle-class intellectuals. If I were inclined to paranoia (which fortunately I am not), I should say that the efforts of educationists were part of a giant plot by the middle classes to keep power for themselves and to restrict competition, in the process creating sinecures for some of their less able and dynamic members – namely the educationists. But if these middle classes have maintained their power, it is in an increasingly enfeebled and impoverished country.

So you can see how educationists wouldn't want use Dalrymple to excuse their failures, even though to some extent he does, for to him they are part of a larger picture of intelligensia and administrative class failure.

Dalrymple in particular denounces the idea of "relevance". The more I read of the thoughts about education of others, the more I keep coming across this idea that education is about more than just getting a good job, but furthermore that this "more than" is also a matter of huge economic significance. Education does not necessarily abolish your poverty, but it may make it far easier to bear. It means, in other words, that happiness will cost you less.

A man with an interest or pursue, or at least with the mental equipment to pursue an interest, is not in such dire straits as a man obliged by the tabula rasa of his mind to stare vacantly at the four walls for weeks, months, or years on end.

I know the feeling. Doing this blog can sometimes be a bit of a slog, but it certainly beats staring at the wall.

But Dalrymple immediately adds that a man with plenty of irrelevant education is also likely to get a better job. Irrelevant education, in other words, is actually very relevant indeed.

He is far more likely to come up with an idea for self-employment, or at the very least to seek work in places and in fields that are new to him. He is not condemned to stagnation.

… which is also part of the idea of this, for me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:04 PM
Category: Liberal educationRelevance
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May 16, 2003
The immorality of coherence and the morality of incoherence

I came across this little comment in an email debate on the Libertarian Alliance Forum, from Rob Worsnop, which seems to me to be fraught with educational implications, and to be worthy of wider circulation:

I have a simple, time-saving rule for usenet and mailing lists: Ignore all correspondents who refuse to use upper-case and vaguely correct grammar. Most of the time, someone who isn't capable of organising a simple sentence is equally incapable of organising his thoughts.

I see this principle at work many times in my professional life. People who write garbled e-mails are rarely good programmers.

I agree, especially about the neglect of capital letters.

One of the most deeply embedded memes in Western culture just now is that being verbal fluency (UPDATE: see comments!) is evidence of dishonesty, that it serves as a mask behind which evil thoughts and plans may be hidden, while mumbling and hesitating when trying to express oneself is evidence of openness, guilelessness and all-round moral excellence, and that complete silence is even better. Think of all those fluent, posh, English actors, who make a handsome living playing Hollywood villains. And think of their antagonists who let their guns and fists do the talking.

Perhaps this is what causes people deliberately to set aside whatever grasp of grammar that they possess when battling it out on the Internet. They adopt a false pose of mental confusion, in order to seem honest! Complete silence doesn't work in email ratfights, but incoherence is the next best thing if you want to be thought honest and authentic.

Worsnip's point is somewhat different. He is talking about people who can't rather than who won't express themselves grammatically. But the two ideas are pretty closely linked. Anyone who thinks that grammar is wicked is liable to think that computer programming is wicked also and not to want to do that well either.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:12 PM
Category: Grammar
[14] [0]
May 15, 2003
Why the Trads are ruled by the Progs

Education "experts", i.e. people with strong opinions about education for people other than themselves and their own children, can be divided roughly into "progressives" and "traditionalists", Progs and Trads. Progs rule the roost. Trads probably speak for the average punter far more accurately, yet the Trads seem to get nowhere. Why is this?

Speculation: Progs were people who were bored at school. Trads were more likely to have been confused, or else to have been teatering on the edge of confusion and grateful for whatever shafts of clarity they were offered. Progs knew what was going on at school; they just had trouble paying attention to it. Progs would have preferred to decide their own syllabus, and would have had no difficulty doing that. After all, they basically understood most of the stuff that was being chucked at them by their teachers, and would have been able to embroider, subtract and add to that syllabus with ease and confidence.

Progs dominate education "theory", ever since education theory set itself in motion in the form of teacher training colleges and university education departments and in the form of books about education. And why do they do that? Because they basically did well at school, in among being bored by it. Come the exams, they knew what to do.

Meanwhile, Trads dominate the general public. The public mostly wants teachers to teach, and to teach the 3Rs, to obedient lines of well-behaved kids in desks. The public was mostly confused at school, and they know that if they had managed to be less confused either by better teachers or by them paying more attention or both, their lives would have gone better. Insofar as they too were bored, their cure for school boredom is for kids to shape up the way they should have, and to be made to shape up, and for teachers to teach better, and above all to teach more clearly and accurately.

But of course, they were confused when exam time came around, and so they never got to be education experts.

The above speculation was provoked by reading Chris Woodhead's book Class War. Woodhead was a classic bored at school, but nevertheless successful at school Prog. But as he immersed himself in the problems of the Confused Classes, he moved over to being a Trad.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
Category: Education theory
[1] [0]
May 14, 2003
Kealey on university funding

While I've been away in France, the Conservative Party has been busy opposing university tuition fees. Natalie Solent is scornful, as is Terence Kealey in today's paper Times, at somewhat greater length.

At the heart of Kealey's argument is that if universities can charge their students then they can achieve financial self-sufficiency, and that with that will come intellectual independence from the government that would otherwise control the purse strings.

Kealey is an important man, whom all those who favour free market solutions to … you know … everything, should be aware of and on the side of and making much of. This is because he has put more eloquently than anyone else I know of the case against government funding for science. My brother recently got hold of The Economic Laws of Scientific Research for me, and I intend to write more on this subject.

Oddly enough though, although Kealey is surely right about the importance of universities being allowed to charge for their services, his own arguments about science funding somewhat undermine the significance – although not the truth – of what he says about university funding.

What Kealey says about science is that universities are not as crucial to the wider economy and society as a lot of the people in them now believe. The conventional model of scientific funding, the one that justifies government spending on science, goes: government funding pays for science, science results in technology, and technology makes lots of money. The Kealey model goes: technology makes more technology which makes money, and science, although it does lead to technology, is also caused by technology. So those temples of intellectual purity, the universities, are not the fountainheads of science, and of technology, and of money for everybody, but more like a sideshow.

But of course you could also argue, as I now will and as Kealey also touches on in his Times piece, that if it is true that universities aren't those great Public Goods that make us all rich, but merely finishing schools for the bright and posh which benefit them but not the rest, that reinforces the case for making students pay their own costs.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:02 PM
Category: Free market reformsHigher education
[1] [0]
May 13, 2003
The Harry Potter effect

I've read about it and heard about it. Tonight I witnessed it. My eleven year old god-daughter is deep into one of the Harry Potter books. I asked if I could sit with her, and read a book, and I expected the reading to be replaced soon by conversation. But no. She concentrated completely on her book, and it took a monumental row about cello practice to wrench her away from it. Now that cello duties have been done, she is, I should imagine, back with Harry Potter.

Nor is this infection confined to Britain or to English readers like my god-daughter. French bookshops are full of Harry Potter, and I recall the same thing happening in Slovakia when I took a trip there.

I read the first one with mild interest, but felt no particular urge to read any more, but I put this down to the fact that I am not a member of the target demographic. I am not a child. But apparently many adults have also been engulfed in HP frenzy.

Whence the mania? A good yarn? A good yarn about children who have escaped the attentions of their parents? A good yarn that is sufficiently un-respectable (these books are surrounded by denunciations of their literary third-rateness from literary authorities) not to have been made into compulsory reading, and which therefore makes a change from being nagged by one's parents to practice the cello? All of that, I dare say. Whatever the reason, it certainly shows that there will always be things that children really, really want to read, and which they will accordingly read avidly, if they can read at all, and which will consequently make them better at reading.

With me it was the Doctor Doolittle books and the Swallows and Amazons books. Each generation to its own.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:40 PM
Category: Books
[8] [1]
May 12, 2003
No education otherwise in France

I've been chatting with my hosts, as you would expect of me, about the relative merits of the British and French education systems. They are English , but with experience of both systems, so their opinions are worth attending to.

In some ways the French system of education appears to be in worse shape than the British one. The state bit of it probably works rather better, although it's hard to tell with things like that. But the real problem is that there is no "unofficial" system of education that remotely resembles the unofficial sector in Britain. There's no "education otherwise" here.

The French system of education seems to suffer from all the same difficulties as the British one of falling academic standards and declining standards of behaviour, and from all the same worries caused by wanting to combine social inclusiveness with keeping order in the only way that order can actually be kept, which is by excluding some children. Teachers are civil servants with jobs for life, which probably makes bad ones even harder to avoid than in Britain.

But those are mere differences of nuance and degree. The fundamental difference is that the French system lacks the self-corrective balance supplied by educational mavericks simply being allowed to do their own thing. The private sector is more heavily regulated than in Britain. This private sector seems to be quite good, but of course it is expensive, and that vital power to simply remove your kid altogether from any school is unavailable.

At present, with "education otherwise" being the practice of only a tiny minority, this difference between continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxons may not matter much. But as the practice of home education and home schools spreads in Anglo-Saxonia, as it is spreading and surely will spread more, it is likely to result in huge educational improvements, which could in the longer run leave continental Europe as far behind educationally as it already is in things like computer making and computer programming.

Which is why preserving the legal status quo in this matter in Britain is so important.

On that front I'm starting to become more optimistic as I meet more home schoolers. Remember those home schoolers I told you about last week. (I'll add links to all my France postings when I get home - for now, good luck or good memories to all.) I remember discussing with them how any government which took on the home-schoolers of Britain would have got itself the Political Enemies from Hell. Think of all those terrifyingly bright children who'd overrun morning television. Consider the fact that many home-schoolers have considerable demonstrating experience. I may not hold with their political views about war, peace, etc., but these people do know how to lay on a good demo and to mobilise the media. And they must be, almost by definition, among the most intellectually self-confident people around. So, no, I rather suspect that education otherwise will remain a legal fixture in Britain for some time to come, and that this difference between Anglo-Saxonia and the continent will continue to be a fact, and a fact of great significance.

And I suppose it is just possible that instead of continental Europe infecting Britain in this matter, the infection might be made to spread in the opposite direction. We can hope.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:34 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
May 09, 2003
Freedom and obedience - Montessori meets Victor Davis Hanson

It's funny how ideas often come at you in pairs, by which I mean that the exact same idea often comes at you from two wildly different places. What probably really happens is that idea first hits you, from the first place it hits you from and you find it very striking, and that makes you hyper-observant if your environment presents the same idea to you again at any time soon.

This has just happened to me, with an idea about how freedom relates to obedience.

First it was Maria Montessori, whom I was writing about not long ago. Forgive me if I don't supply the link - I'm on holiday and this is a strange computer. Anyway, what the linkless Maria Montessori said, among many other things, that one of the ways in which the freedom of children is expressed is in the form of chossing to accept the authority of the child's teacher. Choosing to obey, and obeying all the more obediently on account of the authority having been freely chosen. Well, you can see how that idea would be wide open to manipulation, for example by later generations of fascists in Maria Montessori's Italy. Nevertheless, I think the lady was on to someething.

Second, I have just encountered pretty much the exact same idea from Victor Davis Hanson, whose book Why The West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam is my current holiday reading. Hanson makes the same connection between the political and economic freedoms enjoyed (relatively speaking) by the soldiers of the West's armies and the ferocity with which, during a battle they take it upon themselves to obey orders and thereby to cooperate effectively. Hanson is adamant that the in-step formations of the West's soldiers, with their uncanny ability to move this way and that like the dancers in a mass ballet, has given the West a decisive edge in its many battles with non-Western enemies. The idea that freedom and the more complete acceptance of authority might go together is, if you think about it, the exact same idea as Montessori's.

In an earlier posting here not long ago, I speculated that a lot of war-making and war-preparing might be good for education, and not just in a bad way. This idea, endorsed by on the one hand the "progressive" educational theorist and on the other hand the military historian, reinforces that surmise.

The point to get is that the on-the-day obedience of a Western army goes hand in hand with the right of all ranks to have their say about the rights and wrongs of military policy before and after the battle. The Montessori/Hanson claim is that these two habits reinforce each other. And they stand at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the world of someone like the "great king" Xerxes (loser of Salamis despite having his Greek opponents being massively outnumbered). In that world, anyone who ever queries the wisdom of the great king's military dispositions risks instant execution without trial. So guess how much serious discussion of alternative military plans takes place in places run by the likes of Xerxes.

Come the battle, the army of Xerxes doesn't act nearly as cohesively as its quarrelsome Western enemy. The Greeks fight like cats and dogs amongst themselves before Salamis, and after Salamis. But on the day, they act as one, and pull off the sort of triumph that Xerxes' underlings could never contrive.

If I was using a more congenial computer, I might also here supply a link to that piece I did about Sean Gabb, the Anglo-Saxon adversarialist, teaching the consensual ladies of Asia.

I can imagine lots of people growling throughout the above. Freedom? Obedience? Make up your mind, man. You'll be telling us that freedom equals slavery next. But think of the enormous number of professional soldiers who, while doing their soldiering, think of their orders as like water in a desert, but who as soon as they stop their soldiering are as loud as anyone in their protestations of devotion to the idea of freedom. What if these people have a point, and what if the point they have is the same point that Montessori and Hanson are both making?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:00 PM
Category: Education theory
[2] [0]
A school which really supplies socialisation

Well here I am in the south of France, staying with my goddaughter and her family, and since I'm trying to put something here everyday, I today cross-examined the goddaughter about her school. Did she like it? Yes. I spent about fifteen minutes hurling questions at her about why she liked it, and for a while it was not at all clear. She said she liked mucking around with her friends during the lunch hour interval, but apart from that it didn't sound especially good fun. She has to memorise lots of stuff. And do you like that? No. She had to learn about Napoleon, and Joan of Arc. And is that amusing? Not very. It just sounded pretty much like a school to me, and as such very boring.

I carried on with my cross-examination and finally stumbled upon the answer. Which is: that the lunch hour lasts two and a half hours.

School is often touted, especially by the opponents of home schooling, as something that offers "socialisation", in a good way, i.e. in the form of lots of fun friends of the sort you couldn't make if you are stuck at home. Well, with this school, for my goddaughter, this really seems to be true.

The secret is the extreme length of the lunch "hour", presumably a reflection of the siesta that they have down here in these parts, these parts being Catalonia, rather than just France, Catalonia being something that spans the Spanish-French border.

Think about it. If you had a school lunch hour lasting only an hour, then you wouldn't have much time to do any truly amusing socialising. And if you just worked through the morning and then stopped and everyone went home, then those precious friends would probably disperse. All you'd ever do is "socialise" by attending classes, which is hardly very enjoyable. But by going to a school where the day is divided into two chunks with a long gap in between, my goddaughter really does get to do some truly enjoyable socialising, in a way that she and her friends decide about, rather than her teachers.

She doesn't dislike her teachers. They are strict, it seems, but fair. They don't have class favourites. But it's those long, long lunch "hours" that really make the difference.

The true test for whether school is fun is: Do you miss it during the holidays, and look forward to it starting again? Says the goddaughter: yes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:41 AM
Category: Socialisation
[0] [0]
May 07, 2003
A little learning

I'm off to France for a week, to stay with friends – friends with children, at schools – and friends with a computer. So I may have both things to say and the means to go on saying them.

I hope, then, to sustain my blogging duties here. I'll do my best, but this may be all that I manage today.

As recounted elsewhere, I'm watching a terrifying play on my television called Titus Andronicus, by one William Shakespeare. It is not at all clear to me that watching such a play does me any good, or in any way improves my mind. Were it not by Shakespeare I would have silenced it in horror an hour ago.

Titus seems to have many affinities with King Lear. Titus is Lear. This Cordelia is silent because her tongue has been cut out. Lear's daughters betray him. Titus' sons are killed. Which came first, Lear or Titus? Don't answer that, I can easily find out. Andronicus is early, I learn. The rough stone from which is carved Lear, and Macbeth, and bits of Othello. Antony Hopkins is involved, and there's a distinct hint also of Hannibal Lector.

You live and learn. It's the final feast. What the hell is going to happen now?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:19 AM
Category: Brian's education
[0] [0]
May 06, 2003
Old school home schooling

Last week I dined with some home schoolers. I briefly met the two daughters (aged 8 and 5), who seemed to be happy, confident, well educated people. Whatever is being done, something is being done right.

I won't attempt a total description of everything that we talked about. I will instead focus in on two things that struck me as particularly interesting.

The first concerns the motivation of this couple in opting for home schooling. They did not opt and are not opting for home schooling out of any radical or ideologically-based disapproval of the principle of schooling as such. They are, after all, home schooling their children, not protecting them from schooling as such. What they are protecting their children from is what they believe to be bad schooling. It began as a one-off holding operation in response to one especially neglectful teacher, and has continued because it seems to be working okay, and because other better alternatives still do not seem to be available. Like many apparent radicals, these radicals are really thwarted conservatives. They had a very traditional idea of what "good" education ought to consist of, and they felt that they could supply this better at home than any available school now could. They favoured rather old fashioned children's books, and a decidedly old-fashioned respect for the traditional arts, notably the visual arts.

If I'm being deliberately vague about names and places, this is because I'm taking my cue from them. They even said that when they started doing this, they kept it a secret from their friends. What they were anxious to avoid was any possibility of their daughters being labelled as strange or unconventional. Home schooling for this family means keeping it normal.

The local state school seemed to be bad in all the ways you would expect, such as discipline, unambitious curriculum, and so on. What was more interesting were their worries about the local "good" school, which is a fee-paying school with a formidable local reputation. They could have afforded this. They just didn't like it. And what they particularly didn't like was that had they gone there, their girls would have had to work too hard, doing solidly academic stuff not only all the morning, but for most afternoons. These girls get solidly schooled by mum all through the morning, but after lunch their time is their own. Sometimes they go on expeditions with mum, but as often as not, they amuse themselves, in their part of the house.

Getting into the habit of spending long hours keeping themselves interested seemed also to have developed their powers of concentration.

The second especially interesting thing I was told was that the girls seemed to be much happier with their own company than did their regularly schooled friends. Partly this was because, they said, they weren't being driven too hard, and wer being allowed to grow intellectually at their own pace. But there was also, she said, none of the "I'm bored" stuff that other parents got from their kids during the school holidays. These girls didn't seem to depend on adults to keep them occupied and entertained. They had been educated to be happy. That happy was my first adjective to describe them in the first paragraph of this is not, therefore, any sort of accident.

In other words, what I found was a family which believed in our old friend, a broad-based "humanities" education – a liberal education in the old fashioned sense. These people agreed with Sean Gabb about what education should consist of and what kinds of virtues and insights it should inculcate, and home schooling was their way to achieve this.


Despite the keeping-it-normal theme to what they were doing, the news is now leaking out to some of their friends. And some of these friends are now starting to mention home schooling as an option that they too might explore. It's a relief to know, they are saying, that there is an alternative to fall back on, should they need it.

Even more interesting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:54 PM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
May 05, 2003
John Washington – a life in teaching

Last Friday I had supper with my friend John Washington. He is nearing retirement now, and has spent his working life teaching, under various acronymic headings, handicrafts, woodwork, that kind of thing. Craft. CDT. Which stands for ... he did tell me, but I've forgotten. Craft and design technology? I should pay more attention. Anyway, he teaches children to make things, and to do things, rather than merely to know things.

You expect such teachers to be big, muscular, sergeant-majorish types with a passion for craftsmanship, yes, but also with a corresponding disdain for more intellectual pursuits. John is a dapper little man, with a degree in African history, who spent time teaching English as a foreign language when teaching handicrafts in the ever less handicraft-friendly British school system became too dispiriting for him. But he's now back doing what he seems to do best, at Ibstock Place School, in Roehampton, in the south western suburbs of London.

I have know John for some years now, because he quite often attends my last-Friday-of-the-month evenings – a gentle and modest presence. I started this blog partly as an excuse to meet with people like John and get to know them better, by picking their brains about their work, and if the evening I spent with John is anything to go by my plan is starting to work really well.

People don't always like to talk about their work. They want a change. They don't want to have to give a free slice of what they get paid to do during the day. They don't want to be criticised for the sins of their professional brethren. They are anxious not to to appear boring and obsessive. But my questions don't seem to cause such grief as this. What do you do? How do you do it? What do you see as its purpose? How has it changed over the years? I like to think that being asked things like this by someone who is truly interested (or why would I be doing this?) is not so bad. Besides which, a lifetime of good work, such as I believe John's life to have been, is something that ought to be celebrated.

John didn't seem to mind our conversation. But it was nevertheless tinged with a certain melancholy. Craftsmanship of John's sort is dying out in the England of now, and John himself is something of a dying breed. At one point in our evening John drew my attention to the table we were sitting at, in the cheap restaurant where we were eating. He pointed out that whereas not so very long ago this table would have been made in England by a carpenter, it was now probably made in China in a factory, and only assembled here. As a consequence, although the government talks much about the "need to encourage creativity" of just the sort that John himself really does encourage, its heart isn't really now in it, and the same now goes for more and more schools. Machines and workshop equipment are being steadily sold off.

Sad though this may be, it does make sense to me. In the world as it is now, the balance of relevance has shifted away from being able to make a bookshelf and towards being able to decypher the instructions for assembling some bookshelves, and maybe to make a living translating such instructions into serviceable English. Carpentry is just another technology that used to be important, but isn't so important now. Important, maybe, but not so important. It's melancholy, but there it is.

But if John's sort of teaching does completely die out, something valuable will die out with it. When aswering the what's it for question, he spoke not only of teaching people how to make themselves tables and bookshelves and thus save having to buy expensive rubbish at B&Q, but also of the happiness that comes of having accomplished something, or having created something. So, John, part of what you are doing is making children happy? Yes, he said.

Like almost all teachers nowadays, John worries about discipline, and about the shocking behaviour of the worst behaved of the children he remembers. He told me how he once asked a man who worked in an office: "When was the last time someone held their face inches from yours and told you very loudly to fuck off?" For teachers, that's a regular occurrence nowadays.

I know what my child liberationist friends will say. Put children in unruly prison and don't be surprised if they behave like unruly prisoners. But as prison officers go, John Washington strikes me as the sort who combines the firmness and discipline of the scary Scottish one in Porridge with the kindness of the kind one. My further guess is that there are many men, more perhaps that he realises, who remember him with fondness and gratitude. I haven't watched him teach, and maybe when he does he's transformed into Genghis Khan with a power drill, but my guess would be not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:22 PM
Category: Technology
[0] [0]
May 02, 2003
New Neighborly Architecture from the USA

In my capacity as a culture blogger I was honoured with an email from 2 Blowhards alerting me to their series of interviews with this Greek Australian American guy who hates modernistical architecture starting here. Me, I'm partial to a bit of modernity, provided it isn't too nationalised, and I'm still wondering what to make of the man. Baby, bath water, etc. However, in the reading list at the end of the first posting, I came across this article about some New Neighborly Architecture which they're doing in America, and I found the arguments in favour of it more persuasive because more logical and less abusive. Nikos the GAA basically says that the Modern Movement in Architecture was started by a bunch of madmen.

As Le Corbusier, one of the madmen in question, so memorably said, a house is a machine for living in. And these New Neighborly guys think they know how to make this machine work better, by being part of a better community.

The basic argument seems to be that if you surrender a bit of real estate and put the houses closer together, and give more thought to what happens beyond the front gates of the houses, and slow the traffic down and have more local pathways from your front door to local places of importance, the place as a whole will work better and you'll get along better with your neighbours. Closeness will also make it possible to have better and more accessible public transport.

And the reason I'm talking about this article here is because of paragraphs like these:

Harbor Town resident Jim Howell says that in the conventional development where he previously lived, on the east side of Memphis, he and his wife "might have known two to three neighbors on each side of us. Here at Harbor Town, we know 50 neighbors. You live closer together, the streets are narrower, and you know so many more people because you’re out walking and things are going on. People in the afternoon are out in the yard or on their porches. They bring grills out to the garages. There’s a cocktail party in somebody’s house." After Jim’s wife, Amy, gave birth this summer, six- and seven-year-olds would come to the door and ask, "Is it convenient for me to come and see the baby now?" Jim observes, "It’s a more protective environment."

This setting benefits children at least as much as it does adults. Youngsters in a traditional neighborhood obtain a healthy degree of autonomy that’s difficult to get in cul-de-sac subdivisions. More is within easy reach because of the compactness, and there are numerous routes to most places over an extensively connected street network. Faith Kusterer, a Kentlands mother, notes that her daughter Elena walked to piano lessons she took for two years in the home of her instructor, a woman they knew within the development. "She could go to the store alone on her bike to get anything from candy to school supplies," Mrs. Kusterer added. "It’s afforded her some opportunities to be out in the community and to be independent."

James Krohe Jr., a writer who for six years lived and worked in Oak Park, Illinois, a grid-plan Chicago suburb founded in the nineteenth century and now containing 53,000 people in 4 1/2 square miles, says that in many old traditional communities, the availability of public transportation helps youngsters to explore their world and to mature. "It was not unusual for Oak Park kids 13 or 14 years old to have a relationship with the larger city—to take classes or go to private schools in the city," says Krohe, who recently moved to Portland, Oregon. "Compared to the suburbs immediately to the northwest that were not served by Els [Chicago’s elevated public transit lines] and that were less served by commuter rail, kids in Oak Park were much more comfortable moving about in the larger metropolis."

What America seems largely to have forgotten, in designing the automobile-dependent suburbs of the past half-century, is that youngsters need a modulated introduction to the world beyond their block, so that they can cope with, and learn to thrive in, a country that has never been, and never will be, entirely safe or homogeneous. The typical new suburban subdivision tries in the main to withdraw its children from the society’s difficulties, leaving them without the skills and judgment to manage unfamiliar situations. "There’s a fearfulness I find in kids in the newer suburbs," Krohe says. "They can’t mix. They can’t go anywhere without private transportation. The most horrific examples of violence I recall in the Chicago area were kids from the suburbs who got lost in the city and were raped or robbed because they weren’t prepared and didn’t know what to expect." Youngsters from Oak Park, by contrast, learn to size up situations "so they won’t be bullied so easily when they are exposed to danger," Krohe observes. "It makes them competent and confident members of a larger society."

I've always liked that Hilary Clinton slogan about child raising to the effect that "it takes a village". I just object to the fact that so many of the people who agree with this slogan think that therefore the federal government should build, finance out of taxation, be the mayor of all the damn villages, and take personal command of the children away from their parents. If these villages are so important and need to be so nice, it's all the more important that they not be a nationalised industry, I say. These Neighborly guys seem to be running their business as a business. They, or someone, is betting large sums of money that these new Neighborly places of theirs will be attractive to people looking for nice homes and a nice place to raise their kids. The enterprise is starting small, and will only expand and be influential – and be widely copied – if it is successful and if it keeps learning and improving.

When governments do stupid things, that's bad. But far worse is when they do sensible things and screw them up, a regular meme here, because that's doubly bad. A bad thing gets done and a good thing gets trampled all over.

This New Neighborliness, with all its benefits, including educational benefits, is taking a good idea out of the hands of statists and putting it in the free market where it belongs. The only politics involved is changing the system so that they are not forbidden by the government from doing it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:15 PM
Category: This and that
[1] [1]
May 01, 2003
Some recommended reading

I am in a rush, partly because this evening I will be visiting some home educators (stay tuned), and partly because I have just spent some scarce (today) BedBlogging time reading an article called Why Education Is So Difficult and Contentious by Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University (acrobat only I'm afraid). It was publilshed in 2001 but nothing in it dates.

In my opinion, drawing from one of the distinctions that he himself uses, Egan is something of a pedant, but disguised quite well as a man of wisdom, by which I mean that he writes much more clearly and entertainingly than most of us would expect from a seriously pedantic pedant. However, since what Egan pendantifies (I know, not a real word) is a nice, clear, three-tier history of educational thought – socialisation, an academic curriculum, personal development – and since, as I say, he writes clearly and entertainingly, I found my attention held, despite the piece running to 19 pages.

In my opinion Egan is a typical nationalised industry drudge, whose brain is really quite severely warped by the fact that the thinks that education has to be a nationalised industry. He's a drudge with a smile on his face, but a drudge nevertheless. So no wonder he regards the problems of education as insoluble, and the conflicts between his three core ideas as irreconcilable and doomed to cause permanent failure. It's just the same in nationalised hatpin factories, where the conflicting demands placed on The Hatpin are likewise considered beyond the wit of man to solve, despite the infinity of effort that "we" have expended, are expending, and are doomed for ever more to expend upon solving the problem.

For instance, Egan says that the idea of systematic bodies of knowledge conflicts with the idea of potential-development. Progressives versus Trads, in other words. If they can't settle their differences in a century, they never will, says Egan. One or both of these ideas must be wrong.

Both are right, and need no modification. They just need to be done right.

"Progressives" are (a) often horribly bad at actually developing potential (briefly: the prisons with pretty wallpaper syndrome) and (b) full of crap about how the world works, that is to say, foisting a syllabus on their charges that is full of nonsense. Plus (c) some of the progressives actually disbelieve in the very idea of a body of knowledge that's out there and gettable, so no wonder their little charges remain ignorant. They have to reinvent and/or rediscover everything for themselves, poor things, which is idiotic.

Although most Trads in my experience do actually believe in developing potential, they are typically unable to distinguish between the claim that something obscure and not overwhelmingly useful is true (which it usually is when they say it) with the claim that therefore children should all be made to learn it and can't be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they'll bother with it.

Being sensible instead of silly about such things does not require that one or both of the twin ideas of sensible syllabuses or developing pupil potential should be dumped. They just aren't yet being done right by very many people.

Egan has, we learn, written a book in which he claims that he has started to solve many of "insoluble" problems caused by these three "flawed" ideas, by reworking the ideas. And maybe his new and improved ideas are better (not so very different from mine in other words) and I'm misjudging the man. Meanwhile, as a bird's eye view of the dilemmas of education – as a survey of the questions if no answer on the answer side – I recommend his article.

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:51 PM
Category: Education theory
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