31 July 2009

On Gurkhas and Gramsci and...

Joanna Lumley's campaign (and she is the first to point out that she is just the media figurehead of a very serious and researched campaign behind the scenes) to grant the right to UK residence for former soldiers in the British army has rightly been celebrated.

But recently there has been newspaper correspondence and features in radio news (the sources are not particularly critical to the argument and I have finally given up after an hour of trying to cite them directly--sorry!) suggesting that while the opportunity to come to the UK was great for the former soldiers and their families themselves... what would be the impact on the communities they left behind?

It has been argued that former soldiers (and their pensions) have been critical to the (relative) prosperity of some communities in Nepal. It has not merely (merely?) been that the regular income from former soldiers' families have helped to sustain a wider family, and indeed by sustaining local trade, a whole community. It is that the presence of elders with a wide experience of the world has been an important asset to those often isolated communities.

For them to leave for the UK would be to deprive those villages of an incalculable resource, it has been claimed.

My view is that there are separate issues here. This is not a legitimate argument against the right of former soldiers to live in the country they were prepared to die for. The relationship of the Gurkhas to the British army goes far beyond that of "mercenaries", which would normally characterise nationals of one country enlisted in the armed forces of another.

So I am all for these ex-servicemen having the right to come and live in the UK.
I do hope that they will not exercise it.

Why? Because these men are what Gramsci called the "organic intellectuals" of their communities. They are the embedded "wise men" (factually they are all men). I have no idea how they feel about their obligations to their communities versus their opportunities abroad, which may well--as in the case of their military service--include remittances home. But their contribution will, I'm sure, not have been merely economic.

I'm not going on about this purely concerning the Gurkhas. Their case illustrates a more general principle about the naive promotion of "social mobility" as a political good. In particular it touches on government policies of promoting proportional targets for participation in higher education...

Mrs Gaskell, for example, (Mary Barton, 1848; North and South, 1854) makes much of the importance of autodidacts (self-taught scholars) in sustaining impoverished communities. In her day, those people could not escape their birth community. There was no social mobility. The minimal up-side of the situation was that the efforts of some very resourceful people were contained and employed in the interests of their home communities.

Once social mobility comes into the picture, there is a route out for these "community leaders" (as we might now term them--but only for some reason if they belong to an ethnic minority). And they go. And leave the less talented or committed or enterprising behind, to form an underclass. Michael Young had an inkling of this in "The Rise of the Meritocracy" (1958).

Does that mean we should not widen participation or promote social mobility? No, but...

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25 July 2009

On underlying rules

A friend has just passed on this. It's not unique, because English is an easy target, but it is fun:
English Is Weird

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,
Then shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim

Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
English muffins weren't invented in England .
We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes,
we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square,
and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing,
grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends
and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English
should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
We ship by truck but send cargo by ship.
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same,
while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
in which your house can burn up as it burns down,
in which you fill in a form by filling it out,
and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

And, in closing, if Father is Pop, how come Mother's not Mop?
In my usual curmudgeonly puritanical spirit of not permitting anything to be merely "fun", it strikes me that this is a fascinating exercise in exploring the seemingly nonsensical rules which govern the language. You could set it as an exercise for linguistics...

Yes, it is a pain to learn all these arbitrary expressions (and I have great respect for people using English as an Additional Language [EAL, if you are collecting acronyms]) but;
  • I'm not a great linguist, but all five languages I have tackled--I don't claim to have "learned" them--include for example tables of irregular verbs. (Sorry! Those tables are actually the product of our attempts to systematise living language in order to teach it.)

  • English is more of a mess than other languages simply because it incorporates borrowings from so many of them.

  • So it makes really good sense to look beneath the surface and consider why--for example--some words form plurals with "-s" and some with "-n" as in the first verse. To see this as totally arbitrary (as the verse implies--but why not?) is to deprive the learner of an organising device which may facilitate memorisation. Etymology does not always help (I am frequently baffled by the derivations of words at A Word A Day, which is a fascinating daily service I would commend to everyone) but it does at least suggest that there are some underlying rules to seemingly discrete results.
So what is the moral? (These posts are I fear drifting in the direction of the prescriptive and moralistic. I'll address that later.) Just that it is ultimately more productive (and even, heaven help us, "efficient") to learn the underlying rules from which specific instances are derived, than to learn those instances discretely.

Or you can just enjoy the verse. (No, it's not a poem; but that is another story...)

(Acknowledgements to the original author of the verse; if anyone can claim copyright I'll happily post acknowledgement or remove this post.)

21 July 2009

On re-thinking technology in the classroom

An eminently sensible piece on the constructive use of technology in class, to support real interaction and effective teaching rather than to substitute for them.


20 July 2009

On the death of a teacher man

Frank McCourt has died aged 78. Best known for his memoir of poverty in Ireland "Angela's Ashes" (1996), he was a high school teacher in New York by profession--although "profession" does not have quite the right ring about it. As the linked piece shows, he was an inspirational teacher, and there is an enormous amount to learn from the third volume of his memoirs, "Teacher Man" (2005). Not everyone could teach his way, of course; the book is far from a prescription--but it is the story of how he discovered his own way of teaching, and at that level it is a model of reflection and a guide.

As the piece quotes;

Instead of teaching, I told stories.

Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.

They thought I was teaching.

I thought I was teaching.

I was learning.

18 July 2009

On losing the plot

OK. So how come people have managed to learn enough to produce today's society and culture, however imperfect?

On being able to speak

I've no idea whether I can make this nuanced point. So--if you go no further, just watch this. It's President Obama's speech to the centenary conference of the NAACP.

It's 37 minutes long, so if you haven't got that much time start at 25 minutes. That is when he both makes his critical substantive points and displays his rhetorical genius which is amplified by his audience...

On that final twelve minutes: who else could say that? (That also goes for the Cairo speech, and the Ghana speech.)

This is not a political point (of course it is a political matter about which I have decided feelings, but that is not the angle from which I am addressing it). It is a variation on the old soap-opera line, "You tell him. He'll take it from you!" Never before has there been an unassailable figure who could make those points to that community. (Obama is not totally unassailable in the eyes of some hard-liners--he is not of slave-stock to put it crudely--so notice how he enlists Michelle in his argument.

I'm fascinated by multiple levels of communication and how they interact. Several years ago I wrote a brief note on this but my investigations ran into the sand.

A few days ago I came across a very indirect but potentially fruitful lead. If your thinking is twisted enough to make similar connections, do get in touch! If note, I hope that at least you have listened to a magnificent speech. (Apart from the sound/video sync, that is. How can state-of-the-art crews and kit get that wrong?)

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15 July 2009

On TED talks

Sometimes TED offends my prissy academic sensibilities, but always the talks stimulate and excite and provoke... No point in trying to describe it, just go to the TED site ... and please call in again if you ever come back!

On Autism and Academe

Tyler Cowen, an economist, has an original take on the autistic spectrum, suggesting that some of its features may be positive, particularly in the context of academe;
The relevance of the autism spectrum for higher education isn't just about particular individuals on the autistic spectrum. The very nature of higher education shows how much we, often without knowing it, hold up autistic cognitive profiles as a partial educational ideal. In "special needs" education, there is plenty of effort to teach the skills of the nonautistic to the autistic, but in the regular classroom we are often doing the opposite.
He further suggests that similar arguments may be made for other forms of neurodiversity, including dyslexia and ADHD.

A propos dyslexia, I have also been reading Maryanne Wolf's excellent
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2008); she quotes;
neuropsychologist Andrew Ellis who declared that whatever dyslexia turns out to be, "it is not a reading disorder."
and one can see clearly what he and she mean.

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13 July 2009

On the function of academia

According to economist Robin Hanson, that is. Contestable but an interesting angle!

05 July 2009

On abysmal teaching

(Apologies to people outside the UK who may not be able to access this link.)

A few days ago I watched this very interesting and mildly disturbing programme about a Muslim school for girls in the UK. You can watch the whole thing at the title link above, for the next month.

But that is not what this post is about. Follow the link and look at a few seconds eleven minutes in, immediately after the marker for the first commercial break:
Teacher: Aisha, you haven't got your uniform again today [...] Right! Can you get your English exercise books out, please?

Right. OK. It's a new topic, for this new half-term. And as we normally do for a new topic, write, "Accents and Dialects". Would you do that, please?
Aaaargh! This has got nothing to do with this being a Muslim school (or has it? Read on...) It's just awful practice.

What is the sub-text, ably communicated by the teacher? He has framed the new content in a few seconds:
This is part of the required syllabus. It is "out there". I have no idea why we have to teach this stuff. It exists only in the minds of academics and bureaucrats (and possibly a few politicians who get into such detail--but that is really my gloss). So I have to teach it. Perhaps you have to learn it, but between us we can reduce it to memorisation.
Hey! Why do you have to tell them it is "a new topic" which we treat "as we normally do"? Pupils don't think in those terms, and there is no reason why they should.

Dialects and accents? With a class like this, what fun you can have with family stories and anecdotes, and bilingual households... No. All that is immediately set aside in the interests of a desiccated (and, I bet, simplistically wrong) account to reproduce only for assessment purposes.

It is not simply that this approach is calculatedly super-meta-boring, although that is indictment enough (and just consider how much can be conveyed in 15 seconds!). It is what lies behind that...

(And here I qualify a little. I am not bothered about offending people who disagree with me. That's OK and I'll be delighted if they respond. But I do not want to generate more heat than light, and I am venturing into unfamiliar territory---so please offer constructive and informative responses for others to read in the unlikely event that anyone does respond!)

The example we saw was--assuming it was representative and not set up for the filming to condense an hour or more of exploration of experience--not merely miserable practice, but also indicative of a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge, the role of the learner, and what counts as "learning".It suggests that
  • knowledge is something which belongs to other people; powerful people who prescribe it for the rest of us...
  • Learners are empty vessels whose own experience is of no value, whose only salvation (exam grades) lies in ingesting this external body of knowledge
This is in short Freire's "banking" model of education.

And this dogmatic model does fit with the epistemology of revelation, adopted by Christians of many persuasions and some Jews as well as Muslims. The truth/valid knowledge is "out there" (pace. X Files.) It is represented in inerrant and incontestable texts, and in some traditions they have to be learnt by heart. The most extreme examples may be the madrassahs where not only is the Qur'an the only item on the curriculum, but it is learnt by heart in Arabic even when the pupils do not speak that language.

As Karen Armstrong comments historically rather than religiously;
... in all pre-modern societies, including that of agrarian Europe, education was designed to preserve what had already been achieved and to put a brake on the ingenuity and curiosity of the individual, which could undermine the stability of a community that had no means of integrating or exploiting fresh insights. In the madrasahs, for example, pupils learned old texts and commentaries by heart, and the teaching consisted of a word-by-word explication of a standard textbook. Public disputations between scholars took it for granted that one of the debaters was right and the other wrong. There was no idea, in the question-and-answer style of study, of allowing the clash of two opposing positions to build a new synthesis.

Armstrong K (2001) Islam: a short history London: Phoenix (pp. 87-88).
The programme never got into the issue of attitudes to knowledge, and the fit with the pedagogies adopted. Pity.