Monday, May 31, 2010

Layer 321 . . . Contempt for New Labour, Finding A Purpose, Radical Education, Schools, Teaching & Learning, The Case for Working With Your Hands, The Buddha, and Peace

Madeleine Bunting's latest column is, as ever, well worth reading.

There can be no short-circuiting Labour's essential backroom stocktake

New Labour's contempt for its own party's history now makes the central task of opposition all the more difficult

This is precisely the point when politics becomes really interesting. Away from the glare of intense media coverage, and the carefully packaged soundbites and polished evasive formulations, glimpses of a real political debate are emerging among Labour and its fellow travellers. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it feels it could become the most searching debate on the left for a generation. I can't remember a time in my adult life when discussions on what leftwing politics is really about have been so open-minded. Perhaps it was like this in the 1980s, but then New Labour emerged and vigorously closed down debate and distanced the party from its history; both helped hollow out the party, and contributed to it becoming a highly centralised and relatively effective vote winner. Now, it is not even the latter. So what is it?

This is a subject of passionate interest to a relatively small proportion of the population. People will start listening again when Labour has something interesting to say. In the meantime, it is a time when Labour can't avoid a degree of introspection because it is faced with a series of big questions – and on none of them is there any settled consensus.

All of these debates are difficult for leadership contenders to navigate. How quickly can you disavow the policies that you were passionately defending a few weeks ago? There is a screech of brakes and U-turns. How can you passionately argue for something now and have done so little to advance it when actually in power?

All that the contenders have to offer are their political skills, they are all creatures of New Labour. That makes them likable, good communicators and very clever; but the drawbacks are equally evident. They are all youngish men who have grown up inside the distortions of the adrenaline-fuelled life of government. Rethinking assumptions on which you have built a career is never an easy task, it takes time, mental agility and considerable emotional maturity.

You can see them struggling to find a new language to replace the managerialism and technocratic competence that deadened the nation's soul.


One thing I never want to hear again is that Blair and New Labour had a brilliant electoral strategy to win the 1997 election.

In 1997 the landslide victory wasn't a vote for Blair and Brown and New Labour - we didn't give a damn about Blair and Brown and New Labour - we voted against the policies that had ruined industry and under-funded public services, sold off social housing, neglected schools, politicised education and health, supported casino banking and created so much poverty and inequality. Maybe Labour could now try standing up for the things that so many people voted for back then.



There was an excellent piece in yesterday's Observer by Peter Hyman, who's now a deputy head of a comprehensive school, having previously been 'a political strategist to Tony Blair'. Some of us still remember the very week he decided to quit the thick of it and get a proper job - initially as a pupil mentor, prior to becoming a teacher.

Are the school reforms really going to improve education?

Here, experts discuss whether this shake-up will benefit those who matter most – our children

The point about the Tory reforms is not that they amount to a revolution but, rather, that they are a missed opportunity – a modest extension of one part of New Labour policy. What will be frustrating for many schools is to find a new government once more ignoring the vast amounts of evidence that shows that the best school systems in the world are best for one reason above all else – the quality of teaching. The other big factor is school leadership.

So a radical education policy should start with teaching and learning. It is striking that the schools minister who understood this best in the last 10 years was David Miliband. He realised that what went on in the classroom was more important than anything else and his ideas on personalising learning for each student are, several years later, at the heart of many good schools in the country.

To raise standards, there needs to be a renewed focus on literacy. For [many] students . . . the basics [are] not embedded early enough.

But we need to do more. The area ripe for reform is the curriculum. We have got to have a rethink of what students learn and how they learn it. There needs to be a revolution in science, maths and computer-science teaching so we have a cohort of students who can truly compete with any in the world.

There is not enough thinking in schools and it appears that the Tories are in danger of making things worse by insisting on even more cramming of facts in a return to didactic teaching methods. It's time we started to test skills other than the ability to write a two-hour exam: creativity, analysis, team work, communication skills.

All these things would help students  – catch-up sessions at the age of 16 are not enough, however good. What matters is improving the quality of teaching, the richness of experience, the joy of learning and the grounding in the basics from an early age. There is a real opening in British politics for the politician who understands this.

There's not just an 'opening' in British politics - there a desperate need for the children of England (bearing in mind that these things happen differently elsewhere in Britain) to be given back their rights to a proper childhood, and an unpressurised, meaningful education that's worthy of the name. This is more or less what Oxzen's been saying for the past two years.


History of the World

Today's History of the World in 100 Objects considered a statue of the Buddha. Hopefully, with today being a Bank Holiday, lots of people will have been able to listen to it.

The programme considered how artists have tried to represent "the limitless, the boundless".

We were reminded that the Buddha was a wandering ascetic who devoted his life to apprehending the roots of all suffering, and the nature of enlightenment.

Images of the Buddha are meant to help people reflect on the qualities of Buddha's speech and mind, as well as his physical composure, and not be objects of worship in themselves.

The Buddha insisted on renouncing material states for immaterial states. But he also insisted that dreams, mirages and fantasies should be replaced by a proper grasp on reality.

"The Buddha statue is a thing that leads to no-thing, and the greatest sound of all - silence."

Podcast and 'listen again' here:

Seated Buddha of Gandhara

One of the earliest images of the seated Buddha. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how Buddhism set about creating the classic image to represent the real life Buddha, who lived and roamed around North India in the 5th Century BC. It was not until over five hundred years later that the classic seated image was first formulated. The Dalai Lama's official translator, Thupten Jinpa, and the historian Claudine Bautze-Picron help explain how the image came about.


Peace In Our Time?

More bad news from Gaza.

At least 10 peace activists have been killed in boats carrying humanitarian aid towards the coast of Gaza.

Peace. Activists. Killed.

I can't be the only one who thinks that killing humanitarian peace activists is hardly . . . necessary? Appropriate? Proportionate? Moral? Politically astute? Even if they happened to be the most naive and misguided people on the planet.

By all means let the armed forces of Israel set about restraining them, arresting them, thwarting them, imprisoning them. But KILLING them?

I picture myself feeling motivated enough and brave enough to join with a convoy of ships taking aid to children, sick people and destitute families in Gaza.

I picture myself being killed for my non-violent and non-threatening actions and beliefs.

I wonder whether any of these activists were in fact physically agressive and determined to resist arrest. And I still wonder whether actually killing them could ever be justified.

My support is for non-violent Palestinians. My support is for non-violent liberal Israelis who despise the violence and the over-kill of their government, which only delays and makes more difficult a proper peace process, and a 2-state solution.

To support violence and aggression on either side, and even to condone and excuse it, would be no different to supporting any of the violent factions in Northern Ireland back in the days before the peace process started.

It would be no different to supporting the killing of either whites or blacks in South Africa prior to De Clerk's decision to release Nelson Mandela. What a pity there's no obvious Mandela figure in the Middle East.


Start The Week - Attitudes to Work

Matthew Crawford - "The Case for Working With Your Hands".

On Start the Week this Bank Holiday Monday, Andrew Marr gets his hands dirty with the philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford, who argues that satisfaction comes from skilled manual labour. Iranian artist Shirin Neshat discusses her new film, Women Without Men, Sheila Rowbotham muses on the role of women in transforming ideas about work at the turn of the 20th century and the President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, explores scientific horizons and discovers the limits of our understanding.

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the observation that “all human beings by nature desire to know.” But the philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford contends that real knowledge arises through confrontation with real things. In his book, The Case for Working with Your Hands, he argues that a skilled trade brings a satisfaction that can be missing from office work. He believes that we uncover a sense of agency by shaping the world around us, and explains why he found working as a mechanic more intellectually challenging than a job in a think tank.

The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good is published by Viking.,,9780670918744,00.html

Our society has pursued the separation of thinking from doing. We see ourselves as divided between white collars and blue collars.

Mass production and the pursuit of profit is based on dumbing jobs down, and creating electronic sweatshops.

University graduates expect to go into white collar 'office' jobs.

Whereas being an electrician and a mechanic can be far  more challenging intellectually. And also, in many casses, better paid.

Jobs that don't have 'physical' components are easily outsourced abroad

The core of the argument - the ethical dimension - is that it's superior to do work that involves head, heart AND hands . . .

To become genuinely skillful requires humility, coping with failure, and relying on judgement that comes only with experience. (See previous Layer on Samurai skills and football.)

'Know-how' can't be downloaded from the Internet - it only comes with experience.

We all need and benefit from the experience of seeing the direct effect of our own actions.

Complex material culture is infantilising - we're unable to do our own maintenance on vehicles, eg.

Our culture is more and more one of passivity and dependence . . .

We should put more stress on learning through experience and human contact.

Tacit knowledge is gained from doing physical things, not sitting at screens.

So many things are now too complicated. Eg mobile phones. So we have feelings of dependence instead of self-reliance.

Whilst doing physical work, using our hands, we become absorbed into a state of 'flow' in which we're gripped by the physical elements, and given time for relaxation, reflection and meditation. From the physical flows the metaphysical and the spiritual.

'Scientific' management doesn't grasp the creativity of workers or the intrinsic value of what they do and how they do it.

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