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My older friends will remember my loathing of Tony Blair's educational reforms and general performance in the area of schooling. Well, now the Tories have proved that they can do worse still. This morning, the Daily Jail's website carried this triumphant header: "End of teachers' national pay deals: Union fury as heads win power to freeze salaries. Annual rises for teachers will be scrapped and heads given almost complete freedom to dictate salary increases in the shake-up outlined in the Autumn Statement."

Just for this, Osborne ought to be hanged, and I am not, repeat not, exaggerating. The man is either mad or bent on the ruination of what is left of the national school system. Does it take a great deal of intellect to realize that, in a situation in which teachers and heads have very little power and in which they are constantly at odds with parents and bad students, the last thing that needed doing was to set them at each other's throats? Is that the Thugcherite view of education? Why did nobody explain to him in words of one syllable that to make teachers and heads natural enemies would mean chaos in the school and the further encouragement of the culture of underachievement and gangland? Do these fucking morons from Eton WANT to destroy the country, in the intervals of trying to stuff "gay marriage" down its throat?
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A British TV news program has just reported - and reported is as a disciplinary, tightening-of-the-screws type proposal - that the British Government wants every child to be familiar with the times table by the time they are nine.

I don't think I come from an educational golden age. But in my childhood any child who had not memorized the times table by the time they were seven - the second year of school - would have been regarded as a culpable dunce and either made to repeat the year or sent to a special needs school.

EDITED IN: It seems from the responses to this entry that both British and American kids are expected to start learning the Table by their eighth year. OK, I didn't know that. I know I had it by my seventh, for a very simple reason - my family moved around a lot, and in my third year I changed school. And I remember very well knowing the Table by then. I was impressed by the beauty with which all the strings of numbers fitted in, an early lesson in the underlying logic of existence.
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In many ways, Italy is different. For one thing, I was taught at school as a child, we have no tradition of racism like in America. For another, the leading schools in Italy - the schools where the rich children go, where the best teachers are found, and which insure a swift passage to the best university courses - are generally state schools. For this there are a lot of historical reasons, including the fact that the oldest schools in each town were, at the time of Unification (1859-1861), taken over by the State, with all their traditions and prestige.

The city of Caserta, where the kings of Naples built one of Europe's most fabulous royal palaces, has one such school, named after the great historian Pietro Giannone, within walking distance of the royal palace. By tradition, catchment area, expectation, the Pietro Giannone Middle School is expected to provide good teaching.

First the bad news. A few days ago, a Class 2 (12-year-old) class got back the results of a Geography test. These are kids who take their results seriously, as you would expect, and they immediately compared results - as you always do in Italian schools, as I well remember doing. And one girl was very disturbed to find that a boy who had given, answer after answer, the very same answers as she had, had been awarded a 9, whereas she had been awarded a 7.

(A note on Italian school marking. In theory, and by immemorial tradition, all schoolwork in junior schools is marked from 0 - minimum - to 10 - maximum. As a matter of fact, however, teachers only ever use the marks from 5 to 9. 4 and below are only awarded in case of work that is not just bad, but culpably bad, and 10 is reserved for rare and absolutely exceptional performances; most children never see either. Of the normally given marks, 5 means a fail, 6 a poor pass, 7 "could do better", 8 is solid achievement, and 9 is excellence. To any Italian child, to award 7 and 9 for the same piece of work is injustice of Snape-esque proportions. Now let us move on.)

Come the next Geography lesson, the young girl walked up to the teacher, faced her with the two test papers, and asked why hers was marked so much lower. And the answer of the teacher - a woman in her forties, married and with children of her own - was clearly heard across the whole classroom: "You are different. You are black."

Yes, I forgot to mention it. The child had some African descent. Does it matter?

Crushed, the child made the ten-mile trek back to her desk, as the stunned, silent class looked on. And when she comes home at the end of the day, it doesn't take long for her mother to realize that there is something very wrong with her daughter.

Now the good news. The next day, the mother demands and is given an immediate appointment to see the Headmistress (whose name is reported in the article: Maria Bianco - let us mention it with proper honour). She tells her story and plays an audio tape where her daughter had recorded her experience. It is still morning, between the second and the third period. The Headmistress marches out of her office, goes straight to the little girl's class, shuts the door behind her, and asks the children to recount in their own words exactly what happened. She receives an unanimous account that confirms almost word for word the mother's charge: "She said, you are different, you are black."

That very day, the Headmistress suspends the teacher, and starts a procedure with the Education Ministry with a view to more adequate sanctions. When the other teachers are told, the general view is: "Well, she asked for it." I guess old school traditions can count for something after all.

(According to today's Corriere della Sera website, all these things happened this week.)
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Anyone who thinks that children are "innocent" in the moral, let alone the theological, sense of the word, has never spent ten minutes in the company of a real live child; and, what is worse, does not remember, or refuses to remember, his/her own childhood. Certainly children do not have the idea of the depth and extent of evil, of the many ways temptation can seize on you, the vast dimension and background to every act of sin. But to say that children don't do wrong is blatantly wrong; and to say that they don't know it's wrong is nonsense. Children take up evil with the same mixture of concealment and defiance, with the same evasive arrogance, as adults do. When confronted, they either bluster, or attempt justifications, or both - just like adults. And it is only when these things are broken down that they accept their responsibility - just as adults do. And just like adults, they tend to forget the lesson after a while. It's not necessary to go as far as the murderers of James Bulger (although anyone who tries to tell me that they didn't know what they were doing is going to get a loud horselaugh in his/her face); any child who steals biscuits from the larder, who fakes his father's signature on a permission slip, or who deliberately hides stones in a snowball, knows perfectly well that whet s/he is doing is wrong and forbidden. The one thing they will not do is be surprised when someone charges them. The question in their minds was not whether what they were doing was wrong, but whether they would get away with it.

Nevertheless, the notion of innocence and our experience of children are indeed intimately connected. Only people associate them wrong. It is not their past that is innocent: it is their future. We adults, worn down as we are by our decades of effort, frequent failure, inevitable regret, and more or less admitted guilt, can't help but be warmed by the unbroken energy and enthusiasm of most children. Children are the wonderful gift made to the human race at large, to allow us to be renewed again and again, to have a new start with each new birth. It is the fact that they have not yet suffered what we have suffered, nor yet had to do what we found ourselves doing, that they have, in our eyes, that wonderful quality of innocence. And that innocence - that lack of the burden of an inevitably painful and often guilty past - that makes them such a pleasure and such a relief to be with. There are no complications with a child. In the rare cases where s/he instinctively does not like you, s/he lets it be known with no messing, and that is in a sense a relief from the difficulties of adult company, where (especially in England) you may be acquainted with someone for years before you find out that s/he dislikes you. And most of the time they just welcome you. It takes very little to make friends with a child. One little girl at Mass today smiled at me before I had so much as spoken a word to her, just because she saw that I was interested in her book (a "Children's Bible" with illustrations).

And our instinctive love for that innocence, that innocence of the future, imposes on us adults a frightful duty. We have a duty to that innocence; we can't, for shame, allow our children's future to be worse than ours has been, nor even as bad. We have, somehow, to guide our children to be better than we are.

Not just richer, better off, more prosperous. Every adult knows, in spite of all the obvious ironies and superficial responses that spring to mind, that in the depth of reality money can't buy anyone happiness. We certainly don't want our children to be poor; but if all we could offer them was material prosperity, we would have to realize that we have failed them. We have not given them a better life than we had; we have passed them the same burden of weariness, disappointment and guilt from which their innocence was such a relief. We want them - and here is the terrible thing - to be better human beings than we have been.

Is that even possible? I don't know. But I am reminded of something that happened to me. One moment in my childhood I remember very well is my mother teaching me to ride a bicycle without side wheels. I was six. She stood behind and near me, ready to catch me if I fell, until I had understood the mystery of balance, and, to my enormous surprise, was riding ahead, straight and fast.

It took me forty more years to find out that my mother had never learned to ride a bicycle herself. She had taught me something that she herself could not do.

Does that make me a better person than my mother? In a million ways, no. But it shows that what seems like an impossibility and an absurdity - teaching children to be better than we are - can, in some areas, really take place.
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Four years and two months ago I argued that the catastrophic failure of contemporary British schools, and especially Tony Blair's utter unwillingness to deal with the real problems, was pouring out enormous numbers of young people (I estimated one twelfth of the whole generation) who were functionally illiterate, utterly unable to function in any significant manner in a modern society, excluded by nature... but very clever with computers. I underestimated this last issue, but I did point out that the stupid computer classes so eagerly championed by Blair were nothing but free periods with internet, in which each child played with the machine as they saw fit. They could not spell or count, but man could they play with graphics and surf the net. Then, one year and eleven months ago, I singled out a Harriet Sergeant article that told the same story and defended its importance and significance against [livejournal.com profile] inverarity, who managed, like many liberals faced with unwelcome messages, to find a "racist tinge" in it.

Now we see the results of everyone's chronic incapacity to deal with reality and facts on the ground. The police, paralyzed by PC, have nearly forgotten that their place in life is to use force - any force necessary - to maintain or restore order: in the face of viciously destructive rioting carried out mostly by black boys, they see the skin colour and fall back. From one end of England to the other, the story is the same: rioters loot at will, almost unhampered by any show of force. The police brag of having arrested a few hundred looters and charged a few dozen. That noise you hear is the laughter of thousands upon thousands of rioters.

What happens when hundreds of thousands of young men find that they are wholly excluded from national life - since they are too ignorant to read the papers, too innumerate to be gainfully employed, and carry a chip on their shoulder to boot - and effectively have no future? Now we have the answer. I have never been less happy to have been proved right. There is only one possible upside to this: we shall no longer hear from smug, out-of-touch ministers bragging how Britain is a "happy exception" in the landscape of international turmoil and crisis. When I heard Vincent Cable of all people saying that, I felt like tearing his throat out.
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How can you possibly have failed to notice that the indoctrination of teen-agers with the mantra of "question authority" has produced nothing but the most appalling conformity? It would be Umbridge who would encourage everyone to "question authority" - since the person who does so automatically places herself in a position of unrecognized authority, and her authority is always the last to be questioned, if it is questioned at all. What "Question authority" means in practice is: "Never take MY ideological opponents seriously. Always assume that their motives are other than what they say, and that they are bad. And always listen to those little suggestions I have placed in your mind". Anti-authoritarian? Yeah, right
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While 20% of white people between 16 and 24 years of age are unemployed - which is bad enough - 48% of blacks are. Whatever the reason, and whether or not anything can be done to correct it, that means bad trouble to come. And more to the point, there is something essentially wrong with it. A fair society should not put up with a whole section of it being unable to access employment.


Sep. 23rd, 2009 06:51 pm
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This - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1215389/Abandoned-parents-betrayed-schools-young-boys-turning-criminal-gangs-protection-sense-belonging.html - is without a doubt the best and most important article printed by any British newspaper in months if not years. And Harriet Sergeant is an exceptional journalist - I have seen other items by her, and she is brave as a steel sword. But I regret to say that I foresaw every word of it before I ever started blogging, and described it in my article about the Tony Blair generation two or three years ago.
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(cross-posted to [livejournal.com profile] academics_anon)

If anyone thinks that the nearly homicidal hatred of my friend [livejournal.com profile] wemyss for the repulsive rabble that pretends to govern this wretched country is exaggerated,Read more... )
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Where sex is concerned, people's powers of logic and argument fly right out of the window, especially if they are addicted to BBC/Guardian/Independent. I just read the following two sentences - in the blog, mind you, of an academic from one of Europe's most prestigious universities: "it's simply not true that sex ed lowers the age people start to have sex. It's far more complicated than that". A statement as incoherent and illogical on any other subject would have caused academic disgrace, or at least I hope so. Any teacher worth their salt would point out that just because "it's more complicated", i.e. other factors are involved, does not mean that "it's simply not true." It can be shown that every expansion of sex ed has corresponded with an expansion of underage sex practice. This does not prove that the one causes the other, but it places the burden of proof on those who would deny it outright.

Personally, I believe that sex ed does cause - or help to cause - underage sex practice, and the reason should be obvious to anyone who does not hide their head in the sand where sex is concerned: that is, that sex is taught as a rational and controllable activity where it is in fact irrational, terrible, and controlling. The first thing that a person in the grip of lust does is to forget reason. And to introduce children to this terrible force under this cloak of misguided rationality is like handing them the key to the dynamite store and expect them not to blow up things.
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There can be one Western country that is satisfied with current educational provision, but I have not heard of it. From America to Germany, from Italy to Sweden, from Spain to Britain the cry goes up: our education is not working! Efficient Germany, well-administered France, intellectual Italy, aspirational America, all cry out together that educational provision is going down the toilet; that it is turning out generation after generation of self-regarding illiterates with no values, neither willing to crack a book open nor prepared for work and real life; that the level of factual information conveyed to children has diminished, is diminishing, and - in the opinion of most - ought not to diminish; that discipline is abysmal to nonexistent.Read more... )
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Most British are not Christian and have been socialized to hate and fear what they call "organized religion". This does not make all of them atheist: but the number of ranting, proselytzing, fanatical atheists is remarkably high. Two out of three of the Sorry Trinity, Hitchens and Dawkins, are British. What it does do is make them amazingly wayward in their thinking and profoundly incompetent in their arguing. Their ideas about religion are not only fanatical but astonishingly ignorant and stupid. It is only in British blogs dedicated to Christianity, for instance, that you find rabid, unreasoning vulgar Calvinists, with their idea of their own sect drawn not from the Institutio or from Jonathan Edwards but from base summaries in school textbooks, delivering religious opinions that a child would blush at. Religion discussion threads on British blogs, as compared to American and Italian, are of a very low intellectual level, because they come from people unusued to debate on that issue. (The same people may often turn out to be a lot more intelligent on politics, sports, economy or even science.) At the same time, you cannot make them shut up about it. If you take an American or Italian blog on religious issues, you may be sure that nearly every one of the commenters will be in sympathy with the blog's basic religious stance: Catholic blogs will draw Catholics or people interested in Catholicism, Jewish blogs will draw Jews or people interested in Hebraism, Evangelical blogs.... you get it. Trolls do exist, but are relatively rare as compared to constructive posters, and tend to get banned. And this has an interesting effect: because of the general constructive atmosphere and relative shortage of trolls, an outsider coming in will often feel a general sense of constructive engagement that may draw him/her in even if s/he does not share the local views, or at least give a picture of why and how this attitude can be felt to be reasonable and make sense. I have been on Evangelical or Jewish blogs where I agreed with 90% of what was said and felt able to criticize the rest without anger. On the other hand, take a British Catholic or Anglican blog - and I have the examples to prove it. From a half to two thirds of all interventions will be made by trolls. They will be mostly atheist (although I mentioned the occasional Jack T.Chick Calvinist or ranting Orthodox): always the same people, obsessional, sickening, coming back comment after comment with the same everlasting dreary hate-ridden jingle, hijacking the thread no matter what it was on - religion is superstition - you ought all to follow reason - your minds are diseased - etc. etc.

Such are the fruits of bad education. It is impossible to understand what these people get out of days, weeks, months of sabotaging other people's discussions and repeating without imagination, insight or interest their sorry message of ignorance and hate, except for one thing: that religion is something that affects them so intensely that they simply cannot leave it alone, they must come back again and again. They would say it is in the hope that someone will be converted to their way of thinking, but surely that is the most inefficient possible way to go about it. It cannot even be pleasant for them, all that bile - at least, I hope they know the difference. The truth is that the mere existence of Christians sickens them so intensely that they cannot keep away: they can neither cope with it, or keep away from them. And this, I assure you, is a widespread phenomenon in the United Kingdom.
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Isn’t it amazing how many supposed adults do not seem to have ever been children? It is particularly sad when these same persons pretend to legislate for those of us who have been, are, or will be.

California is apparently set to join the already overlarge number of countries that make spanking children a crime. This is clearly a law designed by people who never have been children, and who see the bizarre little dwarfish creatures through two sets of deforming glasses – that of ignorance, and that of ideology.Read more... )
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Hundreds of former and current students spent six months to organize a huge reunion in Rome to celebrate the retirement of their old elementary school teacher, Giovanna Bittoni, who reached the legal retirement age after forty years of unbroken service in the same school, Villa Paganini. Several made time to come from abroad, as far as China, and one person drove down all the way from Switzerland - a mere ten hours' drive.

It took long hard work, mostly on the phone and internet - tracking down old classmates, passing the word and hoping it would be passed in turn, even trying a name on e-mail companies such as yahoo and hotmail in the hope that the person concerned had an account there. Eventually, pretty much everyone was tracked down. A surprise party was organized. A few who really were unable to come, sent presents. There were piles of personal presents and a common gift from the whole group - a luxury trip abroad. It was their way of showing that they understood how much of her life she had given: "Giovanna has had a tough life, but she never asked for a moment's rest," said one of the organizers.

The lady, not being altogether a fool, had felt that something was being organized, but she was stunned at the scale of the event: "I could never have imagined such a surprise," she said. She recovered and more or less reviewed everyone present, remembering almost everyone back to the first year she had ever taught: "You," she would say to a successful-looking middle-aged man, "you would do nothing but play football. Italian and you were two completely alien things." But when she was given the presents, she was near to tears: "All this enthusiasm and generosity from my kids, and to think that they still remember, makes me feel happy, feel rich inside".

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting Ms.Bittoni on realizing the scale of her retirement party

Some of the ex-students added that more good had come out of it: a lot of friendships have been born and reborn, and "now that we found each other again, we're not going to forget each other so easily again." "We send dozens of e-mails a day, chat away, swap views and advice, or simply remember the old days".
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With the passing of years, I become more aware of the faults in my character; and especially of that savagery that enters my speech and behaviour every time I face something that is, in my view, really unacceptable. That I become, at such moments, quite offensive, is something of which I am more and more conscious; though I do not grow, unfortunately, more capable of controlling it in any way. And this bad habit of anger has a particularly vicious twist: that as it comes on at times when I really do feel I am in the right in opposing certain things, it leaves me unable to make an apology that would go to the core of the disagreement, for I cannot honestly alter my mind about the issues. In many cases, the likelihood is that some sort of estrangement was inevitable, and that my temper only sped it up; but I do wonder from time to time that I have any friends at all.

[personal profile] rfachir is a friend, she is dear to me, and I have just treated her quite badly. Typically, I feel I am in the right about the issues; indeed, it is sheer astonishment that anyone should not see the point of what I had posted, that led to the abuse. I was astounded that a supposedly Catholic institution of higher learning should hire an atheist, not just as a professor of theology - that would be bad enough - but as subject director; and I was even more astounded that someone could not see the point. My view was, and I have to say that it remains, that [personal profile] rfachir was, in this instance, misled by common but false notions about education. The answer I returned, however, was dismissive and - I suspect - contemptous-sounding; which is entirely wrong. Just because her ideas are common, if they are false I should at least take it on me to discuss them and show why they do not apply to the situation in hand - or to any situation at all.

What [personal profile] rfachir said was this: "Do you expect a college, especially a Jesuit one, to endorse anyone who did not encourage students to question their assumptions?" And I still believe that the primacy of "questioning [one's] assumptions", which this implies, is a mistaken notion. So let me try and show what I mean in a more civil manner; pausing, first, to apologize to [personal profile] rfachir for my lousy temper and bad manners.

When I think of the pleasure and the good that I got out of school and university, I am not conscious that "having my assumptions challenged" played any great part in it. To the contrary, what gave me delight was finding out more and more things; facts; confirmed, established, truthful statements and descriptions. I pored over maps, accounts, descriptions, dates, and images. I sought out textbooks and went through dozens of entries in encyclopedias; I read collections of old magazines; I even collected stamps for the bits of things that they could show me of other countries and times. I absorbed data like a sponge. I still do. From elementary school to middle age, what has never changed for me is that the pleasure of learning is the pleasure of finding things out, and the pleasure of explaining.

What this has to do with the famous quote "the wisest of them all confirmed that he knew only this, that he knew nothing", is that the widest learning, if taken with a sense of proportion, only shows us how little we know. The men who reach furthest in study and investigation only become aware of how much more there is to be still found out - and how much more never can. The human race, for instance, has been on Earth for some 170,000 years, according to estimates I heard not so long ago - yet I know that the earliest traceable history goes back to less than 6,000 years, and that is over a very small territory. The vast majority of human history can never be known; a sufficient demonstration of how permanently small and provisional our knowledge is bound to remain.

Nonetheless, permanently small and provisional though it may be, knowledge is itself the ultimate authority. Reached at the price of enormous efforts from generation upon generation of people whom, if we met, we would rightly kneel to, it is not to be lightly rejected or discarded. The people who are most keen on "challenging assumptions" are cranks - flat earthers, six-day creationists, and the like. Sane minds accept what they cannot prove, on the authority of those who can prove it; they accept the description of the cosmos from scientists, and of the past from historians. If nothing else, they know that they do not have the tools to mount a serious challenge; they know that superior knowledge brings superior authority. Every one of us has some of that in his or her own field. I would not presume to challenge a plumber's knowledge of hydraulics, or an accountant's way around figures, or a mother on child-rearing. On the other hand, I love to hear from them. Have you noticed how, whenever a person is speaking about something s/he is competent and experienced in, their conversation always becomes more animated and interesting?

The sane position, then, is a general expectation that knowledge is provisional, coupled with a specific confidence in those who have specific knowledge. The crazed position is the presumption that we have to "question authority" - that is, ultimately, competence. We are not competent to do so, except in our own fields; and in our own fields, our concern ought to be, if we had any sense, not with any position, but with truth. As a historian, I do not give a damn if the most prestigious scholar disagrees with my interpretation of a text, so long as s/he cannot bring an argument that trumps mine. (I have been proven wrong dozens upon dozens of times; it is a very educational experience.) It is not because of any attitude of "challenging assumptions", but because of a reverence for the ultimate authority of truth - which is what s/he, I and every other historian ought to be devoted to - that I will disagree with anyone, from Dumezil on down, if I feel their interpretation of facts is insufficient or downright misleading. And I will do so with due respect for their knowledge and insight - but... "Athenians, I love you and respect you; but if I have to choose, I will follow the God" (that is, truth) "rather than you."

You are unfortunately all too right in saying that Jesuits teach their students to "question assumptions" - especially those of the Church. That is why that order is declining in numbers and prestige. They have set themselves on a sterile road of worldliness, pandering to modern cliches, and destruction for its own sake; not unaided, so it is said, by a rich appreciation for the pleasures of anal sex. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is about authority - the authority of Jesus Christ, the authority of 2000 years of succession, of generations of debates which came to definite conclusions and excluded one proposition while accepting another. The notion that all doctrines are of equal value, that all may and should with equal propriety be "challenged" - with no reference to their status with respect to truth, or even only to their position with respect to the teachings and life of Jesus - is of all things the least Catholic; as well as the least scientific, the least historical, and the least rational. Knowledge proceeds by exclusion; if you cannot declare one thing false and another true, you do not have knowledge at all, but groundless opinion.


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