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Category Archive • Liberal education
September 27, 2004
"… real essays are not exclusively about English literature"

This really hits home with me:

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Oy. So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one.


The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.

How did things get this way? …

That's all I've read so far, but he certainly has my attention.

If I ever get to teach writing, I hope it will be by helping my pupils to write about what they want to write about, and to think about what they want to think about. Letters soliciting career advice. Explications of the Premier League scoring system and what difference three points for a win instead of two has made. Why rap is great despite what parents and teachers (and I) say about it. Why I am bored. Which were the best movies this summer. Why girls are stupid. Why boys are stupid. Why boys are still stupid but …

You can be logical and entertaining and informative and persuasive about anything. I strongly agree that confining it to being logical and entertaining and informative and persuasive about English literature is a big mistake.

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily (which really is daily for me) for the link to this.

On the other hand, if you really are interested in symbolism in Dickens …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:13 PM
Category: Liberal education
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July 04, 2003
More HP sourced education

Joanne Jacobs links to this item, about the Hogwarts Summer Correspondence course being run by Steph of One Sixteenth.

I'm setting up lessons in Herbology, Care of Magical Creatures, Potions and a special class in Basic Charms and Spells for Muggle Witches.

But of course.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:02 PM
Category: Liberal education
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May 19, 2003
Theodore Dalrymple on education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:04 PM
Category: Liberal educationRelevance
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April 18, 2003
Sean Gabb on liberal education

I have just been reading Sean Gabb's one hundredth Free Life Commentary, which is called The Value of Education and is about the importance of an all-round education of the "useless" variety, as opposed merely to the acquisition of marketable skills.

I know of schools that teach information technology but not history. Again, I do not dispute the value of technical skills. I am proud of my ability to build computers and to make software work: my own website is almost entirely crafted by hand in HTML. But history also is important. An accountant who is ignorant of the French Revolution, or cannot recognise sonata form, or knows not a line of poetry, is nothing more than a skilled barbarian. In a nation where only a small minority is truly educated, legal equality becomes a hard concept to maintain, let alone political equality. In a nation without even that minority, public life must inevitably become savage and arbitrary - a thing of wild, inconstant passions, led by those unable to perceive or follow longer term goods.

That is where, I think, we are now fast approaching. We have a Prime Minister who cannot spell, and is not ashamed of the fact. We have a political class in general that lacks nearly all skill of persuasive speech and seems ignorant of the past. Of the first Ministers appointed to serve under Tony Blair, apparently, the majority listed football as their main hobby in their Who's Who entries; and not one listed any humanistic pursuit. I doubt if the Conservatives are much better. Perhaps the Judges and permanent heads of department will soon follow the trend. Little wonder our freedoms are being given up, one at a time, to moral panics and appeals to administrative convenience.

That catches the drift. I remember having a similar argument at my school, with a Latin master inevitably. He spoke of Ovid's writings about bees, claiming that to have read this was to have learned something useful. So my school was already rotten with the importance of being useful, or he would have found a quite different way to defend Ovid. However else you sell it, you can't sell Latin as better science than science.

Sean's piece doesn't convince me of much, but it is, as always, beautifully written, and Sean does at least explain nicely why such a thing is good to have. It makes your own company more pleasing. A liberal education – in the sense of lots of interesting things to think about and the habit of thinking intelligently about them – is accordingly an economic benefit every bit as palpable as an education in html or accountancy.

The availability of such writings as Sean's on the Internet illustrates that a liberal education is now easier to obtain then ever before. And even if the Internet didn't exist, there are all the newly liberated TV channels, a few of which provide quite cultured stuff, in among all the rubbish, that is to say in among all the stuff I don't care for. And then there are the remainder shops, which are now an amazing source of wisdom and learning.

As to the loss of our freedoms, would a different educational syllabus during the last few decades really have made that much difference? They had philistines in the nineteenth century. They may have known more Latin than the present cabinet does, but they were philistines nevertheless. And by the same token there are plenty of widely read people now, who acquaint themselves with many different things, but just with different different things to their grandparents. There's a certain sort of person – Sean and I are two such, although our preferred fields of study are not at all the same – who pride themselves on the broadness of their reading and thinking. Such people will always dig beneath the surface of whatever they learn, useful or useless, to the deeper meanings and profundities of their civilisation, and of other civilisations. Even if our exam results driven and vocationally obsessed schools stop bothering with such things, they will still continue.

Insofar as our bit of civilisation does need its freedoms rescuing, such a rescue is far more likely to come from the philistine USA than from the educated elites of continental Europe, whose critiques of American culture - i.e. lack of culture - Sean partly echoes. Those vulgar Americans seem to have at least as firm a grasp of our freedoms and their tendency to get lost as any product of Balliol or the Sorbonne. And the texture of their civilisation isn't that bad either.

I'm tempted to observe, so I will, that a liberal education is merely the mastery of a few techniques which happen to be obsolete, like sonata form or composing Latin verse, plus some history of a sort that has now been updated out of regular existence with the passing of time. Why concocting appalling poetry in a dead language is any better for your mind than playing adventure games on a computer or training to be a surgeon I truly do not know, and learning about sonatas dates from the time, now gone, when if you wanted to listen to music that was even adequately musical without going to a rare and expensive and probably hard-to-get-to concert, your, or your wife, or your friends, or your servants, had to make it for you. Knowing sonatas used to be a skill as relevant to enjoying life as knowing html or how to set the video is now.

I dare say that in centuries to come, people will not be considered truly educated unless they have a smattering of at least two obsolete programming languages.

But please don't let me put you off reading Sean's piece. No doubt many readers of this will agree more with him than with me about these matters.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:49 PM
Category: Liberal education
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February 14, 2003
Baaadmouthin' your professor

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

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

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

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

And this was Professor Swissler's magisterial reply:

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 PM
Category: Liberal education
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