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Category Archive • History
November 11, 2004
Another history textbook battle

And here's another political row (see also this earlier posting) being fought out on the terrain of school history textbooks, this time the one between Taiwan and mainland China. China View says that Taiwan and mainland China share a common history, which is true. But China View stirs this truth in with the claim that therefore Taiwan simply cannot in the present or ever in the future be politically independent from mainland China, which is false.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:17 AM
Category: HistoryPoliticsThe curriculum
[0] [0]
November 10, 2004
Japanese textbook toxicity

From time to time I purchase a copy of the news digest magazine, The Week (although I'm afraid that link is only to puff telling you to buy it in paper form), and thanks to the November 6th 2004 issue I learned about an Asia Times article from last month about a toxic textbook which is being distributed in Japanese schools.

Says The Week, in its summary of this article:

If Japan, unlike Germany, has always been reluctant to take full responsibility for its crimes during the Second World War, says Tang Liejun, at least it used not to deny them. But that's what's being attempted in a new history book being distributed in Japanese schools. Far from acknowledging the rape and pillage carried out by Japanese troops, this "toxic textbook" insists Japan invaded its neighbours to "liberate" them from Western imperialists and to "bring prosperity to their peoples". By persisting in regarding this as a hostile occupation, China, Korea and other Asian countries show rank "ingratitude", the book complains. It calls into question the Nanjing massacre, in which Japanese soldiers raped and murdered 200,000 civilians, and fails even to mention the hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese "comfort women" forced into sex slavery for the invaders. We've given up expecting contrition from the Japanese, but this "ennobling" of their past barbarism is completely unacceptable. It might spare their children some "pain and guilt", but in the long run it will only perpetuate the hostility towards Japan felt by so many of its Asian neighbours.

The Asia Times article includes this quote from the book:

"It seems that up to now Asian people still mistakenly regard Japanese as invaders, [but they] risked their lives and cooperated closely with weak or strong peoples in Asia in fighting the Western big powers in order to advance the worldwide colonial liberation movement; Asian peoples' equating of Japanese with the Western imperialists is totally ungrateful and against morality, [since it was the Japanese] who came to their help and inspired them to get independence."

I know I keep banging on about the Internet and its effect on education, but it does seem to me that the Internet is bound to have an effect on little nationalised intellectual ghettoes of the sort that this textbook is trying to perpetuate and strengthen. As Tang Liejun says, the Japanese may never apologise, but it seems unlikely that it will be possible to keep them in universal and permanent ignorance of what it is their Asian neighbours are saying they should apologise for. They are bound at least to learn that their neighbours see things differently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:32 AM
Category: AsiaHistoryThe Internet
[1] [0]
October 04, 2004
A golden generation of teachers when they started and when they retired

On Saturday evening I had supper with my friend and fellow Samizdatista Johnathan Pearce, and very agreeable it was too. We discussed many things, and one of the more interesting things we discussed was one of Johnathan's father's school teachers. Johnathan's father was at school just after World War II, and consequently found himself being taught by, among others, people who had just won the war.

He was apparently taught physics by a young guy, about twenty five years old then, who had, before taking up his post as a teacher, been a navigator in a Pathfinder Squadron. For those not versed in the details of how Britain's wartime bombers went about their grizzly business, the Pathfinders were the ones who went to the target first, and started a small fire on it, which all the bombers would then aim their bombs at. The combination of technical expertise and sheer guts needed to be someone like that is something at which most of us can only, luckily for us, guess.

And one of these young fellows was, as I say, Johnathan's dad's physics teacher. Young, obviously. But also, because young, very keen and energetic. In short, the very essence of Alpha Maleness.

Johnathan's dad goes further, and says it would be interesting to examine the impact upon education, not just of this one young man, but of all the other young men like him who, just after World War II, while still only in their twenties, entered the teaching profession.

Someone like this physics teacher (a) is going to know his physics pretty well, and (b) is hardly likely to be phased by a classroom full of exuberant and potentially rowdy and out-of-control schoolboys.

Now you may say that, now, things are very different, and even the most formidable of men sometimes have a problem keeping in control of classrooms, and I am sure that's true. But the exact chronology of this golden generation of schoolteachers, if that is what they were, is, I think, suggestive.

In particular, ask yourself when these guys stopped teaching. Assume that they were around 25 when they started teaching, fresh from their Avro Lancasters and their tanks and their ships and their Spitfires, and that they retired at around 65. So, add 40 years to 1945, and what year do you get? Well, you don't need much maths for that. The answer is 1985.

Now, 1985 is the approximate time when it is now claimed that education in Britain started to enter its most recent period of being very bad, and in need of much increased central control.

The usual explanation for educational decline, and most especially of decline in discipline and pupil behaviour, is well, what? Nobody properly knows, other than to note that wider social forces, forces outside of schools, made a big impact upon schools and changed them for the worse. But just what did these "social forces" consist of? All sorts of things, of course, including television, the rights-before-responsibilities mentality encouraged by the welfare state, drugs, the immigration into Britain of some ethnic groups who behave very badly (although others behave extremely well of course), have been blamed for this decline. Other more immediate malign influences on schools have included: idiotic teacher training colleges, idiotic theories of literacy teaching, and, in general, all the stuff you read about here from time to time when I am in a complaining sort of mood. But how about this for at least a part of the explanation? - that during the 1980s a lot of extremely good and, so far as the wider life of the schools they taught in, hugely influential teachers retired, and were not replaced by teachers who were anything like as impressive, and especially not as impressive to young boys. How about that as part of the story of our nation's current educational woes?

Certainly, to judge by the TV adverts being shown by the government now, they would give anything for another generation of men of this calibre and experience of life to go into the teaching profession.

So, there's your answer, start another major war, and hope that a decent number of young men survive it and then, because of the depressed state of the post-war economy, become schoolteachers in huge numbers. Well, not really. But I still say that this is an interesting way of looking at the larger educational picture, usually scrutinised only through a microscope with a label on it saying something like "educational policy".

Here is a gratuitous picture of some Avro Lancasters and of some of the Alpha Males who flew in them and looked after them


which I found here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
Category: HistoryTeacher training
[7] [0]
July 30, 2004
One room schools

My good friend Adriana is sending me a lot of useful links at the moment, to all manner of interesting blogs and blog postings I would otherwise not have noticed.

Here's another, from Canadian Robert Paterson, who lives in Prince Edward Island, to the north of Nova Scotia.

He's writing about the "one room schools" that used to abound, in that part of the world and in a lot of other places, but no longer:

None of these schools had more than 50 students. Most had closer to 30. They had a wide range of ages and abilities. In practice, the teacher acted as a learning facilitator. Much of the teaching was done by the older students who helped the younger ones. So while the teacher was an authority figure, she was not the sole talker. Most of the teaching was in the form of a series of conversations between the students themselves. She did not claim to know everything either and called on the wider resources and knowledge in the community to help if needed or pointed the child to the library.

School was integrated into the full life of the community. All the students lived in their community and walked to school. The teacher lived in the community. Marion Reid had retired from teaching when she started her family. A group of parents came to her house one day and made her a deal they would bay sit her younger children if she would return to teaching their children.

School was augmented by work and life in the community. Children were not excluded from work or their full responsibility for the community in which they lived. All the children had work to do at home or on the farm and learned a great deal of practical things about how the world worked from all the other adults in the community. They were not apart from the work of their families or the community. While there were always naughty kids they were naughty in the context of a community that had their eye upon them and where the consequences of doing the wrong thing were immediate and powerful.
Very clever kids found that the community got behind them in their efforts to do well - this is part of the story of Anne and Gilbert of Green Gables.

But you say this was not a very effective school. That is why we needed to consolidate. The kids need the physical resources that come with scale. Not effective?

The kids were fully engaged in their learning and in their full community. Literacy was very high. Now nearly 40% of Islanders cannot read effectively. Next time you watch Ken Burns' film on the US Civil War, think of the literacy of the private soldiers whose letters are featured. I am sure there was bullying of a sort at times but not what we see so often today. It is inconceivable that a community would suffer the mindless vandalism that we see so often today. By walking to school and by participating in the work of the community, kids were in much better shape than today.

This may be a somewhat utopian and rose-tinted view of the past. That's what some of Paterson's commenters argue anyway. But as a possible vision for the future, I think this has real merit. After all, by the nature of the idea, it needn't be attempted on a huge scale. And how could it be worse than what is happening now?

We have isolated our children from a social environment where learning happens as a result of conversation. We have isolated them from those other children who are both younger and older than them. We have isolated them socially from their families and from their communities. We have isolated them from the work of their households and their communities. We have isolated them from adult life. We have isolated them from their bodies. And this is better?

Paterson makes a particular point of the fact that pupils didn't only learn from the one teacher who ran places like these. They were encouraged to study in libraries and to learn from one another. So

Could we not experiment with a few new/old one room schools again. Imagine what they could be like

And then comes the inevitable rider, with which I entirely agree:

especially in an internet world.

A few places like this would be well worth a try.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:46 PM
Category: History
[1] [0]
June 26, 2004
Rewriting Indian history

Interesting stuff in the Guardian about history textbook battles in India. A change of government there means a change of syllabus:

India's new government is poised to rewrite the history taught to the nation's schoolchildren after a panel of eminent historians recommended scrapping textbooks written by scholars hand-picked by the previous Hindu nationalist administration.

Hundreds of thousands of textbooks are likely to be scrapped by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the central government body that sets the national curriculum for students up to 18.

The move, one of the first made by the new Congress led government, will strongly signal a departure from the programme of its predecessor.

The "saffronisation" of history, say critics of the last government, depicted India's Muslim rulers as barbarous invaders and the medieval period as a dark age of Islamic colonial rule which snuffed out the glories of the Hindu empire that preceded it.

Memorably, one textbook claimed that the Taj Mahal, the Qu'tb Minar and the Red Fort, three of India's outstanding examples of Islamic architecture, were designed and commissioned by Hindus.

Cue Gratuitous Picture of the Taj Mahal:


And a rather good one, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:20 PM
Category: HistoryIndia
[1] [3]
May 07, 2004
A history teacher with a difference

I have no time for anything much today, but this has got to be today's most striking British education news story:

A history teacher was at the head of a network of football hooligans jailed today after conducting a violent pre-planned brawl along the platform of a busy railway station.

Dave Walker, head of year at Turves Green boys' technology college in Birmingham, was jailed for two years and three months for his "vital role" in orchestrating fighting at Maze Hill, south east London, in April 2002.

Walker, 37, who called himself "Three Lions", posted messages on internet forums setting up the confrontation between 30 Charlton supporters and 15 Southampton fans before a match in London, Kingston crown court heard.

Like quite a few of the most dramatic criminals (expect a TV play about this guy any month now) he seems to have lead a double life.

In a statement, headteacher, Ken Nimmo, described Walker as an "outstanding teacher" with an "exemplary record" and said he was saddened by events.

He said: "David Walker was an outstanding teacher who contributed a huge amount to the many successes of the boys here."

I bet he was especially good at explaining military history. (See below!)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: HistoryViolence
[0] [0]
May 01, 2004
How plague can change the language of an elite

Last night I hosted a talk by Sean Gabb, and ripped off a report of it for Samizdata. I fear I exaggerated the speed and extent of the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire, following the plagues of the mid sixth century. But the impact of plague on events was most interesting.

Basically, when a political system is presided over by a tiny elite of literate conquerors who speak one language, but who rule people who speak other languages, plague spells deep trouble for that elite.

This elite doesn't perpetuate itself biologically. It perpetuates itself by teaching its alien language to a regular few of the upwardly mobile locals. So teachers are a key part of this process.

When plague strikes, half the elite die, including half the teachers. But the other half of the teachers then have to turn their hands to more important matters, filling in for their former dead superiors. Thus, the process of replenishment and perpetuation ceases. In large parts of the old Eastern Roman Empire, ruled by a Greek speaking elite, this elite melted away, throughout what we now call the Middle East.

And to me, even more of a revelation, the Black Death (mid fourteenth century) killed off French as the governing language of England. I never knew this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:52 PM
Category: HistoryLanguages
[2] [0]
April 24, 2004
Lucky little beggars

And here's another educational titbit from this book (see also the previous posting).

This is the last of four entries for the year 1618:


A scheme was begun to send vagrant children off the streets of London to Virginia, there to be industriously employed. The Virginia Company agreed to take 100 boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16, to educate them, and to give each of them 50 acres of land at 24 or on marriage.

So, become a vagrant, and end up with an education, and fifty acres. Well, it was actually pretty tough, I should imagine. But it couldn't happen now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:35 PM
Category: History
[0] [2]
Highgate School gets planning permission

Again, no time for anything very profound today, but I did chance (and it really was pure chance) upon a bit in a book I bought today in a remainder shop, which is a date by date, year by year history of London. No analysis or grand theorising, or not by the look of it. Just history as one thing after another.

Here, as John Richardson tells it, is the entire story of London for the year 1565:



Sir Roger Cholmeley obtained permission to found a 'Free School' in Highgate village in April 1565, a few months before he died. Already the largest landowner in the area, to provide a site for a school and chapel he had acquired from the bishop of London a piece of land at the very top of Highgate Hill on which previously had stood a hermit's chapel. The school's rules were framed in 1571, which is probablv the year it opened, and a headmaster was appointed of 'good, sober and honest conversation, and no light person, who shall teach and instruct young children as well in their ABC and other English books, and to write, and also in their grammar as they shall grow ripe thereto'. Forty boys, paying fourpence each, from Highgate, Holloway, Kentish Town, Hornsey and Finchley, were to be admitted. At 7 a.m. the boys were at prayer; lessons followed until 11 a.m. and then from 1 p.m. until 6 p.m. This establishment developed into Highgate School, which is still on the same site, next to the remnants of the old chapel burial ground.


Look here for the story as of 2004.

You can also get married there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:12 PM
Category: History
[1] [2]
April 22, 2004
One more posting to learn from

This looks like a useful site. And the book whose cover I here reproduce (the left of the two below) looks like a useful book. Useful, that is to say, if you wish to acquaint yourself at greater length with the opinions and prejudices of people like me.


Market Education is the culmination of five years of full-time research on a single question: What sort of school systems best fulfill the public's educational goals - at both the individual and the societal level? It is perhaps the most comprehensive investigation of school governance ever undertaken, comparing educational systems from all over the world and from ancient times to the present. To find out more about this book, click here.


coulson1.jpg      patrinos1.jpg

And the review of this little publication (the one on the right) is also interesting:

Despite its brevity (running to just 50 pages), Decentralization of Education is an important book. It describes the World Bank's foray into "demand-side financing," the practice of providing families with financial assistance so that they can purchase educational services in the private sector (rather than having governments own and operate schools). The various case studies discussed reach from the Dominican Republic to Pakistan, revealing just how widespread the practice has become, and how effectively it is reaching even the poorest families.

The book's chief weakness is that it does not seize the opportunity to apply the lessons of its case studies to its review of the academic literature on school choice. The first section of the book is a digest of the (mostly theoretical) arguments that have been made for and against school choice. Since a large portion of this literature is badly reasoned and devoid of supporting evidence, it is frustrating that the authors did not apply what the World Bank is learning about demand-side financing to a critical assessment of the arguments pro and con.

It is also somewhat unfortunate that the book takes for granted a major funding role for the state in education,

Double indeed.

And look, here's a a brand new blog (well it must have been once), by the editor of the School Choices site. It isn't only education stuff. But he does seem often to focus on the intersection between education and the main news agenda, as here:


The Coalition Provisional Authority has officially handed control over Iraq's schools to the country's own Ministry of Education [free registration required]. No word when, if ever, control will be returned to families.

Saddam, like virtually every totalitarian dictator in history, nationalized or shut down all private schools upon seizing power. The reason why is obvious: it's a lot easier to whip up support for your own regime and antipathy toward your enemies if you control the schools. Centralized government control over schooling is thus key.

What to do?

Iraq's internal religious divisions provide ample prospect for conflict if the nation sticks with an official government school system. Iraqis already realize that settling on a universally acceptable curriculum is a key sticking point.

The solution: implement a market-based education system with need-based financial assistance, and let families pursue the kind of education they value for their children without obliging them to force their choices on their fellow citizens.

Question. Does copying and pasting other people's stuff instead of thinking of it all for myself mean I'm cheating? Why no. This is just one more way to learn.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:16 PM
Category: BloggingHistoryThe private sector
[0] [0]
April 03, 2004
CMC Vellore - past and present

I googled, as is my wont, "education", and this time, as has become my frequent wont, I tried "images", and stumbled into some Indian medical/educational history. I found my way to the archives page of the Christian Medical College Vellore (in Southern India), which was founded about a century ago by Miss Ida Sophia Scudder MD, who I'm guessing was an American missionary. It's the kind of place that isn't talked about much now, but the pictures at this page evoke a vanished world of White Man's burden, or in this case White Woman's Burden.


The place still seems to be going strong, as this page of more recent photos, in colour, illustrates.


I enjoy this kind of thing, and I really enjoy the way you can chat about such things on the internet.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:25 PM
Category: HistoryIndia
[0] [0]
March 26, 2004
Antoine Clarke takes some more exams

A Brian's Friday is drawing to a close, and my speaker, Antoine Clarke, who was, as always, most eloquent, is rambling to me about education while he makes himself a cup of tea.

antoine.jpgAntoine tells me that he has just been visiting the Friends Reunited website, and they have ancient tests up there which you can take. Old 11+ exams, and GCSEs, but not O or A levels.

Antoine tried all the papers they had. The 11+ paper dated from the late 1940s. The GCSE paper was about 1990. The subjects, for 11+ were: verbal reasoning, maths, and science; and for GCSE they were: maths, physics and biology.

His worst score was verbal reasoning for the 11+, and his worst score in the GCSE was 80 per cent, which was in maths. Antoine is bi-lingual in English and French and has taken numerous exams in French as well as in English, and he says he has never gained a "pass" score in a French maths exam.

Looking at the standard of the exams generally, he thought that the GCSE would have been tough for his year at school when he was ten, but that most of his mates would have passed at any time after that.

His conclusion is that the modern English GCSE exam is primary school standard for the 1970s, and doesn't compare at all with the 1940s 11+.

In short, dumbing down is no myth.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:55 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsHistory
[0] [1]
March 25, 2004
British education has been getting better!

Susan Elkin, writing in yesterday's Telegraph, thinks that things have been improving:

When my father, a former teacher in Deptford, south London, heard that I was starting my teaching career at a notorious secondary boys' school in the area, his laconic comment was: "Well, if you survive there, girl, you'll cope anywhere."

How right he was. It was 1968. I was 21 and had come straight from an appalling "child centered" teacher training college that had managed to teach me absolutely nothing in three years about classroom realities.

I was the first woman to teach in that macho, multi-cultural environment, where boys were frequently caned, "slippered" or cuffed about the head and everyone shouted continually. Learning was the least of anyone's concerns.

The expectations of staff, parents and pupils were off the bottom of the scale. Pupil crime rates probably outstripped those in the nearest prison. You could smell the boys' stinking urinals from 100 paces. And several of the staff were definitely not the sort to whom any caring parent would entrust her children. Criminal Records Bureau checks lay more than three decades into the future.

Reflecting on all this 36 years and four schools later, as I look forward to retirement from teaching this summer, I am struck by just how much things have improved.

and what is more, you can't help noticing, how much things have improved thanks to government oversight, command, control, training, standards, and who knows? perhaps even initiatives.

It does make me wonder though, whether what we might perhaps be reading about here is actually a case where the observer has influenced her own findings. Such has been Susan Elkin's effectiveness and career moves that things in her vicinity have indeed been improving, but outside of her influence, not so much so. Maybe that's the real story.

Mind you, you could say exactly the equal and opposite things about all the defeated grumps who say that things have only been getting worse and worse.

This certainly makes a change from the usual stuff you read.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 AM
Category: HistoryThe reality of teaching
[0] [1]
March 24, 2004
The Grand Old Duke of York's Asylum

The other day I was out photographing, and not long after taking this picture, I chanced upon these statues:

statues1.jpg    statues2.jpg

Here's what it says on the plinth that the girl is sitting on, somewhat photoshopped, to make it easier to read:


Royal Military Asylum? What's that? Well, it turns out it's this.


The armed conflict between Britain and its allies with Revolutionary France (1793 to 1815), ending with the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, was known as 'the Great War'. During the more than twenty years of almost continuous warfare, one million men and boys from the British Isles bore arms in the armed forces, the Army or Royal Navy. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the population of the British Isles was about 14 million. This meant that over seven per cent of the population had served in the conflict. By the time the war ended over 315,000 of those who took part had been killed.

Which meant a lot of orphans, to be looked after, or else just abandoned.

And it was the Duke of York, he whose military incompetence is immortalised in the nursery rhyme "The Grand Old Duke of York", who took it upon himself to do something to look after these children.

The Institution was modelled on the Royal Hibernian Military School (1765 - 1924), Dublin, that had been founded and funded by The Hibernian Society for the destitute families of rank and file soldiers of the Irish Establishment.

So how did this "Asylum" operate?

From its inception, the Asylum provided the country with the first large scale system of education of working class children. For this purpose, the monitorial system of education was used, first introduced by Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), a Quaker. It involved one or more teachers who gave lessons to monitors who, in turn, taught up to 20 of their fellow students. The Asylum children were taught reading, writing and the four rules of arithmetic. Within a few years, Lancaster's system was replaced by the almost identical 'Madras' system developed by Dr. Andrew Bell, an Anglican minister at an orphanage in Madras, India. Bell so impressed the Duke of York that his system of monitorial instruction was introduced not only at the RMA but throughout all regimental schools of the British Army. It is, however, fairly certain that Dr. Bell and the RMA Commissioners being of the Established Church strongly influenced the outcome of the battle for dominance of the Madras System.

Within a short time, boy monitors of 13 and 14 years of age from the Asylum were sent to India, the West Indies, the Iberian Peninsula, Canada and distant stations of the empire to introduce the monitorial system of education to regimental schools. The passages of two boys shipped to Canada became the subject of a dispute as to who would bear the £5 cost of the return passage.

One of the most remarkable features of the Army's co-educational RMA on so large a scale was, for the time, an exceptional development. Considering the Army's total lack of experience in caring for children, the attention given to soldier's daughters as well as sons was unprecedented. An all-female staff supervised the girls. The most interesting and indeed sad occurrence in the short life of the 'Female Establishment' was its demise and the eventual denial of entry to girls. Interestingly, the decision to deny entry to the daughters of soldiers came about at the instigation of, and on fallacious evidence provided by the aging matron Even so, in retrospect, the exclusion of female students was a deplorable and ungracious decision by the Commissioners.

For the girls, however, there was an eventual happy ending.

In 1892, the RMA was renamed The Duke of York's Royal Military School and, in 1909, moved to new premises constructed on the Downs of Dover, Kent. In the late 1980s, the daughters of soldiers were again accepted for entry to the School in equal numbers to boys.

I recommend the whole thing. This "monitorial" system sounds like a very good principle to me. One of the most obvious things that some children ought to be able to contribute to society is to teach other children.

I knew nothing about any of this until today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:44 PM
Category: History
[5] [2]
March 08, 2004
Is Russia about to forget the lesson of Blaise Pascal?

Incoming email from Susan Godsland, who runs this. Did I see this? Not until you emailed me, Ms G. Thank you.

Quote from this Telegraph story:

Over seven decades of communism, education played an important part in preparing children for their place in society. Young people left school with a good grasp of the basics, drilled into them by traditional teaching methods. Since the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin, Russia has taken part in international comparisons in which its secondary pupils have performed well above the international average for maths and science and better than their peers in Britain.

Vladimir Putin's government, however, is not happy with the system and is looking to countries such as Britain to provide models for teaching methods that they believe will improve young people's creativity and entrepreneurial instincts.

Presumably Susan fears that something like this is about to happen in Russia, this being an essay about how the phonetics-based teaching of reading and writing got replaced by new and inferior methods.

The English language contains approximately half a million words. Of these words, about 300 compose about three-quarters of the words we use regularly. In schools where the "whole language" is taught, children are constantly memorizing "sight" words during the first three or four grades of school, but are never taught how to unlock the meaning of the other 499,700 or more words. Reading failure usually shows up after the fourth grade, when the volume of words needed for reading more difficult material, in science, literature, history, or math cannot be memorized quickly enough. The damage to children who have not been taught phonics usually lies hidden until they leave the controlled vocabulary of the basal readers, for more difficult books where guessing, or memorizing new words just does not work. The result is that textbooks in the middle and upper grades are "dumbed" down to a fourth or fifth grade reading level.

This is the real reason why the SAT scores have dropped to such low levels during the last three decades.

It is a little bit off at a tangent, but I include also this next bit, which I knew nothing about until now.

From the time the alphabet was invented until the time of French scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal, reading was taught by memorizing the sounds of syllables, and then stringing them together to make words. But Pascal found that by separating the syllables into their letter parts, one could learn to read more effectively and efficiently. His method was intended only to assist in the very beginning stages of reading, when a child is learning the printed syllables of his own language.


Former teacher and researcher Geraldine Rodgers puts it this way: "It was only for this purpose that Pascal invented it [phonics], to make the previously almost unending memorization of regularly formed syllables ... unnecessary. But phonics works, and has since 1655. So it is not surprising that it was invented by one of the most towering mathematical and scientific geniuses in history, Blaise Pascal ..."

With luck those Russians will stick to Pascal's methods when it comes to teaching reading and writing, and only introduce that "creativity" stuff later on. But thoughts of babies and bathwater inevitably present themselves to the mind of the anxious Telegraph reader.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:18 AM
Category: HistoryLiteracy
[3] [1]
February 06, 2004
Samuel Pepys learns Latin and nothing but Latin

The Internet is paying quite a bit of attention to Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), now that you can read his diary on line. So around now was a good time for a new Pepys biography, and Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self has attracted further attention to Pepys. Today I bought it in paperback. Here (pp. 30-31) is one of the more striking passages concerning Pepys' schooling, which took place during the time of the English Civil War:

As a boy with a sense of his own worth, whose schooling so far had been meagre, he must have been avid for education; and serious teaching is what you got at a grammar school, all day long, from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. Two hours were allowed for lunch in the middle of the day, time to walk to Brampton and back, although the Hinchingbrooke kitchens would have been handier. Huntingdon School had a reputation, made under its headmaster Thomas Beard, who had sent his best pupils on to Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell among them. Latin was the chief subject, and the master's job was to put Latin into the heads of the boys, so forcefully that they could think and write in Latin as easily as in English. Very little else was studied except for some Greek by those who did well with their Latin and a bit of basic Hebrew for the exceptional pupil. Mathematics was hardly mentioned, beyond learning the Roman numerals, which took precedence over the Arabic ones, and Pepys had to learn his multiplication tables when he was twenty-nine.

Once past elementary grammar and vocabulary, Latin was taught largely by translating classical texts into English and then back into Latin, the object being to finish as close to the original as you could. It was common for boys to be punished if they failed to talk to one another in Latin, and parents occasionally complained of their sons forgetting how to read English. In any case they did not study English writers no Chaucer, Bacon, Shakespeare, Jonson or Donne. They learnt instead to compose verses, essays and letters in Latin, and became familiar with a list of ancient authors that included Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Juvenal and Livy. The aim was admirable for anyone who wanted to correspond with foreigners, since Latin was used by all educated Europeans; Milton was appointed 'Latin secretary' to Cromwell when he became lord protector, in order to compose diplomatic correspondence for him in that language. Pepys was a good scholar, able to read Latin for pleasure all his life; and that very skill may have helped to leave his English free and uncluttered for the Diary, the language of life as opposed to the elaborately constructed formulations of the classroom and study.

I guess that in all sorts of places around the world of now, there must be young people experiencing something similar, but this time it is English that is to them what Latin was to young Sam Pepys. English now being the official public language of large tracts of the world.

There is something more about Pepys' education here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:01 PM
Category: Famous educationsHistory
[1] [0]
February 03, 2004
Making literacy good enough to eat

Last week I was reminded that I possess a book called A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel. I possess it but have not yet read it. Like many of the books I buy, this one was remaindered and thus obtained very cheaply, rather than something I deliberately went out to find, and when I got it home I put it on the pile of other such acquisitions and forgot about it. It was only some hazardous looking shelving that made me move it from A to B and while doing that to realise again that I own it. I flicked through it again, much as I must have done in the remainder shop, and it looks very promising.

Looking for something interesting to pass on to you people, and for myself to learn about, I naturally went to the chapter entitled "Learning to Read". In it, on page 71, I found the following delightfully tasty morsel of historical knowledge:

In every literate society, learning to read is something of an initiation, a ritualized passage out of a state of dependency and rudimentary communication. The child learning to read is admitted into the communal memory by way of books, and thereby becomes acquainted with a common past which he or she renews, to a greater or lesser degree, in every reading. In medieval Jewish society, for instance, the ritual of learning to read was explicitly celebrated. On the Feast of Shavuot, when Moses received the Torah from the hands of God, the boy about to be initiated was wrapped in a prayer shawl and taken by his father to the teacher. The teacher sat the boy on his lap and showed him a slate on which were written the Hebrew alphabet, a passage from the Scriptures and the words "May the Torah be your occupation." The teacher read out every word and the child repeated it. Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it, thereby bodily assimilating the holy words. Also, biblical verses were written on peeled hard-boiled eggs and on honey cakes, which the child would eat after reading the verses out loud to the teacher.

I used to be scornful of such primitive rituals. But being by nature a lazy person, I have learned a profound respect for the tricks we can all play on each others' and on our own minds to get us to remember things, and concentrate on things, and generally to apply ourselves to things. The mind thinks symbolically and metaphorically. So, devise a metaphor to get your point across to it. Leaders of armies know this. Priests most definitely know it. And so do good teachers, I suggest.

Some therapists also know it. Apparently, although I can't recall where I read this, if you are having a recurring nightmare, a way to diminish your chances of suffering from it in the future is to describe it as best you can on a bit of paper, perhaps with a verbal description, perhaps with a picture. Then, set fire to the picture and destroy it. Apparently the brain is, sometimes, satisfied with such subterfuges. Matter attended to, it says. Message received. Fine. On with other things. (And no more nightmares.)

If on the other hand, the image thrown at it is pleasurable and memorable, it makes that connection to, and keeps reminding you of it.

The message here is: reading tastes really nice.

Could this little scenario be part of the reason why Jews have tended, over the centuries, to be so well educated? I should definitely guess so.

Also, I think the above description might throw a little light on the question, which I found myself asking yesterday, of why the children in the picture I posted here yesterday (see immediately below) are all so beautifully dressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:44 PM
Category: HistoryLiteracy
[1] [0]
February 02, 2004
Old school in full colour

Michael Jennings did a posting about the surprisingly long history of colour photography, and I put a bit of it on Samizdata and asked about the very early Russian colour photos Michael mentioned. A commenter immediately referred us to the photographs of a certain Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

I found one photograph with an educational theme. It's called Group of Jewish Children with a Teacher:


This photograph was taken in Samarkand in 1911.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:55 AM
Category: HistoryTechnology
[8] [0]
January 27, 2004
Lenin's education: "... a formidable and often a traumatic experience ... "excellent" in every subject"

If my scanner worked better I would probably do more postings based on the early lives of celebrities. I should do more anyway, because they are interesting to read, I think.

They can also be very interesting to do. Today, for instance, I was rootling about in chapter one of Adam B. Ulam's book, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (first published as The Bolsheviks in 1965). Did you know that Lenin had an elder brother, Alexander, who joined in a terrorist plot to assassinate the Tsar and who was hanged when Lenin was seventeen? Maybe you did, but I didn't.

Ulam then describes (p. 19 of my 1975 Fontana Library paperback) what was happening with Lenin's education while all that was going on:

While Alexander was awaiting first the trial and then the execution, Lenin was finishing his eighth and final year in the Simbirsk gymnasium. Graduation from high school was, for a European adolescent, a formidable and often a traumatic experience. It required not only a successful completion of what corresponded to the American senior year of the school, but also in addition a special examination in several subjects. This examination, the so-called "test of maturity", consisted of written and oral questions and exercises prepared not by the local teachers but by the ministry of education or by the professors of the regional university. Nothing was spared to endow the occasion with awe and tension. The strict secrecy about the content of the examination, the barricaded rooms where it took place, the virtual impossibility of beginning professional training if one failed a subject, make the most strenuous American and English academic tests appear innocent and relaxing in comparison. Nervous breakdowns were not uncommon among the students, most of whom were, after all, not older than eighteen or nineteen.

With the earlier noted exception of logic, Lenin completed his high school course with the grade of "excellent" in every subject, including religion. The high school certificate included also such categories as "behaviour in class", "interest in studies", etc. In all these respects his conduct was adjudged "exemplary". The final written examinations took place in the week of his brother's execution. Lenin passed them with the highest distinction, being awarded the gold medal of the Simbirsk gymnasium (both Alexander and Anna [Lenin's parents BM] had received the same award) as the first student in the class.

It makes you wonder whether all the would-be Al-Qaeda suicide bombers whom the Americans are now hunting to death have younger brothers, and if so, what they might get up to in the future.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:16 PM
Category: Famous educationsHistory
[0] [0]
January 25, 2004
Flash bang wallop what a school

There's no doub that my Culture Blog has been a whole lot more fun than this one in recent days and weeks, and part of it is pictures. I've mulled it over, and I've decided I'm going to put pictures here too, as and when it suits. And this one is fully worthy of the honour of being Brian's Education Blog Picture Number One:


This is the Eyesore of the month for January 2004, at this site of that name.

Of this eyesore, James Howard Kunstler says:

Hmmmm. This typologically ambiguous building in Pflugerville, Texas (just north of Austin) is the K-through-6 medium security education facility. It's encouraging to know that the inmates were slated for "early release" this year. Ask yourself: what kind of citizens would an institution like this produce? And where do they go from here?

My thanks to Michael Blowhard for the link to this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:58 AM
Category: History
[0] [0]
December 18, 2003
E. G. West: " universal state provision of education is the model that is least likely to benefit the poor"

Talking of James Tooley (see below), I've only just encountered news of this:

Government Failure: E. G. West on Education
Edited by James Tooley and James Stanfield
Institute of Economic Affairs, December 2003-12-18

This selection of E.G. West's papers contains a wealth of economic and philosophical analysis which can guide policymakers in the field of Education. They also show how state monopoly provision of education has led to a particular model of schooling which does not work for many of those who use the education system parents and children.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of these papers, though, is their historical analysis. The extent to which education systems developed in the UK and the USA before either compulsory schooling or dominant state finance emerged is remarkable. E.G. West also analyses the debate between those who believe that the state should control education in order to shape the thinking of the younger generation, and those who believe in a pluralist system. He demonstrates how universal state provision of education is the model that is least likely to benefit the poor, although they could benefit substantially from programmes to help them fund their education.

In an era when there is increasing dissatisfaction with state education provision, but in which the state has ever greater control of the curriculum including the teaching of 'citizenship' and management of schools, the papers in Occasional Paper 130 have never been more relevant.

Perhaps Mr Clarke would like to put that bit about state provision being the worst for the poor in a frame and hang it on his wall. And then again, perhaps he wouldn't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:37 PM
Category: History
[0] [0]
December 15, 2003

Rebecca Fraser does a plug in the Telegraph for her own book about Britain's history. Fair enough. She's in favour of a more systematic and chronological approach than is now the tendency in schools, regretting the way that the National Curriculum jumps about illogically, emphasising this period but ignoring that one, and doing it in a random order.

I was made to learn history dates at school, and whereas I didn't and don't like being made to do anything, this particular piece of compulsoriness still makes sense to me. This is how I would sell history to any pupil customers I was trying to interest. How can you get to grips with history without knowing very approximately (and then in ever greater detail) when everything in the past happened? How can you get into the minds of people in the past, which is what the newer syllabuses are supposed to do best, if you don't know what major historical dramas and upheavals these people have just been through?

Take a really huge history date, like the Black Death. 1349 was the date I was taught for that horror. Setting aside the fact that "1349" is probably a bit too exact for this horror, how can you expect to make sense of how it was to be alive in Europe in the year 1400, say, if you ever for a moment forget that half a century earlier a third of the population of Europe was wiped out in a horrible plague?

Perhaps one of the less obvious effects of 9/11, an event we refer to now and may always refer to by its date, will be to slam back into the head's of history teachers and history students that when things happen is often one of the most memorable things about things. Where were you when ? A major date is not just a matter for historians. It's part of the experience of life itself. And of course yesterday, December 14th 2003, was another pretty big date, I'd say.

If you still doubt any of this, try saying "1966" to an English soccer fan.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:31 PM
Category: History
[0] [0]
October 17, 2003
More on Hitlerisation

Every now and again, when I sit down to do a posting for Brian's Education Blog, I end up with a posting for Samizdata.

I've just finished How the Hitlerisation of British history teaching may be saving British Independence and stuck in up there. It's far too early to say, but I think it may be a rather good piece.

I've written about this Hitlerisation thing here, at some length, but hadn't grasped the (anti) EU dimension of it all until today. It's obvious, when you think about it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:06 PM
Category: HistoryPolitics
[2] [4]
October 10, 2003
Those who couldn't now can

Sound familiar?:

"It's become a crisis," says Tom Carroll, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future (NCTAF). "We have a bucket with huge holes in it. They're leaving as fast as we pour them in."

Last week, NCTAF hosted a conference on new teachers' experiences in Milwaukee. Participants discussed the ways a minority of school districts such as Rochester, N.Y. and Columbus, Ohio have dramatically improved teacher retention, saving money on hiring and retraining new teachers in the process.

But in much of the country, teacher attrition statistics remain downright shocking: Almost a third of teachers leave the field within their first three years and half before their fifth year, according to a NCTAF report.

In the 1990s, for the first time, the number of teachers leaving the profession exceeded the number entering.

It would be easy to sneer, and I do more than my share here, but one of the big stories here is that whereas teaching used to be one of the main avenues for social advancement for the lower middle class and upwardly mobile working class, now there are a zillion better paid jobs for pen pushers and number crunchers. The very economic forces that have made education ever more important in the job market have made the actual manning of educational institutions ever harder. As education gets more "relevant", it gets harder to organise, because those who can educate can now do so many other things. Those who once couldn't and could once only teach, now can do. Yes, the battlefield atmosphere of many classrooms is part of the problem, and the usual ways in which the educational whip is cracked only makes that worse, but don't forget the other half of the equation, which is how much more enticing the rest of the world has now become for the average potential teacher.

Daily contemplation of the world of education is no mere preparation for history, still less immune from history. On the contrary, history is yanking education around as never before. So when some particular thing goes wrong like classroom discipline, or academic standards, or bullying, or literacy teaching, or kids being hypnotised for hours each day by their own individually owned TV sets, or, as in this case, teacher recruitment it isn't good enough merely to snarl at the people whose misfortune it is to be standing right next to one of the millions of resulting accidents or misfortunes. Okay, many of these people may not be helping much, and Could Do Better, as teachers like to say. But we live in times when even exemplary conduct by a much increased number of the mere individuals involved wouldn't necessarily solve the problems.

Do I sound like a socialist? Yes. Part one of all socialist arguments says: Society Is To Blame, and that, tarted up, is what I just said. But that doesn't mean that the way to make Society shape up is to nationalise the means of production, distribution, exchange and education. Quite the opposite, I would say. Society, like motor manufacturing, is improved when disowned by governments.

If you hear no more from me before it gets underway, have a nice weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 AM
Category: History
[0] [5]
October 09, 2003
A post-war chronology of British education policy

subtitled: "Brian copies his homework off the internet".

This is useful: "Decades of trying to get the balance right". It will be convenient for me and for some of you? to be able to link to from here. For a while anyway.

I was tempted to copy the whole thing, and duly surrendered to temptation:

1944: Butler's Education Act creates Ministry of Education, organises public education into primary, secondary and further stages, ends fee-paying in maintained schools and creates county colleges to provide education to age 18.

1947: School leaving age raised to 15.

1951: O-levels replace School Certificate and A-levels replace Higher School Certificate.

1959: Central Advisory Council report proposes 20-year programme to ensure half of pupils in full-time education until 18 by 1980.

1964: Department of Education and Science replaces Ministry of Education.

1965: Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) introduced for students at secondary modern schools.

1972: School leaving age raised to 16.

1976: Education Act compels local education authorities to introduce comprehensive education.

1979: Education Act repeals 1976 act on comprehensive schools.

1980: Education Act introduces assisted places at independent schools.

1983: Technical and Vocational Education Initiative for 14-18s.

1986: O-levels and CSEs abolished, replaced by General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). National Council for Vocational Qualifications established.

1988: National Curriculum and grant-maintained schools introduced under the Education Reform Act.

1989: Advanced Supplementary (AS) introduced, separate exam the equivalent of half an A-level.

1992: General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) introduced.

1992: Further and Higher Education Act removes sixth-form colleges from LEA control. Polytechnics granted full university status.

1995: Standard Attainment Tests (SATS) introduced for children at key stages 1, 2 and 3.

1997: Education Act scraps assisted places at independent schools.

1997: National Literacy Strategy introduced in primary schools.

2000: Curriculum 2000 changes AS qualification to Advanced Subsidiary, an exam taken after the first year of an A-level course.

And don't let's forget 2003: This, which John Clare really does think is quite important.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:12 PM
Category: History
[0] [0]
September 04, 2003
Too few too big

Every problem in education is an excuse for a new central initiative. And this one is really going to spread happiness everywhere.

Headteachers are being urged to stagger the start and end of lessons to reduce traffic congestion created by the school run.

The move will be part of a government offensive against parents who cause jams during the rush hour when they ferry their children to and from school.

The proposal could have pupils starting and finishing school up to an hour earlier or later than they do now.

But, the plan is likely to be unpopular with parents who have arranged their work schedules around their childen's existing timetables. Some could be forced to make several journeys every day if they have children at different schools.

Other measures will aim at persuading parents to abandon the school run by improving pedestrian crossings, cycle lanes and bus services.

I believe that the central folly here is one that was perpetrated a long, long time ago and which is going to be the devil of a job to unscramble. Basically, there are far too few schools. They are far too big. And the typical home is far too far away from the nearest one. (See also: cottage hospitals. Now also mostly closed down.)

Number two hundred and sixty three of the seven hundred and forty eight and climbing fast reasons why I believe in a totally free market in education is that I believe that a free market in education would have supplied schools for small children especially small children which are but an easy walk away from home, for just about everyone. I think there would have been a smooth path trodden historically, from the old Victorian Dame Schools, which were primary schools for one classroom of kids taught by one Old Biddy, to Tescho Primary, Safeteach, or whatever they would be called, which would be competing nationally franchised chains of educational excellence, for quite small sums of money, with very flexible hours, masses of terrific centrally supplied technology for teachers and children to choose from, and just would generally be fabulous compared to anything dreamed of now.

I was on the radio yesterday trashing the public sector, and it got me thinking, again, that one of the very worst things about a seriously nationalised industry, such as education now is, is that people stop even imagining how much better things might be if competing tradesman and charity workers and parents were running the show instead of state teachers harrassed into daily near insanity experiences by maniacally fusspot London bureaucrats, such as the geniuses who are presiding over this staggered school hours initiative.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:46 PM
Category: HistoryThe private sector
[2] [0]
August 12, 2003
Carry on schooling

I only started watching That'll Teach 'Em (Channel 4 Aug 12 9 pm) because of still needing something to put here after another drainingly hot London day, spent basically doing other things, but oh boy, it's hilarious. The entire show is poised at the edge of a cliff and threatening to plummet towards pure Monty Python insanity.

It's like a brothel, but without the sex. Not very good actors stride about picking arguments with the boys and girls, and the usual procedure would then be for the customers - which is what he would be - to have an orgasm. But this is a serious, or as serious as it is possible to be about such things, to recreate a "nineteen fifties" public school education.

The programme brings out all the snobbery in me, that is to say of a boy who went to a truly posh school, or who thinks he did. Mine was called Marlborough, pronounced Morl-brur. And I remember Marlborough as being a more relaxed, more decadent sort of place. We all assumed that it was only the "minor" public schools (public means the opposite for these purposes sorry America) who took all this stuff truly seriously.

The teachers at this TV place are, frankly, not as posh as the ones I remember. They have no irony, no humour. Only the tremendously exciting English mistress seems to have the real Posh Stuff. The teachers here do have their virtues, but they remind me of NCOs, rather than officers. They are mostly deadly serious sergeant majors who shout about everything they see that is wrong rather than languid colonels and brigadiers who see much, much more than they can be bothered to complain about.

But we never had anyone like that English mistress.

If you're interested, the best explication on film of sort Iof place I went to is not this programme, but Lindsay Anderson's If, which is outstanding. The weirdest thing of all about these places was the way that they sprayed Christianity all over the Caesarian savagery. They're doing that as well at this TV place. But Lindsay Anderson does that outstandingly. Who could forget the priest who is kept by the Headmaster in his drawer. (You have to see it.)

Still, this is a great show and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

As always when it comes to adapting, the girls are adapting to it all far better than the boys. The girls are enjoying it. They are becoming fifties stereotypes Stepford schoolgirls. They are knitting scarves for their brothers back home.

The boys - and good for them are just waiting for it to end. But even they are starting to come round.

Even for them it will have been a learning experience. They will have experienced a very different way of doing things. There's nothing like a shared ordeal lived through. Some of them will be friends for life.

The best thing about this show is that it so very clearly illustrates that such a place would now be unrunnable for real. Interestingly, and extremely importantly, they are not using very much physical violence at this place. But you can't run this kind of old-fashioned totalitarian regime without extremely serious physical violence. Without the ultimate sanction of the cane, or at least some kind of comparably severe torture, these places don't function properly. After all the humour and irony had been exhausted, if I didn't do what those bastards at Marlborough told me to do, then I was physically assaulted. And if that didn't work I would have been expelled, an option which I wish I had explored more thoroughly than I did at the time. (Put it this way. I am often able to startle the ex-victims of Communism with my grasp of the finer points of Communism, what it was and how it worked. How the hell did you know that? they say, of some weird communist nuance. Easy I say, I went to a British public school.)

In this programme they have contrived a few pretend tortures, basically endurance tortures. But the hardcore stuff? - that they have shrunk from imposing on these children. You simply can't do this kind of thing now.

Which means that the entire pyramid of power crumbles. Everything has to be done differently. The boys on this show are waiting for it all to end. And after all, it's only a TV reality show, not reality. But if there was no end in sight, and if this was for real, they might well have rebelled by now.

And equally important, there simply aren't the teachers any more to run this kind of show. Simply, we don't believe in this kind of regime any more. We look at it, and we can't help bursting into giggles.

Carry on schooling? Like they did in the nineteen fifties? It can't be done.

If we are going to deny ourselves the ultimate sanction, namely torture - and that is precisely what we are now doing then the entire way that the lives of children are governed is going to have to be painfully re-invented. This is one of the central beliefs of this blog. This process has hardly begun. But at least it has begun.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:49 PM
Category: Boys will be boysHistoryThe private sectorViolence
[1] [1]
July 15, 2003
Terence Kealey on the uneducatedness of the steam engine pioneers

My current reading enthusiasm is Terence Kealey's The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, and he has interesting things to say about just how educated Britain's steam engine pioneers were.

The first commmercial steam engine, Thomas Newcomen's, was at work in 1712 at Dudley Castle, Worcester. It was huge, expensive, and inefficient, but it clearly met a need because, by 1781, about 360 had been built in Britain, most of them devoted to pumping water out of coal mines.

The historian D. S. L. Cardwell has established that Newcomen, who was barely literate, was a humble provincial blacksmith and ironmonger who, stuck out in rural Devon, had never had any contact with science or scientists. Newcomen did, however, have a lot of contact with the tin mines in the neighbouring county of Cornwall, and he knew that they were frequently, and disastrously, flooded. There was, unquestionably, a market for an effective pump.

So, no "education" in the sense most people now understand it, then. Plenty of knowledge, but no book learning.

The first significant improvement was made in 1764 when James Watt invented the separate condenser

Whatever that may be. I'm not concerned here with what these people did, just with how much schooling they had.

Watt's advances owed less than nothing to contemporary science; they proceeded on an 'old established fact'. In any case, Watt had not been formally educated in science; he worked at Glasgow University as a technician.

So some schooling there, but no scientific training.

Moreover, the next major advance in steam engine technology, the use of high presseure steam to push the piston, was made by a man in Newcomen's mould. Richard Trevithick, whose engine in Coalbrookdale in 1802 achieved the unprecedented pressure of 145 pounds per square inch, was barely literate. Born in Cornwall to a mining family, Trevithick received no education other than that provided at his village primary school, whose master described him as 'disobedient, slow and obstinate'. But Trevithick addressed a problem. The Cornish tin mines were a long way from the nearest coal fields, so their Watt steam engines were expensive to run. Could they be made more efficient? Unlettered and ill-educated though he was, Trevithick thought so, and he introduced steam under high pressure to push, not suck, the piston.

In 1801, Trevithick built his first steam carriage, which he drove up a hill in Camborne, Cornwall, on Christmas Eve. In 1803, Trevithick built the world's first steam railway locomotive at the Pendaren Ironworks, South Wales. On 21 February 1804, that engine hauled 10 tons of iron and 70 men along 10 miles of trackway.

Still not much in the way of education, although bags of engineering intuition, acquired by mucking about with existing machinery, and struggling to improve it.

Who's next?

The very next major advance, too, was made by an ill-educated, barely literate, barely numerate, self-taught artisan called George Stephenson. Light though it was, Trevithick's locomotive was still too heavy for the cast-iron rails of the day. But on 27 September 1825, a steam engine designed by George Stephenson drew 450 people from Darlington to Stockton at the trrifying speed of 15 miles per hour. Stephenson went on to built the Liverpool to Manchester line, for which he then designed the 'Rocket', an engine which could attain 36 miles per hour! Yet Stephenson was unschooled. The son of a mechanic, he followed his father in operating a Newcomen Engine to pump out a coal mine in Newcastle. He only learnt to read (just) at the age of 19 when he attended night school, and he never really acquired mathematics. So unsophisticated was Stephenson, and so dense his Geordie brogue, that he needed an interpreter when talking to educated men from London. Yet it was the educated men from all over Europe who consulted him, not the other way round.

In other words, then, very little schooling at all went into the inventing of the steam engine and the steam locomotive? Correct. Ten out of ten. Or to be precise, three and a half out of four, and when it comes to formal scientific education, four out of four.

It will be seen therefore, that the development of the steam engine, the one artefact that more than any other embodies the Industrial Revolution, owed nothing to science; it emerged from pre-existing technology, and it was created by uneducated, often isolated, men who applied practical common sense and intuition to address the mechanical problems that beset them, and whose solution would yield obvious economic reward.

It is of course a matter for debate just how much can be learned from this story that is of relevance to the modern world. Maybe the steam engine was invented and pioneered by barely-educated men, but it is very hard to believe that the Industrial Revolution could have got underway in a nation populated only by such unlettered men as these. Those educated men who consulted with Stephenson may indeed not have invented the steam locomotive, but they surely made better and better organised use of it than a nation consisting only of similar illiterates would have done. The educated men did surely contribute a lot.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how "intuition" alone could have enabled anyone to devise and perfect the modern electronic chip, and it would be impossible for an illiterate to programme a computer.

But even so, the story does throw an interesting light on the limits of education as a contributory explanation of one of the great technological events in human history. And all this from the Vice Chancellor of a University.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:52 PM
Category: HistoryLearning by doing
[4] [1]
March 21, 2003

Well here I am, and I didn't miss a day. And for me, it's already been quite a day, let me tell you.

I'm in an internet cafe in Krakow, which is in the south of Poland. This morning I and a handful of others (we'll all be attending the Libertarian Conference here that begins tomorrow morning) were driven to Auschwitz concentration camp - museum, and remains of. Quite an education. It's in two bits, separated by real life, so to speak, in the form of the industrial area where during the war Auschwitz inmates were used as slaves, and where people still now work, but in far more civilised circumstances.

The small bit, Auschwitz itself, Auschwitz I, is where the official museum is. Lots of black and white photos, which is how these events are now most vividly brought back to life and to mind. Heaven knows, this was ghastly enough, but the life of a reasonably well educated person has included a look at a few of such photographs and recollections, and nothing there hit me hard enough to really hurt.

But Auschwitz II, Birkenau, is if anything even more terrible than Auschwitz I, because it is so huge.

The horror of the Holocaust is not only what was done to individual victims of it, but the sheer scale and ambition of the enterprise. And at Birkenau you see this scale. Most of the huts have been ripped down, but the layout of the place remains exactly as it was. And it is big, about the size, I should guess, of somewhere like Fords of Dagenham, or of a medium-sized city airport. Hut after hut after hut, each with its own tale of horror to tell. As we walked, often briskly, at exhausting length, and on a sunny but bitingly cold morning, we all brought what we knew of all this to what we didn't know, which was the size of this damned place. It was all so horribly organised and industrialised. It was a huge storage facility for humans, one of my companions said. A giant filing system, but for people rather than paper.

I could say a lot more in a similar vein, but let me confine myself to an educational angle, as befits this blog.

I don't know quite what I was expecting, but for some silly reason what I was not expecting was that the overwhelming proportion of the visitors would be in the form of quite large parties of very obviously Israeli teenagers. These were either high school or college students, I couldn't tell which and I didn't ask.

At first I stupidly thought that some of these young people might not have been taking everything totally seriously. They were dressed in generation-X logo-decorated late C20 plasticated garb - the garb, in my country, of indifference to such things as grandfathers telling tales of the past. On the other hand, the big blue-on-white Star of David flags said that they were very serious, and indeed they were. As did the identical woolly hats that many of them sported, in exactly matching colours to the colours of their flags. What they looked like, now I think about it, was crowds of football supporters, supporting Israel United, you might say. Oh, they really meant it.

When wandering about in one of the little Auschwitz I buildings, I climbed some stairs at random and encountered a group of about thirty or forty of these people, singing along to a tape recording of Hebrew songs played on what sounded like a accordion. The room was dark and they were in a big triangular shaped circle to fit in the space left by the exhibits, if you get my drift. All were visibly moved, some were in tears and being comforted by friends, perhaps thinking of dead ancestors.

I have already touched lightly on the teaching of history here - sorry I'm not equipped to supply the link back, but it was in connection with a similar matter, namely the Hitlerisation of school history, in Britain. But this was different. This was no mere accident of the syllabus. This was history red in tooth and claw, being drunk in like newly found water in a desert, by the next generation to those that got it in the neck. This was history teaching with a hell of difference, that was going to make a hell of a difference.

I've heard it argued that the state of Israel faces a strategic predicament so difficult that it could end up being totally engulfed, and its citizens being subjected to a new diaspora. But after seeing all those Israeli youngsters with their flags and their songs of sorrow, I have to say that I now doubt this. I don't know how they'll hang on in there, but hang on they are surely determined to do. Everything about them - their presence in this place in the first place, the flags and woolly hats, the singing - said: Never Again. And I'll bet that the older people who were instructing them in loud and mournful voices about what it all was and what it all meant were saying Never Again in those exact words.

Apart from the singers, the other memorable group I chanced upon was the one being told about the exact place, for this is what it was, where the nearest thing to a violent uprising that Birkenau witnessed during its horror years actually took place, one of the very few such places in all of Nazi Europe.

You know the kind of thing. A few dozen inmates, deciding they had nothing to lose, dying with dignity instead of without it. You can imagine it. A major shrine of the soon-to-be born State of Israel, I should suppose.

All very different from education back in Britain. But education nevertheless. And how.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:13 PM
Category: Brian's educationHistory
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March 12, 2003
Bring on the Afghans!

Here's another little snippet from my conversations last weekend. My Kent teacher friend told me that the attitude of your average teacher towards immigrants and asylum seakers is: bring 'em on. He has some Afghans in his class, and they are by far the most studious of his students. He recalled a day when one of them stayed behind after a lesson had finished, to finish some work. The locals would never do such a thing. The Afghans, he reports, are decidedly critical of the locals for their educational indolence.

What's going on here? Partly, it is surely that immigrants and asylum seakers are often thoroughly superior people compared to your local yobbos, educationally speaking. We're talking doctors and lawyers and clerics, who are merely disguised temporarily as cabbies for the first generation of their time in England, but who will soon be reverting to type and sending their kids to posh schools where they'll feel more at home.

But I think something else is involved here. The Third World is now famously more enthusiastic about education, and is now famously more willing to pay the price for it, whether that's a cash price or a discipline price, than is the First World. Why? Well, how about that in the Third World the penalties for doing nothing very much with your life are so much more severe than they are in the First World, and immigrants from the Third to the First World bring the educational attitude that is caused by this economic fact with them. And how about that the economic benefits of education in the Third World are greater than they are here. As a result, the Prussian System of education, as I've been calling it here, still works well in the Third World, whereas it is increasingly obsolete here.

In a couple of generations, there could be a summersault. The Prussian System could by then have collapsed here, and been replaced by something a lot more voluntaristic and a lot better. Meanwhile, the Prussian System could be just entering its decadent phase in the Third World, while still being at the stage of the Third World equivalents of Daily Mail readers confining themselves (as here now) to saying that the only answer to the problems of the Prussian System is to make it more Prussian, by, I don't know, recruiting new teachers from Prussia, by imposing Prussian Drill classes on bad pupils, etc.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:20 PM
Category: History
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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
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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
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December 05, 2002
History in Harpenden and drama in Welwyn

Mark Holland emails thus:

My girlfriend is a primary school teacher at a very good (state) school in Harpenden Hertfordshire. The other evening she was helping out her friend and fellow teacher who is the history co-ordinator. I was asking about the (national curriculum - older infants) subjects covered and one is something like "Great Britain since 1948". We all looked at each other wondering what was significant about 1948 given all the other possible juicy historical dates around then. We tracked it down to being when the Empire Windrush arrived in port. Draw your own conclusions.

Not all BEdBlog readers will get that reference. The Windrush was the ship that brought the first big batch of post-war coloured immigrants to Britain from the West Indies.

Also tonight I was out at my evening class and whilst talking to some friends discovered that their kids' school (in Welwyn) play is next week. One child needs an oil drum costume! Funny Nativity I said. No it's some environmental bollocks called "and then came man" about the "destruction of the Earth". Jeez. It ties right in with the opinion as fact geography mentioned in the Telegraph the other week.

I'm fed up with the brain washing.

Thanks very much for this Mark. Aside from the potential Windrush confusion - emailers, please remember that blogs such as this are read by a global readership, not a merely local one this is everything a guest email to BEdBlog should be, full of facts and local detail. The pompous abstractions of national education policy bore me dreadfully, even if I agree with the policies being proclaimed. Specifics like this are a breath of fresh air by comparison, even if, as here, the news is rather dispiriting.

My perfect email to BEdBlog would contain news of an educational initiative that I admire, and which I could assist merely by passing on the news of its existence, for example by steering new helpers or pupils or financial assistance towards it. Dream on Brian. But dreams dreamt aloud can sometimes come true. Meanwhile, Mark's report will do nicely. Thanks again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:01 AM
Category: History
[0] [0]
November 27, 2002
Japan doing well Germany doing badly

Independent.co.uk has a story about a Unicef report on educational achievement or lack of it around the world. The report is full of the usual disturbing statistics, calculated to get the self-flagellating going and the public money flowing, just about everywhere. Lots of British children are bad at arithmetic. Britain is a haven of educational inequality, where quality of parent determines quality of education more than elsewhere, which confirms for me that British parents lead the world in cleaning up the educational mess caused by teachers, provided they know how. The Anglosphere in general is bad at literacy. (See my Libertarian Alliance Educational Notes No. 33 for a discussion of why that is.) So far so unsurprising.

For me, this paragraph contained the big surprise:

The survey showed South Korea and Japan at the top of almost every table. Germany, extolled until recently as one of the best examples of an efficient education system, came only 19th and had almost twice the British rate of failure in key academic skills.

Germany in educational trouble? That's a new one, to me anyway. Is that just all those East Germans polluting the successes of West Germans? If so, Unicef should have said, and I don't think it can be that.

Germany and Japan are often twinned for analytical purposes. Both started WW2 on the offensive. Both had the militarism smashed out of them, and achieved economic miracles during the peace that followed. Both societies have authoritarian family systems, and both love education. And now they are both said by many to be having similar problems.

But it isn't so. There's a fascinating article in Prospect (November 2002 - "Japan's Fake Funk" by Eamonn Fingleton), which says that Japan is doing fine thank you. This piece had me strongly persuaded, and I hope to have more to say about it over on Samizdata, Real Soon Now.

The truth is that Germany and Japan are now diverging. Japan is no more being laid low by its financial problems than the USA was crushed into insignificance by the Wall Street Crash and the depression that followed that disastrous episode. And Germany and Japan are now diverging educationally as well as economically, which suggest further economic divergence between them in the future.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: History
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November 23, 2002
Children - who is ultimately responsible?

If you are a specialist blogger, you rely heavily on the other specialist bloggers doing your specialism, until such time as you get the hang of it, and I find myself relying on Daryl Cobranchi, a lot. Yesterday, for example, Daryl linked to a column at SchoolReformers.com which is well worth a look.

Who owns children? The government or their parents? I know I know, the children own the children. But until such time as the children can look after themselves, who is ultimately responsible for looking after them in the meantime? Who makes the final decisions? Parents or government? Here are David W. Kirkpatrick's first two paragraphs:

If you ask parents to whom their children belong, or who should be responsible for them, once they get over the shock of such a question most would point to themselves. They might find it hard to believe that anyone would maintain the contrary.

But a contrary view has a long history, going back to ancient Sparta. In that Greek city-state, when boys became seven years old they were taken from their families, placed in state-run boarding schools and trained to meet the needs of this military society. That would be extreme today but the essential belief that the young belong to the state has never died.

The history lesson that follows is an American history lesson, but America is an interesting place. Yesterday, someone, somewhere in the blogosphere, or maybe somewhere in among all those pre-blogosphere emails I still get, was asking about the whole idea of the "nationalisation of children". This would be a good place to look further.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: HistoryPolitics
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