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Chronological Archive • February 16, 2003 - February 22, 2003
February 21, 2003
Japanese equality – etcetera

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


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

Thought you might be interested.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another posting from Julius Blumfeld:

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

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

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

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

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

Sean Gabb for Minister of Education I say.

Julius Blumfeld

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

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


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

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

Either way, best regards, BM

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

Well no, not really Brian,

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


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

Hi Brian,

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

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

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

… That's British TV viewers voting …

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

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

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

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

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

All the best.


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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 AM
Category: Languages
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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 18, 2003
The Internet as University Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:46 PM
Category: Technology
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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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