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Chronological Archive • April 27, 2003 - May 03, 2003
May 02, 2003
New Neighborly Architecture from the USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:51 PM
Category: Education theory
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April 30, 2003
Mr Clarke plays for success

This is a national education story with a difference:

The Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, was today branded a "disgrace" by the education secretary, Charles Clarke, because his football club was the only one in the Premiership not to be involved in a scheme aimed at boosting children's grasp of the three Rs.

Impressively adopting suitable football vernacular, Mr Clarke said Mr Bates was "out of order" and added he was showing the Chelsea chief the "yellow card".

Mr Clarke declared: "He won't sign up. He has got to ask himself, is Chelsea a serious community club or is Ken Bates just looking for a fast buck?" Mr Clarke added that he hoped relegation-threatened West Ham won their match against Chelsea when the London rivals meet on Saturday. A defeat for Chelsea would seriously undermine their ambitions to play in the lucrative Champions League next season.

Mr Clarke, speaking on his way to open centres at Burnley and Preston North End, was criticising Chelsea's failure to set up an after-hours study centre for primary and secondary pupils who struggled with English and maths, under a scheme known as Playing For Success.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this story. On the one hand, the fact that just one out of all the football league clubs in the land has resisted this scheme strongly suggests to me that a great deal of government money is involved or how come all the other clubs did sign up? On the other other hand, the basic idea of the scheme is a good one, which I have already myself invented without realising that the government was a couple of years into attempting approximately what I had said someone should try. The basic idea is: don't rely on crusty old corduroyed failures and peacenik wimmin to nag children into learning to read and write; instead get a few sporting jocks to sell the message and jolly them along.

"All the other Premiership clubs recognise that football provides motivation and excitement for young men and women. Most of them recognise they should use that to redistribute money and show a bit of commitment," he said. The latest evaluation of Playing For Success showed almost nine out of 10 children thought the centres were fun and interesting.

I don't know anything about this scheme other than that the Department for Education and Training says that it is it is working, but then it would, wouldn't it?

The average "maths age" of primary pupils rose by 17 months and that of secondary age children by two years. While primary pupils failed to make significant progress in reading, secondary pupils' literacy improved by about eight months, according to a survey of more than 1,300 children by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

The foundation said: "The football/sports club setting proved attractive to pupils and was a strong element in motivating pupils to become involved in Playing For Success. They felt privileged to be selected rather than singled out as in need of extra help. Once at the centres, pupils responded positively to many aspects of the initiative, especially using computers and the internet.

"They enjoyed the work, felt they had made progress and were grateful for the help they received. They also benefited from the opportunity to meet people and make new friends."

That sounds good. And Mr Clarke's abuse of Chelsea Chairman Ken Bates is probably just his way of making sure that what he's doing gets noticed. He reckons this is going well, and not everything he does is such good news, so he's beating the drums about this, one of the drums being Ken Bates. It got my attention, didn't it?

I'm not bothered about Bates. He can look after himself. But this story does give you a taste of the bullying and grandstanding that less resilient individuals are now being subjected to by Mr Clarke. Imagine being a Head Teacher whom Mr Clarke has taken against. Imagine deciding whether to apply to be a Head Teacher in the first place when you read a story like this about the man who could be breathing down your neck.

Other doubts. It all seems to be being "rolled out" in a bit of a rush. It could all go terribly wrong when some angle I hadn't thought of any more than Mr Clarke has turns out not to have been thought through, and in two years time, instead of being a national success story, it could be a national scandal, like that racket when the same ministry lost fortunes "helping young people" to learn about computing skills, and the money just disappeared into the pockets of the various crooks and conmen who stepped forward to run the various "training schemes". That couldn't happen again, I don't suppose, but something else equally bad might. Suppose half the clubs are only going through the motions, and suppose the kids involved smell this and lose interest themselves, and the money keeps flowing in exchange for a lot less than at first looked likely. If I had to bet what the bad news would end up being, I'd bet simply: it'll end up costing too much per head of educational improvement.

Perhaps the biggest bad news that could lie hidden in this story is all the initiatives along similar lines, but more exactly along lines that they truly approved of, that these various sports clubs might have launched by themselves and in true cooperation with each other, un-badgered and un-bribed by the likes of Mr Clarke and his minions. It might have started more slowly, with only a few clubs involved at first, but if it had worked it might perhaps have ended up doing a lot better, and eventually on a far bigger scale. Now we may never know. This is the crowding out effect, and the problem is, not only do you not foresee problems like this before they strike, you are liable to miss them during and after also, because the heart of this effect is a great absence of activity, a great might have been, a great nothing where they only might have been something.

The idea of this scheme is that state education will feed off the dynamism of the non-state-run world of professional sport, and be newly energised. But what if what really happens is that a little bit of nationalised education is simply dumped down in a corner of each sports club, and then settles down to cause trouble, confusion, political grief and general bad news, and in a way that ends up innoculating all such clubs in ever having anything further to do with education?

What if Ken Bates has seen something that I and Mr Clarke haven't seen that might go wrong, and is keeping clear for a good reason, despite all the bullying and the bribery? Although, it could just be that land in Chelsea costs more than anywhere else in Britain and Bates isn't been paid or bullied enough to take the loss of surrendering his valuable space, even for a few hours every week.

Well, I've done this piece now, and even if no else reads the BEdBlog archives, I do, and I'll try to remember this story and get back to it, to see how it develops.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:38 PM
Category: Boys will be boysPolitics
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April 29, 2003
Drinks with Antoine (2) – the educational impact of the armed forces (and especially the US armed forces)

Antoine told me that in his opinion the much crowed about ignorance of American adolescents (where's Iraq, what's its capital, etc.) compared to their European equivalents may now have disappeared. Quite what his evidence or reason for thinking this was I can't tell you, either because he didn't tell me, or because he did but my drink-befuddled brain spat it out immediately.

But this got me thinking. If Antoine is right, why is he right? One reason might be the decline of military service in Europe compared to the USA. Remember that piece I did about how the British Army educates? And remember that little Three Week War we've just watched on our tellies? I reckon that a society with lots of military activity in its midst is, other things being equal, likely to be a better educated one.

This is because, in my opinion, soldiers tend to be better at teaching than teachers, and ex-soldiers tend to make better teachers than regular teacher-teachers, other things being equal. This, also in my opinion, is not because soldiers are any less stupid than teachers. It is because military discipline is now much better than civilian school discipline. Both may have slipped a little in recent decades, but regular school discipline has slipped more.

Plus, I think soldiers teach better because handling kit or preparing for an operation which if mishandled might kill you or your mates concentrates the mind wonderfully. What were all those soldiers who just won the Three Week War doing for the previous six months before their Three Weeks of glory? Learning, that's what. They didn't know it was going to be so easy, and it only was because they assumed it might not be. So they really paid attention to their teachers and did their homework properly. They'll spend the rest of their lives that much better educated than they'd otherwise have been. And that much better at teaching.

The phrase "learning experience" is usually an American euphemism for a screw-up. But preparing for, and then fighting the Three Week War really was that, I'd say.

Even more significant may be the enormous size, compared to all others, of the current US Navy. Navies teach obsessively, because if you mishandle a ship that can get very nasty, and very expensive. And that's true all the time, not just when war looms.

Submarines, in particular, are floating academies of extreme excellence and intensity. Remember that character that Sean Connery played in The Hunt for Red October? He was known as the "Vilnius Schoolmaster". Well, the Vilnius Schoolmaster is teaching no more.

This is not an argument for every country having regular wars or a huge navy, on educational grounds. As I said about the Baccalauriat thing in the first of these two Antoine postings, I'm just saying.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
Category: This and that
[3] [0]
Drinks with Antoine (1) – The Baccalauriat

We're at my nearest pub, and I ask my friend Antoine Clarke what I'm going to put here. I also tell him I mustn't get too drunk and fail to put anything at all.

First, he tells me about what's been happening to the French Baccalauriat (what with him having been French educated), which is what French boys and girls do while ours are doing A levels or GCSEs. It used to be that they got very little choice of subjects and were obliged to generalise. But recently, they've greatly increased the number of subjects from which you can pick, and that means that if you want to you can pick five subjects in a very closely related area, and end up doing a very specialised clutch of studies. I'm not saying that this is good or bad. I'm just saying. Meanwhile, there's talk in England of copying the original version of the Baccalauriat, to get our boys and girls to specialise less. So it looks as if we and France might be doing a switch here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:55 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
April 28, 2003
Jarvis – advising about everything

I try to avoid filling up BEdBlog with mere comments on national news stories, but this story, which was also all over the front page of today's paper Guardian, is a hard one to ignore. I wonder what my friend the boss of Transport Blog, Patrick Crozier, makes of this:

Jarvis, the engineering contractor at the centre of the police investigation into the Potters Bar rail crash, has been awarded a three-year government contract to help rescue failing secondary schools.

The decision, made in January but never publicly announced, has been met with astonishment and anger by teachers and headteachers.

With the first anniversary of the derailment and death of seven passengers less than a fortnight away, it has emerged that Jarvis has been given a £1.9m contract to help advise the 700 worst-performing secondary schools in England and Wales. Jarvis has never had an educational contract of this type before.

It was condemned as "shocking", "extraordinary" and "a joke" by headteachers' leaders and teaching unions, who say the move shows that official attempts to pull struggling schools into line are becoming dangerously "incoherent".

Unlike the Guardian, I have no idea whether this contract will prove to be a good idea or not. But one point does need to be made about all such schemes. It is this. The government hiring "private sector" enterprises to help run its nationalised system of schools does not a free market make. Hiring Jarvis like this doesn't mean that all the schools which are altered in accordance with its advice will partake of the dynamism, innovativeness and general fizz and creativity of the private sector. It merely means that Jarvis is a collective civil servant.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:06 PM
Category: Free market reforms
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