Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The World Core Curriculum

It isn’t at all clear that schools as such need to exist, and it is certainly unnecessary for all children to go to school. We may assume that there are some things, many things, which children need to learn, and which a significantly large number cannot learn directly from their families. Which doesn’t mean they can’t learn them at home or elsewhere. The modern world should have changed completely the way education is carried out, but a combination of lack of imagination, the desire of governments to monopolise the minds of the young, and the demands of teachers’ unions, have meant that little has changed. It is simply not necessary to herd children into buildings and environments that are often unpleasant, to waste many hours a day throughout their entire childhood being instructed in things they do not need to know, and failing to learn the things they do. Attention is invariably focused, and the law tends to encourage it, or even require it, on those children who cannot or do not want to learn, and those who do or can must educate themselves as best they can from the scraps that fall to them.

There is no real purpose to the continued existence of schools as such. There is no defensible excuse for denying children half their childhood for no reason, or for failing to do what you promised to do when you forced them to sacrifice their freedom 8 hours a day.

Even so, the World Core Curriculum Movement is not intrinsically wrong to try to identify the things that it is useful for children to learn, but the conclusions they have reached are, to say the least, open to question.

It is clear that they start with the more or less unquestioned assumption that government is entitled to fill the heads of children with whatever it thinks fit. Further assumptions transparently inspiring this curriculum are that nothing much will change in the world other than what they want to change, that more or less everybody is soft-left and progressive like them, and most importantly, and dangerously, that the purpose of education is to make the young fit the role-shaped holes that their betters imagine they can create in society. They are pure utilitarians, sort of modern Fabians. Other than that their list is little more than a collection of all the things they can think of that children might be taught.

There is no apparent recognition that societies differ greatly in their requirements and possibilities, and that children differ greatly in their abilities, interests and aspirations. There is no apparent recognition of the fact that what it is useful for children to learn and what society might need them to know are not necessarily the same thing. (If the main purpose of education is to allow one to make a better living, you need to be educated in the things that are likely to be most in demand, taking into account your own aptitudes, but society changes, partly in response to the effort, the interests and the skills of the people who happen to make it up at any given moment.)

They matter because they are influential. This is not some insignificant groupuscle wittering away to itself, it’s being used already.

    Point 1 -- Our Planetary Home and Place in the Universe
    Point 2 -- Our Place in Time
    Point 3 -- The Family of Humanity
    Point 4 -- The Miracle of Individual Life

Yes, they call it the Tetrahedron, because they’ve split it into four points. And in the original document there is a tetrahedron drawn above it in case you missed the significance.

These four points are all very well, by all means encourage children to marvel at the universe and our place within it, but it’s only the start, surely?

If you click the link you will see that the entirety of the Miracle of Human Life section could be scrapped- it’s not school material- and the rest of it is a basic primary school curriculum of the ‘getting to know the world around us” type. Well, perhaps not basic, but most of it is fairly elementary “who I am” stuff. All kinds of things that go beyond knowledge, all the things we acquire this basic knowledge in order to be able to do, the cognitive skills required to use it productively, and to change the world for the better, are summed up in one throwaway line that looks as though it wasn’t even finished properly:

  + Teaching to question, think, analyze,
synthesize, conclude, communicate

The following point I do find interesting, though, even if they have chucked it in a dusty corner of the list:

  + Teaching to focus from the infinitely
large to the infinitely small, from the distant
past and present to the future

It is rare to find people who appreciate the importance of a very broad temporal, geographical and social perspective on the universe, so bonus marks for that.

But it lacks imagination and ambition, it focuses far too strongly on ideas of civics and citizenship, of the ‘know your place’ variety, and it will, I strongly suspect, be implemented by the people like these, and like those described here. And it’s coming soon to a school near you, if it hasn’t already arrived.

They are planning for tomorrow with yesterday’s ideas, and it isn’t going to work.

Monday, November 28, 2011

La Laguna de Caracuel

A body of water, about 1200 yards long and 600 across, surrounded by hills, just south of the village of Caracuel. There’s water around here if you look for it. Not enough, or not the right kind to irrigate the crops and provide drinking water everywhere without a great deal of infrastructure, but I leave the engineering to those who understand how to do it, pay my taxes (rather grudgingly) to pay for it, and thus have the luxury of seeing water aesthetically rather than functionally. Only the farmers worry about it these days, since the engineers and the taxpayers have done their job well enough for the rest of us.

Caracuel is a tiny village with no apparent purpose, except that it’s at just the right distance from here to do a bit of cycling to. Now it’s like many such villages, a good place to come from, or better still, for your parents to come from. That way you get to grow up somewhere more interesting, but you have a house in the country to go to for quiet weekends. Once you’ve passed 30 you appreciate that.
There is a castle on a hill above the village, a small Moorish construction that is mostly ruined. It’s probably worth the climb up a least once, but is probably visited mostly at night by the young who can doubtless find a number of uses for it. As did the Arabs, I expect.

The lake was covered with coots. Hundreds, probably thousands. Ducks of several kinds, small white herons which are very common here, and a few hawks of the kind that like voles and fish and are often found near water, but mostly coots. The photo shows this clearly.

We take what we can get here, so collections of waterfowl have good entertainment value. And the road is hard on the knees, but sweet on the eyes.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hedgehog News

Here we go again. A hedgehog likes to know that his house is his own, and that he’s not going to have to argue with other wildlife, that the food and water are there as long as he runs around enough to find them, and that life will be largely free from the stress that is so damaging to the lustre of the spines and the dampness of the nose. The biped and his mate are ok. They don’t eat my food and they go to sleep just when I want the place to myself. The rabbit tried to get matey but he worked out who was boss long ago and we have an agreement.

But I’d thought we’d seen the last of that lad in the photo when his third or fourth avatar had a bit of owl trouble over the summer. I was too sanguine. They’ve got a couple more of the things and they don’t understand when they’re not welcome. They escape and come looking for you, try to share your bed, and lie against you looking inanely cheerful. Damn nuisance.

I’m an insect animal, really. Cheese, nuts and chocolate are fine, and the cat food they leave lying around is ok (even though they don’t have a cat- funny that, now I think about it). Biting the heads off small mammals isn’t my style. We are a proud and noble species, above such things. So I’ll have to be patient, until they realise that my life is not enriched by hamster gossip, or my human co-blogger finds a way to keep them in their cage.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

Aspiring tyrants know that if they give their supporters permission to kill the people they don’t like, revolution will follow by itself.

Reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ this summer, I was struck by the atmosphere of filth hanging about the final scenes in the prison. Not just the moral filth, the sheer horror of evil nobodies using someone else’s abstract idea to gain the power of life and death over their neighbours, and employing it mercilessly, but the physical filth of the prison. It permeates the scenes. You can smell the rats, the sweat, the seeping grey walls, the fear. You struggle to see through the darkness that fills the cell, night and day. Prison dramas don’t show you what the places smell like, but I bet there’s a fair bit of armpits and cabbage. Deodorant costs money.

Sydney Carton doesn’t make the final speech, culminating in ‘It is a far, far better thing...’ It is the narrator, or probably Dickens himself, who speaks those words immediately after his death, imagining what Carton might have said if he had the opportunity and the eloquence. Sydney Carton himself spent his last minutes helping a wholly innocent young woman to approach death with a little less terror than she otherwise would, and his only words were to her. They weren’t even half-meant for himself, and no one else heard them, or cared about them.

The last hours, knowing he would only leave that stinking black cell to be led to the block where he must lose his head, knowing that he needn’t have been there, and that neither he nor the man he replaced had done anything to deserve death, must have been suffocating, filled with unrelieved and mounting horror. The gesture itself was magnificent. The circumstances of it were vile, colourless, lacking any grandeur. The banality of evil, indeed.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Hickory Wind

I am slightly disappointed, though not surprised, that no one has ever asked what the title of the blog refers to. The cognoscenti of Cosmic American Music will know, and why would anyone else be interested?

It may be right, it may be wrong, but it's Rock'n'Roll
Hickory Wind was arguably the most emblematic song of Gram Parsons, and is a painful expression of longing for a lost past. Parsons was born Cecil Ingram Connor and revolutionised both country and rock in the early 70’s by writing songs and performing them in ways that no one else dared to do. He was a tortured musical genius (or a self-absorbed trustafarian junkie, depending on your point of view), who discovered Emmylou Harris, taught the Byrds how to make real music, taught the Stones how to do country, and died at 26 of a heroin overdose (of course) leaving a small but influential legacy, and a musical landscape transformed.

For years I planned to get a tattoo in his honour, but I couldn’t come with a way of conceptualising the hickory wind in a unobtrusive doodle. When I finally had an idea I was happy with, Mrs Hickory vetoed it because it involved a tombstone and it gave her the creeps. In any case there is a time and an age for that sort of thing, and I left it behind some time ago.

I have always been a fan of North American music, from cowboy songs to western swing and Appalachian folk, from Tex-Mex to Cajun and zaideco, from Green Grow the Rushes to George Gershwin, including southern jazz and blues played by old black men on the steps of their house, which is about as authentic as music can get. My favourite is the rough, tough Texan stuff, like Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Townes van Zant, Kevin Welch, Terry Allen, and we can add Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Ed Bruce and George Jones when they allowed to make music instead of money. Gram Parsons doesn’t fit in there, but he was a one-off, like Tom Waits. It’s a million miles from Nashville, and all that commercial syrup that has given country music such a bad name.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Purpose

"...And so he chose to die. One evening as the sun went down over the barn at the other side of the path that bordered the field he was walking in he decided to die and he exercised his will to that end. It should have been easy. Everything he had done had been easy when he had wanted to do it. He had loved at will, believed at will, swum at will, persuaded at will, run, jumped and kicked at will, learnt, passed exams, won places and awards at will, thought and understood at will, created worlds at will, exactly as he wanted them...
...At that moment it never occurred to him that his will would not be enough to kill him. He was deeply disturbed to find he still lived, and it was several minutes before he could accept that he had not died. If his will would not act directly on his heart, then it would act on his body in other ways...
...there was a tree there and his belt would serve as a rope. He found pleasure in the contemplation of the act, in the working out of details, in the solving of problems. How many times had he asked himself, as an adolescent and a young man, certain there must be an answer, ‘How can it be that the end of life is death?’ The only end of life is death. At times he had lost confidence in his question, and begun to wonder if it was not simply so. The only end of life is death...
... having had the insight, he could believe passionately, that the only end, the only purpose, of life, was death. To die? To die well? To die aesthetically? To die bravely? It was hard to know what any of these ideas might mean, and it was probable, if the original proposition was true, that they meant nothing. He could seek a beautiful woman, a good and promising child, a philanthropic old man, a dynamic and big-hearted young one, and give his life to save theirs. It should not be impossible to contrive the circumstances...
...Should he seek truth in his death? He could contrive a death that would express great dramatic truth, coherent and complete in its narration of itself. His death could be great art. An expression of the very fact that it was the central, the only, purpose, not of his life, but of all lives. He could die for God, as he had once desired to. He could die for love as he had once been ready to. He could die for socialism, for nationalism, for freedom of speech, for the right to pasture goats on common land, for an administrative matter so insignificant and obscure that no one would ever understand it. That would be great indeed; to die for something which nobody else in the world could possibly conceive of dying for...
...So he stepped off the bough, to achieve death. His fall had barely started when it was arrested by the running out of the very limited slack there had been in the belt. His hands, which he had not tied, instantly and without his consent, began to rise towards his neck, but they had only moved a matter of inches when the branch snapped cleanly and he fell. He hit the ground hard and awkwardly, and was unable to stir for some seconds. The buckle was closed in the normal way, and had not tightened on his throat. When he became aware of himself once more he felt pain in his neck as from a blow, in his back as from a severe twisting motion, in his head as from a very bad conscience, and in his chest as from a heart attack...
...But what was right. A public death perhaps, but only public because it had to be, not to stage a spectacle. Standing before a bus in Trafalgar Square. But why? What purpose was served by such a thing? The driver and even the witnesses could suffer permanently from the shock of it, and there was no need to cause trouble in that way. and people would think he was doing it for a cause, as a protest or some such thing. Perhaps he should have a cause. It would delay him slightly but he could find a cause to die for. Immediately he saw the difficulty. His death was his purpose. To construct a reason for it would be worse than useless, it would be to recognise that his death was not a purpose in itself...
...He thought of those who had chosen to die by their own hand, not from cowardice, or hopelessness, or monumental stupidity, but from greatness. He thought of Seneca, dying of loyalty, surrounded by the friends his greatness had brought him. Tom was not prepared to share his death with anyone, let alone such friends as he had, but the slitting of the wrists was something to be considered. It was associated with abandoned girls, fallen performers and overcharged melodrama. That was another problem- he could not be dramatic for the sake of it, but neither could he be melodramatic....
...He thought of Socrates, dying of justice. Also surrounded by the friends he had earned, and completely certain that what he did was right. The story told was in this case probably very close to the truth. But both of these men had died because it had been decided that they should. They had accepted the decisions and so had made their deaths feel right. Tom’s death was entirely a consequence of his own understanding of what he should do; only his will and his reason were involved... In any case, the drinking of hemlock would definitely have been melodramatic, and could give rise to misinterpretations which would devalue any assessment of his action.
He thought of Cleopatra, dying of dignity. Her end, at least as transmitted by the old historians, was far too self-consciously dramatic to serve as any kind of model, and her reasons were a long way from his. The snake might be a problem, too. So wrapped up was he in his thoughts that it was a moment before he smiled at this. He thought of Thích Quảng Đức, dying of, truth, perhaps, his final thoughts unknowable, but apparently clear and serene. His death had a meaning that his continued life could not. His death, whatever it actually achieved meant to him exactly what he intended it to mean. He knew why he died, and he believed that he should..."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Blog?

Bloggers often ask themselves and each other why they blog. Why they started blogging, why they continue to blog. What blogging is.

I started blogging because I thought I had something to say. For years I’ve been saying it to myself, inside my head or in notebooks or to this clever box I’m now writing on. Sometimes to editors, publishers, long-suffering friends, or random people in the pub. Then I saw that a lot of people were putting the better bits of the stuff they were saying to themselves on the Internet and getting reaction. Some had fans, cheerleaders, groupies even. Others seemed to like abuse, it appeared to inspire them. Some got no response at all, and yet still blogged. There is a chap on my blogroll, Cronaca, who I’ve been reading for years and never commented on, because I’ve never felt I had anything to add to the post. Neither, apparently, does anyone else. I can’t remember ever seeing a comment on a post of his, and yet he continues to write about interesting things. Some people should probably have kept their thoughts to themselves, and I might be one of them, but blogging is a form of freedom, and no one is forced to read it. Only a handful of people are even aware of the existence of this blog, but I still spend time crafting posts for those who do drop in.

But the question was why, and I haven’t answered it yet. I half-expected, in hindsight I realise this, to be welcomed onto the net by fawning admirers, smitten by the quality of my prose and dazzled by the brilliance of my insights. Well, it didn’t happen quite like that. When I got past the stage of effectively not existing, and a few people started leaving comments, I discovered that they were not all bowled over by the power of my rhetoric and the strength of my arguments. They did not stand on the sidelines clapping. They took issue, they expressed disagreement. They pointed out flaws and errors. My notebooks never did that.

So I had to think a bit more carefully about what I wrote, anticipating objections, clarifying obscurity, deepening the research (or at least doing some), which I discovered was what I should have been doing in the first place. Thus I learnt to think a bit more clearly, and to write a little better.

It means thinking more carefully about the audience, which is the secret of successful communication of any kind. One of my little sidelines is training people to speak in public (and usually in what is, for them, a foreign language), and the main problem they need me to solve is how to reach their audience. It seems obvious, but most people can’t easily appreciate that the audience dictates everything about a talk/presentation/lecture/viva voce, and everything, the content, style, structure, the delivery, the way you stand, the clothes you wear, the tone of voice, the way you use the attrezzo, including the subject matter of the talk itself, if you have a certain amount of freedom, must be designed to attract and hold the audience. You have to do their work for them.

The first and most important question is, who will you be talking to? Often they don’t know, or don’t think it matters. They are usually nervous about it, and so everything revolves around them as performer, and they forget that it’s the other side of the communication process that will decide if it went well or badly. Who am I talking to here? Myself, mostly, I think. Blogging is an exercise in talking to yourself as though you were someone else, with the occasional random observation from a passer-by, which may help or not. Blogging is not communication, at least not the way I do it. It has no goal which is directly related to the readers, or seeks anything from them. But I know that a few people, somewhere, will read what I write, and that someone, possibly, will think it worth adding a thought of their own to.

And that, I think, is why I do it.