Monday, August 29, 2005

Tales from the trenches

This one that a fellow classroom practitioner told me at the weekend cheered me up no end. My friend - let's call him comrade Ralph - a teacher of some experience, was assaulted by a pupil in a Glasgow school that, in the interests of employability, shall remain nameless. The Head of this citadel of learning - let's call him Over-paid waste of space - excluded the child for a pathetic one and a half days!
Comrade Ralph: I'm not at all happy with the way this situation has been dealt with; I was assaulted, after all.

Over-paid waste of space: Well, that's too bad - that's the decision I've made.

(Later the next day)

Comrade Ralph: Thought I should let you know I've phoned the police; that's the decision I've made...
Police duly arrive at the school and the offender is charged with assault.

How cool is that?

Some people are fighting back. We need more of that kind of spirit - a lot more...

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The great liberal education disaster

The late, great Isaiah Berlin, in his famous essay Two Concepts of Liberty argued that liberty had become a concept that had become so porous, there was virtually no meaning that it could not bear. He insisted on what he described as "negative liberty" as the only true definition of the term, which he understood to mean the extent to which the state left the subject to his or her own devices.

Politically, I still cleave to this view; it is not for the state to see what should be made of us, to seek to improve us or attempt to make us stand to moral attention. But it is entirely inappropriate to have applied this conception of liberty, properly understood as a political life only suitable for adult members of civil society, to the school system. To the extent to which it has been applied - and it has been done extensively throughout the United Kingdom - it has been an unmitigated educational catastrophe.

There are really not enough words to describe the absurdity of so-called "liberal" educational theories that this blogger came across during his teacher training: false dichotomies between different forms of learning that I would expect one of my brighter senior pupils to spot within about four minutes; the ludicrous notion that telling a pupil they're wrong represents an "authoritarian theory of knowledge" - are just a couple of the symptoms of the other-worldly disconnection with reality that so disfigures our educational system.

For the best take on a true liberal education, more people should turn to the liberal, but self described conservative, Michael Oakeshott. He argued that a truly liberal education had nothing to do with allowing pupils to "do their own thing" or being "contemporary". Rather, the liberty of the pupil is ensured by two things: a) the narrowness of the focus - the teacher is concerned with the delivery of a subject, not some aimless character-building exercise (most teachers, including myself, are not competent to do the latter) b) that what is really liberating about education is that it delivers the pupil from the "tyranny from the here and now". It does this by teaching subjects that represent great investments in human thought, not ones that are fashionable or entertaining.

This version of a liberal education is surely preferable to the present situation where at least twenty years of the culture of compulsory euphemism has produced an enormous number of bureaucrat-educationalist whose sole professional function appears to be to receive inflated salaries for their skill in rationalizing failure?

There is less social mobility in the UK than there was thirty tears ago. A large part of the problem is our school system that is run by people who think the school can't help being a repository for the prevailing culture, rather than being what it is: an institution capable of setting and maintaining its own norms and values.

And yet the effective educational writing-off of at least twenty percent of the population is so often excused in the name of equal opportunities, or of combatting "social inclusion", or in the name of sensitivity for the plight of the masses. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that the hard-pressed working class they secretly despise would be absolutely horrified to learn the way in which their hard-earned tax dollars were being used by idiots to make excuses for their failure (they do this with Powerpoint presentations these days).

Liberal, middle-class, horrible, patronising and really quite shameful and disgraceful is what this is.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Panorama: conflating issues again?

John Ware's documentary that is. Much of the criticism of the programme I don't really agree with - such as the pro-Israeli bias. I think Ware was quite right, for example, to challenge this rather grisly notion that the concept of an innocent civilian doesn't apply to Jews. I don't often agree with Madeline Bunting and with this piece, she predictably provided some examples of wishful thinking, such as the idea that anti-Semitism amongst some Muslims can be reduced soley to the influence of "Saudi-influenced" strands of Islam (Saudi-financed, dear).

She does have something resembling a point when she says, "I've yet to meet a member of any faith who doesn't believe in the superiority of their beliefs, while fear of being undermined is similarly common. Since when has "distaste" become a cause for suspicion?" It reminded me of something I was trying to say earlier: I personally am sick to the back teeth with people pussy-footing around the subject of religion and when the religious espouse racist, sexist and homophobic views, they should be challenged. But it does not follow that because someone has antiquated beliefs about the role of women or whatever that they are therefore a potential terrorist and it's here lies the conflation. While "mainstreaming" Islam may be desirable from the point of social cohesion, I doubt whether it would have much impact on potential recruits to Al-Qaeda. People use the term "cult", which is accurate in my view, but I'm not sure people have grasped the implications of this: how is it that the friends and family of some of these bombers had no inkling of what they were capable of? Because in many cases, they knew them before they converted. And they've converted, not to mainstream Islam, but to a heterodox cult. (I do intend to explain what I mean by this, but I'm too knackered at the moment.)

Anyway, back to ol' Maddy: by no means the most relativising piece she's ever written but she clearly felt she was being too even-handed, so she comes out with this line: "They are expected to keep their faith entirely out of politics (yet faith plays a crucial role in US politics)." Leaving aside her incomprehension at the distinction between a religious politician that functions within a secular state and a theocracy, we can agree: faith does play a big role in US politics.

And whenever an American politician invokes their faith, don't all those lovely liberal and tolerant journalists at the Guardian just ooze contempt?

Saturday, August 20, 2005

New Skool

Started on Tuesday; saw the weans for the first time on Thursday.

This is the school I went to...

Trippy, but in a bad way. So bad, so very, very bad.

I'm in professional hell...

Mo Myths

Down to earth, straight talking, courageous: all this is true.

But so is this, I'm afraid...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Salman Rushdie on a Muslim Reformation

Salman Rushdie repeats the view that what is required in Islam is for it to have it's own Reformation:
"What is needed is a move beyond tradition - nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadi ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows of the closed communities to let in much-needed fresh air."
I think when most people argue this, they mean the impact of the Enlightenment rather than the Reformation; while the former undoubtedly sprang from the latter, they are two different things. The application of the historical method to holy texts, which Rushdie alludes to ("It is high time, for starters, that Muslims were able to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it. ") belongs unequivocally to the scholarship that has grown from the Enlightenment.

It's a rather cuddly notion of the Reformation that many people appear to be operating with. Personally, I've always been struck by the similarities between some strands of Islam and Calvinism: both have the sovereignty of God as a central concept, which inevitably leads to a predestinarian approach; both retain moral rectitude by the elimination of magic from religion; and both are strongly scripturalist. People think of Wahabism as an element that is in need of reformation, but it would be more accurate to say Wahabism is the Muslim reformation.

A by definition essential feature of salvation religions is the division of the human race into two classes: the saved and the damned; the elect and the reprobate. The political consequences of this belief are significantly underestimated. To put it bluntly, when the saved are in power, the best the damned can expect is some kind of secondary social status; the worst, to be exterminated. Historically, it's the concept that's been at the heart of all kinds of persecutions, pogroms, and religious wars and arguably it has been at the heart of all the totalitarian slaughters of the 20th century in secular form, with the bourgeois and the proletariat, the sub-humans and the master race; the former the source of all misery and suffering in the world and the latter the source of redemption.

Historically, attempts to make states enterprise associations that pursue salvation have been calamitous - while the contrary attempt to eliminate even the private quest for salvation have been at least as tyrannical as any theocracy. It is only the secular state which allows freedom of religious belief that has ever managed to achieve the complete legal equality of persons regardless of confessional division. Surely we should be allowed to call that progress, something the human race has actually learned - without apologising for it?

Friday, August 12, 2005

Airline strikers

I'm with them. I have no more rational reason than the fact that catering is one of the most crappy jobs in the history of the world - and I'm talking from experience.

Unsocial hours, shit pay, the evil that is split shifts, and the persistent smell of cooking oil, which even a roasting hot bath can't quite shift - and don't even talk to me about cleaning deep fat fryers. Last I heard, they were sacking people that weren't even involved in the dispute...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Anti-terrorism measures

Been busy of late achieving nothing much, and a lot has been written during this time about the Government's proposed anti-terrorism measures. I'm not sure I've anything particularly novel to add, except perhaps a couple of points about the idea that glorifying and condoning terrorism, either in this country or abroad, should be made illegal. Given that this, as presently stated, could apply to someone who has not committed a terrorist crime, has not materially progressed in the intention to commit such a crime, and has no intention of committing such a crime in the future, nor of inciting or enlisting others to do so - this clearly falls into the category of making the holding of an opinion a crime.

No liberal could possibly agree to such a law. After the outrages of 7/7, I did ask myself whether my liberalism had survived the explosions. Before all this, I used to hold the view that the state should not require require the citizen to believe anything. I appreciate some see it as either a "negative" in the Isaiah Berlin sense and/or naive, but I still think this. The Platonic view is that firstly, the truth can be known, and secondly, that there's no reason to assume that the truth could not be defeated in a social struggle for ideas. It follows from this that restrictions on the free expression of ideas is permissible.

It's by no means absurd but I think Mill correctly identified one of the inherent dangers in this argument: legal protection for ideas can and does lead to them descending into dogma, as their rational basis fades for want of any challenge to them. Provided they haven't enjoined others to go and do likewise, I'd prefer the cheerleaders of Al-Qaida to be out in the open where they can be argued with. And the same goes for the religious of all stripes. In my lifetime, I've seen the whole subject of religion become a virtual free-speech zone in this country over the last twenty years or so. I dare say I'm being short-sighted or something but the benefits of this custom are not at all obvious to me, to say the least.

Beyond this, one can foresee a couple of practical difficulties with this proposed legislation. One rather depressing problem is the sheer number of people who would fall foul of this law. Now, I'm sure the legislation isn't designed with the intention of jailing apologists like Ken Livingstone (although not doubt Blair has a wee fantasy about that), but for those who would, it would surely be if nothing else a tactical error to have stupid arguments about what constitutes "terrorism" given the status that would come from a criminal trial?

And although I find the sheer number of people willing to justify barbarism a very melancholy reality, in terms of the actual material threat they represent, I think it's possible to exaggerate the potential danger. There are not a few justifiers of terrorism in Glasgow. A small minority were directly involved in Northern Irish terrorism (both camps) but - and I hope you don't think I'm being glib about this - most of those who casually supported sectarian murders in someone else's backyard were and are complete and utter morons who represented a threat to themselves, more than anyone else. Not a perfect parallel, by any means but I do not think that the approval of suicide-bombing, repellent though that is, makes someone a potential bomber themselves.

At the end of this post, I said - or was trying to say in rather undignified language - that we should have more confidence. It's a tragic loss of this confidence that is represented by the pathetic hand-wringing search for what we did to invite this. But it would be to extend the tragedy if we forgot that it's ability and strength to protect the rights of those who wish for its downfall is the glory and wisdom of democracy.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

On fundamentalism

Being of a secular disposition, I usually enjoy pieces like this one from Polly Toynbee - and regular readers of this space will know that I heartily agree in particular with what she says about faith schools.

However, I've been thinking that the present situation provides a temptation for us secularists to have a pop at everything about organised religion we don't like but that it's a temptation that perhaps should be avoided because there's a real danger of conflating issues in the process.

Critics of religion point to the pusillanimous attitude of supposed liberals and socialists when it comes to Islam; the previous strong opposition to power based on religion appears to melt away all too easily when confronted with the accusation of racism or Islamophobia and long-held causes of the left - such as women's emancipation and gay equality - are compromised to avoid this accusation.

Now, while I largely agree with this analysis, I'm concerned that this sort of thing now runs the risk of missing the point. Or to put it more plainly, just because someone has an obscurantist religious attitude and has frankly medieval attitudes to women, it does not follow that this mentality leads to the desire to blow oneself up.

I think what should be emphasised in this present time is that fundamentalism is an understanding of the Koran or Bible that arises from specific religious traditions, rather than the other way around - and how the Holy book in question is interpreted depends on the social context.

To give a Christian example, it's often assumed that fundamentalist Christians believe every word of the Bible and this gives rise to bizarre religious practices. I'm not sure that's so. For instance, American fundamentalists tend not to drink alcohol but think nothing of being divorced whereas in the New Testament we find Jesus gave men and women equal non-rights to divorce but there is no Biblical prohibition against drinking alcohol per se. The reason why evangelicals get it the wrong way round should be immediately obvious - it has nothing to do with what the Bible actually says and everything to do with the history and customs in the United States.

I really doubt Islam is very different. Looking for blood-curdling passages in either the Koran or the Bible misses the point, I think. Take the story of Abraham, which Judaism, Christianity and Islam share. Abraham is commanded by God to offer his son (Issac in the OT; Ishmael in the Koran) as a sacrifice. When Abraham shows willing, God intervenes and replaces Issac with an animal at the last minute - but Abraham is rewarded for his obedience. Now, on any given day, Muslims, Christians and Jews must read this story and it appears a large number think it's literally true. But I've no doubt at all that if I told either a Christian, Muslim or Jew that I planned to sacrifice my son, even those who are fundamentalist would think I was insane and try to restrain me.

Rather, it's the social context that mediates the text that matters and the crucial aspect of this when we are talking about the Islamofascists is the social context in question is a cult, rather than an ecclesia. This is crucial if we're to combat this properly. While I do not think the religious should be immune to criticism over their attitude to women or gays, this specific phenomenon should be understood as an aberrant murderous sect that is cut off from the mainstream religious piety of most Muslims and how it's dealt with needs to be done more carefully.

I say this because I'm increasingly concerned at some of the things that are being said. I do not, for example, believe that a state-sponsored mono-culture is the solution to the problem of integration. It is also very important, more so now than ever, for people to understand that this whole thing is a conflict within Islam. I said in my previous post that Muslims are more likely to be killed by Al-Qaeda than anyone else.

This has be be hammered home because at the present time, with anti-Muslim attacks on the increase, there are sick morons out there who are literally blaming the victims.

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