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Chronological Archive • May 04, 2003 - May 10, 2003
May 09, 2003
Freedom and obedience - Montessori meets Victor Davis Hanson

It's funny how ideas often come at you in pairs, by which I mean that the exact same idea often comes at you from two wildly different places. What probably really happens is that idea first hits you, from the first place it hits you from and you find it very striking, and that makes you hyper-observant if your environment presents the same idea to you again at any time soon.

This has just happened to me, with an idea about how freedom relates to obedience.

First it was Maria Montessori, whom I was writing about not long ago. Forgive me if I don't supply the link - I'm on holiday and this is a strange computer. Anyway, what the linkless Maria Montessori said, among many other things, that one of the ways in which the freedom of children is expressed is in the form of chossing to accept the authority of the child's teacher. Choosing to obey, and obeying all the more obediently on account of the authority having been freely chosen. Well, you can see how that idea would be wide open to manipulation, for example by later generations of fascists in Maria Montessori's Italy. Nevertheless, I think the lady was on to someething.

Second, I have just encountered pretty much the exact same idea from Victor Davis Hanson, whose book Why The West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam is my current holiday reading. Hanson makes the same connection between the political and economic freedoms enjoyed (relatively speaking) by the soldiers of the West's armies and the ferocity with which, during a battle they take it upon themselves to obey orders and thereby to cooperate effectively. Hanson is adamant that the in-step formations of the West's soldiers, with their uncanny ability to move this way and that like the dancers in a mass ballet, has given the West a decisive edge in its many battles with non-Western enemies. The idea that freedom and the more complete acceptance of authority might go together is, if you think about it, the exact same idea as Montessori's.

In an earlier posting here not long ago, I speculated that a lot of war-making and war-preparing might be good for education, and not just in a bad way. This idea, endorsed by on the one hand the "progressive" educational theorist and on the other hand the military historian, reinforces that surmise.

The point to get is that the on-the-day obedience of a Western army goes hand in hand with the right of all ranks to have their say about the rights and wrongs of military policy before and after the battle. The Montessori/Hanson claim is that these two habits reinforce each other. And they stand at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the world of someone like the "great king" Xerxes (loser of Salamis despite having his Greek opponents being massively outnumbered). In that world, anyone who ever queries the wisdom of the great king's military dispositions risks instant execution without trial. So guess how much serious discussion of alternative military plans takes place in places run by the likes of Xerxes.

Come the battle, the army of Xerxes doesn't act nearly as cohesively as its quarrelsome Western enemy. The Greeks fight like cats and dogs amongst themselves before Salamis, and after Salamis. But on the day, they act as one, and pull off the sort of triumph that Xerxes' underlings could never contrive.

If I was using a more congenial computer, I might also here supply a link to that piece I did about Sean Gabb, the Anglo-Saxon adversarialist, teaching the consensual ladies of Asia.

I can imagine lots of people growling throughout the above. Freedom? Obedience? Make up your mind, man. You'll be telling us that freedom equals slavery next. But think of the enormous number of professional soldiers who, while doing their soldiering, think of their orders as like water in a desert, but who as soon as they stop their soldiering are as loud as anyone in their protestations of devotion to the idea of freedom. What if these people have a point, and what if the point they have is the same point that Montessori and Hanson are both making?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:00 PM
Category: Education theory
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A school which really supplies socialisation

Well here I am in the south of France, staying with my goddaughter and her family, and since I'm trying to put something here everyday, I today cross-examined the goddaughter about her school. Did she like it? Yes. I spent about fifteen minutes hurling questions at her about why she liked it, and for a while it was not at all clear. She said she liked mucking around with her friends during the lunch hour interval, but apart from that it didn't sound especially good fun. She has to memorise lots of stuff. And do you like that? No. She had to learn about Napoleon, and Joan of Arc. And is that amusing? Not very. It just sounded pretty much like a school to me, and as such very boring.

I carried on with my cross-examination and finally stumbled upon the answer. Which is: that the lunch hour lasts two and a half hours.

School is often touted, especially by the opponents of home schooling, as something that offers "socialisation", in a good way, i.e. in the form of lots of fun friends of the sort you couldn't make if you are stuck at home. Well, with this school, for my goddaughter, this really seems to be true.

The secret is the extreme length of the lunch "hour", presumably a reflection of the siesta that they have down here in these parts, these parts being Catalonia, rather than just France, Catalonia being something that spans the Spanish-French border.

Think about it. If you had a school lunch hour lasting only an hour, then you wouldn't have much time to do any truly amusing socialising. And if you just worked through the morning and then stopped and everyone went home, then those precious friends would probably disperse. All you'd ever do is "socialise" by attending classes, which is hardly very enjoyable. But by going to a school where the day is divided into two chunks with a long gap in between, my goddaughter really does get to do some truly enjoyable socialising, in a way that she and her friends decide about, rather than her teachers.

She doesn't dislike her teachers. They are strict, it seems, but fair. They don't have class favourites. But it's those long, long lunch "hours" that really make the difference.

The true test for whether school is fun is: Do you miss it during the holidays, and look forward to it starting again? Says the goddaughter: yes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:41 AM
Category: Socialisation
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May 07, 2003
A little learning

I'm off to France for a week, to stay with friends friends with children, at schools and friends with a computer. So I may have both things to say and the means to go on saying them.

I hope, then, to sustain my blogging duties here. I'll do my best, but this may be all that I manage today.

As recounted elsewhere, I'm watching a terrifying play on my television called Titus Andronicus, by one William Shakespeare. It is not at all clear to me that watching such a play does me any good, or in any way improves my mind. Were it not by Shakespeare I would have silenced it in horror an hour ago.

Titus seems to have many affinities with King Lear. Titus is Lear. This Cordelia is silent because her tongue has been cut out. Lear's daughters betray him. Titus' sons are killed. Which came first, Lear or Titus? Don't answer that, I can easily find out. Andronicus is early, I learn. The rough stone from which is carved Lear, and Macbeth, and bits of Othello. Antony Hopkins is involved, and there's a distinct hint also of Hannibal Lector.

You live and learn. It's the final feast. What the hell is going to happen now?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:19 AM
Category: Brian's education
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May 06, 2003
Old school home schooling

Last week I dined with some home schoolers. I briefly met the two daughters (aged 8 and 5), who seemed to be happy, confident, well educated people. Whatever is being done, something is being done right.

I won't attempt a total description of everything that we talked about. I will instead focus in on two things that struck me as particularly interesting.

The first concerns the motivation of this couple in opting for home schooling. They did not opt and are not opting for home schooling out of any radical or ideologically-based disapproval of the principle of schooling as such. They are, after all, home schooling their children, not protecting them from schooling as such. What they are protecting their children from is what they believe to be bad schooling. It began as a one-off holding operation in response to one especially neglectful teacher, and has continued because it seems to be working okay, and because other better alternatives still do not seem to be available. Like many apparent radicals, these radicals are really thwarted conservatives. They had a very traditional idea of what "good" education ought to consist of, and they felt that they could supply this better at home than any available school now could. They favoured rather old fashioned children's books, and a decidedly old-fashioned respect for the traditional arts, notably the visual arts.

If I'm being deliberately vague about names and places, this is because I'm taking my cue from them. They even said that when they started doing this, they kept it a secret from their friends. What they were anxious to avoid was any possibility of their daughters being labelled as strange or unconventional. Home schooling for this family means keeping it normal.

The local state school seemed to be bad in all the ways you would expect, such as discipline, unambitious curriculum, and so on. What was more interesting were their worries about the local "good" school, which is a fee-paying school with a formidable local reputation. They could have afforded this. They just didn't like it. And what they particularly didn't like was that had they gone there, their girls would have had to work too hard, doing solidly academic stuff not only all the morning, but for most afternoons. These girls get solidly schooled by mum all through the morning, but after lunch their time is their own. Sometimes they go on expeditions with mum, but as often as not, they amuse themselves, in their part of the house.

Getting into the habit of spending long hours keeping themselves interested seemed also to have developed their powers of concentration.

The second especially interesting thing I was told was that the girls seemed to be much happier with their own company than did their regularly schooled friends. Partly this was because, they said, they weren't being driven too hard, and wer being allowed to grow intellectually at their own pace. But there was also, she said, none of the "I'm bored" stuff that other parents got from their kids during the school holidays. These girls didn't seem to depend on adults to keep them occupied and entertained. They had been educated to be happy. That happy was my first adjective to describe them in the first paragraph of this is not, therefore, any sort of accident.

In other words, what I found was a family which believed in our old friend, a broad-based "humanities" education a liberal education in the old fashioned sense. These people agreed with Sean Gabb about what education should consist of and what kinds of virtues and insights it should inculcate, and home schooling was their way to achieve this.

Interesting.

Despite the keeping-it-normal theme to what they were doing, the news is now leaking out to some of their friends. And some of these friends are now starting to mention home schooling as an option that they too might explore. It's a relief to know, they are saying, that there is an alternative to fall back on, should they need it.

Even more interesting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:54 PM
Category: Home education
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May 05, 2003
John Washington a life in teaching

Last Friday I had supper with my friend John Washington. He is nearing retirement now, and has spent his working life teaching, under various acronymic headings, handicrafts, woodwork, that kind of thing. Craft. CDT. Which stands for ... he did tell me, but I've forgotten. Craft and design technology? I should pay more attention. Anyway, he teaches children to make things, and to do things, rather than merely to know things.

You expect such teachers to be big, muscular, sergeant-majorish types with a passion for craftsmanship, yes, but also with a corresponding disdain for more intellectual pursuits. John is a dapper little man, with a degree in African history, who spent time teaching English as a foreign language when teaching handicrafts in the ever less handicraft-friendly British school system became too dispiriting for him. But he's now back doing what he seems to do best, at Ibstock Place School, in Roehampton, in the south western suburbs of London.

I have know John for some years now, because he quite often attends my last-Friday-of-the-month evenings a gentle and modest presence. I started this blog partly as an excuse to meet with people like John and get to know them better, by picking their brains about their work, and if the evening I spent with John is anything to go by my plan is starting to work really well.

People don't always like to talk about their work. They want a change. They don't want to have to give a free slice of what they get paid to do during the day. They don't want to be criticised for the sins of their professional brethren. They are anxious not to to appear boring and obsessive. But my questions don't seem to cause such grief as this. What do you do? How do you do it? What do you see as its purpose? How has it changed over the years? I like to think that being asked things like this by someone who is truly interested (or why would I be doing this?) is not so bad. Besides which, a lifetime of good work, such as I believe John's life to have been, is something that ought to be celebrated.

John didn't seem to mind our conversation. But it was nevertheless tinged with a certain melancholy. Craftsmanship of John's sort is dying out in the England of now, and John himself is something of a dying breed. At one point in our evening John drew my attention to the table we were sitting at, in the cheap restaurant where we were eating. He pointed out that whereas not so very long ago this table would have been made in England by a carpenter, it was now probably made in China in a factory, and only assembled here. As a consequence, although the government talks much about the "need to encourage creativity" of just the sort that John himself really does encourage, its heart isn't really now in it, and the same now goes for more and more schools. Machines and workshop equipment are being steadily sold off.

Sad though this may be, it does make sense to me. In the world as it is now, the balance of relevance has shifted away from being able to make a bookshelf and towards being able to decypher the instructions for assembling some bookshelves, and maybe to make a living translating such instructions into serviceable English. Carpentry is just another technology that used to be important, but isn't so important now. Important, maybe, but not so important. It's melancholy, but there it is.

But if John's sort of teaching does completely die out, something valuable will die out with it. When aswering the what's it for question, he spoke not only of teaching people how to make themselves tables and bookshelves and thus save having to buy expensive rubbish at B&Q, but also of the happiness that comes of having accomplished something, or having created something. So, John, part of what you are doing is making children happy? Yes, he said.

Like almost all teachers nowadays, John worries about discipline, and about the shocking behaviour of the worst behaved of the children he remembers. He told me how he once asked a man who worked in an office: "When was the last time someone held their face inches from yours and told you very loudly to fuck off?" For teachers, that's a regular occurrence nowadays.

I know what my child liberationist friends will say. Put children in unruly prison and don't be surprised if they behave like unruly prisoners. But as prison officers go, John Washington strikes me as the sort who combines the firmness and discipline of the scary Scottish one in Porridge with the kindness of the kind one. My further guess is that there are many men, more perhaps that he realises, who remember him with fondness and gratitude. I haven't watched him teach, and maybe when he does he's transformed into Genghis Khan with a power drill, but my guess would be not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:22 PM
Category: Technology
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