Thursday, April 30, 2009

Layer 152 .The Rose Review, The Locus of Educational Authority, and the Active Pursuit of Learning.

Today sees the publication of Sir Jim Rose’s review of the Primary curriculum. Sir Middlof Laroute himself was on Radio 4 this morning talking about the need for children to be much better at communicating - speaking and listening - and he was taking care not to suggest that working class kids speak in ‘restricted codes’ - i.e. with ‘limited’ vocabulary, and using grammatical structures that are not the approved Standard English, such as local ‘dialects’.

We fought that battle back in the Sixties, and the good guys won. Yes folks - it is actually possible for working class kids, using whatever vocabulary they have at their disposal, to convey complex meanings using rich and descriptive language. It’s not just Standard English with Received Pronunciation that permits and facilitates good expression and communication.

Clearly, then, if some children find it difficult to express themselves clearly and fluently, it must be due to lack of opportunity to practice using language for self-expression. Which brings us back to one of my favourite subjects - kids sitting for the most part silently and having ‘education’ done to them.

Encouragement for discussion and dialogue within every learning context is essential, both for the formation of knowledge and understanding, and for developing confidence in speaking in various situations - pairs, small groups and in front of larger audiences.

Didactic teaching prevents these things happening. So why is there still so much didactic teaching, and why are young teachers only trained in ‘delivering’ (yuk!) the ‘curriculum’ using teacher- and curriculum-centred didactic methods?


Please read the following extracts from Prof. Horio’s book, Educational Thought and Ideology, against the background of what’s happened to the British education system these past 20 - 30 years. Because what’s been happening in Japan is exactly what’s been happening in Britain and the USA, and elsewhere. Prof Horio just spells it out more clearly than most of us ever could.

Chapter 1. The Crisis in Japanese Education Today.

In recent years education has increasingly come to be thought of as one of our most basic human rights, indeed the right by virtue of which all other modern rights ultimately derive their substance and meaning.

Education plays a pivotal role in the process by means of which children mature as reasoning beings and develop into responsible members of society.

This enlightened approach . . . is clearly visible in Japan’s postwar Constitution as well as its Fundamental Law of Education, adopted in 1947.

Not withstanding the fact that our school system is legally rooted in these ideals, however, the reality of present-day Japanese education is such that these values have been subverted.

As freedom of our schools is continuously eroded by the ever-increasing interference of the State’s administrative machinery, as educational values fall under the domination of an ideology dominated by the one-dimensional glorification of academic competence, and as schools come to be seen merely as arenas for the most vicious forms of competition related to social selection and advancement, it is becoming ever more impossible to take seriously the idea that education is the sine quo non of human rights.

In present-day Japan the verb “to learn” is generally understood only in relation to the passive reproduction of knowledge or techniques already established by others.

While the educational process is generally thought of in Japan as something individuals must negotiate BY themselves, it is rarely thought of as something they must do FOR themselves, except in the limited sense of its relation to their personal social advancement and future economic well-being.

The importance of the idea of an ACTIVE pursuit of knowledge can only become personally meaningful after one recognises that forfeiting this right is tantamount to forfeiting the right to make the kinds of free choices which are required of all the citizens in a democratically organised country.

Unfortunately, however, in contemporary Japanese society education is organised so as to make sure that the overwhelming majority of students never grow up to become the kind of citizens who will demand much of anything, least of all their political and intellectual rights.

The notion that education is an irreplaceable human right is a recent arrival on the stage of man’s intellectual history. These rights have come to be viewed as an essential part of the modern child’s inherent right to grow up and develop into a fully formed human being.

It was this kind of thinking that lay at the root of the attempt to remake Japanese education in the years following the end of the Pacific War. But it has not been easy for us to implant these ideas within Japanese society. As many of the totalitarian aspects of prewar educational thought were revived and reworked within the context of the modern welfare state, the prospects for a genuine educational renaissance in Japan have been gradually eroded, and the proud hopes of those who wanted to transform Japan into a democratic society have been confounded again and again.

[cf Britain’s return to pre-World War 1 thinking about education.]

In order to understand the depth of the crisis enveloping schooling in Japan today, it is necessary for us to re-examine the democratisation of postwar education in the light of both
the spiritual revolutions which transformed modern Europe [pre-20thC], and
the educational system established in prewar Japan to produce subjects loyal to the Emperor-State.

The first part of this book analyses the Imperial educational system and the postwar reforms designed to liberate the Japanese spirit from its subjugation to the values of ultra-nationalism and militarism.

The Locus of Educational Authority.

The deep crises enveloping education in Japan today can be traced back to the deep antagonisms between those who insist that educational authority must reside in the hands of the State and those who want to affirm the autonomy of the People’s educational rights.

There is still no basis upon which any form of compromise or even common understanding can be achieved regarding the proper locus of educational authority.

Since [Conservatives and the political Right] can no longer openly declare the State to be the one and only legitimate source of all educational rights and duties (for they could only do so by repudiating the principle of popular sovereignty at the heart of our postwar Constitution), they have chosen rather to reinterpret the essential meaning of this principle so as to eliminate the possibility of any substantive form of direct popular control.

The problem of educational authority is related to the issue of to whom educational rights and competencies properly belong - parents, teachers, or the State.

[We need to consider] the way the boundaries between the responsible parties should be drawn and defended.]

[Political and educational] rights must be guaranteed to all the people throughout the entire course of their lives, regardless of age, sex or occupation. The People’s rights to freely enquire and pursue truth must never again be allowed to fall under the bureaucratic domination of the State.

There is a great deal of discussion these days in Japan about the need to drastically reform our educational system from top to bottom, from the university right down to the nursery school. Any proposal for reform is ultimately doomed to failure unless it is based on respect for each and every citizen’s right to learn.

I want to argue that any educational transformation which is going to impart real substance to our constitutionally guaranteed right to learn must conceive this not merely as a PASSIVE right to receive an education but as an ACTIVE right to learn.

In other words, our current efforts to reform education in Japan must be tied to a view of “democratisation” which does not construe it as something the People passively receive from the State, but rather sees it as something they actively demand and achieve through their own unwavering efforts.

To complete the reorganisation of Japanese social life that began after the war when the people were finally recognised as masters of their government, their work, their ideas, and their own destinies, it is absolutely necessary to expand our thinking about educational rights and relate it to contemporary thinking about the broader problems of human rights in general.

The history of the conflict between the two radically opposed approaches I have described to the organisation of educational authority in modern Japanese society stretches back to the early Meiji-era struggles over the meaning of “civilisation and enlightenment”.

These arguments also overlie another agenda: one directed at making sure that the Japanese people never become the masters of their own educational system and the free-thinking beings this would inevitably lead to.

The argument that individualism violates the values of Japanese communalism and its inherent orientation towards group harmony is merely a ploy intended to retard the growth of political consciousness - the Japanese people’s understanding that in postwar Japan sovereignty resides with them and not the State.


Thinking about these issues in terms of what’s happened in Britain is really quite simple. We need to understand that:

1) The debate about competing and contradictory approaches to teaching and learning, and about ‘standards’, properly belongs with educational professionals, who can at least be assumed to know what they’re talking about.

2) It also belongs with parents, who can be assumed to know what’s best for their children, especially if they have opportunities to learn more about the key issues through dialogue with good schools and good teachers.

3) Thirdly, it belongs with the governing bodies of individual schools, including their parent representatives, who are charged with the responsibility of setting the educational aims and objectives of their schools.

4) Fourthly, we should involve in our policy-making, and listen to the opinions of, the learners themselves.

However, in Britain, as in Japan, these conditions do not apply. In these countries, as in the USA and elsewhere, the right to make decisions about educational philosophy and practice has been usurped by an all-powerful State, on the basis that ultimately the power to determine educational practices should reside in the so-called ‘elected representatives’ of our communities in central government.

Unfortunately for Britain its Members of Parliament are, for the most part, elitist morons who know jack shit about education (or indeed about the Middle East, economics, spiritual intelligence, emotional intelligence, psycholinguistics, brain science, etc.) apart from the fact that they did rather well out of going to elitist institutions like Oxford and Cambridge and therefore believe that their own educational history and ‘success’ should be a template for everyone.

Complete cretins like Blair and Blunkett took control of educational policy after New Labour came to power in 1997 and continued the work started by their Conservative predecessors, using right-wing elitist operatives and advisors, and fellow Oxbridge graduates, like Woodhead, Barber and Adonis, as henchmen to ensure their policies were driven through an all-powerful central bureaucracy.

How do we know these people are cretins? Take a look at Iraq. Blair was by no means the only one of his gang who thought that it was his duty to stand up and fight for what was Right alongside God and America, and therefore send in our boys to help kick the shit out of innocent people who consequently died in their thousands.

Take a look at the economy. Blair and Brown were by no means the only ones who went along uncritically with the Project for the New American Century (proprietors: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al) whose aim was to turn the whole world into a servile
cash cow for right-wing fat cats and ‘global’ corporations, as well as impose American right-wing ideology on the rest of the world.

Take a look at the real state of boredom and unhappiness amongst children, and stress levels amongst teachers and school managers, whose lives are driven by tests, data, and fear of the mighty Ofsted.

From my vantage point I can see no possibility for change in the way we run education in our country unless people stand up and demand change, since it’s inconceivable that our political classes will suddenly acquire wisdom and insight, agree to adopt the reforms of the Alexander enquiry or the Rose review, and start to understand that the New Learning Revolution must take place throughout education in the UK, as elsewhere.


I’m not holding my breath. Surely the way that once-mighty empires and countries decline and fall is through their own inertia and their own inability to recognise that the formulas and nostrums that were once successful cannot be applied forever. Downfall comes about because dominant ideologies and approaches to government that have become rigid simply do not permit flexible thinking any more, and therefore progress is impossible.

Sooner or later, though, the penny will drop and we’ll see clearly as a society what we did to ourselves when we were brainwashed into accepting the ideas that currently dominate our politics, our economics, our philosophy and our education.

It’s not too late to seek enlightenment on an individual basis, but it’s probably too soon to expect our society to find enlightenment for itself.


Final Thoughts on the Rose Report.

Sir Jim Rose is now saying, at least on the Today programme, and we’ll find out later today what’s actually in his report, that the curriculum we currently have in Primary schools is too burdensome and too prescriptive. He calls it “too fat”!

He’s saying that teachers and children require more flexibility - which is surely a code expression for the right to do things together that are more likely to inspire interest and enthusiasm for learning.

He’s saying that children need more opportunities to be creative. Well hoo bloody ray. But who are the bastards who’ve been depriving them of those opportunities and of the right to learn about creativity and the right to learn to be creative?

Sir James says we need to make sure that what’s taught is really worth while. So who hasn’t been paying attention to this little issue? Isn’t it kind of important? Who’s been saying we should teach things that just aren’t important? ‘Cos I want to write to them and tell them they’re a disgrace to the profession and they should piss off and do something different.

Sir Jammy says we need a much better deal for learners. They need to be able to follow their most appropriate individual paths through learning - to go on their own preferred learning journeys, as we might say. So why, after 11 years of New Labour and 20 years of the National Curriculum, haven’t kids been getting a good deal?

See all of the above.

And why has Sir Sunny Jim not been saying these things before now? Why has he been keeping schtum? Surely as a former head of Ofsted people would have taken notice of him if he’d already said these things, which are so bleeding obvious to anyone with half a brain and a bit of insight into kids' needs that it’s just not true?

Personally, I don’t find this kind of stuff amusing any more.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Layer 151 Drive Time, Flying Time and Movie Time.

I really want to be positive about England and Britain now that I’m back home, but I think it’s going to be quite difficult at times, as ever.

It’s a jet-lagged 2.30 in the morning and I’ve woken up to the sound of the television that’s stayed on through the night. I was watching something or other on BBC4 when I came to bed at 9.30 and promptly fell asleep. I’ve just spent 30 or 40 minutes listening to and watching a facile piece of shit called ‘Michael Smith’s Drive Time’ on BBC4, which is obviously masquerading as some kind of arty documentary series on cars, on driving and on being ‘on the road’.

Of course he had to slip in the obligatory reference to Jack Kerouac, whom he’s clearly trying to style himself on, as some sort modern-day chronicler of the delights and disappointments of travelling, in his self-conscious 21st-Century stubble-growing writing-on-a-laptop-in-the-back-of-the-BBC-car kind of ‘style’. But his would-be ‘poetic’ and ‘insightful’ musings do scant justice either to his subject(s) or to documentary making. Roads are overcrowded. Roads are boring. Roads are harmful. The countryside is nice, if you can find some. Hmmmm.

He eulogises about Loch Lomond, for instance, which is one of the most overrated places on the planet, with its bleakness and its water the colour of dark slate, usually found under a leaden sky. He’s just seen a flying swan and he’s absolutely thrilled.

He sees a smallish motor caravan that’s parked next to the loch and calls it a ‘Winnebago’, when it’s clearly a much smaller European brand of motor caravan - probably a Fiat or a Ford. ‘Winnebago’ is a much larger, much more luxurious and altogether more spacious and powerful American vehicle, and not a generic name for motor caravans generally. Unless of course you’re a doltish would-be arty writer and programme maker, and a hip and mock-humble pseudo-sensitive social commentator of this sort, who also happens to be familiar with the USA and its lumbering motor homes, so beloved of actors on location and travelling musicians.

“D’you want to come inside?” says the owner of the vehicle, oh-so-spontaneously. “I’ll put the kettle on.” “Oh yes, I could do with a brew!”, says Michael Smith, who I suspect is a Lancastrian lad with a preference for drinking lattes from stainless steel BBC vacuum flasks in the backs of limousines.

It seems that these days anybody can get a ride in someone’s car, point a video camera at the passing landscape, and proceed to ramble on about the joys or otherwise of the journey and the passing landscape. I’ve done it myself.

Young Mr Smith drones on as leadenly as the skies in Scotland about the joys of the open road in that strange country - so far away from the traffic-clogged roads further south, he’ll be bound.

My abiding recollection of the open road on my (one and only) trip to bonnie Scotland was of being stuck in long crocodiles of vehicles following towed caravans and underpowered motor bloody caravans (note - not hip V8 luxury Winnebagos) as they wend their way at 30mph or less along narrow winding roads (‘major’ roads - mind you) between cloud-covered mountains where overtaking is impossible. And that was over 30 years ago, when traffic was about half what it is now.

The myth is that Scottish roads (as opposed to English country roads) are empty and joyous. The reality is that there are fewer of them, they’re hemmed in by cloud-covered, windswept and treeless (and therefore very unpicturesque and bleak) mountains, and the volume of traffic on them is therefore actually higher per mile of available road than in many parts of England. They’re also full of bloody caravans of one sort or another.

Mr Smith’s fond of words like ‘myth’, ‘iconic’ and ‘poetic’. Clearly some young programme commissioner at the BBC thinks he’s an original and astute writer/savant, with important things to say about ‘modern Britain’. If only!

His Drive Time is a total waste of time. Drive you crazy time.


As a lover of high quality television, and a supporter of the BBC in spite of its obvious flaws, I didn’t expect to find myself saying this, but I haven’t missed watching television at all these past four weeks - Japanese TV being absolutely unwatchable, especially for a non-speaker of Japanese. From what I can see when I go there the vast majority of the programme content is idiotic game shows, shouty studio-based audience-participation shows, soap operas, kids programmes, cartoons, and cheapo ‘reality’ shows. Very much like Britain and America.

But it’s been wonderful - having watched no news, politics or current affairs programmes, which tend to increase the blood pressure and anger levels. Nor even any comedy shows or documentaries, which I’m quite addicted to in normal circumstances. Which is not good for one’s levels of ignorance and knowledge of the world and its affairs, to be sure, but very wonderful in terms of clearing the mind and for only letting into one’s mental spaces some good music and literature.


During the 28 hour (in total) journey home (via Dubai again) I managed to catch up on several movies that have passed me by at the cinema recently. Some very good ones too.

Though I started not with the good ones but by sampling the ones I thought were probably crap, but needed to be seen - in part, anyway. Sure enough, the first 30 minutes, which was all I could stand, of ‘Quantum of Solace’ (bloody pretentious title) was complete garbage - just flashy, hyper-melodramatic and not very good cinematography, mainly consisting of shots of the handsome Daniel Craig looking hyper cool and incredibly fit and competent as he sets about driving an Aston Martin at ridiculous speeds and chasing/killing bad guys at an unbelievable rate. He’s got a licence to kill, as I’m sure we all know already. And poor bloody Dame Judy, the sainted Judy Dench, taking fistfuls of dollars, no doubt, as her reward for immersing herself in this franchised pile of poo, again.

As my son said to me, there have been some very good Bond films, including the recent remake of Casino Royale, he reckons, also starring DC and JD - but Quantity of Shite is not one of them. It’s impossible to tell what’s supposedly going on in that first 30 minutes - but what the hell!: the story line is hardly the point. The point is that Bond is cool, Bond is invincible, Bond is British, and hooray for the Brits and their secret services who are ever-vigilant and save the world on a daily basis on behalf of us all.

The point is, mainly - vroom, vroom! ka-pow! Zap! Screech, scream, snog, shoot, blam!, bang!, wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and thank you James - you cunning, ruthless, fearless, sophisticated and sexy individual - on behalf of our grateful nation and the world in general.


And talking of Generals - Valkyrie - the story of the unsuccessful German plots against Hitler - ought to have been arresting and enthralling, but wasn’t. Or at least the first part of it wasn’t. Plodding and dull is what it is. And that wasn’t due to the lack of ‘action’, as such - just due to its hugely missed opportunity to tell an important story with any degree of interest, panache or imagination. And Tom Cruise with an eye patch is no more interesting than TC without one.

The start of the film had looked promising though - pointing out that Hitler was surrounded by Generals and other people who were “unwilling and unable to face the truth”. (Very much like NuLabour and its top brass.) Also that Hitler (and Nazism) were plainly not just the arch-enemies of mankind - he was also ‘the arch-enemy of Germany too’. A country with a long tradition of fine intellects but flawed by passionate belief in the superiority of the ‘Arian’ races, and also with a tradition of racism, elitism and susceptibility to ultra-nationalism.


And talking about the arch-enemies of mankind - the first film I managed to watch all through, near the start of the flight(s), which took off at 11.15 pm, was Oliver Stone’s “W”. I chose it on the basis that if I dozed off at all I could quickly pick up the story again since I knew it already. Which is what happened.

It’s still incredible to me that a nation like the USA, with all of its resources and educational capacity, could have twice elected a man like Dubya. But that fact speaks to us volumes about a nation that contains so much intelligence but also so much utter stupidity and ignorance, allied to massive vested interests and the enormous financial clout of those interests, with their power to monopolise the media and spew out huge amounts of propaganda and reactionary bullshit fit for the limited intellects of passionate nationalists. And what W did best was fulminating, aggrieved, self-righteous (and right-wing) passionate conservative nationalism. He was the perfect front man for the Project for the New American Century.


Clint Eastwood is often thought of as a bit of an old-fashioned and conservative (and probably reactionary) nationalist. He’s played the strong, silent tough guy, the vigilante and the no-nonsense revenge-getting gun-toting all-American good guy so many times. A real George W Bush template and archetype, if ever there was one.

Taking the law into their own hands Dirty Harry style was somehow second nature for guys seen as not overly fussy about protocols and proprieties, and prepared to use massive firepower, like Harry and Dirty George. Being ‘a man’ means ‘doing what a man has to do’ - yea even if it costs him his life. Or in W’s case, the lives of many other people.

Eastwood’s new film, Gran Torino, (the name of a classic 1960’s all-American “muscle car”), in which he plays the aging, old-fashioned, racist, bigoted, war-hero, the no-nonsense gun-toting tough guy, to perfection once more, is possibly his best ever. He drives a “truck” - the ubiquitous working-class open-backed pickup - and keeps his Gran Torino, his pride and joy (especially since the death of his beloved wife), in his garage.

He’s a veteran of the Korean War, and he hates the predominately Chinese and Vietnamese neighbours who live all around him, in what used to be a white working class neighbourhood, which he stubbornly refuses to leave. He flies the Stars and Stripes from his front porch. He calls the Asian people he encounters ‘gooks’, Chinks’ and ‘slopes’ without provocation or hesitation.

As a filmmaker and as an actor Eastwood seems to be producing his best-ever and most thoughtful work in what should be his twilight years - an amazing achievement. On the surface the film appears to be fairly straightforwardly about the old man’s gradual, unwitting and unconscious discovery of atonement, enlightenment and salvation, but it’s a lot more subtle and convoluted than you might expect from someone who likes to tell stories that are simple, moral and unpretentious. It also contains some very touching as well as some very funny moments.


Touching, humourous and moving moments also abound in the newest film from another of America’s cinematic and rapidly aging legends - Woody Allen. Like the Eastwood film, Vicky Christina Barcelona is also the work of a true artist and storyteller, and also contains subtleties and unexpected plot twists that reflect the mature wisdom of a lifelong filmmaker whose main concern is the human condition.

Just as Eastwood started out, apparently, as a simple and straightforward cowboy character actor, Allen began his career in films as a straightforward though acerbic and anarchic comedy actor. Both have become genuine artists whose films are often multi-layered and satisfyingly full of undidactic wisdom and truth.

Allen’s lead actor, a Spanish heart-throb and the good-looking epitome of “cool”, whose name I’ve already forgotten, is just brilliant. He gives an amazing performance as Juan Antonio in what could have been a role that was easy to overplay and therefore easy to end up in looking cartoonish and unbelievable.

Early in the film, which takes place in Barcelona, one of his lines (written by Allen) is, “The trick is to enjoy life, accepting that it has no meaning whatsoever.” I thought that was a very interesting line, given what Oxzen recently said in Layer 149 - “Just because life is ultimately pointless and our pretensions and desires are absurd doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life, providing we go about it in the right spirit. The right spirit involves generosity and compassion, and an enlightened attitude, as far as possible.” The right spirit also involves laughter and ‘non-attachment’.

Juan Antonio’s very first dialogue in the film has him inviting Vicky and Christina, whom who are enjoying an extended stay at the house of their married friends in Barcelona, and whom he spots in a restaurant, to go with him to a distant town, Aviedo, for the weekend, to enjoy art, and sunshine and making love. Vicky clearly thinks it’s a ludicrous suggestion, but Christina, who’s much more of a spontaneous and passionate risk-taker, and currently doesn’t have a man in her life, is positively up for it.

The Spanish guy’s young artist ex-wife (played superbly by Penelope Cruz) who is still somewhat in love with him, says later, “He’s carefree - to him nothing matters, and life has no purpose. But that’s not what’s in his heart and his head!”

Which is perhaps an expression of Zen. On the level of the body, the soul and the mind, someone sees that in cosmic terms we are small, irrelevant and meaningless clusters of atoms and molecules, whose existence tends to be relatively short, and in many cases nasty and brutish. On the level of the spirit, however, one cannot help oneself being compassionate, caring, loving and purposeful to the extent that one will, if necessary, sacrifice oneself for the benefit and wellbeing of those we care about, and those we love and feel close to - which in a bodhisattva’s case is everybody.

This was the lesson the misanthropic Eastwood character also learned, finally.

In the Allen film Juan Antonio allows back into his house his ex-wife (whom he once loved passionately) after she’s had a semi-breakdown, and has taken an overdose, in spite of the fact that he’s started living with the beautiful blond American, Christina, played by Scarlet Johannsen.

Meanwhile, he’s continuing to meet with the best friend of the Johannsen character, Vicky, who’s a young academic with a special interest in Catelonia, who also begins to find herself becoming obsessed with him in spite of the fact that she professes to dislike such ‘dangerous’ non-conformists as this Spanish artist. She’s agreed to marry her ultra-straight, down to earth, high-earning and materialistic American fiancée, but immediately realises it was a mistake. The fiancée is ‘serious’ and ‘responsible’, but he’s also boring and irritating, as she comes to appreciate, as her relationship with the artist develops, against her ‘better judgement’.

Somehow it all fits together and it all makes sense.


Seriousness, commitment, love, passion, responsibility, authenticity, self-discovery, sanity, madness, creativity, compassion, generosity, selfishness, materialism and spontaneity are also the themes of the other excellent American film I watched yesterday during my flying film binge high above the clouds.

I thought from watching its trailer at the cinema a while ago that Revolutionary Road would be a good film, but it turned out to be even better than expected. Its director, Sam Mendes, certainly had his moments of genius, and you can see from his work why he’s so missed by those who knew him and worked with him.

It’s a tough film to watch, though, in parts, and it certainly stirs up your emotions as you become drawn into the lives of the main characters, played by Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio with great skill and artistry. In places the film’s almost difficult to keep on watching as the plot develops with so many unexpected directions and developments.

The ecstasy of love and the misery of love gone wrong are incredibly well examined, as are suburban life (in the 1950’s but also now), the meaninglessness and the soul-destroying nature of office life, commuting, and conformist suburban life, the inevitability of unfaithfulness for passionate individuals, the impossibility of constant harmony and happiness for such people, and the dangers of neuroticism and madness when souls are constrained, undernourished and destroyed. There’s also a very serious examination of the issues of abortion and unwanted pregnancy, and their potentially devastating impact on people’s lives, even those who love one another deeply.


More quotes from the Woody Allen film:

“For us, playing music is the way to express real emotion.”
“Love is so transient, don’t you think?”
“The reason my father is so angry and won’t allow his poetry to be published or translated is that after thousands of years humans still haven’t learned how to love.”
“As an artist you hold in contempt our normal values.”
“It’s a question of free thinking versus America’s puritanical and materialistic soul.”
“So now you live with this Christina? Do you really think she’ll be enough for you?”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Layer 150 Educational Thought and Ideology, and Some Really Good Music.

Sunday 26th April

I was listening to and laughing at one of Bill Hicks' wonderful rants the other day - the one about Christianity and the Gideons. “Who are the fucking Gideons? Has anyone ever met one? No! Has anyone ever seen one? No! I’m going to capture me a Gideon . . . The next time I’m in a hotel I’m going to phone the front desk and tell them there’s no Bible in the room. And then I’ll lie in wait for a Gideon to bring one up . . .”

If there’s anywhere in the world you’d think you might be safe from evangelical Christians it’s Japan. So imagine my surprise this morning as I was mooching about and thinking of packing, when there was a ring on the bell. I thought it must be my American neighbours, who are teachers at the university. So I quickly put on more clothes and opened the door.

Standing there were two small Japanese women, holding little bags, who looked up at me in surprise. I said hello. The smallest one started speaking in Japanese - “Yadder, yadder, yadder, Christians.”

Fuck! They’re everywhere. Sunday morning and I’m taking it easy, playing some rocking good music, and here’s people wanting to turn me into a Christian!

“No, no. Sumimasen. Thank you. I’m a Buddhist! Arigato. Bye!”

On reflection I was a little . . . dismissive. I should have invited them in to discuss enlightenment and satori, the non-existence of God, and meditation.


Shortly after posting Layer 149 I read the following in Nunn’s book about education:

“A school fails to fulfil its purpose unless it is a place where the young are taught to accept and to maintain the best-tested traditions of thought and action handed down from the old time before them. Again it fails unless it serves as a ‘jumping-off place’ for a generation eager for new adventures in life.”

What concerns me is that in our society we’re very insular, and therefore, at best, we only discuss in our schools our own society’s ‘traditions of thought and action’. We need to think on a global scale, and open up to young people the best of what’s been thought and written about the life’s purposes and meanings throughout the world, throughout history.

It’s a sad fact that, for the most part, young people in the West know nothing, and therefore care nothing, about the best of the Eastern traditions and philosophies. It’s almost a crime to ignore those traditions and not to have them on our educational agendas.

We definitely need more books on Eastern thought and philosophy that will stimulate young people to think about life’s deeper meanings and purposes, and we definitely need more schools to open up these fields of learning.


At Yoko’s house in Ashiya the other night we decided to have some drinks in a local jazz or blues bar, and she looked up on the Internet where there might be some suitable places. There were pages of them! In Japan a typical bar consists of a smallish room with just a bar and a few tables. It’s not unusual to find several of these places all clustered together in a single building within a modern shopping precinct or street.

The one we chose was called The Bar, and a very pleasant place it turned out to be. Comfortable, well lit, and playing some excellent jazz. There were some tracks of sax and piano playing together that were really superb. The young barman was immaculate in white jacket and black bowtie, and did a five star performance whenever he needed to mix drinks with a cocktail shaker. Compliments of the house you get a bowl of mixed nuts and some little tasty thing like small pieces of toasted cheese on bread with your first order of drinks.

It was a perfect quiet place for an extended chat about educational philosophy! I commented that there seemed to be relatively few people there, considering it was such a pleasant place for a Saturday evening out with friends. Yoko suggested that business has fallen away dramatically since the economy has taken a dive. People are staying at home a lot more.


On Friday evening in Osaka we walked around for a while in the mad melee that seems to happen at the end of every working week in that hard-working city. Hundreds of people thronging the alleys and streets around Umeda, the main station and business area. Eventually we found the bar that Yoko’s been to with colleagues in the past, and managed to get a table for two.

More good music and a lively atmosphere. At the back of the drinks menu there was a page letting you know what ‘free’ music was on offer over the house hi-fi. You just call over a waiter and tell him or her what you’d like to listen to. Very civilised.

Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Miles Davis, Rolling Stones, Tracy Chapman, BB King, Otis Redding, Eric Clapton, Alicia Keys, Tom Waits, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Santana, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Smith, Led Zeppelin, etc.

They even had Gil Scott Melon and Devid Dowie. You name it - they gottit.


Yoko was listening to some music at my flat the other day and started tapping her feet to a certain track, and eventually asked me who the band was, so that she could make a note of it.

The track was “The Supernatural”, a Peter Green original, and the version was the one he did with The Splinter Group. Make a note of it. Make a note of every version of this brilliant piece of music.


Back at Yoko’s, in Ashiya, after The Bar, and prior to returning to my flat, she pulled out a couple of books written in English for me to look at. The first was ‘Pedagogy in Progress’ - the letters to Guinea-Bissau written by Paolo Freire during his time working with the government of that country as an educational advisor and project leader, attempting to build an education system in the post-colonial era that was fit for purpose. It’s published by the Writers and Readers Cooperative and dedicated to Amilcar Cabral, “who learned from his people”.

The second book was by Professor Roy Lowe of London University - “The Death of Progressive Education”, which I’ll find a copy of when I get home.

And then she handed me a book that is the real motherlode! A book that I should have discovered at the beginning of my visits to Japan. Educational Thought and Ideology in Modern Japan. Subtitled ‘State Authority and Intellectual Freedom.’ It’s by Professor Teruhisa Horio, translated by Steven Platzer, and published by the University of Tokyo Press.


Layer 150 is, I suppose, another milestone of sorts, and another jumping-off point, possibly. It seems appropriate, then, to quote extensively from the Horio book, in the hope that readers will find these passages useful in thinking about what’s happened to the British education system during the past 40 years, ever since Callaghan started ‘the great debate’, or the counter-revolution against progressivism and real education.

This should also be read against the background of another recent report that puts British children 24th out of 28 countries in terms of their individual happiness and wellbeing.

In future Layers I’ll get back to the New Learning Revolution and quote extensively from that in order to re-focus on ways in which more enlightened societies are promoting progressive ideas about learning and teaching, and ways in which young people and teachers in those countries are assuming more control over the ways in which they learn, communicate and pursue creative and imaginative learning.


So - Horio-sensai says:

“Due to the fact that most of the existing knowledge about Japan and its educational system directly reflects the views officially put forward by the Japanese government, such knowledge has been altogether too one-sided or prejudiced.

Even though Japanese schools may very well appear to be outstanding when seen from the outside, from within, it is clear, I believe, that the vitality of both students and teachers is being smothered by a thoroughly oppressive set of conditions. This is testified to by the sharply rising number of incidents of bullying and the dramatically increasing number of children refusing to go to school at all.

And as the level of pressure within the school system is constantly turned up, our children are being systematically denied the opportunity to develop their individuality. Thus it is no wonder that most of our youth find it impossible to sustain warm feelings about their schools even when they do manage to make good friends there, or when they study with teachers whose stimulation encourages them to want to learn.

Likewise, under the existing textbook screening system, the State’s arbitrary control over the creation and dissemination of knowledge is continually tightening, and more and more uniformity is being imposed on textbook contents and forms of description [i.e. curricula].

Teachers as well are being brought under an ever more pernicious system of management; in addition to their being exposed to new and more extreme forms of pressure, they are losing the freedom both to teach and to undertake educationally related research.

We are seeing the emergence of a vicious circle. Thus, from my perspective, our educational system, far from presenting itself as an object deserving emulation, stands in need of the most drastic types of reform.

The modern Japanese educational system was from its formation tightly circumscribed within the framework laid down by a generation of statesmen who viewed it as an effective tool to be used to realise their own political and economic agendas. This historical tradition has been carried down to the present day; in fact, the state’s manipulation of our schools is even stronger today than it was in the prewar era.

As a consequence of this, those who control education in Japan have paid scant attention to the idea that education should be organised from the perspective of human development, and they have shown little respect for the notion that the pursuit of education should be connected to the pursuit of mankind’s intellectual and spiritual freedom.

However, even within the framework of this history there has been an undercurrent of [progressive] educational thought aimed at the concrete realisation of these humanly liberating ideas. These currents were finally allowed to rise to the surface after the war, when Japanese education was drastically reformed.

Looking at developments over . . . the postwar period, we can clearly observe a struggle between those who sought to establish the foundations for a new tradition of educational practice and those who have attempted to preserve the framework within which education was considered in the past, namely as an instrument of State policy.
While tracing the course of that history, this book attempts to criticise the ways education has been controlled and transformed into an instrument of State policy, and seeks to clarify the nature of the principles which are required to break the stranglehold of this way of thinking.

In other words, its overriding objective is to think about Japanese education in a way which will help transform it into something designed to genuinely liberate and nurture the capacities of Japanese citizens as free human beings. In this regard, while it is a book about education in Japan, at the same time its fundamental values are those of mankind in general.

It attempts to bring an international consciousness to bear upon the problems plaguing education in Japan so as to enable those scholars and general readers outside Japan who are interested in understanding our system of schooling to see the nature and depth of the problems we are currently facing.”


Anyone interested in looking at the nature and depth of the problems that Britain’s schools are facing?

And incidentally, Horio’s book was first published in 1988 - the year the national curriculum was introduced in Britain, and the starting point for a command-and-control system and an inspection system that has become more draconian with each passing year.


Yoko reckons Horio is now living in retirement from his professorship in Tokyo, and reckons she can put me in touch with him. Apparently he speaks very good English.


Yesterday’s session at the university was positively my last. Returning to the group I did the lecture with last Saturday, on the aims of education, and on the new learning revolution and the 3DI framework, I showed them two slideshows of children at my old school learning within the school and also learning offsite. I wanted them to see some very positive images of children from 3 to 11 engaging in a wide variety of stimulating, creative and enjoyable learning experiences.

Again I stressed the two forms of ‘integrated curriculum’ - integration by ‘subject’, and integration by intelligences. Overall it’s ‘integration by learning experience’.

Again I stressed the fact that if children voluntarily extend their school day to engage with self-directed learning and to be creative with and without wireless laptops before the age of eleven, which many of ours certainly did - why should they be happy if they’re denied those opportunities after that age?

It’s natural for children and young people to want to pursue learning that’s either chosen by them or negotiated with the teacher, and is therefore personally meaningful for them. Children want more freedom, autonomy, personalised learning, creativity and independence. How else are they to learn how to be free, autonomous, independent and creative lifelong learners?

It’s equally natural for them to feel resentful and rebellious when denied such opportunities and forced to spend their days enduring didactic and dull drilling and cramming.

At this point hundreds of teachers would perhaps stand up and protest that their lessons are not like that. To which I say - good! I’m pleased to hear it. I’m just talking about those that are. And there are plenty of them.

Many more teachers would then leap up, perhaps, and say “But the world’s not like that! These kids need to pass exams with high grades in order to ‘get on’ in life and move out of their miserable estates and impoverished lifestyles.”

To which I reply in two ways. Firstly, who’s to say that cramming and didacticism are the most effective ways towards high achievement? The evidence is nowhere plain to see. The evidence in fact shows that children do best when they participate actively in a broad, balanced and creative curriculum that is personalised according to their various needs and abilities. They do best when they enjoy school and what it offers in terms of lively teachers and an interesting curriculum, in which key learning targets are clearly defined and which they are motivated to achieve.

Secondly, I say to those reactionary teachers, and I mean this in the nicest possible way - just fuck off, you idiots! We’re talking here about moving away from “how the world is” towards “how the world is sure to be in the 21st century” - a world that’s already changing, a world in which even profit-conscious employers are enlightened enough to recognise that the most valuable employees are the ones with high levels of motivation towards being life-long learners, the ones who have all of their intelligences well-developed, the ones who know how to be creative, and imaginative, and problem-solvers.

They also want to employ those who have high levels of competence in teamworking, communicating and researching. They need people who know how to work independently, and who enjoy taking on new skills in line with changes in technology and in line with new forms of knowledge and understanding.

This isn’t rocket-science, for goodness sake.

I guess the best way to judge whether your session has been effective is when students come up to you afterwards and tell you that if they had children they would like them to go to a school like that.

Sadly, what’s on offer in so many places are just miserable results factories, whose existence and methods are down to the prevailing retrogressive educational thinking and ideology.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Layer 149 Zen, Laughter and Enlightenment.

I was thinking recently about my reference to Zen in a previous Layer which mentions the importance of laughter in the spiritual life:

This week Yoko told me about a meeting she went to with colleagues, in the course of which she made a joke and cracked everybody up. It seems she’s normally not at all given to making amusing comments in business meetings, and therefore her professorial colleagues, predominantly middle-aged men in spite of it being a women’s university, were very surprised by her humour, and it seems laughed quite a lot.

She suggested it was because of my recent influence that she uncharacteristically slipped in a humourous remark during the staff meeting- “You are always laughing and making jokes.”

Well I don’t know about ‘always’, and I certainly don’t tell jokes, as such. But it’s true that I find a lot to laugh about in this crazy world, and therefore on a good day I’m inclined towards the sardonic and laconic, and indeed ironic. And satirical.

It’s quite hard to resist pointing out the absurd and the ridiculous since it’s all around us all of the time. People are so often ludicrous and foolish in their behaviour. So what are we supposed to do about it, except laugh? It would be a pretty dull old world without laughter. But it’s amazing how many people have had a humour by-pass.

Of course people get upset if they know someone’s laughing at them, so we should try not to offend, and try to avoid causing anyone any grief, whenever possible. It’s also important to be able to laugh at yourself.

When I think back to my school days I remember having to be careful about commenting on the pompous and puffed-up behaviour of teachers. They really hate what they consider to be subversive elements among the pupils - those who like to hang out at the back and mutter asides to one another to help overcome the tedium and pointlessness of traditional lessons.

But if it’s in your blood and your character then I suppose it’s always going to crop up, even in adult professional life. It’s just a Zen thing. It was only a while back that I recall setting my friend Pete off on a fit of the giggles as we were listening to some dry as dust hyperfeminist droning on at a conference. What did it on that day was my cartoon-like doodle/sketch of our aesthetically challenged speaker. I guess it can happen in a number of ways on any day, in any situation.

I suppose it’s been said many times that humour is the best means for the powerless to deflate the powerful, usually by pointing out that these little emperors and would-be dictators have no clothes at all.

Mainly, though, it’s the human condition that’s funny. But just because life is ultimately pointless and our pretensions and desires are absurd doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life, providing we go about it in the right spirit.

The right spirit involves generosity and compassion, and an enlightened attitude, as far as possible. The first step entails admitting we’re not enlightened, and setting out on the right path towards such a state.

The wonderful thing about the Zen monks I’ve come across, and about spiritually intelligent people generally, is that they’re not po-faced, and don’t take themselves and life in general too seriously. Laughter is important.

What they do take seriously is the need to find, and to remain on, the right path.

Taoists call it the “Tao” - the Way. Zen calls it the “Do”.


This week we went to visit the Myoshin-ji temple complex, which is a huge incredible oasis of peace and beauty near the centre of Kyoto. This “Temple of the Wondrous Mind” is the headquarters of the largest of the fourteen schools of Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and was established in 1337.

Its excellent website can be visited at

Look out for the photo of the horned dragon painting, which covers the entire ceiling of its huge lecture hall. It’s a phenomenal piece of art, which apparently took years to complete. It’s the Sistene Chapel of Zen.

“The purpose of Zen is to awaken to the bodhisattva within us. This perception, also called kensho, ‘seeing self-nature’, opens the way to a true Zen life lived in unrestricted liberation. To attain such freedom, one must strive in all of one’s activities to live in accordance with the Bodhisattva Vows:

Sentient beings are numberless: I vow to liberate them.
Desires are inexhaustible: I vow to end them.
The Dharma gates are infinite: I vow to master them.
The Buddha way is unsurpassable. I vow to attain it.


I was just too stubborn
To ever be governed
By enforced insanity . . .
Someone had to reach for the rising star
I guess it was up to me.

Bob Dylan - Up To Me
From Blood on the Tracks

In Japan, as in Germany, nobody crosses a road if the pedestrian light is red, regardless of whether there’s a car in the vicinity. It’s just how they do things here. Rules are rules.

There are rigid expectations regarding social proprieties and what’s considered proper behaviour. Unfortunately it really raises my hackles when someone tells me that I SHOULD or shouldn’t do this or that.

It’s fair enough when someone says “this is the way we normally do things here” or “this is what people generally expect in such and such a situation”, in which case I might just say, “Oh really - well it’s not the way I do things” or “fair enough, but it’s not that way in the culture I’m familiar with.”

I hate cultural absolutism, and any attempt to impose cultural norms that I don’t subscribe to. I particularly hate rules and expectations that are plainly ludicrous and without logic or even sense.

Japan is a wonderful country in so many ways, but in the long run I suspect I’d grow weary of the prevailing conservatism and dogmatism. I reckon I’d end up like one of those warrior monks who just said ‘fuck you’ to authority, and retire to a mountain top, real or metaphorical, to do my own thing in the company of people who see life the way I do.

Sadly for the warrior monks of Kyoto they all got wiped out by a particularly vicious and nasty warlord and his army, who eventually took violent exception to their lack of respect, their autonomy and their rebelliousness. C’est la vie. C’est la morte. A few years later the monastery and the temples were rebuilt and the community re-established, and the warlord met with his just deserts.

The mistake the warrior monks made, I suspect, was in making themselves and their community too obviously a threat to the established authority. Governors and governments hate those who have an alternative vision of how to live. The lesson to be learned is that in order to be an enlightened free spirit you have to appear as ordinary and unthreatening as possible, whilst getting on with life as you see fit.

In a way it pains me to say such a thing - to admit that a quietist and pacifist attitude might be for the best - since I hate injustice and oppression, and ideally I’d like to see despotism and injustice overthrown, forcibly if necessary. The problem is that those who do the overthrowing tend to set up their own despotic regimes once they gain power. Ultimately the only road to freedom and justice is through individual enlightenment and refusal to use force or violence as a means to an end, no matter how just the cause.


From the website:

Sitting in meditation is known as zazen in the Zen School, with za meaning ‘sit’ and zen meaning ‘meditation’. The seated posture is one of stillness and relaxation, and expresses a tranquil mind and a settled body. The state is one of union of body and mind, deepened through the relaxation and regulation of the breath.

Meditative practice brings about a non-dualistic state of consciousness through the deep harmonisation of body, breath and mind, a state of unification and profound stillness known as Samadhi.

Although profoundly still, Samadhi is not a state of passivity, unconsciousness or trance. The stillness of Samadhi is vibrant and dynamic, arising from a mind that is completely clear, aware, and open. In this state of awareness the ordinary world is seen in a new light, in which the unexamined ‘common sense’ view of a dualistic world is transcended and the underlying unity of all existence is clearly experienced.

Zen is not a system of defined beliefs, but a path to clarity and awareness. As such it has no conflicts with science, and can enrich the inner life of followers of any religious tradition. All are welcome. From wherever one enters, the path to the bodhisattva mind unfolds.

This may make it sound like Zen has no clear goal, but that is not the case. One is free to enter the path to ‘seeing the bodhisattva within’ from whatever gate one wishes, but the ultimate objective is the same: to attain liberation, then to help others according to their needs to attain liberation themselves. This, in Buddhism, is know as bodhicitta, the mind that strives to seek enlightenment, and to awaken all sentient beings.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Layer 148 The Phoenix Hall, Tokyo, Spiritual Intelligence, Mountains, Warrior Monks, Zen and Bushido.

The Phoenix Hall of the Byodo-in Temple in Uji City, which we visited on Monday, is phenomenal. It’s a magnificent wooden pavilion, built in 1053, with a highly elaborate roof, on top of which are perched two silver phoenix birds. It stands in its own small park, facing a lake that’s surrounded by cherry trees, maples and azelias. To enter the hall you cross an orange-painted bridge and then approach it shoeless through a covered colonnaded walkway, on polished boards.

The hall’s only purpose is to house a very large and beautifully carved figure of a seated Buddha. With the doors open, the statue is visible from across the small lake. When it was still covered in its original gold leaf it must have looked stunning. To stand close to it within the confines of the hall is amazing.

On the inner walls of the pavilion are painted what are now faded murals. There are also fifty or so carved figures mounted high around the inner walls. These beautiful figures are airborne on small clouds, most of them playing musical instruments - stringed, wind and percussion.

The figures seem like some kind of reminder of the importance of music and its connection with the spiritual and the enlightened. With exquisite sound and melody, and with graceful rhythm and a steady pulse, we give musical expression to intense feelings of joy and spiritual bliss. Our master musicians do this on behalf of the rest of us, who can only listen, and enjoy.

In such a place it’s easy to imagine the morning and evening meditations of the monks and their novices, as they sit facing the beauty of the lake and the garden, with the magnificence of the Buddha immediately behind them.


In our frantic world, how often do we have time for morning meditation? Or even find time to listen to music properly - to really listen to it and to lose ourselves in beautiful uplifting sound? How often do we experience awe and wonder?

To lose one’s ‘self’ in meditation is clearly essential to living well, but our lives are for the most part lived in such a way that we fail to connect with our essence, except on very rare occasions.

To gather our thoughts, to recollect, to re-live, to reflect - these things seem so easy to do, and yet so hard to achieve. And we rarely take time to give silent thanks for the beauty and love we experience in our lives. We take so much for granted, and then feel resentful when life is less than perfect.

How many wonderful experiences do we forget because we can’t afford the time to consolidate our memories? And to what degree do the riches of our best moments then disappear by the wayside - lost in the recesses of memory, and never to be recalled?

To allow stillness and silence to enter our souls, to let troubling thoughts and preoccupations fade and disappear. To listen to our inner voices and to allow their intuitions to speak, if only we have ears to listen.

To sit in silent places of great natural beauty is so beneficial to our souls. To consider beautiful trees and shrubs, to contemplate flowers and blossoms, and to listen to the songs of birds and the sound of the wind in the leaves. How fortunate we are if we can create or discover, and enjoy, such places.


On a hillside just above the Phoenix Hall, amongst pine trees and maples, stands a small, unobtrusive, minimalist masterpiece of architecture - a modern museum. Within it are more of the flying figures that have been taken from the Buddha hall, and reproductions of the murals within the Buddha hall. The mural reproductions show how beautiful they looked originally before the passing centuries caused them to fade.

The interior spaces of the museum are wonderful - some of them dimly lit, some containing glass display cases. There’s a replica of the massive prayer bell that hangs in an orange framework outside. There are beautiful calligraphic manuscripts and carvings. The museum shop has lots of tasteful gifts and memorabilia, including superb books of photographs. There’s an all-glass wall with an exit to a stone, gravel and moss garden with benches and meditation platforms, where people sit and rest before moving back into the outside world..


It’s now three weeks and I’ve still not seen a single police car driving hell for leather with sirens blaring and lights flashing to some incident or robbery. And that’s in spite of having spent a fair amount of time in the main cities - Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. In fact I’ve only seen three police cars on the motorways and the city streets.


I’ve reached the conclusion that in true Zen style it might be easier to describe what spiritual intelligence and enlightenment are NOT, rather than describe what they ARE.

They’re the absence of malice, spite, viciousness, violence, anger and hatred. The absence of racism, sexism, snobbery, elitism and other forms of prejudice and self-aggrandisement.

It’s the absence of greed, envy, jealousy, pettiness and unpleasantness. It’s the absence of exploitation, abuse and other forms of immoral behaviour.

Some of these things can be attributed to a lack of social and emotional intelligences, but through the grace of spiritual intelligence we see the need to work on our current levels of these other intelligences in order to raise them higher.

Through spiritual intelligence we aspire to make ourselves and our world a better place. We aspire to raise levels of wellbeing and enlightenment in ourselves, and crucially to assist in raising them for others, since in order to live well ourselves we need others to also live well.

As the story says, it was impossible for Siddartha to find contentment and happiness when he was aware of the sufferings of others. Through doing what we can to assist others to overcome ignorance, want and suffering we enjoy happiness and wellbeing ourselves as a kind of by-product.


In the afternoon yesterday we drove up to Enryaku-ji Temple - high on Mount Hiei, looking down on Kyoto on one side of the mountain and the enormous Lake Biwa on the other.

DK’s Eyewitness guide says this about it:

“A once mighty monastery fortress with 3,000 sub-temples and thousands of sohei, or warrior monks . . . the solemnity of the isolated mountain-top setting and the grandeur of its remaining buildings make the trek up the mountain worthwhile.

Founded by the monk Saicho in 792 it became the main temple of the Tendai sect. Although initially entrusted to protect the city from evil forces, the temple itself became the bane of the then capital, Kyoto. Emporer Go-Shirakawa (1127-92) once lamented that there were only three things beyond his control: the flooding of the Kamo River, the roll of the dice, and the warrior monks of Enryaku-ji.”

I like the idea of warrior monks who are prepared to do their own thing, live in their own way, and not take any crap from puffed-up so-called emperors and rulers.

The main building is massive, and the nearest thing to some sort of ‘gothic’ temple I’ve yet seen - a very dark interior with huge black columns holding up the high roof. Candles and ancient oil lamps provide a little light, and seated figures of Buddha are dimly seen in the recesses where visitors are not allowed to enter.

There was a very hospitable senior monk who explained to us some of the temple’s history, and spoke about the functions of the various parts of the building.

The courtyard had in it two ancient cherry trees that were still in full blossom, despite the cherry blossoms having faded long ago down in the warm valleys and the coastal strip. It seems the cold up in these mountains can be intense in the winter, and the snow very deep. There was a plaque outside commemorating the gathering of world religious leaders that took place at the temple some ten years ago. I’d love to know what those of other faiths made of it all.


In Tokyo Professor M gave me two books - a classic text by D.T. Suzuki - ‘Manual of Zen Buddhism’ - and another well-known book called ‘Bushido - The Soul of Japan’ by Inazo Nitobe.

Prof M told me that Suzuki was educated at the famous Zen monastery at Kamakura, which is on the coast in the little-visited northern region of Honshu, Japan’s main island. He reckons that on my next trip to Japan I should make a point of visiting it, and also the island of Sado, also in the northern region, which is where the Kodo drummers are based.

I’ve seen the Kodo drummers a couple of times in London, and used to have a CD of their drumming and playing, till someone ‘borrowed’ it and didn’t give it back.

Many years ago I bought and read a Japanese classic by Basho, ‘The Road to the North’, which way back then instilled in me an ambition to retrace his walk in the remote parts of the northern district.

And then there’s the large island of Hokkaido, the island of ‘fire and ice’ - the most northerly, and the coldest and the most volcanic part of Japan. That’s definitely one for a summer visit.


Tokyo was very enjoyable. The organised tour took me and Rio, Prof M’s doctoral student who was invited to be my guide for the day, to the Tokyo Tower, the gardens of the Imperial Palace, and the Asakusa Temple.

I’d been to Asakusa in 2001, but you can’t have too much of a good thing. The Tokyo Tower is built in the style of the Eiffel Tower, which it prides itself on being higher than, by about 20 feet. The palace gardens are an enormous area right in the centre of the city, but somehow just a great big open space, mainly grass and small pine trees. It’s not really possible to see the palace, which is open to the public just twice a year. Apparently the Emperor and his wife come out on to a balcony and wave to the crowds at regular intervals on visiting days. It’s a hard life, but someone has to do it.

The view of the city from the tower is - well, panoramic. But not too exciting. Lots of modern architecture, but none of it particularly stunning. Thanks to the day being a bit hazy, and to the bullet trains both to Tokyo and back to Osaka running in the dark, I’ve STILL not seen Mount Fuji. But sooner or later I will spend time around Fuji, and I’m determined to climb it. Kilimanjaro’s the other mountain I still want to walk up.

Come to think of it, the last substantial mountain I walked up was Mont Doree in the Massif Central - the highest mountain in France, aside from the Alps and the Pyrenees. That’s definitely one to do as well.


I’m still having problems getting my head around the idea that in Japan it’s impossible to include Zen, Bushido, Buddhism, or learning about any religion in the curriculum. These key philosophies have been crucial to the formulation of the spiritual intelligence of Japan, and yet there’s no real sense of pride in or ownership of any of them, nor even any awareness.

Liberal Japanese people just shrug their shoulders, and tell me that the conservative government won’t allow such knowledge of their cultural heritage to be examined in schools. Japan has been governed by conservative governments since the War, and it looks likely to remain that way.

The sub-title of the Bushido book is ‘An Exposition of Japanese Thought’, and it’s dedicated to Tokitoshi Ota, “Who taught me to revere the past and to admire the deeds of the Samurai”.

The introduction says, “He who would understand twentieth-century Japan must know something of its roots in the soil of the past. Even if now as invisible to the present generation in Japan as to the alien; the philosophic student reads the results of today in the stored energies of ages gone.

All the spiritual senses are keen in those nursed by Bushido.

This little book on Bushido is more than a weighty message to the Anglo-Saxon nations. It is a notable contribution to the solution to this century’s grandest problem - the reconciliation and unity of the East and the West. There were of old many civilisations: in the better world coming there will be one.

As the efficient middle term between the wisdom and communism of Asia and the energy and individualism of Europe and America, Japan is working with restless power.”

That was written by one William Elliot Griffis in 1905.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Layer 147 Academia, Technology, Desert Island Discs and The New Learning Revolution.

Thursday 16th April

Bob Dylan’s take on academia goes like this:

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks,
With great lawyers you’ve discussed
Lepers and crooks,
You’ve been all through
F Scott Fitzgerald’s books -
You’re very well read,
It’s well-known.

But something’s happening here,
And you don’t know what it is -
Do you, Mr Jones?

From Ballad of a Thin Man.


It’s been interesting, observing and studying the academics. What a strange world. Very different from the phase of education I’m used to, where you begin work as a teacher from the premise that you’re there to meet the needs of the pupils. At least that’s the way it used to be in the days when meeting the needs of pupils seemed to matter. Now it’s all about meeting government, local authority and governing body academic targets. In stupid-arse factory-school Britain, at least. So very bloody shameful.

Academia is about as curriculum-centred as you can get, which is pretty bizarre when you consider the high level of independent study skills most university students posses, and how capable they ought to be of pursuing their personal learning goals, given half a chance.

I was talking to Yoko last night about my lecture on Saturday, on 'the aims of education', and the problem that I have with not knowing my audience and their learning needs. It seems they’ll be pretty mixed ability - i.e. Masters degree students, some of whom have never taught, and some of whom are experienced teachers and school leaders.

Professors and lecturers seem to start from the egocentric premise that they have a brilliant mind and also have possession of a body of thought which an audience should feel privileged to have some contact with - and if the audience is too thick or too limited to be able to connect with it - well that’s their problem. I guess the role models for professors are - other professors.

Thinking about academia brings back memories of my own undergraduate days - those wonderful heady days of ’68 and ’69, demonstrations and sit-ins, Paris, Woodstock, peace and love. Liberation, counter-culture, protests, festivals, and wave after wave of incredible music. And going to live rock, soul and blues shows just about every week for almost no money.

In contrast to all that was also having to sit in dull, boring lectures listening to some dull-witted academic prattling on about stuff that was tedious enough in its own right without being regurgitated by someone who had no idea how to make it interesting or relevant.

How could anyone take that academic game seriously when there was a vast, exciting world outside where people were genuinely opening themselves up to new forms of knowing and feeling, and aspiring to join together to make a better world?

In those lecture rooms there was no intellectual stimulation, which is what I’d assumed university would be about. Partly that was down to the ‘vocational’ course I’d chosen, and so I decided to do the minimum necessary to get a degree, and in the meantime start to educate myself by embarking on my self-devised course of study in politics, philosophy and economics.

Getting to grips with sociology, psychology, Marxism, political theory and Eastern philosophy was what I needed to be doing. Arguably it’s what every university student should be doing, if they only knew it.


Living alone in a flat in a country where you don’t speak the language may well be the nearest most of us could or would want to get to living alone on a desert island. I thank goodness I brought my discs with me - all 4 gigabytes of MP3 magic.

Since I can’t get any English-language TV or radio programmes and have no Internet access at the flat, I’m cut off from the usual sources of stimulation.

In this situation music becomes the major source of spiritual nourishment and sensory stimulation. So yesterday there was a bit of a crisis when my malfunctioning Zen player decided to take itself off random play and limit itself to just 8 tunes. Having heard them a few times over it seemed clear the Zen wasn’t about to correct itself and go back to normal random service.

Fortunately I could get access to the memory of the Zen via laptop and USB cable, and so was able to start filtching my favourites tunes from it and pasting them into a “best of” folder on the laptop. Hooray for technology!

Writing this, I’m again listening to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” which must be one of the Stones’ longest and most complex tracks (Undercover of the Night is another), since it meanders through such a variety of sonic and rhythmic passages, and also uses sax solos to such good effect. I was listening to Springsteen’s “Radio Nowhere” this morning, and noticed the similarities between the two tracks which make them such classics of rock - a dynamic, ringing guitar intro; great vocals; dark lyrics; fantastic rhythm, and wonderful saxophone playing. Rock yer socks off.

Next up is Frank Zappa’s wonderful “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” - something that good old priapic Frank seemed happy to put up with as an occupational hazard, probably to the end of his daze. It’s unbelievable how underrated Zappa still is as a guitarist and composer.

He was also a very good, very funny lyricist, with a true sense of the absurd, the bizarre and the ridiculous. Hot Rats was an album that completely blew me away when I first heard it - guitar-playing like nothing I’d ever heard; some kind of strange jazzy/bluesy/rock from out of nowhere. Even the album’s cover was brilliant and totally original. The extended guitar soloing was also kind of unique for its time, definitely veering towards jazz improvisation rather than the blues/heavy metal that was far more commonplace at that time. I felt so lucky to have seen and heard Frank and the Mothers of Invention playing live at the Bath festival of blues and rock.

Another outstanding track that I’d forgotten was on the Zen is U2’s version of “All Along the Watchtower”, from Rattle and Hum. It’s interesting how a song that started out as one of Dylan’s shortest and gentlest tracks became a true monster of rock, thanks to the brilliance of Hendrix, who had the intelligence, skill, imagination, creativity and sheer musical ability to seize on it as soon as it was released and turn its wonderful rhythm and melody (and lyrics) into something that’s never been equalled in the entire history of rock - lyrically, musically and dynamically it’s a perfect track.

Dylan, in turn, paid Hendrix the ultimate compliment when he started to perform the song when playing live with The Band in the style of Hendrix’s version.


I’ve decided to conclude my lecture on the Aims of Education by saying something about Dryden and Vos’s book. Just a taster to whet their appetites.

The New Learning Revolution.

Consider this. The first time I visited Japan, in 2001, I didn’t even bring my mobile phone. There was no point. It couldn’t work in Japan.

Nowadays wherever I go in the world I take this little machine with me. It enables me to contact anyone I wish to speak to from anywhere I happen to be on the planet. And vice versa. I can send and receive texts. I can send and receive emails. I can access the vast world of the Internet. It allows me to take and send digital photos, to record and to send conversations, to write notes, either using its keyboard, or by using a stylus to create handwritten notes on its screen. It will also convert my handwriting to text. It’s a global positioning indicator. It’s a satellite navigator. It has maps, it has spreadsheets, a calculator, a diary, a calendar, a database creator, and it can run Powerpoint presentations. Most importantly of all it carries my music collection and will play my favourite music through headphones or through a hi-fi, even using Bluetooth. It’s a computer that fits in my pocket.

Eight years ago such a machine was impossible to imagine, let alone buy. Nowadays these machines cost very little to manufacture, and are given away free by telephone companies when you sign up for their service for 2 or 3 years. After one year the phone company will exchange this phone/computer for a completely new, updated model. That’s how fast the world, and the world of technology, is changing. Of course Apple, Nokia and others make similar machines.

The subject matter of this book is new ways to learn, teach, think, create and communicate.

It is now the world’s biggest-selling non-fiction book.

10 million copies of this book have been sold in China alone.

The Chinese government has completely retrained its teaching force in order for them to teach on the basis of these progressive ideas about learning and teaching. This was a massive project, and represents a radical and progressive break with their traditional methods of teaching.

Why do this? Because the Chinese government has understood that learning has to be a dynamic process, driven by the needs and wishes of learners to be responsible for their own learning and to become equipped with creative thinking and communication skills.

This stands in contrast to traditional models of education which are based on the acquisition of a specified body of knowledge and the ability to pass tests on one’s memory of that curriculum.

In a world where information is available day and night from a laptop computer or even a telephone connected to the Internet, why should hundreds of millions of pupils and students be sitting in rows of desks facing their teachers in classrooms designed for a different age?

Very soon it will be possible for all advanced countries to provide every pupil with a cheap laptop computer. In eight or ten years time it will be possible for every pupil to own a pocket computer. Those who don’t possess this technology will be severely disadvantaged. I’m quite sure that you as a student or as a teacher or professor wouldn’t want to go back to a world without computers.

Traditional schooling is breaking down. In Britain this week there is news that record numbers of pupils are being excluded from school because of their undisciplined behaviour. Frankly, many of them are bored and cannot see the point in doing what schools are asking them to do.

Not only are many teachers and schools offering no intellectual stimulation, they are also failing to provide learning in social, emotional and spiritual intelligence.

In the foreword of this book Christopher Ball, the chairman of Britain’s ‘Campaign for Learning’, says, ‘This book explains what is going on in the gradual collapse of the old model of education, and the advent of the revolutionary new models of learning’.

He goes on to say, “The old school model is as dead as the industrial revolution that spawned it. The flight of both pupils and teachers from traditional schooling will soon become an embarrassment for governments in developed countries. Neither the curriculum (what is taught) nor the pedagogy (how it is taught) is any longer sustainable.”

“What lies at the heart of this book is a shift of focus from teaching to learning, and a recognition that a new philosophy of learning must lead the curriculum.”

In the 21st Century “the rewards of the good life will go to those who are most adaptable - who learn best. They will also go to those who learn to use and share the new world of interactive technology, instant communication, collaborative innovation and multimedia creativity.”

To that list I would add that the rewards will also go to those who learn to become emotionally, socially, instinctually, intellectually, physically and spiritually intelligent.

These are the clear goals of progressive education - an education that is needed for the 21st Century.

These are the goals we must reach if we are to become “a more creative, cooperative, sharing world society”. These are the true aims of education.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Layer 146 Bicycles, Festivals, Mountains, Monkeys, Hot Springs, Chalets and a Dragon.

Tuesday 14th April

This morning it was raining. In the street outside the local mothers were taking their children to ‘kindergarden’. The first one to go past on her bicycle had a tiny child in a seat mounted just in front of the handlebars, suspended over the front wheel, protected from the rain by a nifty transparent plastic cover.

In the child-seat above the rear wheel was her slightly older child, in a rain hat/helmet and rainproof togs. With just one hand steering and braking the bike, and the other hand holding an umbrella over herself, she wafted serenely down the street.

Next came a mum with a child sitting on a kind of child-saddle on a crossbar, and she was holding her umbrella over both herself and the child, as she too steered and braked her bicycle with just one hand.

When I mentioned this to Yoko, and expressed some surprise that they didn’t consider riding in this way something of a safety risk, carrying a child or two whilst riding with just one hand on the handlebars, and at the same time managing an umbrella, she said, “It’s not a problem for Japanese women. It is normal like this. They are very skilful at riding bicycles. I also ride my bicycle with umbrella or sunshade”


Keeping the sun off their faces is clearly quite a big issue for Japanese women. Having a suntanned face is associated with the lower orders, peasants, farmworkers, etc. Middle class women who are fundamentally homemakers, professionals and educated office workers are very anxious to make clear their status by keeping their faces as pale as possible. Traditionally the aristocracy (and their geisha) went even further by using copious amounts of white face makeup.


We had endless sunshine throughout our weekend travels. Saburo picked us up at the university on Saturday afternoon - me, Yoko and Kayo - Yoko’s Masters degree student whom she’s professionally responsible for. Saburo had also studied for his masters degree as one of Yoko’s students some years ago. Yoko likes to keep in touch with all her ex-students. Saburo had been to my school twice - as one of a group of students (experienced teachers taking time out to do a Masters course) and also on his own, to carry out research towards his dissertation.

With immaculate timing we arrived at Toyokawa just under three hours after setting off - just in time for the start of the fire festival. This turned out to be an amazing combination of fireworks display and a type of performance art, by groups of young men representing the various local neighbourhoods, using massive hand-built and hand-held fireworks, in the grounds of the local Shinto shrine/temple.

The culmination of the evening’s festivities, after the overhead fireworks display was over, and after the hand-held fire cannons were all detonated, consisted of five massive wooden structures being carried one after the other through the Shinto arch, which they barely squeezed under, and placed in the display area directly facing the shrine, with its attendant priests. At that point, after a certain amount of ceremony, the huge “firework” that was mounted atop each structure was lit.

The resulting blast of fire and sparks had to be seen to be believed. You could see why each of these huge fire cannons was lashed to the tops of these structures, well out of the way of the audience and the watching priests, who supervised the whole thing. Apparently it’s not unknown for the fire cannons to explode and injure their holders, who are also responsible for building them

We’d gone to Toyokawa, instead of heading straight into the mountains and Takayama as we’d originally intended, at the suggestion of Sabu’s headteacher, who’d organised a fire festival party at his house, to which we were invited. There were about 20 people, mostly sitting on cushions around a low table that was laden with every kind of fish dish imaginable. Most of it uncooked, sashimi, and lots of it combined with rice into pieces of sushi. Not so great if you’re not a big fish lover.

Being on the coast, this area is heavily into fish, as are most Japanese people. It brought to mind the BBC programme on the Japanese and their passion for fish that I’d seen just before travelling. This trip I’ve discovered that the Japanese don’t seem to eat lamb, ever, and aren’t too crazy about beef, either. Chicken and pork are just about OK.

At the end of the evening we were taken off to a massive tower of a hotel, where Sabu had apparently got some good rates for bed and no breakfast.


Sunday’s drive into the Japanese Alps was via an incredibly beautiful and interesting village called Magome, whose car-free single street drops steeply downhill and has a stream flowing down it in a gully.

Every single house and shop, mostly in the traditional style, made of wood, was unbelievably photogenic, as were the various blossom trees, gardens and tubs of flowers. The arts and crafts, and food and drink, on display in the shops, looked superb.

We had lunch there, in an old-style restaurant, sitting on cushions on tatami mats, listening to the sound of the stream rushing by outside, as it turned an ancient water wheel.


I’d have been happy to settle for what we’d already experienced that morning, and so just driven along to the cottage in the mountains where we were booked to stay the night. Enough stimulation for one day.

But no. By no means. We were motoring along a quiet backroad further into the mountains when we came across a temple surrounded by the most incredible mass of ancient cherry blossom trees, with the blossoms still very much at their most perfect peak. At that altitude Spring was still just beginning and there were masses of daffodils still at their best, and lots of beautiful camellias still peaking.

As we approached on foot we could hear the sound of drumming coming from the temple garden, and people were hurrying up a slope to get involved in whatever was happening within the walls that surrounded it.

Suddenly the flow of people went into reverse, and the crowd started to come back out of the temple gate. Then three masked and costumed figures emerged, and stood, arms folded, facing the world outside. The one in the middle then tugged on a rope, and to the sound of drumming and chanting a huge colourful dragon appeared. The drumming and chanting were coming from inside the dragon.

The three masked figured then proceeded to lead and to shepherd the dragon down the slope towards the village square, with its covering of cherry blossoms. The general throng of people circulated around the dragon, and children tried to jump up and pluck strands of paper flowers from its tail.

This whole procession, this spectacle, continued for about an hour, under blue skies and with blossom petals falling gently like snowflakes. The kids kept trying to jump up and grab strands of the dragon’s tail, which obviously had some symbolic function, and one of the masked attendants kept dashing to the rear of the dragon with loud yells to threaten the kids with his spear.

Finally the dragon was pacified, and put its head down on a purple cushion, and slept. And the kids got their bits of tail. Fabulous.


The Toyota Land Cruiser can carry up to 8 people inside, and on the roof a shedload of luggage - stuff you lug? - over any terrain, in all weathers. It also has on its dashboard a multi-dialled computer that will tell you, among other things, what altitude you’ve reached. In this case, over a kilometre above sea level - about the same height as the peaks of highest mountains in Britain.

It turned out the cottage we were staying in was part of a large hotel complex. There were about 20 cottages in the vicinity of the hotel, further down the slopes, along a winding road under tall pine trees, and built in the style of Swiss chalets. Very appropriate for the Japanese Alps.

The women slept in western-style beds upstairs. Sabu and I dossed down on futons we took from cupboards in the downstairs sleeping room, which was floored with tatami mats. There was room on the tatamis for another four futons. More people could have slept on futons in the large living room, which contained a dining table for eight.

Before sleeping Sabu and I went up to the hotel to use the baths which were filled with hot mineral waters from thermal springs within the mountain. At one point I found myself alone in the outside bath, whilst Sabu chatted to some guys in the inside bath, just lying back in the silence and floating, looking out towards floodlit pine trees under a starry sky, with a full moon, and with bats silently flitting about. Another moment of pure Zen.


We’d had dinner at the hotel, in a beautiful tatami-floored dining room, with low black tables and low chairs. There was a set menu of about 12 different dishes, each of them served in exquisite bowls or on beautiful plates. The food is also arranged beautifully on the plates - salads, Japanese pickles, fish, tempura, miso soup, sushi, noodles, more fish, and individual pots of beef broth bubbling away on the table, covered with wooden lids. The two puddings were very good too. And the bottle of local beer and the glass of local sake were possibly the best I’ve ever tasted.


Waking at dawn I took a walk with my cameras, taking shots of the sun coming up behind the dark silhouettes of the pines. Sabu was awake and dressed by the time I got back, still wearing my hotel pajamas, a vision in leaf green, with the trousers at half mast. He suggested taking a drive to look at the higher slopes, so I quickly dressed and we set off.

We’d hardly gone a mile up the road when we came across a couple of monkeys, crossing the road ahead of us. Sabu said he’d never seen monkeys in the wild before, in spite of having visited these mountains several times for skiing and fishing.

We stopped the car and switched off the engine. To our surprise the monkeys didn’t just run off into the trees. They casually sat down in the grassy clearing next to the road and started feeding on whatever it was they’d found there. Possibly some of the fern shoots we’d had in our salad last night. Possibly beetles or ants.

More of their group began to appear, crossing the road and moving through the clearing, including babies and younger members of the group who were keen to run and play, as well as feed. One of them climbed a pole carrying power lines next to the road, and just for the hell of it did a high-wire act above our heads, holding the upper cable whilst balancing along a lower one. By this time I was out of the car and shooting video.

After a while they made their way into the trees, went down the steep slopes of the valley and crossed a rushing river via a wooden bridge, and we headed back to the chalet. We all had breakfast at the hotel on a large open terrace in front of a breathtaking landscape, with a huge tree-filled valley beneath us and with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop.

Fortunately for me the hotel had on offer bacon and scrambled eggs, croissants and good coffee. I don’t think I will ever get into Japanese-style breakfast eating, which is based around various cold fish and salads. I’d rather settle for cereals and toast.


Heading back to Osaka we drove through ever-more breathtaking scenery and narrow valleys, over bridges and through tunnels, and across the top of a huge hydro-electric dam holding back a vast lake. This higher region, at over 4,000 feet, though by no means the highest part of their Alps, still had large snow patches, which were thawing in the Spring sunshine and another day of 20C. At one point we left the car and walked up through snow to look at a spectacular waterfall.

Around midday we arrived in Takayama and took some time to wander around the old streets with their beautiful wooden shop fronts. We then went down to take a look at the river, whose banks had on them large numbers of spectacular cherry blossom and willow trees. After which it was back to the car, the motorway, and a descent to the big city.


At this point, after a weekend of such sensory and ‘spiritual’ experiences, I recommend readers to re-visit Layer 14 (April 2007) and consider again some thoughts on Zen.