Monthly Archives: October 2016

Get Kids Cultured

7556a78a84f2462b0a01d7b3d70d17f4.jpg

To be cultured means to nail one’s colours to the mast, and those who fear what’s arbitrary in that (and run to theory for protection) fear culture itself.

Howard Jacobson

The importance of tradition, the great tradition, is not that it is the only possibility but it is the best one that we have. For Jacobson, his tutor at Cambridge, FR Leavis, opened up a world of education to him:

Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.

Being right isn’t what matters to Jacobson but it is the ‘nailing one’s colours to the mast’ that does. This is ‘being cultured’. The vision for education is important, to be involved in that conversation, to add to it, to argue, to say ‘yes… but…’ but not to dismiss and the involvement in the dialogue is lifelong.

It is telling that in a piece called:

Building 21st-century skills: preparing pupils for the future, that a life ‘after education’ is envisaged:

In an ever-evolving world, how can we ensure that future generations have the skills that will truly prepare them for life after education?

In the past I have called this type of progressive education ‘neo-progressivism’. Instead of being revolutionary it is tied to the interests of global capitalism. Instead of education being an ever-evolving involvement with a lifetime of reading and exploring the rich tapestry of culture, the neo-progresssive sees education as a finite vehicle for the good of global capitalism. In her sponsored piece in the Guardian Jessica Clifton, the marketing manager for Lego Education nails her colours to the mast:

…there is a certain expectation to simply fill students with facts and figures. However, this can actually hinder learning, limiting students’ potential to explore concepts and discover solutions for themselves. What we need to do is, quite literally, put learning into students’ hands.

Which, for Jessica is Lego. And I love lego, but it is not ‘Culture’. It is a great toy, and toys can be used for great art; through their knowledge of Goya, the Chapman Brothers, were driven to create works of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ by melting down toy soldiers, maiming, twisting and painting them. The art created is dystopian and disturbing. This is not the vision Lego Education has when it wants to put learning in students’ hands. The article sees education as far more sterile, it quotes Andy Snape, assistant head of sixth form at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, as saying:

“As a teacher, I want to give students the greatest opportunities to achieve and I have found hands-on, creative lessons to be the most effective. Why? Because this learning style not only enthuses and engages pupils, but gives them the chance to understand the purpose of what they’re learning… we use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 to teach engineering, mathematics and computing, as well as using it for an extracurricular robotics club. Using the central programmable “Intelligent Brick”, students can design and build robotic solutions to different scenarios and problems. This could be anything from a sorting system that organises items into distinct categories based on colour, or a prototype space rover that avoids obstacles and performs basic tasks remotely.”

Education as a means to an end, not a life within culture but one that sees education as having a predetermined purpose, to serve the needs of business. It is the misunderstanding of creativity that irks me most. Let us nail our colours to the mast, creativity is not a ‘learning style’, it can be downright dangerous and dirty, but as a great  education cliche it has become the clinical servant of capital. Lego education, Persil et al, who peddle this version of creativity are anti-education, anti-culture, and paradoxically anti-creativity. Creativity is a life force, central to humanity and not the servant of a utilitarian drive to get people into STEM subjects to prepare them for the jobs that have yet to be invented.

This is the tension between tradition and progress; on the side of tradition we have great art, literature and the humanities and a continual dialogue, a great cultural education. On the side of progress we have Lego, STEM subjects (not the subjects themselves but their adoption as ‘a thing’) and an education that finishes when the world of work has taken over your life, this education is anti-cultural. It is the philistine fear of a truly cultural education that drives much of the verbiage of the neo-progressive movement. For them it is all brands, futurology, and education for utility: ‘Mcdonaldisation’; it is the sort of education that will halt progress in its tracks, for it forgets the importance of facts and figures and the knowledge and richness of the past. For all their trumpeting of creativity the neo-progressives can’t create a better story than the one education has been telling for centuries.

Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_Witches'_Sabbath_(The_Great_He-Goat).jpg

Advertisements

Boris ‘Two Articles’ Johnson

Boris-Johnson.jpg

The Sunday Times has published an article by Boris Johnson arguing the case for remaining in the EU, that it was written a mere two days before he announced he would be campaigning for Brexit has led to a good number of people bemoaning Boris’s hypocrisy. First there was ‘two Jags’ Prescott, now there is ‘two articles’ Boris and people of twitter have not been slow in putting their opinions forward about Johnson being caught trying to look after his own interests rather than the interests of the nation.

Far from being a sign of Johnson being in two minds and coming across as a political charlatan, his two articles are really a sign of a good education. There is one sign early on when Johnson, as his his wont, uses a classical allusion:

“…like Hercules bringing Eurydice (sic) back from the underworld.”

But it is not just his ability to play around with classical knowledge that is of interest, it is the well known technique of getting pupils to see both (or more) sides of an argument that matters. As I argue in the book ‘Trivium in Practice’ :

…get children to explore… debate through a technique known as a dissoi logo. Through this method a pupil would be encouraged to look at two sides of an argument – or more – and be asked to write… [giving] equal weight to the ‘rightness’ of both sides. This is the process through which instant opinion is ‘shelved’ and stronger, educated opinion begins to be formed

As it says in Wikipedia the dissoi logo ‘considers each side of an argument in hopes of coming to a deeper truth’ and that ‘The Dissoi Logoi was found amongst the works of Sextus Empiricus who lived between 160-210 C.E… In ancient Greece, students of rhetoric would be asked to speak and write for both sides of a controversy.’

Johnson is not showing his hypocrisy arguing for both sides of the debate in writing, rather he is showing what a good, classical, education he had. Actually, I can think of no better rhetorical technique for someone in the Foreign Office, I wonder if he has a few scribbled notes in praise of Putin in his pocket?

NB: I will be speaking on this and other Classical education ideas at the wonderful Battle of Ideas at the Barbican this Sunday coming, come along, it’s a great line up!

Should White Men Get Awards?

And should the curriculum be white?

848px-Joan_Baez_Bob_Dylan_crop.jpg

In today’s Guardian is a piece bemoaning the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan; as an idea that is perfectly acceptable however, the piece argues that the reason for not awarding Mr Zimmerman the Nobel should be because of his whiteness and maleness.

The Nobel prize in literature is infamous for its conventionality and the limits of its imagination. In its 115-year history, only 14 women have been awarded the prize, and only four of those women have been writers of colour. The Nobel prize has one of the worst gender ratios in any major literary award, which is troubling given that its internationality means that it is viewed as the most prestigious literary award around. 

There are some very important points being made here, the figures might suggest that the members of the awarding committee have been guilty of racism and sexism over the years yet it is equally possible that they might not have been. Bearing in mind Dylan’s Jewish heritage it was interesting that the writer, Natalie Kon-Yu, didn’t mention how many Jews have received the award. She goes on to say:

Prizes are subjective measures, but they are important: they reinforce the standards of great writing in our culture, with a focus on quality rather than popularity.

If the focus is to be on quality of the work and not on the race and sex of the person who makes the work anomalies might happen. Any accusation of sexism and racism would have to look at the quality of the work in order to prove that other work was better but, as Kon-Yu also points out, this is very much a subjective judgement. If the committee feels that Dylan’s work qualifies for the prize I am sure they are able to justify it in qualitative, subjective terms. Art should not be measured ‘objectively’. However, the argument in the piece doesn’t offer qualitative points about the art, instead it suggests that:

The Guardian listed Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami as favourites to win the prize this year – and all of those would have been a better choice than Dylan. There are also plenty of women, accomplished novelists, essayists and memoirists who could have won.

What about Atwood, who has written poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and whose work has been endlessly republished, studied around the world, and awarded major prizes for decades? Or Joyce Carol Oates, who has published more than 40 books of fiction as well as novellas, plays, poetry collections, short stories and non-fiction?

Or, if the Nobel committee really wanted to be radical, it might have given the award to Ferrante, who has achieved incredible commercial appeal for books that examine the sexism and classism of Italy in the 20th century.

Kon-Yu writes that: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami would have been a better choice than Dylan but doesn’t suggest why, yes there are plenty of women who could have won, that they didn’t might be that in a subjective argument about quality it was felt their work did not to match up to Dylan’s oeuvre. Maybe next time?

It is interesting that the argument given tries to reach for objective facts, the numbers of books published, awards awarded, times republished, and on all these scales Dylan is hardly surpassed as an artist. In many ways Dylan is such an icon he is difficult to ignore. Whether he deserves the Nobel prize for literature is an argument worth having because, qualitatively, his work doesn’t necessarily stand up on its own terms as great literature:

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

On its own this lyric doesn’t read well, yet put it with a guitar, a tune and a gravelly voice it works wonders, maybe the Nobel institute could look at making awards in a wider range of categories, though I am sure it is possible to pick out lyrics from Dylan’s many years of writing which stand up there with the world’s best literature, it’s his role as a singer songwriter and of the influence he has on others that makes him truly great.

His greatness should not be ignored because of his race or gender, the award should be for the work, nothing else. The same problem arises when choosing what to study in schools, is it the quality and historical importance of works that should be the reason for study or the gender and race of the writer? I would argue strongly for the former. However as a white male, if I was sat in a room of entirely white males, with similar backgrounds, putting together a curriculum, we could rightly be accused of having a view that is too narrow; the opinions heard must include voices that represent people whose class, race, sex etc. are truly representative of all, not because that would necessarily mean that the choices made would be different, though they might well be, but that we could be sure that the choices made had a universal, qualitative, importance. That some of this work might be produced by white European males should not exempt it from study, as the great black Marxist writer CLR James put it:

“I denounce European colonialism… but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.” ‘The Making of the Caribbean People’

I think that quality of work, rather than the gender and race of the writer, should be our touchstone, however I also think the members of committees who are in positions of power when designing curricula should be more reflective of the nation and in the case of international awards, the world.