Thursday, October 30, 2008

Layer 81 Education, the USA & the UK, Solitude and Neil Young.

The front page of this week’s Guardian Education concerned itself entirely with the question, “Which candidate would do more for US education?”

It then went on the describe the key issues and the problems they need to deal with, and I have to say I was shocked in reading it by just how bad things appear to be. Every bit as bad as they are here, and maybe even worse.

Nothing particularly bad about the teachers and the pupils, who are what they are, but the system itself appears to be completely stupid and counterproductive, just as ours is, in dealing with the real needs of pupils.

In 2001 “Bush took a strategy he had implemented in Texas of using standardized annual testing of pupils to gauge schools.” Same here, of course.

“Schools deemed to be failing are left to flail, while even good schools rail against the strictures of ‘teaching to the test’”. Same here. Except that our ‘good’ schools very rarely rail against teaching to the test since they deny even doing so, and many seem to quite enjoy playing the game.
“It is crucial for the new president to address high school dropout rates since up to half of pupils in the worst-performing states, particularly small southern states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, leave at 15 or 16 with no qualifications.”

That’s to say, NO qualifications.

Makes you wonder what he hell all those kids ever did in school - what exactly did they spend their time doing? Because none of these writers and analysts ever discuss any other purpose for schools, apart from processing kids through courses geared to academic tests and exams. Could there possibly be any other purpose? And if so, what sort of success was achieved in pursuing it? We ought to know.

McCain has apparently pledged to introduce more competition and choice, and to make it easier to sack teachers and school leaders, as well as close schools that are deemed to be failing. Sounds to me like New Labour and the Tories.

McCain favours giving parents in state schools vouchers worth the value of their child’s education, which they can redeem at a private or charter school. Which is what many Tories advocate here, year after year. No difference at all, and so stupid it’s too depressing for words.

Estelle Morris, also writing in the education section, makes the point that since it’s now well established that the deregulated private banking and finance sector has been shown to be utterly incompetent, greedy, arrogant and corrupt, maybe we should hear less about the private sector and deregulated schools providing the answers to our problems in education.

Meanwhile George Monbiot, in his column in the Comment section, launches a brilliant and brave attack on the state of politics and of education in the USA - “How these gibbering numbskulls came to dominate Washington”.

You really need to read the entire article, but here’s a couple of tasters:

The degradation of intelligence and learning in American politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind's closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist?

It wasn't always like this. The founding fathers of the republic - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others - were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin?

On one level, this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves round the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15-year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD. But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many US citizens become so stupid, and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: religion - in particular fundamentalist religion - makes you stupid. The US is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.
"In the south", Jacoby writes, "what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order."

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest denomination in the US, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the south stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that one in four of the state's state school biology teachers believed humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time.

The spectre of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the election of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite - like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding Bush - has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an over-educated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the rightwing elite has been successfully branded as elitism.

Obama has a lot to offer the US, but none of this will stop if he wins. Until the great failures of the US education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.


Lots of words and pictures in the news this week about the ‘Leopard Man of Skye’, a gent of 73 years who left London to live as a hermit in Scotland 20 years ago, after having his whole body tattooed in leopard-like spots at a cost in excess of £5,000. He’s decided to give up living in his isolated, ruined cottage and has moved into ‘sheltered accommodation’ in a village.

The notion of being a hermit is quite interesting, as is having one’s skin tattooed to look like a leopard, and being willing to pay someone 5K in order to do it. But the weirdest part of this story is someone choosing to go and live in Scotland. Where’s the last place on the planet any sane person would want to be if they planned to go around naked and live in an unheated cottage? Somewhere cold, wet, barren, windswept and grim like the Scottish Hebrides?

Libby Brookes has an interesting column in The Guardian today reflecting on how our society struggles for genuine intimacy, and also struggles to cope successfully with solitude. She writes,

These days, the notion of removing oneself from society, whether for religious, philosophic or individual reasons, is anathema.

Total solitude is considered the preserve of the mad, the extremely devout or the deeply unhappy. We live in a culture that values being witnessed above all other things. Whether that be Jade Goody's cervical cancer diagnosis on a live "reality" show, or Kerry Katona's slurring breakdown on This Morning, the current ethic tells us no event in our personal lives is valid unless we've texted 10 friends about it and proffered it to YouTube for general derision.

In our timetabled lives, a plethora of technology offers a distortion of genuine closeness. An email sent from one individual in a particular state of mind reaches another in quite a different one, and this we call keeping in touch. It's good for consumerism, and it's good for surveillance. Yet such desperate binding has little to do with the things we really crave: family, community, a society that concerns itself with more than cash and flash. And it also denies the transfiguring qualities of aloneness.

It is an irony that, despite the atomised, estranged nature of contemporary life, we have forgotten the value of retreat, while failing to differentiate the qualities of solitude from those of loneliness. Perhaps because it is something we all fear and consider evidence of failure, loneliness - though it can happen to those with crowded lives as well as quieter ones - is seldom discussed.

While Tom Leppard's method of retreat was extreme, he insists he was never lonely. Of course, love and trust are essential to the human experience, particularly at a time when those less intimate but similarly sustaining bonds of neighbourliness and community are being eroded. But we cannot define our existence only in relation to other people. As the renowned psychiatrist Anthony Storr argued, intimate personal relationships are but one source of wellbeing. The capacity to be alone is also fundamental to development.

Storr observed that, while there has been much research into children's relationships with their parents and with other children, there is little discussion of whether it is valuable for them to be alone. "Yet if it is considered desirable to foster the growth of the child's imaginative capacity," he wrote, "we should ensure that our children, when they are old enough to enjoy it, are given time and opportunity for solitude."

But solitude fosters not only creativity. It also relates to an individual's capacity to connect with, and make manifest, inner feelings and impulses. To experience a contented, relaxed sense of being alone offers an opportunity for self-realisation, and is as much a mark of maturity as the ability to sustain relationships with others.

What is noxious about our modern climate is that it militates against genuine solitude as well as genuine intimacy. If we take the time to look beyond the bizarre tattoos, the story of Tom Leppard has much to teach us about both.


Privacy . . . . Isolation . . . . Collaboration.

Neil Young is a very strange guy in many ways, and has made frequent career moves between acoustic and electric, between working as a solo artist and collaborating with other great musicians.

Tomorrow night is Neil Young Night on BBC4. Thank goodness for the BBC, which is still under heavy shellfire today, even though Russell Brand has resigned - since Ross’s many enemies are still out to get him, and the Beeb’s many enemies are still out to get the Beeb.

This is exactly the sort of programming that BBC4, and public service broadcasting, should be providing - 3 hours of advert-free programmes on (one of) the world’s great artists. The website says,

Neil Young is a resolutely private artist who rarely looks back, and one of the world's great artists. He grants unprecedented access to the BBC for this film in which he traces his musical journey in his own words.

For five decades, Young's unbending dedication to the muse has created an awe-inspiring body of work – and put a few noses out of joint along the way.

I guess most people don’t even know that Young is a Canadian, such is his complete identification with the USA in the sixties, with the whole California hippie counterculture thing.

But Neil was always one of the edgy, political variety of artists, who clearly thought deeply about the kind of societies we live in, and how they need to progress to something that’s on a much higher spiritual and moral plane.

As I write I’m listening to his guitar solo on ‘Southern Man’ - raw, rocking, driving blues. Angry, provocative lyrics.

His ‘body of work’ is indeed ‘awe-inspiring’ both for its sheer quantity as well as its quality.

One of his best albums is ‘Sleeps With Angels’, which contains a fascinating bunch of songs that are as diverse in their subject matter as they are in musical styles.

The stand-out track is ‘Change Your Mind’, which is one his longest and one of his best ever tracks. It also has one of his most complex and challenging lyrics, as well as one of his greatest guitar instrumentals.

The lyrics are complex because they attempt to convey the complexity of intimacy and love - the light and the dark aspects, the yin as well as the yang. This is difficult and challenging territory, especially for those who don’t care to see both sides, who imagine that ‘love’ and intimacy are in all situations benign and desirable.

There’s a good Google Video version of this track, ‘The Complex Sessions', but it’s not a track to listen to on crappy computer speakers or even so-so headphones. It’s a track to listen to in semi-darkness, using a very good hi-fi with a big bass and the volume cranked well up, with eyes half closed, and preferably on your own, unless you’re with someone who can really, really dig it.

Never been into Neil Young? Change your mind?

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