Education


Moby DickI disagree with Peter Hitchens on the merits of The Great Gatsby but I was amused by a classically bold and terse description of its enduring appeal…

It survives because it is on a lot of school and college reading lists, mainly because it is short.

Hyperbole, yes, but it strikes me that Hitchens is right to say that literature that tends to be promoted to young people is often brief: Gatsby, yes, and also Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men. Such books all have features that appeal to young minds but I don’t think it is being overly cynical to propose that they have virtues for educators such as easily summarisable plots and limited casts of characters. What is interesting, though, is that from genre novels from those of Tolkien to King to “Young Adult” works such as those of Rowling or Meyer, the books young people tend to choose to read are big, thick, messy banquets for the imagination. This inspired me to ask myself which of the heftiest offerings of literary fiction might appeal to teenagers.

Let us not hurl people into the deep end. I remember grappling with Proust when I was doing GCSEs but I got no further than Michael Palin in the Python sketch. Finnegan’s Wake also found its way into my palms but my interest died like a blown lightbulb. Young people are often ignorant and impatient; which is the inevitable flip side to being keen to learn.

Dickens is worth a mention. He is, of course, no stranger to the syllabi but some of the selections from his ouvre have been questionable. We were set Hard Times in GCSE English, which, for all of its merits, felt like wandering into the middle of an argument between strangers. The vivid sprawl of Great Expectations might have been more inspiring. Moby Dick is a tome I would offer for consideration. Its language is hard to comprehend at first, of course, but this has never stopped kids from reading A Clockwork Orange, and half of the fun of discovering Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was looking up what all of its strange terms meant. Its visionary verve always excites me, and I can’t help thinking that its study of anthropomorphism could be interested to those who have been raised on Pixar.

Catch-22 is a predictable offering. Young people love the “sour jokes” that once turned off critics. As they become older and more knowing, I would be tempted to recommend Earthly Powers. Much of Anthony Burgess’ voyage through the twentieth-century would fly over their heads – no shame in that; it still does over mine – but the comic richness makes it a pleasure to travel with and the in-jokes and name-dropping offers one the chance to follow other paths of exploration into great lives and great books.

I am departing from my mandate of literary fiction, but a final book that I would recommend is The Bible. I was a Christian until the age of 15 yet I rarely looked at the thing. Perhaps I assumed that it was like reading a manual after you have already worked out how to use the computer. As a nonbeliever, I would hope that people approach religious texts in the company of their critical faculties but it remains true that the King James Version is the most ambitious feat in the English language, and that its stories and teachings have inspired more thought than those of any other text. I remember of friend of mine, who was no more a fan of literature than he would have been of the Church, turning pages of Revelation and saying, “This is wild stuff.”

Michael GoveMichael Gove, our chirpy young education secretary, wants to extend school hours and cut holidays. I am only six years beyond compulsory education and, thus, have an irrational aversion to the idea. My thirteen-year-old self is feigning illness at the thought. Experience, though, prejudices me against the former idea on somewhat more reasonable grounds: it seems to me one problem in the education system is not the amount of hours that children spend in school on weekdays but the amount of those hours that are squandered.

At school, for example, we had a baffling period known as “tutor time”. Sometimes we performed team-building exercises, which was futile as few of us spent time with each other outside of the groups. Sometimes we watched comical health and safety videos, which made the old Green Cross Man adverts appear downright sophisticated. Sometimes we just doodled on the fronts of our textbooks. Our tutors, who had no particular knowledge of us, little idea of what to do and no enthusiasm for it, hung around and grumped.

At least some of the average day was doomed to irrelevance, then, and sections of the terms were also misused. As Christmas, Easter or summer holidays approached, teachers, without exams to prepare us for and with an aversion to planning lessons, would play videos and organise games of little or no relevance to our studies. We liked this, of course, because we got to watch Blackadder. Ultimately, though, there was no point in going to an institution that we disliked to do things that we did not profit from. I could have stuck a video on at home.

A third and more depressing means of squandering time was observing the struggles between teachers and unruly kids. A lot of the top and middle sets would have two or three boys who regularly disrupted the progress of the class and made us bemused witness to their and the teachers’ arguments, threats and periods of mutual sulking. It could seem amusing at the time, but in retrospect it wasted hours that we could have spent learning or, hell, enjoying ourselves elsewhere. Some of these playful pupils matured or dealt with the problems their behaviour had reflected, so I am not proposing that they be tossed onto the scrap heap, but it was unfair that they obstructed the education of so many other kids, and their continued presence was a great obstruction. I remember far more euphemisms for the erect penis than French adjectives or quadratic equations.

None of this is to suggest that schooldays should be ordered with regimented efficiency, with teachers reading to the tick of metronomes, or cameras eyeing the kids’ every movements. A little looseness offers minds space in which to function. I regret the hours we spent wasting our brain cells and those of our teachers, though, and I remain sure that efforts could be made to trim the fat off days before enlarging them. The non-partisan Education Endowment Foundation agrees, saying that, “Evidence suggests that it is likely to be cheaper and more efficient to focus on using existing school time more effectively before considering extending school time”. As our youths already spend more time in school than those of most developed countries, including nations with kids that seem to perform better, this makes sense to me.

Sorry, thirteen-year-old self. I know you like Blackadder, and it is entertaining when Sam enrages Miss. Yet if that time had been used effectively you might have learned those foreign languages or grasped those laws of science, and if you had grown more disciplined in using time you might have taken those guitar or martial arts lessons. Hey, why didn’t you do those things? Hello?

I’m sure I’m not the only person to observe that this…

Comes a few days after this…

Coincidence? Well, plausibly. When Mr Little is described as suggesting that he’d “known the youngsters had been planning ‘something’”, though, I am amused. If these guys were allowed to be filmed larking about in the school library, gym and pool; consorting with outsiders and even dancing on the roof without the headmaster knowing exactly what was going on Eton is more disorganised than the poorest of comprehensives. I know somebody who’s worked at a small private school and I’m not sure its pupils could access YouTube without their teachers knowing what they were up to; let alone create a film for it.

This is not theorise conspiracies. I’ve little doubt that the video was devised and created by the students as a joke (and, indeed, perhaps I’m easily amused, but it caused me to laugh). Still, I also feel that the officials who sanctioned it weren’t just game for a chuckle but suspect that being perceived as self-aware and humorous might endear them to future parents, pupils, donors and commentators who may, as the modern world becomes e’er more relaxed about the social codes that once constrained it, have imagined that they’re a little too staid. This may be a small example of an important truth. Institutions tend to be very self-aware, and, more importantly, aware of how they’re perceived by others. How they choose to be represented can offer a fascinating glimpse into their ambitions.

If there’s one part of the university experience that I’m glad I missed it’s student politics. Jumped-up representatives of Labour and the Tories are obnoxious enough but there also are student radicals. These have generally been of the Left but that’s not always the case. Student Rights draws my attention to a little band of youths who call themselves the National Culturists. In a speech to the Alliance of European National Movements, a group whose members include Jobbik and the Tricolour Flame, its leader said that that he’d thought, “If we can utilise a word like [culturism]…we can get young people involved with movements like the BNP”.

This is a front group for fascists. If they’re averse to that description they could explain why their Director of Communication’s Facebook page publicly advertises his “liking” of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Arthur Kemp and Metapedia; why his cover photo was an image from a BUF rally or, indeed, why his introductory post unironically proclaimed, “Tomorrow belong to us!” Some communicator!

(A note on Facebook: I don’t tend to mooch about on peoples’ pages but if someone has or seeks influence and leaves information exposed I’ll judge whether it’s relevant and, if it is, make use of it.)

These far rightists face vehement opposition. There are, however, different and more numerous men who’ve stalked campuses, preaching the virtues of homogeneous cultures. These men have been far more open about the bleakness of the utopia they envisage. They’ve been addressing Islamic Societies.

Haitham al-Haddad is a man who yearns for Islamic law to be made “dominant in the world” and promotes its brutal prescriptions for apostates, girls with intact labias and so on. He’s been invited to address ISOCs at Roehampton, the LSE and Queen Mary universities, and to speak to the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. Assim al-Hakeem is a cleric who’s defended sex slavery, child marriage and slaughter and opposed free mixing, music and women in politics. He’s been invited to speak to ISOCs at Sheffield Hallam, Queen Mary and Hertfordshire. These men are part of a circuit of Salafi preachers. Their ambitions are forbidding even by the standards of Islamic jurisprudence and their tireless schedules expose them to thousands of new recruits.

It might be held that there’s no sinister intent here; that these are just young guys inviting clerics they’ve happened across. Some groups, though, have been more overtly political. The Global Ideas Society at Westminster University are forthright promoters of Hizb ut-Tahrir: inviting their speakers to address them; promoting their events and parroting their views. The ISOC of London South Bank University, when it’s not being addressed by theocrats like Abdur Raheem Green and Murtaza Khan, has flirted with even creepier figures. Its representative uploaded videos of the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki nine times in a three month period between this year and the last.

Islamic Societies are represented on a national level by Federation of Student Islamic Societies. This organisation has been described as “anything but radical” but as their relationship with al-Haddad suggests this is untrue. They’ve also had close links with iERA – the Islamic Education and Research Academy – which, as I’ve written, is a group of theocrats with appalling doctrinaire opinions and good PR skills. Its London Chair is a bloke who surreptitiously attends extremist conferences; seeks the guidance of totalitarians like Bilal Philips and has promoted the words of Muhammad Al-Munajjid: a man who tells Muslims to “wage jihad against the kuffaar”. FOSIS is not a monolithic group but much of its officialdom clearly falls within sensible definitions of “extreme”. It’s not a solution to the problem, then, but part of it.

The work of Student Rights in exposing this phenomenon has prompted some universities to bar unpleasant speakers. It’s a shame this task had to be left to an offshoot of the Henry Jackson Society. They’re fairly extreme themselves, if in a very different sense. Someone had to do it, though, as nobody in higher education had the wit or stomach. Malcolm Grant, Provost and President of UCL, insisted that campus extremism is a “non-issue”; something that “doesn’t exist”. Student bodies, meanwhile, are more liable to be found denouncing offensive atheists than theocratic Muslims. Were there to be branches of the National Culturists cropping up on campuses I doubt they’d be so mild.

It’s sad. It really is. An optimistic view of higher education would suppose that it allows the young to be exposed to new ideas and to acquire tools with which to challenge the dogma they’re faced with. These men and their young sympathisers are doing utmost their utmost to ensure that people actually leave it more intolerant and unreasonable. This is a darn shame for them and dangerous for us.

Should kids be allowed to take mixed martial arts training? That’s the question Nate Wilcox asks at Bloody Elbow.

The first thing to note is that they couldn’t fight as if they’re miniature UFC combatants. As much as I’d dispute the “human cockfighting” stereotypes that have tarnished the sport one can’t avoid the fact that its contestants’ ultimate goal is to pulverise whoever they’re facing to the point where they’re unable to continue or inflict such pain on them that they’re forced to submit. For obvious reasons these aren’t things you’d want a kid to be doing or, more importantly, be having done to them. Competitive fighting, then, isn’t on the cards.

It’d have to be a limited, specialised form of mixed martial arts: one that focused on the different elements of the sport until its students reached such physically and cerebral maturity that they could bring it all together. And, of course, the sensitivity of young brains and young bones would mean that appropriate headgear would have to be used if and when striking was involved, as well as great care with any type of throw or hold. There would still be injuries, of course, and journalists would seize on them like prospectors on golden nuggets, but I doubt they’d be extraordinary in scale. What pursuit has lead to 27,000 serious injuries among America’s youth? Something frenetic and violent? Boxing? Fencing? Rodeo? It’s actually gymnastics.

A more abstract question, though, is why children would feel inclined to take up the sport. Mixed martial arts, for all the skill involved, has always been driven by the urge to see who’s the toughest fighter walking – the “baddest man on the planet”. This is not the healthiest of aspirations for a child – and it’s perhaps the unhealthiest ambition that a parent can have for their child. There are great values associated with it, too – dedication, self-sacrifice, restraint, endurance – but if it’s going to be a worthwhile activity these might have to be promoted as a coherent ethic to obstruct the meathead tendency. There’s a reason you don’t hear of people karate kicking eachother in the streets.

I’m not going to turn this blog into Islamic Firebrand Watch but it’s a theme I’m going to continue pursuing. Theocrats are easy to ignore when you’ve presumed that they’re a marginal phenomenon but when the thought occurs that they are actually a pervasive, influential force one tends to dwell on their appearances in the public eye. That they are more than a fringe of impotent ideologues is hardly a consensus opinion, of course, but that’s a reason to share the fascination.

I’ve mentioned Haitham al-Haddad: a Saudi Sheikh whose totalistic ideals lead him to strive to make Islamic law “dominant in the world”, with its accompanying threats to apostates – who “deserve…capital punishment” – young women – whose mutilation is virtuous - gays – “criminal[s]” to him – and so on. Travelling to Denmark he was greeted with a storm of controversy and faced the threat of deportation. In Britain he presides over Sharia courts; is a regular guest at Mosques and a favourite of Islamic societies and now, rather disgustingly, has spoken at a school.

It was a Sixth Form College, yes, but a school nonetheless: the former Leyton Senior High School for Boys; whose alumni include Alan Booth, a marvellous writer on Japan, and Sir Giles Brindley, who you may be unaquainted with but might one day come to appreciate for his research into the treatment of erectile dysfunction. The subject of Haddad’s speech, with grim irony, was “Does Islam Oppress Women?”. A man who feels that half his audience might profit from having their labias hacked at and that spousal abuse is none of our business should answer in the affirmative but I doubt he did. This was just part of “Discover Islaam Week” at the school. Elsewhere one Adnan Rashid asked the question “Sharia Law – Curse or Cure?”. Mr Rashid is the author of a lengthy essay which attempts to make the case that “peace and justice emanat[ed] from the Islamic system” so I think one can predict where his judgement fell.

Rashid, and the like-minded Hamza Tsorsis, who also spoke at the Leyton College, are speakers of the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA). It’s concerned with “educating the public through lectures, seminars and publications”. If we visit its website we find that one of its trustees is Abdurraheem Green: a theocrat we’ve encountered before who, among other things, has defended wife beating and claimed that gays and adulterers should endurea slow and painful death”. Their advisors have included Bilal Philips – who’s most famous for endorsing the execution of homosexuals – Hakim Quick – who’s called for Allah to “clean and purify [Israel] from the filth of the Yahud” (Jews) and joined his comrade in wishing death on gays – Hussein Yee – who’s claimedthe Jews” are “the extremists of the world” and “kill because they believe that they are the chosen people” – and the all too familiar Haitham al-Haddad.

These are the sort of cruel, doctrinaire theocrats who’ve been touring British universities for years and now, with a mere whisper of controversy, are taking their message into schools to feed into e’er younger minds. This demands for more attention and anger than it has received but the most serious and discomfiting problem isn’t just that theocratic speakers occupy such platforms but that there’s such an imposingly large audience for them.

Peter Hitchens writes

As the age of sexual consent is 16, what are state employees doing fitting contraceptive implants in 13-year-old girls? Aren’t they colluding in a criminal act?

What child, equipped with this rather revolting chemical lump or dose, would not grasp that she was expected by the authorities to act accordingly?

This grim procedure has, apparently, been taking place in several schools in Hampshire. Officials have defended it as a means of halting the rise in teenage pregnancies; and, if they’re to be believed, the rate has fallen. But, erm – aren’t they missing something here? Sure, it’s important that we minimise pregnancies to girls who aren’t equipped to deal with them. Yet the reason that we have a legal age for sexual activities is not so kids don’t breed, it’s so they don’t have sex per se  – because they’re not equipped to deal with that. If providing these implants gives the kids, and their friends, and whoever hears about it the idea that sex is, like, no biggie and if some of them go on to bugger up their minds and lives it’s hardly relevant if they postpone their child-bearing for a few years.

An eerie thing about government in Britain is how we’ll get fashionably relevant statistics, alongside the belief that once they’re high or low the world will be a better place. Well, that’s sometimes true, but statistics can be like appearances: bloody liars. They’re more or less meaningful and more or less relevant, and, indeed, there are some meaningful, relevant things you can’t reduce to stats. Let’s be human; not economists.

There are some, I guess, who’d laugh at people who spit tea at the idea of 13-year-olds being given contraceptives. I’ve seen it proposed, at other times, that such folk just can’t deal with the idea that young ‘uns have burgeoning sexualities. Well, yeah, they do – anyone who’s lived through puberty must be aware of that. But, frankly, that’s a good reason to discourage sex while young – because they’re bloody complicated and they should have time to make sense of them.

Hugh Gusterson has penned a sad and damning portrait of the devastation of Iraq’s once-proud universities. Ever since the beginning of the occupation the carelessness of the invaders meant that academics and their students weren’t merely unaided as they tried to rebuild their institutions but were actively weakened.

A eerie portent of the chaos that engulphed the nation in the years to come arose when looters swept across Iraqi cities, to the general indifference of the occupiers…

While American troops guarded the Ministries of Oil and the Interior but ignored cultural heritage sites, looters ransacked the universities. For example, the entire library collections at the University of Baghdad’s College of Arts and at the University of Basra were destroyed.

Famously, the De-Ba’athification of the police abetted the chaos and violence that was ensuing. The purging of members of Saddam’s party affected all areas of society, though, including the nation’s universities…

Since one had to join the Ba’ath Party — whether one truly supported the party or not — in order to get ahead in Hussein’s Iraq, this order had the effect of removing most of Iraq’s senior university administrators and professors overnight. In the words of journalist Christina Asquith, after this purge, “half of the intellectual leadership in academia was gone.”

They were replaced with American incompetents like John Agresto, who, we’re told, “was picked to run the Iraqi university system because he was friends with Lynne Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld”. He appealed for funds…

Agresto estimated that it would cost $1.2 billion to rebuild Iraq’s 22 major universities and 43 technical institutes and colleges. Given that the US Congress appropriated over $90 billion for reconstruction and counterinsurgency in Iraq for 2004, this was not a large amount…Congress only appropriated $8 million — less than 1 percent of what Agresto requested.

Meanwhile, the universities were being slowly depopulated. Hundreds of academics died in the violence; some of them deliberately targeted by thugs who disliked the relative cosmopolitanism of their work. (One victim, a brave chap named Dr. Issam Al Rawi, was killed while investigating the suspicious wave of deaths amongst Iraqi intellectuals.) Others joined the exodus of the middle classes; stripping the nation of human resources it needs…

It is estimated that 10 percent of Iraq’s population, and 30 percent of its professors, doctors, and engineers, left for neighboring countries between 2003 and 2007 — the largest Arab refugee displacement since the Palestinian flight from the holy lands decades earlier.

One hears very little about Iraq nowadays – but for the daily documentations of the bombs and murders that tear through the country, and the everless surprising exposure of the crimes of the invaders and the government. I don’t just want to be Mr Miserable: there are doubtless thousands of brave, resourceful citizens trying to aid eachother in rebuilding their communities, industries and institutions and I wish them all the very best. What’s appalling, though, is not just the obvious casualties of the past nine years – the dead; the wounded and the dispossessed – but the stultification of the resources necessary for this task. Think of it: almost 1 in 3 professors have, apparently, upped sticks and left. How can Iraq’s children – already doubtless traumatised by everything they’ve witnessed, through dictatorship and occupation – gain the tools with which to craft better lives and a better nation from the ruins when there’s no one there to teach them?

Here’s news of another paper on the relative unintelligence of people who hold conservative views. Cue chortling from liberals and left-wingers (some of whom only seem to accept the validity of IQ when it’s used to suggest that conservatives are dumb). That the less intelligent often believe in dumb things is true, of course – someone hand me a Nobel Prize! – but those higher up the IQ spectrum shouldn’t bask in their smugness.

The idea that smart people need hold sensible opinions is, in fact, stupid. Some of the most destructive notions of our history were the preserve of intellectual elites who spread their views throughout the educated middle classes. This, of course, is also true of some of its most valuable ideas. Dreaming up and comprehending the sort of theories that are likely to be influential tends to demand an intellectual curiosity, transgressive spirit and sophistication of thought that calls for one to be pretty smart. So, as we’re considering the less agreeable ones, communists were smart; neoconservatives are brainy and rampant free marketeers are often bloody geniuses. Once ideas have gained traction among the intellectual classes they’ll take root within the academia; the think tanks; the foundations. Smart young people will be taught and come to accept them.

Again, I’m not suggesting that the products of these mechanisms have to be malign, but there’s clearly room for bogus notions to catch on; especially in fields where the value of ideas is hard to test ‘til they’re inflicted on the world. The point is that smart people needn’t accept theories for smart reasons. They can have appealed to other features associated with smartness and smart people: the curiosity and impudence that attracts one to the original and the subversive; the egotism that endears one to groundbreaking ideas; the cerebral nature that can lead one to be so entranced by theories that their relation to human consequences is forgotten. And, more simply, they can be things their smart friends believe. Smart people are also marked by the tribalism and personal prejudice that all of us deal with, but their skills at rationalisation and rhetoric equip them to shape their biased perspective into more credible, persuasive forms. Thus, you’ll find a thousand suited gentlemen and ladies taking tostands at forums and debates across our civilisation, offering eloquent, impassioned and compelling speeches on behalf of total crap.

Don’t trust smart people, in other words. Or anyone. Especially yourself.

Another complaint that people make at those of us who are concerned with population growth, articulated here by George Monbiot, is that we are just bullying poor folk. “It’s no coincidence,” he says, “That most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men”. Well, I’m white and male – if not as wealthy as I’d like to be – but I’d challenge Monbiot to name a cause – feminism aside, perhaps – that isn’t dominated by white males. He, Hansen, Lovelock, Lynas, Mann, Romm and most of the theorists of and commentators on climate change – that I’m aware of, anyway – are well-off caucasian dudes. That’s not a good reason to doubt them. Like it or not, most prominent theorists and commentators are still male, pale and towards the higher end of the wage scale.

Monbiot is right, I guess, that population growth is not an influential factor in climate change. (I’m no expert but I don’t think Ugandans and Ethiopians are cruisin’ in gas-guzzlin’ SUVs, or holidaying in Corfu.) This doesn’t mean it poses no dangers for the environment, though. It does. With dwindling resources and soaring populations more stress will be imposed on a haggard world. Here’s the thing, though: this is largely dangerous for the populations themselves. They pose no great dangers to us but the consequences of millions and millions of poor, uneducated and fervently religious newcomers won’t, as far as I can tell, be good for their societies – or, indeed, themselves. They’ll be hard-pressed to find the natural and intellectual resources with which to feed and shelter all those people. Rich white blokes who fail to recognise the dangers of this can hardly pose as guardians of the needy.

What’s to be done, though? Well, I guess we’ll have to look at the causes of growth. Religiosity seems to be correlated with high birth rates, but what separates a country like Nigeria, with a high one, from Indonesia, whose women are, erm – less prolific? Countries like Nigeria are desperately poor. The solution to population growth, then, is not some cruel regime of the sort typically, and sometimes justly, associated with environmentalists, but to raise their standard of living. Cripes! What hatred for the needy that, er – doesn’t show.

As Monbiot would note – rising consumption poses grim dangers. And, admittedly, I’m not such an expert that I know how you’d go about raising their standard of life, never mind ensuring that it stays within our means, but the alternative is that hundreds of millions of newborns are consigned to lives of real and intellectual poverty. Somehow, I’m not sure that’s the humanitarian choice.

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