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Category archive: Politics

Tuesday July 29 2008


Dear Brian,

I saw today’s Ask Slashdot question: How Do You Fix Education?, and thought of you.

This comment mentions making going to school non-compulsory.


Thanks Rob.

The commenter says: (1) Make going to school non-compulsory; (2) Privatize; (3) Do away with tenure and teachers unions; (4) Allow parents to take their kids out of failing schools.  He ends:

Before you reply, or mod down, ask yourself this. If given an unlimited amount of money for schooling your own child, would you send them to a public school, or a private school? If you opted for the private school, you’ve already agreed with many points on this list, even if you won’t admit that to yourself.

I think this is a category error.  Personally, I agree with the list of proposals, apart from (3) the union thing.  What does “do away with” mean?  Make unions illegal?  If so, then: no.  If it means allowing schools to make union membership a sacking offence, then yes.  If you don’t like that kind of school, don’t teach there.

But, putting that uncertainty to one side, the question concerns how you would change the whole system to something that would be good for everybody.  What you would now do or would like like to do for you own child, with the system unchanged, is a different question.  A major point of libertarian thinking, such as this is, is that all individuals deciding for themselves would aggregate into a good (or best available in the real world) system for all.  I think that’s right.  And a major point of collectivism is that this is not right.  Who is right about that is not illuminated by asking what any individual would personally do to escape the present mess.

This is the same argument as the one that says that socialist politicians who send their kids to private schools are being hypocritical, by revealing their true opinions to be different from their publicly stated opinions.  But thinking that private schools are now better is perfectly consistent with believing that state education could and should be changed until that is not so.  My argument with such politicians is that I think they are wrong about how to improve state education, wrong that it is capable of being improved.  I think they are quite right to do the best they can, now, for their kids.  Making your kids go to bad state schools, even when you can afford to do better, purely because you “believe in” state education, i.e. in state education being improvable at some point in the irrelevantly distant future ... now that is creepy.  I know I have said this before, but I think it’s a point worth repeating.

Monday July 28 2008

As I said, maybe the occasional thing:


Photoed in a local newsagent lask week.  Well, I’ve always thought that children can sometimes also be teachers.

Typical media coverage here.

Tuesday July 22 2008

If you want educational fun, read what is being said at the Coffee House about the nightmare day had by Ed Balls, the politician doing his best not to take the blame for the SATs disaster.  Here, here, and hereHere is what opposition spokesman Gove has to say.

Monday July 14 2008

Carlin Romano, who teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about honorary degrees, in The Chronicle Review.  He begings his piece by arguing that honorary degrees do nothing for universities.  He quotes Jacques Barzun, who says: “the honorary degree as now commonly dealt out has lost its point”, and: “The Chairman of the Board of General Aphrodisiacs may be all that is said of him in the citation, but it is not a judgment on which the university should set its seal.” Universities should stick to rewarding measurable academic excellence.  MIT and Harvard eke out their existences without awarding any such degrees.  Others should follow their example, says Romano.

But then he gets to the matter of Robert Mugabe.


Yet for all this history and perspective, indicating that honorary degrees and their nullifications amount to tempests in teapots, the peculiar biography of Robert Mugabe makes the matter more complicated. Recent journalistic attention to Zimbabwe’s tragedies, welcome as it is, has provided little context about the man causing them. For that, we’re fortunate to have three incisive books on him published in the last decade: Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe, by Martin Meredith (Public Affairs, 2002); Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe, by David Blair (Continuum, 2002); and Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, by Stephen Chan (University of Michigan Press, 2003).

All paint a portrait of Mugabe that may surprise non-Africa hands ignorant of his prepresidential life. Born in the Jesuit mission station of Kutama on February 21, 1924, the third of six children in a family abandoned by his father (a dyspeptic carpenter who moved 300 miles away and took another wife), young Mugabe could not have been more bookish as he rose to become a teacher.

“All accounts describe him in the same words,” writes Blair, “diligent, quiet, studious, introverted.” Mugabe shunned smoking and drinking alcohol and “excelled academically” at every institution he attended, including South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, the hotbed of African nationalism from which Nelson Mandela had been expelled earlier. During Mugabe’s 11 years of imprisonment, from 1963 to 1974, under Zimbabwe’s white-ruled predecessor state of Rhodesia, the future president enrolled in University of London correspondence courses and earned four degrees — a master’s degree in economics, a bachelor’s degree in administration, and two law degrees — to go with the three bachelor’s degrees he already possessed, in economics, education, and history and literature.

Meredith writes of how Mugabe in prison “resumed his studies with fierce dedication, his books piled on both sides of his bed.” The prisoner’s late wife, Sally Hayfron, then living in London, copied out whole volumes by hand and posted them as letters to her husband. When Mugabe finally won release from prison, in November 1974, he held seven academic degrees.

So even now, after more than three decades in which the former Marxist revolutionary leader — seen as conciliatory toward opponents at Zimbabwe’s independence — has evolved into a murderous autocrat, Mugabe’s lust for academic credibility may endure. In the paranoid recesses of Mugabe’s octogenarian brain, stripping him of degrees may exact a toll few can imagine.

In which case, it’s probably time for Michigan State University, which doled out an honorary doctorate to Mugabe in 1990, to step up. And what about those seven earned degrees? Can a university revoke degrees earned in a correspondence course? How? By sending Mugabe a letter? Why not leave him only the eighth academic laurel he famously boasts of — “a degree in violence”?

Now, after Zimbabwe’s latest parody of democracy, the man once called “Satan’s apostle” by his also-ruthless white predecessor stands as the re-elected president of Zimbabwe. If things keep going as they’re going, however, Mugabe can forget about retiring to one of those handsomely endowed chairs at a Florida university, the sort that draw Oxford dons seeking to up their pay in a sunny place.

He simply won’t have the credentials.

A degree in education.  How about that?

The idea of stripping Mugabe of his various degrees, honorary and real, was causing much mockery on Mock The Week, when I watched the latest manifestation of it a few days ago, as did England refusing to play cricket against Zimbabwe next year.  But it would appear that even if taking his degrees away won’t now do anything to stop Mugabe, this might cause him some small degree (so to speak) of hurt.

More Mugabe honorary degree complaint here.

Sunday July 13 2008

I don’t understand this, but it sounds very silly:

The Home Office ID card yoof discussion forum has banned users “David Blunkett” and “Jacqui Smith” along with other “inappropriate” comedy logins, while laying a trail of positive comments from shadowy, spookily robotic “students”. Elsewhere in the forum the barracking has intensified since the site’s wobbly launch earlier this week, but in the Shooters Hill discussion section, a grey army of Shooters (Shooter1 onwards) chants its relentless pro-ID card mantra.

Well, almost relentless - one or two of them seem less convinced. Unsurprisingly, other forum users have challenged the bona fides of this odd crowd that never answers a question and posts without following through the debate. They’re obviously bots, right? Well, not exactly. Moderator Debbie G (who looks like somebody who knows a thing or two about ID chips) reveals that “users with the Shooters usernames are students from Shooters Hill College in Greenwich. To launch the site they were given a presentation by Jacqui Smith and then given the opportunity to log on and post.”

As the Shooters posts are timed from 9.24-9.41am on Wednesday, when Jacqui Smith (one of them anyway) launched the site, this would seem to be the case. So Smith gives presentation to a group of captive students who are then given 20 minutes to say positive things about ID cards, and the marketing geniuses at Home Office spin central then refashion them into a convincing representation of a scary robot army, right down to erasing their identities and giving them numbers instead. Epic. Smart generic username too - for her next brainwashing gig, Jacqui Smith visits Stabbers Lane Academy, Barking.

It seems to me that one of the particular sins of my generation is wanting to be in charge of things, while surrounded by the pretense that nobody is really in charge, and all are free to do what they please, i.e. as we want them to.  We don’t give orders.  They merely choose, freely, to obey.  In this case, instead of saying: we’re the government, and we’ve decided that you’ve all got to carry ID cards, they make some kids say: we want ID cards, and then they say, hey the kids want ID cards.  They’re saying it on the internet and everything.  We have to do what they say.  We did not ordain this.  We are their servants, and they have spoken.

See also: this, one of my favourite movies.  And see also, I fear, many teachers, maybe from time to time including, I also fear, me.

Tuesday July 08 2008

The Croydonian links to this, about a grovelling apology made to China by the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University for confering a degree on the Dalai Lama.

Angered and offended by the move, Chinese students and Internet users at home and abroad called for a boycott the university, saying its conferment of honors on the Dalai Lama had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.

Says the Croydonian:

Sensitive flowers, aren’t they?

My take is that this shows that they don’t really rate this particular university, which they call a London “school”.  If Oxford or Harvard gave a prize to the DL, would the Chinese government make this kind of fuss?

Friday July 04 2008

imageThis is not spot on, but it is still worth harking back to:

Personally I have doubts about creaming off the best voluntary or commercial sector people and making them into politicians.  They risk migrating from the solution to the problem, I think.  The now admirable Ray Lewis may come to regret this move.

My fear was that Ray Lewis would try to do good things with his newly acquired political grandeur, and fail dismally, not that the political meat grinder would, within a month, start to devour him for earlier errors and indiscretions of the kind that regular life forgives and forgets, before he’d even got stuck in.  Nevertheless, that last sentence is quite good, don’t you think?

Thursday July 03 2008

A current blog favourite of mine is the Spectator Coffee House blog, and they laugh at Ed Balls’s latest pronouncements, but actually most of what he says sounds not that ridiculous to me, although his notion of kids being tested without them even realising it does seem somewhat fanciful.  But I think he mostly emerges quite well from this interview, in contrast to how he lets himself look in this story.  Kindness and gentleness are all very well for schools, but when Ed Balls is in a hurry, forget about that.

As I often feel with incompetent socialist politicians, I think to myself, this man might have made a quite capable headmaster, and might actually have done some good, instead of either raging impotently at the ills of the institutions that he supposedly controls, or actually barging in to improve them, and thereby making them worse.

Anyway, the political cycle is such that it is rapidly ceasing to matter what Ed Balls thinks.  And you sense that even the New Statesman now realises this.

For an anti-Balls view that is serious rather than mocking, read the first comment at the NS:

My God, Ed Balls is employing some appalling sophistry with regard to SATs. Over the past 15 years or so, the push to ever more prescriptive curricula and more measurement has created huge amounts of performance anxiety in the education system. And, worst of all, is removing professional autonomy from educators. Children are not being taught how to think or question anything, merely pushed through a mechanistic process to turn out the service fodder for the 21st century that employers demand. Judging by recent comments from employers and the levels of literacy of school leavers, even this goal is not being met.

But according to Ed, it’s all the fault of the schools. This is such a transparent attempt to pass the buck that it would be plainly laughable, were it not for the fact that I am afraid he might actually be sincere. ...

But another commenter reacted much as I did:

Balls strikes absolutely the right tone here. He dismisses the media hysteria that seems to attach itself to stories involving children and yet acknowledges the kernel of truth upon which the stories are based. He sounds humane and measured - and, when attacked, manages to avoid sounding defensive.

It would be a good thing if Ball’s tone was replicated throughout the media.

Trouble is, it doesn’t matter how nice Mr Balls is when being interviewed.  He still presides over a nationalised industry in an advanced state of decay, and for that mere niceness is completely beside the point.  No wonder, when not performing to nice lady journalists, he opens car doors in people’s faces (see link above).

Nice Balls nasty Balls
Teach children philosophy!
Fraser Nelson on the prize awaiting David Cameron
Nick Cowen on the state-imposed incentive to study soft subjects rather than the most valuable ones
Balls on privilege and Balls privileged
Will our doubts be answered?
Education debts
State-funded Hindu school choice
Anastasia de Waal on tackling versus institutionalising
Why does Oxford now take a higher proportion than it used to of its intake from the private sector?
Scottish confusion
Stephen Pollard on posh but post-modern Boris Johnson
Going Dutch?
Labour soft on spelling
PFI schools won’t last!
Public school prime ministers
Megan McArdle on the menace of imposed scaling
Balls misses out the “compulsory” bit
There ought not to be any debate
Jason and the Argonanut
“GB isn’t some hapless young temporary supply teacher …”
“Competition, discipline - and punishment …”
“Every child emerges with at least two A Levels and three quarters go to university …”
“It is not the role of ministers to prescribe which songs children sing …”
Charles Murray on educational romanticism
Are Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper bad parents for not going private?
Who’d be a children’s minister?
Encouraging parenthood by nationalising it
Tim Worstall on the uses of maths
What schools provide depends on who is paying and for what
How important is good spelling?
Cutting red tape and freeing schools of bureaucracy
You can’t be too careful with these pushy parents
Choice cuts both ways
On choice and inequality
The department for children, schools and families takes complete care of the children
The Stockholm Network on choice and competition in schools
The forthcoming decline of Indian education
Bairn minding
Bishop Hill on the beneficial impact of charging students to go to university
Fraser Nelson on the Grange Hill model versus the Swedish model
Guido says Vietnam is privatising education
Joan Bakewell asserts the Fixed Quantity of Education Fallacy
Norman Geras makes sure he is balanced about balance
Picking on bad teachers
Faith unrewarded
Education equals state education
Against fragrant education
Should private sector schools be more charitable or lose their charitable status?
The pressure to announce initiatives
Homophobia was not a problem at Leeds University – student housing was
British higher education is definitely now a nationalised industry
The name for the job
Helpful but less than helpful
Madsen Pirie says education may be a right but it ought not to be a government monopoly
A little dinner party gossip
Obama says education should be good shock
Action for Home Education wiki
The UK Government cuts back on mature study
A world where everyone knows your GCSE results
“I’d just tell him to stop and he would …”
Education through rugby
Faith fake fudge from Cameron – and I have a sofa bed delivered
Frank Chalk and David Davis on metal detectors for schools
Madsen Pirie on using bright children to make unbright children brighter
Nothing is owed by the private sector to the public sector
Don’t mention A levels
Too bad children are not crows
A national plan for classroom surveillance
Conservative headline
Bad sex education?
David Thompson on the obligation to mingle
To avoid being a terrorist …
New immigration law threatens the British higher education industry
John Louis Swaine remembers the educational equality debate
For British state education read Soviet tractors