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Chronological Archive • February 23, 2003 - March 01, 2003
February 28, 2003
A mechanical evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julius Blumfeld criticises the latest government attempt to combat truancy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give up.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Politics
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