Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Thirty minutes of your time can be very well spent by listening here to Terry Glavin being interviewed on Little Atoms about his book, The Lost and Left Behind.

One year on

It is the first birthday of this blog. What a great year it has been too, enjoyed it. It can take over a bit though ...

(Original by Isabella Bannerman via Norm who got it from Mark Liberman)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A modest proposal

Francis Sedgemore has an illustrated post that celebrates the joys of Morris Dancing. We are not strong on national symbols (apart from tea and moaning) so how about this as an idea? The Great Britain Rugby League team are currently playing a test series against New Zealand. We should teach all the players to Morris Dance so that they can respond to the Haka in a culturally appropriate way. That should terrify the opposition.

(Thanks to Lyn)

Absent friends

I remember the late cricket writer and broadcaster, John Arlott, being interviewed about the reason why cricket had produced a body of high quality literature when other sports had failed to do so. He replied that the length of time that a cricket match took to complete meant that it was impossible for a player to perform without displaying his character. The writer could then write about the game as something other than a sport, but as an expression of the human psyche. I have often felt the same about blogging. It is one of the more intimate forms of public communication and reading a blog regularly is an odd way of getting to know someone's personality and way of thinking about the world.

As reported elsewhere, I was in London for some serious drink-soaking with fellow bloggers, people I had read, had discussions with, but had never met. The Arlott theory was proved correct, as they were all as intelligent, stimulating, and downright nice as their blogs would have suggested. We were hosted by the splendid Little Atoms people and joined by my documentary maker nephew. It was great fun. Though it was Terry's evening to celebrate his superb book, there was someone missing - the alchemist who had brought us all together and without whom we would not have been in the pub that night - Will.

And as we drank the talk turned to Will; the late night insomniac email conversations, the scope his networking, his intelligence and perceptiveness and, of course, the quality of his tirades - of which we had all sometimes been the target as well as the observer. We never thought to raise a glass to absent friends; we should have. So, despite the weekend's over indulgence, the wine bottle is now open and I might just acknowledge our friend in the North with a wee sip and a nod of the head, and do so as I think back warmly to a comradely evening spent with the people that I had known and liked for some time, but had never before met.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Lost and Left Behind

It is amazing what you can pick up by blogging. My invitation to join the Drink-soaked Trots introduced me to the work of the Canadian author and journalist Terry Glavin. I have always been impressed with his anti-totalitarianism and his passionate defence of Canada's presence in Afghanistan. However, this is only a small part of his output, and I have just finished reading something more substantial, his new book, The Lost and Left Behind. Without my blog it would have been a book that passed me by. What a loss that would have been.

Subtitled, Stories from the Age of Extinctions, the book examines the huge destruction of species and loss of diversity in a world becoming blanketed by "sameness" – the sixth great extinction. The scale of the devastation is staggering. The book is not a dry ecological text, nor is it a Green polemic, Terry is a far better writer than that. It consists of what it says, stories. This is important because when he writes of extinctions, he means more than the loss of animal or plant species. He is as concerned with the loss of human cultures, of languages, of mythologies, and of stories – the stories that enable us to interpret and understand our place in the world. And so Terry takes us on a series of journeys to places that symbolise loss and, on occasions, regeneration.

He is a fine story teller but just as the world is complex, each story is too. Each chapter is like a Russian doll, within every tale is another, and, as you open it up, yet another appears underneath it, and many smaller stories spill out from the shell of the narrative about the places he visits and the people he meets. History, politics, science, anthropology and more are encompassed with a deftness that entertains and a touch of humour that always amuses. Yet this layered approach is more profound than a literary device; it is the key to his understanding of ecology.

In the great vortex of extinction, there are always those cycles within cycles. There are ecological forces, cultural forces, and demographic forces. (p.278).

Stories help us to understand those cycles and show that our attachment to bio-diversity is more than utilitarian, it is aesthetic. We find life and nature beautiful, and we capture that beauty in our folk tales and urban myths, and in symbolisms, like the giving of flowers and taking pleasure in wild places.

Terry is no romantic though, he doesn't celebrate a mythical wilderness. His ecology is a landscape shaped and populated by human beings. And whilst humans are the main cause of the extent of current extinctions, he doesn't lapse into crude misanthropy. We are here to stay. Instead, there is a strong political strand running as a sub-text throughout the book until it surfaces in his powerful and emotional conclusion. Where societies collapse, so does ecology. The greatest cause of collapse is exploitation. And thus this book is about something that should be central to the democratic left, it is about human self-determination, resistance to both totalitarianism and an exploitative modernism that diminishes human diversity and thereby destroys human liberty. It makes him as determined to defend sustainable whaling communities and slash and burn agriculture as he would the habitat of a rare and beautiful bird. He concludes:

If it's some great insight you are after, all I can say is that the great insights lie only in the rich variety of humanity's stories, the specific and the particular stories, and the great multiplicity and diversity of our ideas. Our best hopes lie in strengthening the conditions that allow the flourishing of a diversity of living things, a diversity of ideas, and a diversity of choices. (p.306)

I read this book as being firmly in the tradition of the great Anarchist geographers and scientists, Kropotkin, Reclus and Geddes. All advocated the importance of the integration of human and natural ecology and saw that as being part of a political project for human emancipation.

And what does Terry expect of us in the current crisis? "You do what you can ... you do whatever you can". And the least of what you can do is to read this fine, committed, and beautifully written book.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Nasty, brutish and ...

George Monbiot breaks off from an unexceptional defence of financial regulation in the light of the Northern Rock crisis to launch into an extraordinary speculation on human nature, leading him away from a critique of libertarian capitalism to one of liberty itself.

Wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people's resources, they will dump their waste in other people's habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons.

This is certainly a bleak view - and the solution?

We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing.

No room for free will, for ethics, or even social development? No analysis of power structures, conflict, social systems and communities? No co-operation or mutualism? And what of the State in such a brutal world, would it not too replicate this malevolent human behaviour? Monbiot has an answer.

At the same time, we must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good.

How is the State to be "punished"? When put to the test, he was a vehement opponent of the punishing of the Ba'athist State in Iraq. Very curious.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The times they are a changing

As a fat kid at school in the 50's and 60's I remember my loathing of the disgusting, milky, sweet puddings that ended nearly every school dinner. There was tapioca, semolina or rice topped with a revolting looking and tasting dark red jam, manufactured from some unidentifiable fruit, which leached into the white goo and made the dish look like a nastily infected wound.

Though nauseous at the sight and smell, I can recall the teachers standing over me, forcing me to eat this high starch, high fat dessert that was laden with unrefined sugars. It was only when all of this calorie fest was consumed that I was allowed to get down from the table. My reluctance to eat it was such that I invariably missed my play time, the main exercise for the day. I longed for the days when we had spotted dick or jam roly poly, because I liked those and could run out to play with the others, despite my stomach groaning with leaden suet.

It is a good thing that the approach to obesity in schools has changed and we should certainly not romanticise the 1950's as some lost golden age. It is far better that teachers persuade kids to eat salad, presumably without the obligatory slug of my childhood. However, the latest obesity obsession is as unsettling in its own way. From today's Times:

Parents of 5-year-olds are to be sent official warning letters if their child is found to be obese, as part of a national programme to weigh children in schools.

"Warning letters"? Is obesity now to be a crime against parenting? How are they to define obesity? What are the penalties to be? Looking back, despite this diet, I was the only really fat kid in the school, though there were a couple of tubbies as well. Most were thin and thoroughly mobile, despite packing it away. More and more studies seem to be coming to the obvious conclusion, that though sedentary lifestyles and poor diet contribute to obesity, there is a strong genetic factor in determining whether you put on weight or not.

So it will be the parents of the same kids that will be continually getting the shaming letters and the pressure will go on, making their children more and more miserable about themselves. It is as if anorexia and bulimia did not exist.

It took me a long time to be comfortable with my weight. I lost loads in my twenties, through probably unhealthy dieting, and gained a new self image. The pounds went back on again but the self-image remained. I still think I am gorgeous and now I can even use my weight as a jokey title for this blog. Of course dangerous morbid obesity needs medical intervention, but it is rare. Wouldn't it be better if we just let kids be happy?

The irony of the situation is that both my teachers in the 50's and the government today share a conviction that they are doing the best for children, which gave me an odd thought. We wouldn't expect policies on ethnicity to be exclusively formed by the opinions of white people, nor would we expect the politics of gender to be the sole preserve of men. So why is the policy on obesity being made by the thin?

Education and peace

Jamie Einstein, 13, a bright Jewish boy with a long pony tail and his wrist in a plaster cast, talked happily about two of his Arab classmates, Moataz and Majd. "My two best friends, one of them is a Muslim and one is a Christian," he said. "For me it doesn't matter. What really matters is what they are like."

The Guardian reports on an educational experiment with mixed schooling in Jerusalem.

There is no suggestion that this is a panacea as the Israel/Palestine conflict is not, at heart, a communal conflict, but one over land and national sovereignty. Education cannot solve these political questions, though the school addresses them openly. However, the necessary two-state solution requires peaceful co-existence to work and this can only be enhanced by projects such as this, even if, at the moment, it is only reaching the children of middle-class professionals.

As my union, the UCU, retreats from the insanity of the boycott resolution, the way forward is surely for educationalists and their organisations to wholeheartedly support long-term educational developments that will augment a process of peaceful self-determination and co-existence, as well as helping to undermine the appeal of atavistic right-wing nationalisms.

A sporting heartbreak ...

... for some. I thought the World Cup final in Paris was a great advertisement for Rugby League.

Richard Williams seems to agree

Friday, October 19, 2007

Adult education fights back

Activity opposing the changes to funding that threaten Adult Education in universities is growing as the consequences of the proposals become apparent.

The UCU is now getting back to its proper role of defending its members and has issued a statement in opposition to the cuts. Sally Hunt correctly points out that "institutions doing the most to try and deliver both the widening participation agenda and the lifelong learning agenda will be hit the hardest".

The Open University has produced a succinct, and highly critical, briefing document. It points out that "20% of part-time students in England will become unfunded from 2008/09 (against only 2% of full-time students)", clearly indicating that the impact of the measure will be to divert funding to support more middle-class students entering University straight from school, directly contradicting some of the Government's main aims.

On a personal level, the response from my MP, the Health Secretary Alan Johnson, was encouraging. Our students and part-time tutors are also making themselves a nuisance to their elected representatives.

In the meantime, The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), has announced the start of an 18 month investigation into the future direction of Lifelong Learning policy. One can only hope there is some left by the time they report.

When the announcement was made, all I could feel was despair and isolation; now hope is beginning to stir. It would be wonderful if we could win.

You can read more here, here, here, and here. And, if you haven't done so already, sign the petition here.

Mass murder

When I teach about fascism I always tell students that the term has to be used precisely to denote a specific set of beliefs, rather than generically as a form of political revulsion. Sometimes precision has to be abandoned and one has to react to something that has an air of fascism about it, and last night in Pakistan the atmosphere was poisoned by more than the stench of the corpses of the innocent. It was unmistakable.

Scoop Shachtman has the right response.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Words, words, words

I always used to wake up in the morning to the Today Programme on Radio 4. Thought for the Day was the spur that got me out of bed and heading for the bathroom. I have kicked the habit now and so I missed a contribution that may have postponed my shower. It was Madeleine Bunting, pure Maddy at her inspiring best, defending faith.

To place faith and reason in opposition is false ... faith is vital: whenever we get in a car, a train or an airplane, we are expressing our faith in the responsibility and expertise of other people ... Any difficult decision - having a baby, making a long term commitment to a partner - is about faith ...

Inevitably, she brought in a familiar theme,

Other cultures understand how human beings need faith and how to strengthen it, but our culture I believe, having lost much of its religious faith, has lost its insight into the nature of faith altogether...

and so on, and on ...

She concluded:

We need, I think, to re-examine our prejudices and resurrect the idea of faithfulness. There are important values embedded in this word: 'a faithful account' is accurate and true; 'in good faith' is about a promise; 'to keep faith' is to keep that promise. These principles of constancy, integrity and commitment are how we build the faith of others- our children, partners, colleagues, friends - in ourselves just as, in turn, they build our faith in them. Faith is how we accept what is beyond our control, and recognise each other's freedom. How we relate to each other must be full of faithfulness if we are to create communities, a society. Faithfulness is about living with trust and confidence instead of anxiety, fearfulness, suspicion and cynicism.

There is a slight problem with all this guff - language. The same word can have different meanings and Bunting managed to use the word 'faith' in every sense except 'belief', its religious form. She was talking about trust, loyalty and truth. Are we really prejudiced against trust, loyalty and truth? Do they require resurrection? If so where did they go? Is Christopher Hitchens writing books about the need for distrust, untruth, and disloyalty?

In these senses, faith and reason are certainly not opposed, they are contingent on each other, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with belief. Trust, loyalty and truth are based on analysis, judgement, affection and experience. However, when, for example, the religious ask us to have faith, they mean us to suspend judgement and embrace belief. It is not the same thing at all. Sorry Maddy, but you have to do better than the use of slippery euphemisms to shake my faith - in a liberal, secular society.

Hat tip Will


Chilled by the thought of Dawn Primarolo reckoning that "it was time to move on from the battle to clear the streets of binge-drinking youths and tackle the drinking culture hidden behind the sitting room curtains", I was going to post on the latest bout of moral puritanism health advice about drinking at home. However, Nick Cohen has made the point far more elegantly than I could here. His horror-struck title says it all - "That's seven glasses a WEEK, ladies and gentlemen, not a day". Cheers Nick.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Higher and lower pleasures

Third Way guru Anthony Giddens takes on the Madeleine Bunting role in despairing over modern life in the Guardian. His target is addictive behaviour, which, apparently, "always starts with pleasure" and develops because, "We are freer now than 40 years ago to decide how to live our lives". So how do we deal with it; abolish pleasure and freedom? Not quite, but close:

Whenever individuals' behaviour is controlled by habits that they should control, we are at the fulcrum of the relationship between domination and freedom. Government has been reluctant to intrude, but now it must.

He reckons the solution is "to orient-policy towards self-esteem". I look forward to receiving my self-esteem targets; until then I shall indulge in my addictive behaviour, like reading the Guardian, and wondering why.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A game of marbles

The new Acropolis museum is receiving its first exhibits. There is a gap:

But it the building's emphasis on loss - the absence of the 88 sculptures exhibited in London - that gives it a poignancy few other museums have.

I agree with Christopher Hitchens. Give them back.

* * *

Cold is the heart, fair Greece, that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o'er the dust they loved ;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Lord Byron
Childe Harold, Canto II, Verse XV

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Apocalypse now

With the publicity for the Nobel Prize awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shared with Al Gore, we should be fully aware of the potential disaster of global warming. Predictions of the impact range from the devastation of crops and water supplies, rising sea levels, new diseases, extinction of species, all the way through to the suggestion that the Earth may become unable to sustain human life itself. However, Britain faces a new threat, described by a government minister as "a potential crisis as serious as climate change".

What is this future apocalypse that will destroy our beloved nation? More fat people. Yes it is bloody obesity again. Us fatties get blamed for lots of things, but now we are as bad as an environmental catastrophe. Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, has been sounding off on the issue and, chillingly, "Ministers are drawing up a long-term action plan to tackle obesity". I suppose the one bonus is that the natural rebel in me now has an easy outlet, I just need to raid the fridge.

Johnson, who is also my MP, has stated that, "it is in everybody's interest to turn things round". I have been turning myself increasingly round for years Alan. Now stop bothering me and do something sensible, like stopping hospitals prioritising targets over patients' lives.

Match of the weekend

As anyone aware of my prejudices would realise, the Rugby highlight of the weekend wasn't in Paris but Manchester. A thrilling performance by Leeds toppled the favourites Saint Helens in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford in front of over 71,000 fans in a thunderous atmosphere.

All the positive aspects of our game were on display both on and off the pitch. Though the individual clubs had allocations at different ends, there was no segregation and an impressive proportion of the crowd was pissed. Rugby League is a family sport and so more women attend matches - just as pissed. The kids were simply excited. The result was a boisterous and mainly amiable atmosphere, though all seater stadia mean a certain amount of disturbance to viewing as the booze tests both attention spans and bladders. The indifference of the crowd to the loud, glossy pre-match entertainment was wonderfully heartening.

The star of half-time was the former Saints, Wakefield and Hull full back Steve Prescott. His career was cut short by a rare form of stomach cancer and the Grand Final marked the last stage of his trans-Pennine sponsored walk, from Hull to Old Trafford, via a number of Rugby League grounds. He was able to present a cheque for £50,000 to his chosen charities, Christie's Hospital in Manchester, where he is being treated, and the Rugby League Benevolent Fund. You can still donate online here. It is a sobering thought that his 199 mile walk raised around a third of a week's wages of a top Premiership football player. Such is our unequal world. It's a lovely sport, as down-to-earth as it is exciting.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The poet's guest

The glory of George Szirtes' blog this week was his take on Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize (and his comment on A General Theory of Rubbish, rightly given greater prominence with a post of its own). However, he also opened his doors to a contribution about identity politics after the Rushdie affair by a British Asian, which was prompted by George's piece on Terry Eagleton. It is well worth reading in full. This is a taste:

...‘identity politics’ would be as much about religious grievance, victimhood, self-pity, and self-interest, as about truly combatting racism, or ennobling through cultural endeavour, as any conception of a collective self-identity as a minority might do.

Left or right?

This is not about the Labour Party, but your brain. Though mine is topsy-turvy after a wine fest of an evening last night. This psychological test is quite fun and about all I can manage for a post at the moment.

Via Norm

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Che Guevara

Paul Stott has posted a perceptive comment on Che.

Today's Guardian has an article on the Argentinian revolutionary's love for Rugby Union.

What better example could there be of Guevara's comfortable upbringing? Surely if he was true man of the people, Rugby League would have been his game?

Bravo Paul.

More on the cuts

I have posted before about the impact on John Denham's letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on University Adult Education here, here, and here. Open University students who are campaigning against the cuts have contacted me and one of them, Donald Hedges, has had a letter from his MP which he has summarised on his new blog.

Letters from MPs are usually masterpieces at saying nothing and are formulaic in repeating 'the line'. This one is no exception and the 'line' appears to be somewhat divorced from reality. So I have suggestions for some supplementary questions that Donald could write back with.

1. The letter talks about shifting institutional funding away from "second degree" students.

My question would be whether he realises that this is not just about people taking second degrees but the whole range of Lifelong Learning qualifications in Universities. These include University Certificates, Certificates, Diplomas and, above all, short courses that can include all types of work such as,
liberal adult education, continuing professional development, work related learning, community development, etc.? The government clearly realised the damage that would be done to Foundation Degrees, which is why they have exempted them. Why not these as well?

2. The letter mentions the government wants more people of all ages and backgrounds to enter Higher Education for the first time.

So do we all, but my question would be whether he has considered that taking out around a third of the students in Lifelong Learning could so affect the financial viability of programmes and departments that the very flexible provision and infrastructure required to deliver these new opportunities could be lost?

3. The letter
says "we will also support students doing second qualifications, provided the costs are co-funded by their employers, as Sandy Leitch recommended".

My main question would be, given that large amounts of work related learning and continuing professional development will be lost as a result of the decision, does he seriously think that co-funding can possibly replace what will have gone? There is a range of supplementaries to be asked too. What is his position over employers who are unwilling to pay? Will he be proposing statutory rights for employees to further their education? What about areas of the country or industries (such as tourism or the creative arts) that are dominated by Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) who are simply unable to pay?

4. The letter is full of the word 'fairness'. I want to use an unfashionable example. Take a retired student now studying in adult education. The person may have got a degree forty years ago. After paying taxes for those forty years to pay for others to take adult education classes now it is her turn, but she finds herself barred as she has just been made unfundable. Is that fair?

Chris Dillow has eloquently made the point that fairness does not extend to tax breaks for the wealthy and one just has to wonder when one puts this cut into the context of the highly political concession on inheritance tax.

So it is over to you Donald, and, by the way, this is Donald's constituency.

Olly makes the same point better than Chris Dillow

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

All the fun of the fair

It is Hull Fair this week. I live nearby, so the night sky is full of light whilst life is lived to a background cacophony of throbbing music and an all pervading smell of chips. It is reputed locally to be the biggest travelling funfair in Europe but this is disputed by Will, whose Geordie pride will not permit a rival to Newcastle's own, The Hoppings. A simple visit to Wikipedia will soon sort out the rival claims. Here are the entries; Hull - Newcastle. Ah.

Well, there is no disputing that Hull is the oldest and you can find out more about the social history of the fair from the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield here.

Whenever I walk round it I see people apparently enjoying being thrown into the air and whizzed around at high speed and all I can think is, 'that doesn't look like a good idea to me'. I hate rides, so watch this You Tube offering (via Will). I identify with the one on the right.

Monday, October 08, 2007

This sporting life

I was at Headingley yesterday. A crowd of nearly 21,000, bigger than those at three Premiership football matches, turned up to watch a triple header of lower division Rugby League. The National League finals is now one of the great days out that the RFL do really well.

None of the matches produced the close contests they promised but there were fine skills on display, especially as Castleford battled Widnes for a place in next year's Super League.

Watching the games, perched high in the new stand behind the sticks with a brilliant view, I was struck by how the standard is improving year-on-year. So why are the Rugby Football League trying to kill it? This is the last year of automatic promotion and relegation with a franchise system due to come in for next season. Instead of prowess on the field, the key to entry to Super League will be lobbying off it. Will grounds be filled to watch two teams play for little reward? I doubt it.

At least I can look forward to next Saturday's Super League Grand Final between Saints and Leeds. 70,000 should crowd into Old Trafford, but the fates are unkind to the 13 man game. It is the same night the rah rahs play their semi final against France. Expect a media blackout. Do we care? Yes we bloody do.

Here we go again

There is a new edition of Nick Cohen's 'What's Left' out and this gave the Guardian the chance to yet again unleash a hostile reviewer in their paperbacks section. To be so irritating in such a small space takes a special quality. The reviewer, Aimee Shalan, repeats familiar misreadings. For example, this is could have been lifted from any number of negative reviews.

Cohen depicts those opposed to the invasion of Iraq ... as perverse defenders of fascism.

This is where comprehension skills would help. Cohen actually writes sympathetically of most, but not all, of those who opposed the war - what really gets to him are those who, once the war was over, failed to support democratic institutions, such as trade unions and secular left parties, and instead romanticised Islamist and Ba'athist terrorists fighting against the establishment of an Iraqi democracy. Methinks he has a point (and over at the Drink-soaked Trots there is an excellent post by Scoop Shachtman which might also give pause for thought).

It's the final paragraph that takes the biscuit.

Having denounced the left for failing to confront persecution unconditionally, he ends by making Israel the exception, declaring that the occupation, humiliation and collective punishment of the Palestinian population are evils worth fighting until you ask the question: "What is anti-semitism?" All of a sudden, it's fine for human sympathy to be conditional and double standards are apparently acceptable.

Once again, this is the complete opposite of what Cohen has written. The convoluted logic of the paragraph seems to be utterly dismissive of anti-Semitism. One of the key points of Cohen's book is that some 'leftism' hides its anti-Semitism behind a critique of Israel, whereas what Shalan is repeating is the old accusation that allegations of anti-Semitism are used to deligitimate criticism of Israel. Cohen is scrupulous in distinguishing between the two and makes evident a persistent and unpleasant anti-Semitic streak in left thought (and you can find it in 19th Century socialist tracts as well).

Compare this review with Cohen's latest call for clarity in the Observer about how the use of the passive voice in reporting the conflict in Iraq clouds the attribution of responsibility in a way in which the active voice would not.

'What's Left' is one of the better contributions to a growing critique of ill-thought out and muddled thinking that is a prominent feature of the contemporary political scene. This review is a prime example of what it is up against.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Dramatic news!

There won't be an election this Autumn. Other things that will not be happening - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caught snacking on a pork pie; the SWP denouncing itself; the second coming. Exciting isn't it?

Friday, October 05, 2007


It doesn't really do to have a revolutionary who's too plump

Isabel Hilton discusses the making of Che Guevara into an icon, but overlooks this cruel slur.

The crystal spirit

There are some articles that transcend journalism and take us to other places that are intimate, poignant, ambiguous and significant. Christopher Hitchens has written one such piece about his encounter with the family of a soldier, Mark Daily, who died in Iraq, inspired to enlist by Hitchens' writing in support of the overthrow of Saddam's tyranny.

It brought to mind a dispiriting talk by the veteran peace activist Johann Galtung, the subject of a previous post. One of his throwaway comments was, 'ask the bereaved if it helps to be killed by a democracy'. The superficiality of this statement is graphically shown by a hypothetical example of two deaths; one inmate murdered in an extermination camp and another killed during its liberation. One is a crime, the other a tragedy.

Grief is an emotion shaped by context. Read this article Johann, and then you will realise that it matters. It matters very much indeed.

Thanks to Will for sending me the link and read Terry Glavin on it too. You can read Mark Daily's own words here:

"Don't overlook the obvious reasons to disagree with the war but don't cheapen the moral aspects either".

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Fight the cuts

I have posted below on the devastating impact on University Adult Education of the decision to cut £100 million a year through the non-funding of people wanting to study for equal and lower qualifications (now known by the bureaucrats as ELQs - pronounced Elks - yuk!). After attending a meeting called by the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning at Warwick on Wednesday the full impact across the sector became clearer. Ironically, the knock-on effects of this cut will be catastrophic for all the things the government wants to see most - flexibility, re-skilling, employer engagement, community involvement, widening participation etc. It will simply reinforce a narrow conception of higher education as a progression route for school-leavers. It is a terrible and unnecessary decision.

Please support the campaign against the proposal by signing the petition here.

Building the union

UCU members and interested others read this, it's excellent and important.

Hat tip Norm

The art of conversation

Freens in Springburn and I have been in conversation over liberal education, here, here, here and here. Others have been eavesdropping too. Without the Internet, Freens and I would never have met nor engaged in this debate, despite having so much in common. The print media would have little chance of allowing us, the great unpromoted, to express ourselves to the world at large, especially in defence of the deeply unfashionable liberal learning. Even if we had suitably massacred our English and added thousands of references in parentheses to make it into an academic journal, there would probably have been fewer readers.

Instead we can revel in a sense of solidarity against the philistinism of the age, make acquaintance with others and forge friendships through our writing. It is called blogging. Long may it last.

Easily impressed

The papers are carried away, swooning with admiration for David Cameron's abandonment of an autocue for his conference speech. The Times: "Just four sheets of handwritten notes formed the backbone of David Cameron’s 66-minute speech to his party yesterday." The Guardian: "No one could question his courage, speaking fluently for more than an hour without a script".

Wow! The bravery; the daring; the valour. Only, I am about to do exactly the same for two hours this morning and another hour this afternoon. It is called teaching. Is this all you need to be Prime Minister?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Learning, elitism and liberation

Freens in Springburn has written a beautiful defence of liberal learning and an angry denunciation of the bureaucratisation of education:

It's now dominated by bean counters whose odious jargon and deadly Benthamite bottom line overwhelms anything like a sense of liberal learning’.

I am hugely sympathetic to his views and share his admiration for Patrick Geddes, anarchist educator and one of the pioneers of the University extension movement. Interestingly, liberal education is one of the points where radicalism and conservatism almost meet, as witnessed by some of the quotations in his post, from Michael Oakeshott and William Johnson Cory.

However, I cannot fully agree with the conservative critique of 'relevance' that these writers express. Oliver Kamm has also written in the same vein and I have objected here. It strikes me that 'relevance' is an important tool in finding a way in, to open and engage with minds and, simply, give people the means to earn a living, and often a better living than the one they may have been brought up to expect. When I teach I am acutely aware that I need to do two things – help the students to learn and to think, and help them to pass; they need and want both. Exclude the first and the process is meaningless and mind-numbingly boring, without the second they have little chance of better employment.

Unfortunately, the conservative critique has little time for social mobility. There was a time either side of the war when University extension lecturers worked on the basis of going and preaching to workers about the purity of learning without accreditation; learning should be simply for the delight of 'intellectual betterment' or even 'for democracy'. 'Why do you need a degree?', would be the heartfelt question. Of course the obvious answer would be, 'So that I can get a cushy, well-paid job like yours', something that would threaten the tutor's elite status. The growth of certification, and in my own working life this has included Access courses for those who were sometimes demeaningly referred to as 'non-standard students', has been an engine of mobility. Hardly surprising then that non-accredited adult education became mainly the preserve of the retired. This does not mean that liberal learning is in itself a pointless luxury, as today's funders seem to suggest, but that liberal and instrumental aims are complementary rather than contradictory and that instrumental aims can be about more than paid work.

In a second post, Freens explains exactly what he means by the notion of 'relevance' he deplores. It is one that produces a patronising curriculum deemed fit for the 'less academic'. Again I agree - how I hate the casual assumptions behind common phrases such as 'raising aspirations' (how about meeting them first) and 'those able to benefit', as if only a limited number of people can learn in Higher Education. He is describing a stratified education system, one layer based on vocational and the other on academic education. Despite appeals for a parity of esteem, it is the old secondary grammar/secondary technical divide writ large. It is no surprise that the divide has a strong correlation to social class.

In a genuinely egalitarian education system the two would not be seen as mutually exclusive. However, where I see a conservative critique of 'relevance', I do not sense universalism but elitism. What is more, this rejection of 'relevance' per se was also used to express a sense of disdain for innovation and this narrow conservatism in curriculum helped parts of University adult education, in particular, to stagnate in the 70's, making it vulnerable to attack from both right and left wing utilitarians.

Despite this reservation, I am fully with Freens about the damage that is being done at the moment, especially by bureaucratisation and managerialism, but I want to go further. I would argue that a narrowly restricted vocationalism, once we move beyond functional literacy, is actually reactionary and that liberal education is a tool of liberation. I want to illustrate this by reference to two older pieces.

The first is by Jeremy Seabrook, always an interesting writer, whose response to 9/11 was typically idiosyncratic. It is a flawed piece in that it argues that the ‘root causes’ of terrorism are to be found in Western actions. But he doesn’t pick out the usual suspects. No - he sees the main cause resting with degrees in Business Studies. This might sound bizarre, but it is rather shrewd. He spotted that those attracted to terrorism and fascist organisations are not the oppressed, but those who expected privilege and were disappointed. They saw that they could regain their superiority through political power and domination rather than employment.

The marketing of business qualifications in the developing world has produced well qualified but unreflective and unemployed graduates. They are a pool from which fascistic organisations can recruit. Narrow vocationalism, together with a desperation for the fees of overseas students, has created a generation of potential recruits to jihadism, extreme nationalism, and communialist authoritarianism throughout the developing world. The picture is overdrawn, but the link between an instrumental education, purely for economic self-interest, and radical authoritarian sympathies may be one worth exploring.

The second example emphasises the positive virtues of liberal learning. It is from a book that was a best seller in Europe but did not do as well in the UK. Viviane Forrester’s, 1999 book The Economic Horror is a critique of economic orthodoxy by a writer whose roots are in the study of literature rather than economics. In the middle of the text she breaks away to discuss the importance of poetry. Whereas I have forgotten most of the book, this section has stayed with me. The following is a long, though heavily edited extract. The whole section can be found between pages 62 and 66. It is clever in that she attacks a leftist anti-intellectualism and 'anti-elitism' that has also underpinned much of the assault on liberal learning. Instead of countering it with a conservative defence, she reclaims liberal learning for the left.

… in 1978 during a colloquium at Graz in Austria, when one of the speakers asked the very international audience whether they knew Mallarmé, ‘a French poet’, the whole audience burst out laughing. Imagine not knowing Mallarmé! Later, an Italian speaker expressed his indignation at that laughter. He also mentioned some proper names. ‘Do you know them?’ We knew none of them. They were those of machine gun brands. He was back from a country he cited as an example, a country in the throes of civil war where ‘90 per cent of the people’ knew those brand names‘ while 0 per cent of them knew that of Mallarmé’. Hence we were all elitist, affected snobs, in short, ‘intellectuals’. He contemplated us with disgust, with wrath in his eyes. Humble and sheepish … the hall gave him an ovation.

Something made me uneasy, I rose to speak and heard myself saying that it might not be desirable to find it quite natural for an immense, a huge majority to have no other choice but to be ignorant of Mallarmé. A majority that had not chosen not to read him, but that had had no chance whatsoever to read him or even know his name. While our very denigrator showed he was no stranger to that name since he was able to deplore our erudition.

The systems that more or less slowly, more or less obviously, more or less tragically lead to dead ends would be far more endangered and their power much better controlled if Mallarmé had more readers, or at least more potential ones. The powers are not mistaken here: they know very well where the danger lies. If a totalitarian regime is ushered in, the first thing it instinctively does is to seek out its Mallarmés and suppress them or send them into exile, however small their audience.

The work of Mallarmé is not elitist. It tends to break the straitjacket hampering us, to decipher language, its signs and its discourse, and thereby makes us less deaf and blind to all that is hidden from us. It tends to extend our personal space, exercise, refine thought and make it flexible - thought alone enabling criticism and lucidity, those powerful weapons.

To have read Mallarmé presupposes the acquisition of certain abilities which could lead to certain faculties, and thus to the approach to certain rights. They may also lead to the ability not to respond to the system in the reductive terms that are all it offers and that squash contradiction. And to the ability to denounce the demented version of a world in which we are caught and paralysed, while the authorities who deliberately set it up complain of having to run it.

But whatever the side the powers may be on, so as to better indoctrinate, manipulate, and subjugate populations, the human organism must be diverted from the arduous, visceral dangerous practice of thinking, and the search for exactitude, that rarity, must be shunned. Once reserved for only a few, the practice of thought will preserve their power.

Mallarmé, I heard myself concluding ...

That’s when a man in the audience exclaimed, ‘Mallarmé is a machine gun!’

He was right, too. I let him have the last word.

A love of literature, art, science, history, music or social science cannot be forced on people. I remember only too well teaching liberal studies to Carpenters and Joiners 3 on the last Friday of their block release. The difference between that class and a riot was wafer thin. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to learn a trade or a craft. It is just that this decision should not close the door to liberal learning. It needs to be left tantalisingly ajar, waiting for that moment of choice, at whatever time of life.

Liberal learning should be one of the great left causes, it is extraordinarily powerful in transforming peoples lives. Instead we have a Labour government intent on force feeding 'the workforce' NVQ level 2, drawing on the patronising model of which Freens so despairs, or supporting rigid models of certified progression. Not for the first time I am left wondering about their analysis as they use funding to firmly close and lock that door once an initial choice has been made. It certainly doesn't seem to come from an imaginative celebration of human potential, something that is surely central to any liberal, democratic or socialist society.