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Category archive: History

Saturday July 05 2008

Last night I chanced upon a really interesting BBC4 TV documentary, fronted by Huw Edwards, on the subject of Sunday Schools. 

This blog liked it too:

It’s not just learning the words to Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, says Huw Edwards. Early pioneers rocked the boat by teaching poorer children to read, and football clubs like Everton owe their existence to the religious classes.

Mention Sunday school today and many will think of an institution that feels fusty, cosy and quaint. Some might even feel outright hostility. But others remember kindness, rich storytelling and singing - happy memories of some of the best moments of childhood.

This remarkable movement, founded in 1774 with the first class held in a house in Gloucester, has had a deeply radical effect on British society. In the early days, it was seen as dangerous and subversive to give the tools of literacy to the lower orders. In Victorian times, Sunday schools helped shape future MPs, women teachers and a large number of the current Premiership football clubs.  And well into the 20th Century, Sunday school students parading at Whitsun could turn out in their thousands, bringing city centres to a standstill.

I daresay not all pupils will remember Sunday School quite as fondly as the talking heads reminiscing in this show all did.  But a convincing case was made that Sunday Schools, in their time, made quite an impact on the life of the nation, most of it beneficial.  The sheer kindness of these places came over very strongly, which meant a great deal to children who, especially in the early days of Sunday Schools, were typically working for pay and not much of it, for the other six days of the week.

For another response, go here.

UPDATE: It’s being shown again Sunday night (July 6) at 8pm.

Saturday June 07 2008



In America we are currently living in a Kindergarchy, under rule by children. People who are raising, or have recently raised, or have even been around children a fair amount in recent years will, I think, immediately sense what I have in mind. Children have gone from background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centered on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments, their right relationship with parents and grandparents. For the past 30 years at least, we have been lavishing vast expense and anxiety on our children in ways that are unprecedented in American and in perhaps any other national life. Such has been the weight of all this concern about children that it has exercised a subtle but pervasive tyranny of its own. This is what I call Kindergarchy: dreary, boring, sadly misguided Kindergarchy.


Well, in the words of Vladimir Illych Lenin, who had no children, what is to be done? Not very much, I suspect. When such seismic shifts in the culture as that represented by the rise of Kindergarchy take hold, there isn’t much anyone can do but wait for things to work themselves out. My own hope is that the absurdity of current arrangements will in time be felt, and people will gradually realize the foolishness of continuing to lavish so much painstaking attention on their children. When that time comes, children will be allowed to relax, no longer under threat of suffocation by love from their parents, and grow up more on their own. Only then will parents once again be able to live their own lives, free to concentrate on their work, life’s adult pleasures, and those responsibilities that fall well outside the prison of the permanent kindergarten they have themselves erected and have been forced to live in as hostages.


Tuesday April 29 2008

I seem to be writing rather a lot about sociology, in the sense of how different power structures elicit radically different behaviour from the same people.

It occurs to me that one of the particular clichés of our culture just now, the stroppy middle class teenager, proves the point even more forcefully.  I refer to the teenager who is (a) monstrously badly behaved towards his or her own parents, but who is, simultaneously, (b) much better behaved towards other people.  The difference in behaviour is explained by the fact that the parents are defenceless against their own teenagers.  Can’t live with them, can’t kill them, etc.  In particular, can’t either torture them or else chuck the ungrateful parasites out into the street and slam their front doors in their faces.  Whereas, other people can do various versions of this.  They can either chuck them out, or shun them.

imageThis syndrome applies particularly to middle class teenagers, because their parents are the most dutiful and anti-punitive, hence most defenceless, and because middle class teenagers are quite well educated and have good prospects in the world at large, provided they treat the world at large with a modicum of politeness and don’t completely piss it off.  Their parents will forgive them no matter what they do.  The world will not be so forgiving.  The teenagers know this and act accordingly.

Middle class teenagers who are vicious to their parents but nice to others remind me of King Leopold II of Belgium.  King Leopold II was, simultaneously, a satisfactory King of Belgium, and a spectacularly disgusting ruler of the Belgian Congo, which was his personal possession and in which he murdered and plundered at will.  He deserves to be far better known, as the first of the great modern mass murderer-predators, alongside Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest of them.  King Leopold II behaved nicely in Belgium because he had to.  King Leopold II behaved disgustingly in Africa because he could.  Exact same principle.

Tuesday April 15 2008

Earlier this evening I was back at Kings Cross Supplementary, after the Easter Break.  I taught Small Boy, who is really very clever and doing very well.  And I assisted Mr Maths in his efforts to explain averages.

But before it began, I happened to buy several exotic juice bottles at Kings Cross station, and then I met Miss Headmistress on the way there, and she said she was rather thirsty and I gave her one of my bottles.  Something combining apple juice and tea.  She liked it.

imageWhen we were all done and on our way back to the railway station, Miss Headmistress and I were talking about computers and computer games and suchlike, and I was able to ask her about that Nintendo Maths Training thing I photoed on Sunday.  Having got into her good books with the juice, I felt free to really press her on the subject of how good it is.  It turned out she had actually done that very programme for a bit, a few months back.  I forget the details of the conversation, but I can report that in Miss Headmistress’s opinion, it is very good, and is everything I hoped it might be.  Good practice.  Cleverly programmed to respond to individual skill levels.  You can feel yourself getting better at sums as you do it, a bit each day.  It remembers what you’ve done (according to who you signed in as), and gives you exercises graded to your level of attainment.  Different people can sign in under different names, and it remembers who is who and keeps them separate.  It is, in short, everything that computerised Kumon ought to have become, but (I (suspect) hasn’t, on account of Kumon (I suspect) disapproving of computers.

Next time, I must remember to ask the boys at Kings Cross Supplementary what they think of Nintendo Maths Training.  Boring?  Okay?  Good?  Addictive?

This is a huge story. Because, sooner or later, the verdict on one of these things is going to be: addictive!  And, what these gadgets will be able to teach will get more and more elaborate.  Historians will look back on this as one of the most important things now happening, right up there with major wars.  I’ve said that before, I know.  Too bad.  It’s too true and too huge not to be repeated, a lot.

Thursday April 03 2008

imageSuddenly I am being emailed with news of interesting videos, and I’m very glad about this.

Here‘s the best video I’ve been emailed about so far.  It’s a talk by Cambridge Maths Professor Neil Turok about his African childhood, his research work at Cambridge, and about AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.  As you can see from all the categories this posting has at the bottom, he covers a lot of ground.  There could have been more.

Favourite Turok quote: “We want Africa to be rich.” Once again, there’s that enterpreneurship vibe.  I’m not stuffing that word into his mouth.  He used it.

Strongly recommended.  And, I would say, a perfect example of how valuable it is to make progress by doing the very best you can for your best students, and not just the best you can for regular students.  It’s also a first class example of seizing an opportunity instead of just moaning about problems.

Tuesday March 11 2008

I have just stumbled upon a brief history of British state education, written from the point of view of someone who is strongly in favour of it, entitled Education in England: a brief history, as if there is no other kind of education.  Chapter 1 is entitled 600-1800 Beginnings, as if nothing educational happened in Britain for twelve hundred years except occasional glimmerings of state education.  Derek Gillard is well aware that this is not so.  I am merely taking exception to his chapter titles.

This reminds somewhat me of people who talk about “music”, when what they are actually talking about is Western classical music.  (The difference being that Western classical music, for all that there are many other kinds of good music, really has been fabulous.)

Nevertheless, if you are as determinedly opposed to the whole principle of state education as I am, and as Derek Gillard is in favour of it, you can learn a lot about how somebody with many opposite opinions to yours (and mine) sees the world.  There is much worthwhile information there.

Sunday March 09 2008

The Times today has an excerpt from a book about The heroic Englishman China will never forget.  Turns out he was a teacher.  They used to make movies about this kind of thing.  Perhaps the idea is that they should again, but I don’t think that would now be on.

Hello.  I blogged too soon:


I found out about the forthcoming movie The Children of Huang Shi, at this place, while Googling for images of this man, whose name was George Hogg.  But the bit at the bottom of the Times piece where it says ...

A film inspired by the story, The Children of Huang Shi, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Chow Yun Fat, Radha Mitchell and Michelle Yeoh, and directed by Roger Spottiswoode, will be released in the UK later following a US opening in May

... should have been a bit of a clue.

More about this story, and a picture of the real George Hogg, here.  It would seem that this is not the kind of movie the Americans made in the fifties, about a heroic Christian being persecuted by evil Communists.  This guy appears to have been very much an official Communist hero, or so it would seem.  All of which makes me want to read the book.

Wednesday March 05 2008

My friend Mariana Bell was born and raised in Romania, and between 1962 and 1979 she had a Romanian education.  This morning I recorded a conversation with her about what that was like. 


That picture was taken just after we’d finished talking.  Our conversation lasted just over 15 minutes, and I learned a lot in a short time, not just about how things were but about how education in Romania is now developing and changing (and deteriorating).  Towards the end, there was a brief phone interruption, which necessitated some editing, but it’s no problem.

I hope to record many more such conversations with many different people, about all aspects of education, including further conversations with Mariana.  She now lives in France, having before that lived in England (a fact which she touched on at the end), and because she takes such a keen interest in the education her children are now receiving in France she is also well placed to talk about how education operates there.

It’s something of an irony that in the quite long list of categories I have chosen to label this posting with, “Sovietisation” is not included, even though Romania itself was of course thoroughly Sovietised.

Mariana Bell talks about Romanian education under Communism
Education as making Prussian soldiers
More about bias in US universities
Nehru returns to Cambridge
Action for Home Education wiki
Maths on a Russian pavement
Goodbye Grange Hill
Montesquieu on different educations
Adam Smith and William Godwin on compulsory education
Leonard Bernstein - “television’s star teacher”
Continuing education
A picture of educational failure
The world is getting smarter!
Mixing learning with work
In praise of the pencil
Coffee House education