Monday, September 24, 2012

To forgive Devine?

I've been wondering if it was worth saying anything about Bishop Devine's comparison of abortion clinics to Auschwitz since he's someone who has a long and ignoble record of making amazingly crass and insensitive statements whenever the opportunity presents itself and while it may not be a representative sample, I know that few of his co-religionists consider him to be anything other than an embarrassment.

 Nevertheless, a couple of thoughts present themselves. One has to do with the way extreme positions on sensitive issues like abortion are given the oxygen of publicity. The extremists are the first to the microphone - partly because they are the first invited to the microphone, on account of the extreme positions they hold. There are some who think abortion not only raises no moral issues at all but is something to be celebrated. Others take the Augustinian view that the soul is infused at the point of conception and therefore conclude that abortion cannot be justified under any circumstances. Most of us, I suspect, find ourselves on a spectrum somewhere between these absolutes but my point is that even if you take the latter view, it is still possible to dismiss Bishop Devine as a moral idiot. Possible and also desirable because anyone who compares the actions of a seventeen year old who has become pregnant after being raped with what happened in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is exactly that.

 There's also the specifics of the comparison he made. For those unfamiliar with the story, Devine defended the acquittal of two Christian anti-abortion campaigners who had asked themselves the question, "What would Jesus do?". Being obviously ill-acquainted with the New Testament, they came to the conclusion that he would have waved enormous pictures of aborted foetuses in the faces of distressed women attending an abortion clinic in Brighton. This Devine compares to the publication of photographs from Auschwitz. Now, whenever anyone compares anything to the Holocaust, they are suggesting that the issue they have chosen is something that demands and justifies an unequivocal and uncompromising moral stance.

 It is not my intent to implicate Bishop Devine in matters that he was, despite his age, too young to have participated in. Nor do I want to join in the thinly-veiled Catholic-bashing that some of the historiography of this period indulges in. The Catholic Church was not, is not, a homogeneous entity and it is not my purpose to debate the position it took in relation to National Socialism. It had underground networks that aided and rescued some of Europe's Jewry - and it also had those that allowed some of the most blood-soaked criminals in the history of the world to escape justice. The role that Pope Pius XII played in relation to these is a matter of heated historical debate, to say no more than that. The point in this context is that while I take the view that the 'Nazi-Pope' interpretation is too partisan and simplistic, in making the Auschwitz comparison Bishop Devine has not chosen something that prompted an unequivocal moral stance from the Catholic Church and for this reason alone he should show more humility.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On religion and free speech

Only if you've been asleep could you have failed to notice the international outrage at offences to the 'prophet' evoked by what everyone seems to agree is a tawdry and vulgar film on YouTube and now some cartoons to be published in a French magazine.  

Whenever I'm inclined to be all subtle and nuanced about this, which on occasion I am, I'm reminded of a passage in Peter Gay's history of the Enlightenment.  Towards the end of the book he remarks that while the modern secular reader might blanche at the extremity of the language Voltaire et al directed at established religion, it should be understood that this civilised and moderate position is a luxury that is possible only because these shock troops of the Enlightenment ultimately won.  (I'm paraphrasing because despite having a paper copy in front of me, can't find the exact wording for love nor money.)  

I've always been a little uneasy about drawing a comparison between this eighteenth century situation to the present day because attacks on religion then were quite clearly an assault on an establishment that sanctified ignorance from a position of power as opposed to something that can today look like having a go at a disadvantaged immigrant community.  

I'm increasingly of the view, however, that this is a feeling that should be resisted.  Nick Cohen in his latest and best book notes the globalisation of this process where offence has become first sanctified and then politicised.  What this means for CiF commentators trying to strike a reasonable and moderate tone is quite another for people elsewhere in this world of ours where those of urgent religious convictions exercise a temporal power unimagined by the commentators who have confined themselves to remarking on the production values of the 'Innocence of Muslims'.  The aesthetic qualities of the film have apparently exhausted any outrage these might otherwise feel for the fact that around fifty people around the world have lost their lives already.

One's concern is that the sheer cost of preserving the principle of free expression will fold under the weight of effort.  We saw this with the Salman Rushdie case, with various commentators with nothing better to do than complain about the expense.  They've put too cheap a price on something that the wisdom of ages and nations valued highly.  It's a conservative sentiment, I appreciate - these days, anyway - but the principle of free speech is something worth conserving.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Initial thoughts on the abolition of GCSEs

I'm an outsider so please feel free to correct me but on hearing Gove wants to replace GCSEs a couple of thoughts present themselves immediately:

1) A single exam board. Good idea and uncontroversial up here. The logic of the position - that competition to give the customers what they want doesn't necessarily make for a better product hasn't been followed through, obviously.

2) Getting rid of internal assessment. Good idea. Internal continuous assessment is the work of the devil. The original thinking was that continuous assessment reduces the stress of having everything depending on a final exam. Instead what you have is students being stressed all the time. Plus all the re-assessment nonsense is time taken away from teaching and learning, as some people have already pointed out.

3) The notion of a baccalaureate implies the necessity to pass a core of subjects in order to gain the qualification. If this is what is being suggested then this too strikes me as being a good idea.

4) Making the examination more difficult to pass. Unsure. It really depends on what you want your examination system to do - something which there's been little discussion on both sides of the border.  One could be forgiven for thinking it's a topic that people actively avoid.

I say this in the interests of non-partisanship because this is part of the problem with education, both in England and Scotland. Changes are announced and people adopt positions accordingly before anything one could reasonably describe as evidence has become available. What certainly doesn't seem to make any sense to me is Stephen Twigg's remarks that the changes run the risk of a "return to a two-tier system". I defer to those who know more about this that I do but from an foreigner's perspective, a move to a two-tier educational system in England sounds to me like a radical simplification of a confusing and Balkanised system.

I also don't get this idea of people being left on the scrapheap at 16 - when Mr Twigg is the representative of a party who in government proposed extending the leaving age to 18, something I'm led to understand will be a reality in due course? Given this is so, why do exams at 16 at all?

This from Gove's critics but his fans are also quick to takes sides. The Telegraph announces that something that remains as yet a proposal to be a success already - in much the same way that Toby Young announced in the same paper that his 'free school' is a success, despite having only one cohort that hasn't even come within sniffing distance of an exam system that is now in a state of flux.

The problem is that in this kind of atmosphere the political survival of a project becomes more important than actually measurable educational outcomes.

We shouldn't imagine things are any better in Scotland. One of the interesting things about this whole debate is how frequently people argue that our system is moving in a completely different, 'progressive', direction. I'm struck by the similarities, myself. Won't bore you with them except to point out that this problem of bureaucratic momentum driven by political partisanship is something that is, well, a rather British phenomenon.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

This day in history

On the 3rd of September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany.  How late it was.  Too late for Czechoslovakia, as everyone knows - but too late also to stop the rape of Poland as well.

There's always reason to remember days like this but what I'm finding is that in this job there are additional details that come one's way that makes you see these events as through a window that has just been cleaned.  On a personal note it's my mother's eightieth on Tuesday, which means this would have been the day before her seventh birthday.  But what's struck home is the manner in which this subject, something to which I'm returning after a couple of years absence professionally, moves and animates my Polish students.  Too young to remember obviously, and too young also to grasp the implications of being born and brought up in a nation that has forged its identity between the hammer and anvil of Germany and Russia - yet one gets the sense that it is felt pretty deeply nonetheless.

That there is a lazy and complacent view of those in the British establishment who pursued the policy of Appeasement is something I would agree with up to a point.  Easy to judge the generation who had lived through the Great War and the industrialised carnage of Passchendaele, Verdun or the Somme - this last, I think I'm right in saying, holds the record for the largest number of causalities in a single day.  But such contextualising can only take one so far.  On Chamberlain Michael Burleigh writes that Appeasement was a policy that he persisted with, "to the point where it had all the inflexibility of an ideological conviction or religious belief".  It should also be remembered that Churchill not only lived through the Great War but saw active service on the Western Front, having resigned his post after the catastrophe of Gallipoli.  He understood the horrors of war but thought that there were worse fates that humanity could endure.  It's not as easy to accept this proposition as some assume but it is the truth nonetheless.  

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