Saturday, April 16, 2011

Layer 463 . . . Education, Human Dignity, Conversations, Views of Ageing, the Pursuit of Happiness, and Phone Hacking

Thought for Today

I've almost given up on listening to Radio 4's God Slot, but still look forward to hearing the thoughts of the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who strikes me as a truly spiritual man. Yesterday he talked about the conflict in Libya, and about visiting a Jewish Primary school where children were preparing for Passover. His concluding thought was this:

The future of freedom depends on what we teach our children today.

Some years back he said,

More than wealth or power, education is the key to human dignity.


"What we teach our children today"?

Here lies the crux of the education debate. Do we set out to teach children a set of values and beliefs - the ones we happen to hold to ourselves - or do we allow them to discover such things for themselves and so take ownership of their own values and beliefs?

The former is indoctrination. The latter is education.

Only through real education, which sometimes means self-education if schools are nothing more than indoctrination factories, can humans become spiritually intelligent and fully evolved beings.

Teaching children cannot be about filling their heads with items of knowledge which they are forced to remember in order to 'pass' tests - unless they're at the stage of seeking qualifications for particular jobs and professions, or if we're trying to establish a summary of what they know. This is why the Finns, for example, don't set summative tests until the age of 16. Continuous formative assessment is a much more useful tool for recording pupil progress.

What the Chief Rabbi is talking about is far more than cramming and indoctrination - it's about an education that enables our children to become socially intelligent, emotionally intelligent, spiritually intelligent, etc, as well as creatively and intellectually capable.

Cramming and indoctrination can never be the keys to human dignity.


Civilizations: Clash or Conversation?

This is from a conference report -

Dr Sacks repeatedly stresses the importance of education:
‘What the effects of the fourth revolution, instantaneous global communication, will be, we cannot know, but we already say what it requires from us, namely the primacy of education among the priorities of international aid. Information technologies democratize access to knowledge, and one of our aims must be to bring every child on earth within its radius. Education is the single greatest key to human dignity.’
‘The best investment developed nations can make in the developing world – and developing economies themselves – is to ensure that every child has maximal opportunity for learning.
Education – the ability not merely to read and write but to master and apply information and have open access to knowledge – is essential to human dignity. I have suggested that it is the basis of a free society. Because knowledge is power, equal access to knowledge is a precondition of equal access to power. It is also the key to creativity, and creativity is itself one of the most important gifts with which any socioeconomic group can be endowed. More than that, it has become the key to flourishing in the twenty-first century.’
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks holds that ‘no developmental area has greater effect and few are less contentious, because knowledge is not a zero-sum good. I do not lose knowledge by giving it to others. The reverse is more likely to be the case. It was, for example, the pooling of knowledge, made possible by the invention of printing, the birth of learned societies and the spread of scholarly periodicals, that led to the exponential growth of science in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. More recently it has been the exchange of ideas and discoveries in coffee bars that has made Silicon Valley in California the world leader in computer technologies. Knowledge grows by being shared.’
Another key-concept in his book is that of the importance of conversation, taken in the root sense of this word, connected with turning towards each other.
‘We must learn the art of conversation, from which truth emerges not, as in Socratic dialogues, by the refutation of falsehood but from the quite different process of letting our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act, and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own. We must attend to the particular, not just the universal. For when universal civilizations clash, the world shakes, and lives are lost. There are many cultures, civilizations and faiths but God has given us only one world in which to live together – and it is getting smaller all the time.
The answer, I have already suggested, is conversation – not mere debate but the disciplined act of communicating (making my views intelligible to someone who does not share them) and listening (entering into the inner world of someone whose views are opposed to my own). Each is a genuine form of respect, of paying attention to the other, of conferring value on his or her opinions even though they are not mine. In a debate one side wins, the other loses, but both parts are the same as they were before. In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective. That is not to say that either gives up its previous convictions. That is not what conversation is about. It does mean, however, that I may now realize that I must make a space for another deeply held belief, and if my own case has been compelling, the other side may understand that it too must make space for mine. 
That is how public morality is constructed in a plural society – not by a single dominant voice, nor by the relegation of moral issues to the private domain of home and local congregations, but by a sustained act of understanding and seeking to be understood across the boundaries of difference.’
Before the opening ceremony of RIMUN yesterday, some of us had a conversation with Prof Jan Pronk, who arrived quite early. Several topics turned up: the joys and sorrows of public transport, his grandchildren, the importance of reading, our natural and universal longing for good and inspiring stories, and of course also his UN experiences. He came up with a point he also stressed in the conclusion of his lecture: the only way out of an interminable disputation, out of a conflict of interests, out of just repeating the arguments backing up opposing positions, is a creative thinking which really tries looking to the issue at stake with the eyes and background of the other parties involved.


Book of the Week

The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting (Ageing Without Growing Old)

"Marie de Hennezel shares strategies that we can all learn to help us age gracefully."

Can we transform the way we feel about growing old? Can we have a positive view of ageing?

Whilst we may dislike the physical effects of ageing, we can enjoy the social, emotional and spiritual aspects.

Appreciating the positives in life is an aim of Zen.

Middle and old age can be times of human and spiritual enrichment.

The "heart" does not have to diminish or wither - the capacity to love and desire may actually increase.

The island of Okinawa is full of very happy old people - the oldest being 115. They keep their minds active. They enrich their spirits through collective and collaborative activity - gardening, shopping, tai chi and meditation. They eat lots of fish, soya and rice. They drink green tea. They never eat sweet foods.

Their vitality and dynamism derives from enhanced spiritual consciousness, and focusing on the present moment through meditation. There is no feeling of the old being a burden - the younger people say, "The elderly are our treasure".

We need to prepare ourselves psychologically and spiritually for old age, and turn advancing years into a thrilling adventure.

We can discard certain aspects of ourselves, and we can surround ourselves with joy and love.

We need to make the most of our time.


For One Night Only - Radio 4

Keith Jarrett: The Cologne Concert

Paul Gambaccini presents the award-winning series that re-visits the occasions on which a classic live album was recorded. He hears from those who were there, on-stage, backstage and in the audience, to re-create the event for all of us who, each time we play the album, think: 'If only I could have been there'.
Keith Jarrett had made his name as a jazz pianist working with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis. But in the 1970s he began to give solo performances, frequently improvised. On 24 January 1975, at the Opera House in Cologne, Germany, he played an entirely improvised concert to a packed house. Lasting over an hour, it was released on ECM, the new jazz label founded by Manfred Eicher. Keith Jarrett: The Cologne Concert was to become not only the best-selling solo album in jazz history, but also the best-selling piano recording ever.
Recapturing the magical intensity of Jarrett's epic performance, Paul Gambaccini hears those who were there recall a night of emotion and euphoria which they've never forgotten, and conveys through Jarrett's masterly performance a sense of history being made.



The week's really big topic - how to be happy!

Oxzen says - Sex and drugs and rock n roll. Just kidding! Get some friends. Be kind to children and animals. Be helpful to everyone. Take care of your family. Drink moderately. Say no to drugs. Don't watch too much TV. Get plenty of sleep. Do cardio-vascular exercise. Eat healthily and moderately. Meditate regularly. Find your own Way towards enlightenment. Cultivate Zen and a deep satisfaction with the here and now. Happiness is a by-product, not a goal.


Action for Happiness movement launches with free hugs and love

Members pledge to replace self-obsessed materialism with caring action groups at work, home and in the community

As drivers angrily beeped their horns and cyclists weaved impatiently through London's traffic, Amandeep Hothi stood cheerily on the pavement holding aloft a sign offering, in pink letters, "Free Hugs".
Hothi is part of a new group called Action for Happiness, whose members aim to boost the net amount of joy in the world by being kind to others and countering "an epidemic of loneliness and isolation".
The movement was launched yesterday at Jerwood Hall in the City of London, where the movement's co-founder told attendees – who wore badges with slogans such as "Love more!" and "I'm up for more happiness!" – that they could "turn the rising tide of excessive individualism".
"Despite the fact that we are getting richer, after 60 years we still haven't managed to produce a happier society," said Professor Richard Layard, head of the wellbeing programme at the London School of Economics. "We are asking people for an individual commitment to aim to produce more happiness and less misery.


This pursuit of happiness makes me queasy

The launch of Action for Happiness offered some important insights, but let's be wary of putting the cart before the horse

by Madeleine Bunting

You have to hand it to them, Action for Happiness has fantastic chutzpah to launch a mass movement at the nadir of a grim recession. Given the media's need for surprises, they will get a lot of attention. Given the ambition of the trio of sombre intellectuals – Lord Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon – to make millions of people, first nationally, then globally, happier, they will need all the publicity they can get.
Just as gyms became a big thing in the 80s, will the 2010s see the arrival of serious preventative mental health? And when you look at the content of what is proposed to improve your mental health, who could object? "To feel good, do good", take exercise, invest time in relationships, spend time appreciating things, trying new experiences. Make other people happy because happiness is contagious; the research says that your happiness affects the happiness of friends of your friends – it ripples out.
These are not new insights but they are important, and they are easily overlooked or drowned out in the noise of competitive consumerism and celebrity gossip, and we can't just assume that people will remember them. Having some good marketing materials about getting such messages out has to be a good thing.
But why did the whole thing end up making me feel a bit queasy, as if I had eaten much too much apple pie? 
Interestingly Martin Seligman whose book, Authentic Happiness, did so much to promote the whole subject, is now reportedly distancing himself from the H word and is bringing out a book in May called Flourish.
Perhaps another part of the queasiness was that Action for Happiness seems to suggest that it is simply a matter of providing the information and people will develop the right happy habits – getting to know the neighbours, saying thank you etc. But knowing that smoking is bad for you doesn't mean everyone gives up smoking. There was a naivety alongside the ambition in Action for Happiness which felt a bit like a page out of the 70s plans for global happiness such as the Bhagwan Rajneesh. The only thing I know about happiness is that long ago I was told that it arrives as a byproduct to other activities, it doesn't work so well as a goal in itself.

My advice for the happiness lobby? Start with drugs

It's a quest that has taxed the likes of Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama. The answer's in local politics and narcotics legislation

by Simon Jenkins

Is there any more to this than "Hullo clouds, hullo sky"? The answer is surely yes. I regard Layard's basic challenge as perfectly serious, that of a practical economist remarking: "Our living standards are unprecedented and yet our happiness is no higher than 50 years ago." There is respectable evidence for this claim, which makes me ask why Layard is in bed with so many fruitcakes.


Why shouldn't Murdoch get what he wants? Others do

The phone-hacking affair is just one example of how politicians have lost the will and moral compass to control corporate interests

by Peter Wilby

Why, when it comes to phone-hacking at Murdoch's News of the World, is everyone so quiet? Why has it been left almost entirely to this paper, with help from a few other media organisations such as the New York Times, to reveal the extent of the criminality?
This affair is just one example of how politicians have lost the authority, the will and the moral compass to control corporate interests. They consider only the most modest proposals to bring banks to heel. They make it laughably easy for multinationals to avoid tax. They stand by as supermarkets drive out small retailers. They introduce "reforms" to education and health that allow corporations to take over the provision, if not the ownership, of our biggest public services. The corporate sector gets what it wants. Why shouldn't Murdoch? It's business as usual.
The Labour party was once the political arm of the organised working-class. All three main parties are now the political arm of the organised corporate class. This is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. Almost every advanced democracy, and particularly the US, struggles to control the corporate sector. It is not just that politicians depend on its donations to finance election campaigns but also that they lack the staying power to withstand corporate pressure.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Layer 462 . . . Voices, Artists, Adele, Music, Honesty, Authenticity, Expression, Zephania and Springtime


For artists, finding a personal voice is all. This is true for writers, singers, musicians, painters, sculptors, etc. It's discovering what you care about, what you have to express, and finding a way to say it.

It's possible for quite young children to discover a personal voice, given the right opportunities, given plenty of encouragement, and an absence of indoctrination and repression. Many children, however, merely parrot the voices they hear around them. You can hear these parrot voices in both working class and middle class families.

It's possible for young people to produce authentic art. It's also possible, and in our society also extremely likely, that many adults never find within themselves their authentic personal and individual voice.

Adele Adkins' success as an artist is being compared to the Beatles. Adele, like Lennon & McCartney, writes personal and honest songs about what it's like to be young, passionate, glad to be alive, and capable of experiencing extreme emotions.

Not only that - she also, like John & Paul, has a distinctive singing voice that has terrific range, power, emotion and individuality.

In their early days of learning to play in a band Lennon & McCartney, like Jagger & Richards, chose to sing the songs of grown-up black artists - adopting the persona and the 'voices' of people who clearly knew what they were writing songs about - voices full of honest passion, pain, love and celebration. These were black artists who knew about love and sex, about attraction and rejection. Whereas most young white guys in England in the Sixties were more likely to be experts on hanging around the chip shop and going to the youth club.

 No matter. We loved the Beatles belting out Roll Over Beethoven, and the Stones rocking to Round and Around. Reeling and a'rocking - what a crazy sound. However, we loved even more their own songs - their first singles - Love Me Do, Please Please Me, She Loves You, and Help! These were voices full of energy, excitement, longing and lust.

There was an article about Adele Adkins in the Guardian this week. She's an artist who's become a worldwide phenomenon since the release of her album called '21'. Little did I or anyone else suspect what was about to happen to her when I commented on her work back in January (Layer 428)

Adele breaks Madonna's album record and closes in on Bob Marley
London singer's 21 tops UK charts for 10th consecutive week, eclipsing record of material girl at height of popularity in 1990

The 22-year old released 21 in January, since when it has also topped the album charts in 17 European countries and the US.
She has gone from being a promising young artist, who existed slightly in the slipstream of acts like Duffy, to become the biggest act in the UK by a country mile.
The last act to spend 10 straight weeks at no 1 with a studio album was Dire Straits with Brothers in Arms in 1986. The album with the record for the most consecutive weeks at no 1 is Bob Marley and the Wailers' Legend, a compilation which achieved 12 weeks in 1984.
The only disappointment for Adele, who starts a UK tour on Thursday 14 April, was that her song Someone Like You was knocked from the no 1 slot on the singles chart.

Adele matches the Beatles in latest chart success
Singer becomes first living artist since the Fab Four to have two releases in each of the top five singles and album charts at once

Adele has become the first artist since the Beatles to have two top five singles and two top five albums in the charts at the same time. Buoyed by her rendition at last week's Brit awards, the singer's newest single, Someone Like You, jumped 46 spots to become her first No 1 hit. That song joins Rolling in the Deep, which sits at No 4; on the album charts, Adele's first two LPs – 21 and 19 – are also at No 1 and No 4 respectively.
"It's amazing," Adele told BBC Radio 1. "I've never had a No 1 single [before]. I'm probably annoying everyone as well, as I cried at the Brits and everything. I'm just so overwhelmed – I can't believe the response to it."

Adele: the girl with the mighty mouth
As the London singer conquers both Britain and America with a smash-hit No 1 album, we meet a superstar in the making

At live shows, Adele's on-stage banter has become justifiably famous, and most of it is like this, generous and filthy, broken up by bawdy laughter and what-am-I-likes. It has helped distinguish her since she first emerged in 2007, when a combination of a hot performance on late-night TV and then a prize at the 2008 Brit Awards marked her out as important new singing stock. Fours years on and she can still catch you by surprise: that wartime-landlady chitchat, then suddenly the dreadnought vocal.
"I get so nervous on stage I can't help but talk. I try. I try telling my brain: stop sending words to the mouth. But I get nervous and turn into my grandma. Behind the eyes it's pure fear. I find it difficult to believe I'm going to be able to deliver."
A few days earlier, back in London, Adele had most definitely delivered. One of a handful of artists booked to sing live at the 2011 Brits, she took to the stage at the O2 Arena and sang the closing track from 21 (that album already out in the UK and sitting at No 1 in the charts). On the record the song, "Someone Like You", is a simple but affecting ballad about heartbreak: a solid 11th track. Sung live at the Brits, the only accompaniment a piano, it altered a career.
Whoops and shouts from 16,000 in the upper tiers stopped as soon as she got going; on the arena floor even the tables of fizzed-up music execs fell quiet as Adele – now with sad and doleful eyes, now sneering, now fighting back tears – hauled everybody through the mangle of a break-up. It was an astonishing performance, and at the song's end she turned away from the microphone, biting her thumb, trying not to cry in the face of a standing ovation. Glitter fell from the eaves, making her exposed shoulders sparkle. Thousands downloaded a live recording of the track when it was put up for sale after the show. More than 5.5 million watched a YouTube upload of the performance, links to it fired about over email for the rest of the week. I was one of those emailers. Subject line: Bloody hell.
Before dawn [in New York] she'll be woken by her manager who'll tell her that she's beaten Gaga and gone to No 1 in the UK for the first time in her career. She'll cry and call her mum. Then she'll find out that the Brits performance so jolted the public that her previous single, "Rolling in the Deep", has moved up to No 4; that her album, 21, has held fast at No 1 in the album chart, and that the album she released three years ago, 19, has reached No 4. She'll end the day with two albums and two singles in the top five, the first time such a thing has happened for 50 years.
Assume, by the way, that Adele is swearing at all times. Between words, between syllables, she effs as easily as she laughs, and it would not be easy putting Adele, as Adele speaks, into print.
There's been a lot of red pen, but on occasion she needs to be done proper justice. "Can somebody get me a facking screwdriver? I'm going for the facking wiring. Doing my facking 'ead in. Unbe-facking-lievable."
It all started for Adele on TV, with a Beatle. Some of her early songs caught the attention of producers on Later… with Jools Holland in summer 2007, and without a release to her name she was plopped on an episode to sing next to Paul McCartney. Heart-flutters, light-headedness – but Adele delivered and, not for the last time, charmed an audience meant for someone more famous.
A buzz picked up around her: killer voice, that cherubic face and unapologetic size-14-ness, her oozy sass. When it was announced that she'd won a newly minted Brit award in late 2007, something vaguely titled "the critics' choice award", her debut album was still weeks away. But she'd released a single, "Hometown Glory", the cover of which showed Adele looking soulful in a London caff and sharing foreground space with a bottle of Sarson's vinegar. A certain tone had been established.

The Official Charts Company announced that Adele is the first living artist to achieve the feat of two top five hits in both the UK Singles Chart and the UK Album Chart simultaneously since The Beatles in 1964. The album 21 debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200, with first week sales of 352,000 copies. It is now the biggest-selling album download of all-time in the UK. In its tenth consecutive week at number one in the UK, 21 overtook Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection for longest consecutive weeks at number one by a solo female artist, and has become the album to have the longest run at number one in twenty five years since Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms in 1986. - Wikipedia



I've written about the brilliant Benjamin Zephania before, and today he was on the radio talking about his 'inheritance tracks'.

One of his teachers had told him that he was a 'born failure'. However, he then heard a record called "Young, Gifted and Black" . . .

The track he chose to 'pass on' is Labi Siffre's "Something So Strong" - a song about liberation and a people's determination to be liberated - "An amazingly uplifting song."

BZ's website:

The more you refuse to hear my voice
The louder I will sing
You hide behind walls of Jericho
Your lies will come tumbling
Deny my place in time
You squander wealth that's mine
My light will shine so brightly
It will blind you
Cos there's......

Something inside so strong
I know that I can make it
Tho' you're doing me wrong, so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh no, something inside so strong
Oh oh oh oh oh something inside so strong


Beautiful Springtime

By the way - it's full-on Springtime, and it's glorious. This whole week has been amazing for sunshine and temperatures in the top teens and low twenties. It's been possible to sit out in the sun and get the beginnings of a tan. It's brilliant to feel the sun again.

All around there are flowering cherries, plums, apples and magnolias in full magnificent blossom, and there are still many daffodils and tulips in their prime.

Just starting now are bluebells - there were quite a few coming out in the cemetery yesterday. Next to come out will be the lilacs and ceanothus.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Layer 461 . . . Spiritual Life, Social Responsibility, Confronting Reality, Campus, Green Wing and Political Crisis

In Our Time - Radio 4

Victorian social reformer Octavia Hill.

From the 1850s until her death in 1912, Octavia Hill was an energetic campaigner who did much to improve the lot of impoverished city dwellers. She was a pioneer of social housing who believed that there were better and more humane ways of arranging accommodation for the poor than through the state. Aided at first by her friend John Ruskin, the essayist and art critic, she bought houses and let them to the urban dispossessed.
Octavia Hill provided an early model of social work, did much to preserve urban open spaces, and was the first to use the term 'green belt' to describe the rural areas around London. She was also one of the founders of the National Trust. Yet her vision of social reform, involving volunteers and private enterprise rather than central government, was often at odds with that of her contemporaries.

Housing reform - "wanting to tackle the violence, chaos and suffering."

She also stressed the need for open spaces, gardens and playgrounds.

19th Century cooperatives . . .

"A belief that a spiritual life entails social responsibility."

Octavia "confronted reality from an early age."

Her family were Christian socialists.

She was brought up "face to face with the realities of poverty."

Her parents were radicals, and encouraged her to be radical, unconventional, creative, innovative . . .

She started a programme of taking children on visits to the countryside.


Campus  -  Channel 4

Now here's a thing. Green Wing was the best and funniest TV series of all time. It was devised and produced by Victoria Pile, and was also written by her, plus a team of 7 other writers.

Ms Pile and 5 of the original 7 Green Wing writers are also responsible for a new series that started on C4 this week - "Campus". This is supposed to be Green Wing transposed to a university campus. What it actually is, is a pile of steaming poo. It's unbelievably awful. How can this be?

The two Green Wing writers missing from the Campus team are Gary Howe and Stuart Kenworthy. Can we then safely assume that these guys provided the element of genius in Green Wing? We surely must, for how else to explain the utterly incredible ridiculousness of Campus?

Green Wing was whacky, oddball, off the wall, original and hilarious. Campus is silly, screwball, juvenile and totally unfunny. Green Wing had brilliant characters and wonderful actors. Campus has idiot characters and crap actors.

This is one of the biggest TV disappointments of all time. It's an unbelievable let-down. It's so lamentable I won't even be watching subsequent episodes, in the hope that it improves. I don't see how it possibly can.

Every single character in Green Wing is funny, appealing and insanely believable - even the hideous Dr Statham. There isn't a single character in Campus who has these qualities.

Bah. Humbug.


"A fairly substantial political crisis" is how Michael Portillo describes what's happening with the coalition and its decision to halt the progress of its bill to demolish the NHS.

What's happened to all the energy of the protests? Is that it? Having huffed and puffed and stamped our little feet do we all just stand back and watch what happens from now on?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Layer 460 . . . The Good Book , A Secular Bible, Grayling and Philosophy


Back in 2009 Oxzen wrote about World Philosphy Day, about teaching philosophy in schools, and quoted from AC Grayling and the Dalai Lama:

Layer 223 . . . World Philosophy Day, Greeks, Stranglers, Floyd and Spiritual Intelligence

I'd also intended to quote from Grayling's book What Is Good? (The Search For The Best Way To Live), but never got round to it.

Grayling has now published a book called The Good Book, A Secular Bible, and spoke about it in a Guardian interview:

AC Grayling: 'How can you be a militant atheist? It's like sleeping furiously'

In his new book, The Good Book: A Secular Bible, the philosopher sets out his manifesto for rational thought. He talks about why religion angers him, the power of philosophy – and his mane of hair

In the unholy trinity of professional atheists, AC Grayling has always tended to be regarded as the good cop. Less coldly clinical in tone than Richard Dawkins, less aggressively combative than Christopher Hitchens, Grayling approaches the God debate with a gently teasing charm that could almost – but should never – be mistaken for conciliation. "Yes, I'm the velvet version," he chuckles.

So he insists that his new book does not belong in the same canon as Dawkins's The God Delusion and Hitchens's God Is Not Great. "No, because it's not against religion. There's not one occurrence of the word God, or afterlife, or anything like that. It doesn't attack religion, it's a positive book, there's nothing negative in it. People may think it's against religion – but it isn't." But then he says, with a mischievous twinkle: "Of course, what would really help the book a lot in America is if somebody tries to shoot me."

With any luck it shouldn't come to that, but Grayling is almost certainly going to upset a lot of Christians, for what he has written is a secular bible. The Good Book mirrors the Bible in both form and language, and is, as its author says, "ambitious and hubristic – a distillation of the best that has been thought and said by people who've really experienced life, and thought about it". Drawing on classical secular texts from east and west, Grayling has "done just what the Bible makers did with the sacred texts", reworking them into a "great treasury of insight and consolation and inspiration and uplift and understanding in the great non-religious traditions of the world". He has been working on his opus for several decades, and the result is an extravagantly erudite manifesto for rational thought.

When I suggest that he sounds less enraged than amused by religion, he says quickly: "Well, it does make me angry, because it causes a great deal of harm and unhappiness."

He is very cross, for example, with the question in the current census that asks: "What is your religion?" The British Humanist Society has just conducted a poll that asked those surveyed if they were religious – to which 65% said no. But when asked, "What is your religion?" 61% of the very same people answered Christian. "You see, they say, 'Oh well, nominally I suppose I'm Christian.' But two-thirds of the population don't regard themselves as religious! So we have to try to persuade society as a whole to recognise that religious groups are self-constituted interest groups; they exist to promote their point of view. Now, in a liberal democracy they have every right to do so. But they have no greater right than anybody else, any political party or Women's Institute or trade union. But for historical reasons they have massively overinflated influence – faith-based schools, religious broadcasting, bishops in the House of Lords, the presence of religion at every public event. We've got to push it back to its right size."

Atheists, according to Grayling, divide into three broad categories. There are those for whom this secular objection to the privileged status of religion in public life is the driving force of their concern. Then there are those, "like my chum Richard Dawkins", who are principally concerned with the metaphysical question of God's existence. "And I would certainly say there is an intrinsic problem about belief in falsehood." In other words, even if a person's faith did no harm to anybody, Grayling still wouldn't like it. "But the third point is about our ethics – how we live, how we treat one another, what the good life is. And that's the question that really concerns me the most."

It's only in the past decade that these three strands of thought have developed into a public campaign against faith – but it wasn't the atheists, according to Grayling, who provoked the confrontation. "The reason why it's become a big issue is that religions have turned the volume up, because they're on the back foot. The hold of religion is weakening, definitely, and diminishing in numbers. The reason why there's such a furore about it is that the cornered animal, the loser, starts making a big noise."

Even if this is true, however, the atheist movement has been accused of shooting itself in the foot by adopting a tone so militant as to alienate potential supporters, and fortify the religious lobby. I ask Grayling if he thinks there is any truth in the charge, and he listens patiently and politely to the question, but then dismisses it with a shake of the head.

"Well, firstly, I think the charges of militancy and fundamentalism of course come from our opponents, the theists. My rejoinder is to say when the boot was on their foot they burned us at the stake. All we're doing is speaking very frankly and bluntly and they don't like it," he laughs. "So we speak frankly and bluntly, and the respect agenda is now gone, they can no longer float behind the diaphanous veil – 'Ooh, I have faith so you mustn't offend me'. So they don't like the blunt talking. But we're not burning them at the stake. They've got to remember that when it was the other way around it was a much more serious matter.

"And besides, really," he adds with a withering little laugh, "how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don't collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It's like sleeping furiously. It's just wrong."

If Grayling does have one fundamentalist article of faith, it is that all of us are capable of understanding philosophy. 

The author of 30 books, he is a professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College in London, and a supernumerary of St Anne's College, Oxford, as well as a UN human rights activist. But he is probably best described by that phrase that tends to make the British uncomfortable – a public intellectual.

"I spent the first half or more of my career in the ivory tower writing technical philosophy, but I recognised very early that academic philosophy is a very narrow part of the field. This is one of my big things: that philosophy belongs to everybody. Until 100 years ago philosophy did belong to everyone. Today, unfortunately, it's become very jargon-laden and scholastic, so it's become very specialised. 

But a lot of the stuff I've written has been trying to show people that this is part of the conversation mankind has with himself, about all the great questions. 

Is there a sniffy faction within the world of philosophy that takes a dim view of attempts to make the subject more widely accessible?

"Oh, I'm absolutely sure of it. But I also think that attitude has moderated considerably over time. Ten to 15 years ago, when I started to try to do this, I'm pretty sure there was a lot of sniffing going on." 

But, of course, most people's lives and judgments aren't really guided by rigorous reason at all – which must be maddening to him. So I wonder what he makes of humankind's perverse attachment to non-rational impulses.

"I think they are failing in their responsibility to themselves as intelligent beings. By not being sufficiently reasonable. If you really press them, just ask them, aren't you glad that the people who built the aeroplane you fly in used reason? Aren't you glad that the pilots were trained according to reason? Aren't you glad that your doctor or train driver thinks about what they do and uses reason? And they will say yes. Then you say, 'Well, OK, if that's the case then how about applying it to your own life as well?'"

Excellent Idea, AC.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Layer 459 . . . Work, Education, Management Culture, Creativity, Collaboration and Character

BBC2  - The British At Work

Unfortunately it's not just Brits who got sucked into fuckwit work culture and management culture. It's been a worldwide phenomenon - working ever-longer hours under management that's either Hitlerian, Machiavellian or David Brentian. Possibly all three simultaneously, depending on whether management thinks your 'performance' is OK or not.

The good thing about working in a public service not-for-profit 'professional' environment used to be that you were treated as an intelligent being who didn't need to be 'motivated' - you did more and gave more than you should, simply because you were there to serve others. Very sadly this is, by and large, no longer the case. Nowadays management consultants and business schools have convinced senior management everywhere that target-setting and payment by results should be applied to the 'workforce'. Nowadays everyone has to be micro-managed and performance-managed to death.

Throw into this mix management by email, by text, and by 'bonus' culture, and you have total alienation, stress, anxiety, loss of morale, illness and breakdown.

Work-life balance? Don't be stupid.


Here are some quotes from an essential article in Guardian Education:

Let's look at all the evidence from top educators abroad
Michael Gove is keen to see what we have to learn from education systems internationally, but the lessons may not be as straightforward as he thinks, says Valerie Hannon
"Recently Michael Gove has stressed the importance of comparing education systems internationally, as seen in the OECD's Pisa studies, and of learning from the most successful nations. But what should our response be?
"The education secretary enthuses about Andreas Schleicher, of the OECD, calling him the "most important man in English education" for the insights his work confers. Schleicher's analysis, according to Gove, shows, first, that "we [England] are falling further and further behind other nations"; and second, that the key to success is "to recruit the best possible people into teaching and provide them with high-quality training and professional development". This is true – as far as it goes. But it is a partial analysis.
"What have successful systems to tell us about the issues we face today? Schleicher's work demonstrates compellingly that demand for the competencies 20th-century school systems were good at imparting (routine cognitive and manual skills) is falling sharply among employers across the world. He shows that 21st-century systems need to prepare young people with the skills to undertake non-routine analytic and, especially, non-routine interactive tasks. Schleicher's conclusion is: "The skills that are easiest to teach and test are also easiest to digitise, automate and outsource."
"The implication of these findings is that systems need to prepare students "to deal with more rapid change than ever before … for jobs that have not yet been created … using technologies that have not yet been invented". This is about learning how to learn, and new ways of thinking that involve creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making. It is in sharp contrast to an emphasis on the capacity to reproduce facts." 
The really outrageous aspect to all this good sense is that 'progressive' educators have been saying these things since the early 20th century, and others like Dryden & Vos (The New Learning Revolution) have been banging on about it in more recent years - to no good effect in dopey old England.
"For this is the perspective being adopted by the world's leading systems. Rather than relying on past achievements, they are reconceiving how they approach the future. Take Finland – always at or near the top of the Pisa rankings. The director of the Finnish board of education has described how their system has identified the key competencies for lifelong learning, and is setting about transforming their system to ensure they're acquired. Critically, this entails enabling learners to "undertake meaningful problem-based inquiry, which might be multi-disciplinary, supported by blended teaching methods and hybrid resources". The Finns aren't giving up on acquiring knowledge. They just know it's not enough.
"Then there's South Korea, another "top performing" system. Perceived as exam-driven, cramming its students, Korea is set to change. Exploring the work of its very best schools has revealed that they focus on providing concentrated time for some subjects (rather than shallow drip-feed); on personalising learning; on evaluating creativity; and on experience-based learning. South Korea is basing its innovation agenda on the "three C's": creativity, collaboration and character.
"And finally, take one of the most improved cities in the world in terms of education performance – New York City. Gove recently hosted the former chancellor of the NYC school system, praising the rapid progress made by the city. What he omitted, however, was that NYC has acknowledged its current set of school improvement initiatives is inadequate to deal with the challenges young people face. So it has a launched an Innovation Zone, comprising a distributed network of schools, specifically to test and refine new approaches to learning and teaching that are more personalised and emphasise higher-level skills.
"So yes, let's join the global education community seeking out the best ways to make learning engaging and relevant to young people in the digital age. But let's do it with open minds, and attention to all the evidence."
Valerie Hannon is a board director of the Innovation Unit


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Layer 458 . . . Empathy, Social Intelligence, Human Cruelty, and the World's Most Valuable Resource

The obvious reason the rich don't give a shit about the poor is they're greedy bastards who can never get their hands on enough moola to satisfy their grasping, materialistic, status-seeking, pleasure-seeking desires.

Another reason is their total lack of caring, empathy, social intelligence - call it what you will.

The science of empathy
Does it upset you when you see people arguing? Do you cry at the cinema? Empathy is one of our most powerful emotions yet society has all but ignored it. Autism expert Professor Simon Baron-Cohen reveals the science behind "the world's most valuable resource" – and how its lack is the root of human cruelty

This article was published in last week's Guardian magazine, and is a must-read for anyone who has any interest in human relationships - which ought to be everybody. If this doesn't appeal - then it means you're a sociopath or a psychopath.

It's interesting that the professor never uses the term "social intelligence", though he must be aware that Daniel Goleman, for one, has written whole books on this subject, and on emotional intelligence.

Bear in mind also that he's writing from the standpoint of a professional academic psychologist focusing on people with a deficit of empathy, people who have a serious lack of empathy for deep-seated personal reasons, and not just because their social intelligence hasn't been encouraged or allowed to develop by a school system that doesn't give a damn, on the whole, about consistently raising young people's levels of social intelligence. In fact, competitive education will always do the opposite - depress levels of social intelligence by setting people against one another through competition for grades and status.

As ever, I'll post here a few quotations from the article just to give a flavour, but I do urge readers to take time to read the entire piece.

How can humans treat other people as objects? How do humans come to switch off their natural feelings of sympathy for a fellow human being who is suffering?

As a scientist I want to understand the factors causing people to treat others as if they are mere objects. So let's substitute the term "evil" with the term "empathy erosion". Empathy erosion can arise because of corrosive emotions, such as bitter resentment, or desire for revenge, or blind hatred, or desire to protect.

The key idea is that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. People said to be "evil" or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum. We can all be lined up along this spectrum of individual differences, based on how much empathy we have. At one end of this spectrum we find "zero degrees of empathy".

Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don't work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people's thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people's feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100% in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.

Zero degrees of empathy does not strike at random in the population. There are at least three well-defined routes to getting to this end-point: borderline, psychopathic, and borderline personality disorders. I group these as zero-negative because they have nothing positive to recommend them. They are unequivocally bad for the sufferer and for those around them. Of course these are not all the sub-types that exist. Indeed, alcohol, fatigue and depression are just a few examples of states that can temporarily reduce one's empathy, and schizophrenia is another example of a medical condition that can reduce one's empathy.

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in the school curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda. We can see examples among our political leaders of the value of empathy, as when Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk sought to understand and befriend each other, crossing the divide in Apartheid South Africa, but the same has not yet been achieved between Israel and Palestine, or between Washington and Iraq or Afghanistan. And, for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are lost.

I think we have taken empathy for granted, and thus to some extent overlooked it. Psychology as a science virtually ignored it for a century. Educators focusing on literacy and mathematics have also largely ignored it. We just assume empathy will develop in every child, come what may. We put little time, effort or money into nurturing it. Our politicians almost never mention it, despite the fact that they need it more than anyone. Until recently, neuroscientists hardly questioned what empathy is.

Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.

Zero Degrees of Empathy: a New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen (Allen Lane, £20) is published on 7 April.

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge university


Friday, April 1, 2011

Layer 457 . . . No Mandate, Supporting the Protests, Waltz With Bashir, and Woody Guthrie

I like this comment from CiF:


Why do the protesters deserve support? Firstly because the Conservatives have no mandate for their policies, secondly because they were elected by the votes of only 25% of the electorate, and thirdly because of the 20 big, fat lies they have been peddling for the last 18 months:

Lie 1: Three days before the election, David Cameron: "Any cabinet minister … who comes to me and says 'Here are my plans' and they involve frontline reductions, they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again".

Lie 2: A month before the election, David Cameron: "Our plans involve cutting wasteful spending … our plans don't involve an increase in VAT."

Lie 3: The coalition agreement: "We will stop top-down reorganisations of the NHS."

Lie 4: The coalition agreement: “We will guarantee that health spending increases in real terms."

Lie 5: Two months before the election, from David Cameron: "I wouldn't change child benefit, I wouldn't means test it. I don't think that's a good idea."

Lie 6: Michael Gove, just before the election: "Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping EMA. I have never said this. We won't."

Lie7: Liam Fox: "a bigger army for a safer Britain", but it now loses 7,000 soldiers.

Lie 8: In October 2009 George Osborne said: “..........retail banks should stop paying out significant cash bonuses.” A year later, he opposed an updated EU Capital Requirement Directive intended to limit them.

Lie 9: David Cameron: "Yes, we back Sure Start. It's a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this." Yet the government’s Early Intervention Grant means a reduction of £1.4 billion in the amount given to early intervention programmes. As a result, 250 will shut and the rest will suffer cuts in the services they offer.

Lies 10-16: No cuts in tax credits for families with an income of less than £50,000; prison for anyone carrying a knife; no cuts to the navy; keeping the child trust fund for the poorest third of families; no hospital closures; 3000 more midwives; a two-year council tax freeze.

Lie 17: “We cannot afford our bloated public sector workforce.” Yet ONS figures show that average annual public sector employment as a proportion of the UK workforce was 21% in 2010. When Thatcher resigned in 1992, 23% of the work force was employed in the public sector. Compare this with other European countries: France 25%, Holland 22%, Denmark 30%, Sweden 28%, Norway 40%, Finland 27%. 

Lie 18: Although Osborne has called the PFI model “failed and discredited”, the private sector is due to spend some £16.2bn under PFI deals signed between 2010 and 2012 according to the OBR – and last June the Treasury approved several new PFI projects. 

Lie 19: David Cameron, June 5th 2010: "You have to address the massive welfare bills.....” Yet average welfare spending as a % of GDP was 10.4% in the years 1979-1997 compared to 6.4% in the years 1997-2010. In 1997 welfare spending as a % of GDP, 1997 was 7.8%. In 2010 it was 7.1% (

Lie 20: George Osborne, 20th October, 2010: "Today is the day when Britain steps back from the brink, when we confront the bills from a decade of debt.” Yet national debt was lower as a proportion of GDP at the start of the financial crisis in 2008 (36%) than in 1997, the last year of John Major’s government. (42%), and in 2010 the UK’s national debt as a proportion of GDP (52%) was the second lowest of the G7 countries (

But it is not surprising that the Tories did not make their intentions clear before the election since, had they done so, the 2010 Conservative Party Manifesto would have replaced Michael Foot’s 1983 document as “the longest suicide note in history”.

Ignore the sneers. This march is a real alarm-clock moment
by Polly Toynbee
There is an alternative to the brutal cuts agenda, and thousands of people from all walks of life will demonstrate that in London

Brother J is very sniffy about bloggers and CiF commenters, and of course there are 10 crap comments (and I dare say 10 crap blogs) to every worthwhile one, but I still say it's better for us all to try at least to make some kind of contribution to ongoing debates and arguments than just keep schtum because we can't be bothered or because we think our own little voice isn't important. After all, nobody is forced to read what we have to say.   


Channel 4 this week screened the TV premier of "Waltz With Bashir".

Oxzen wrote about it in 2008, in Layer 38: Licence To Kill

Do soldiers have a license to kill?

“Waltz With Bashir” is “a daring new animated documentary that follows Israeli director Ari Folman as he tries to piece together memories of the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps“.

It’s in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Folman was on the radio this morning explaining how he intends to do everything he can to persuade his sons never to take part in any violence whatsoever, regardless of any demands that the State or the Army may make of them. He wants his work to persuade everyone that violence can never be a solution to conflict.

“Folman was a soldier in the Israeli army when it invaded Lebanon earlier that year. It allowed Christian militiamen into the refugee camps and stood by as they went on a killing spree shortly after the assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel.”

Well there’s still hope for the Middle East, and for the world, when artists like Folman are able to release powerful films that highlight State and military atrocities, and make the case for shunning violent solutions to problems in all circumstances.

Oh Well . . .

At least we seem to be making progress when the United Nations is able to pass an unopposed resolution to try to prevent Gadhaffi slaughtering those sections of his population who have rebelled against his dictatorship, just as it was progress when the Egyptian army resolved NOT to take any aggressive action against the brave people who came out and demanded that Mubarak should resign.


Thinking about our own domestic demonstrations, George Monbiot this week wrote this illuminating column on the UK's civil liberties legislation -

Free to protest? I can still be arrested if my placard reads: 'Nick Clegg, oh dear'
Even Tony Blair's most illiberal measures have survived Clegg's promise to repeal all the laws that inhibit our freedom


Woody Sez

Thanks to Brother P's recent recommendation I managed to catch a wonderful show at the Arts Theatre last night, just ahead of the end of its run this weekend. A fabulous evening  - enjoying  4 talented multi-instrumentalists/vocalists playing and singing the great songs of the sublime Woody Guthrie.

Plenty of seats still available for both remaining evenings, and also the Saturday matinee.

"It stirringly captures the rebellious spirit of Guthrie's times, and of our own, too."

Layer 377 . . . Protests, Political Activism, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan

Take a look at Dylan's amazing poem - "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie":

More on Woody: