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.

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