Sunday, May 12, 2013

On the Need, or not, for Public Education, and Other Related Matters (Because I Can't Stick to the Point)

When people say they want public education, what do they mean?

I want good education, as cheaply as possible. I don’t care how it is done. Why would you?

When you talk to people about this, you often find that it is public education, more than good and available education, which is taken as the final end.

(This is not only true of education. The local governments of Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha have recently been trying to privatize the management of some hospitals. This is not, on the face of it, an ideological plan, but one that stems from the desperate need to make the available money go further. Administration costs are recognised as being far too high. Why not attempt something that might allow more money to be spent on looking after sick people? If it doesn’t work, we can go back to the old ways, but surely it is worth trying. Nevertheless there have, predictably, been massive protests, even before anything has been done.

Similarly, Brett Hetherington wrote a while back about a plan to privatise the water supply of a town in Catalonia, which has been rejected by the people of the town. Ok, fair enough, local democracy at work. But it isn’t necessarily the right decision. What is wanted, surely, is a cheap and reliable supply of water. It doesn’t have to be done by politicians.)

It is broadly accepted that everyone should contribute a smaller or greater amount so that all children can have access to education. There are few wealthy people or higher earners who would argue that poor children should be left illiterate and unable to offer anything useful in exchange for a living. They didn’t when education was not fully socialized and I don’t believe this has changed. By ensuring that all children have the opportunity to get education governments are genuinely acting as the agents of the public will.

However, there is no particular reason, as I have said, why they should have exclusive control over every aspect of education, including the education of those who do not need to depend on the government, or who do not want the education it provides?

The schools I worked at in my previous existence as a high school teacher were private. My current teaching avatar receives homage at a ‘concertado’ school, that is, one that was independently created, was strictly private for many years, and is now privately managed but to a certain extent publicly funded, and open to all those who want to go there via a selection process not controlled by the school. It is economically efficient (so I understand, relative to state schools) and academically and humanly successful. It does what it is supposed to do, what people want it to do. Why does it matter that it does some things its own way?

Surely it doesn’t.

Much of what happens at school has the purpose of creating a disciplined, respectful atmosphere. If the place were not full of people who don't want to be there this would not be necessary and time and energy could be properly devoted to helping the people who want to learn, to learn.
Even in this school there is much that must be done according to the government’s rules, and much that is done as it is because, that’s the way you do things, isn’t it? The classes are long and dull, full of quite unnecessary information and skills, a huge amount of the children’s time is wasted, enormous effort is put into creating systems for instilling and enforcing order, discipline and mutual respect. It is a fine system, well conceived and well run, functioning smoothly and without fuss, reacting calmly to push down every nail that attempts to stand out. It makes life better for everyone involved that these systems exist and are very well oiled, but they are only necessary because of the essential nature of education is misconceived. They are a very good solution, but to a problem that should not exist.

In almost every class there are children who do not want to be there, or who should not be there. If they were not forced to be there, and we were not forced to waste time pretending that they will ever learn anything useful, life would be much better for the rest, and their education much more productive.

In any case, if exams are the focus of everything there is no need to bring children together forcibly. There is little point even having classes. Tell them what to study and where to find it and then make yourself available to those who have questions. Surely it really is that simple.

In systems where exams are not the only thing that matters there is still little reason to force children to be in classrooms where they don’t want to be. The idea of education as an advantage and a privilege has been so completely lost that we think it perfectly reasonable to force children to accept that privilege against their will, and the idea that parents might not be able to have their children locked up and guarded 7 hours a day by other people is utterly mystifying to many.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Modernist Hickory

 I don't know what this photograph is about, if it's supposed to be about anything, but the image of a hedgehog blowing up a balloon on the street is curious.

It was taken/constructed/conceived by Slava Beilin, an Israeli photographer, apparently in Jerusalem. The monochoming of everything but the red balloon is a fairly common technique in cityscapes, though the subject matter is usually more monumental, important or just bigger. If you look closely, the street behind is reflected in the balloon, and is in colour. It looks liek a bright, sunny day in Jerusalem.

Monday, May 6, 2013

On the Need to Annoy Politicians

It is very important that politicians should not live comfortably. Those who would take our money and our liberty must be constantly reminded that these things are ours, and not theirs. I do not advocate violence, of course, at least not in democracy, but turning up in a group in public places, to annoy them, bother them, discomfit them, remind them that they are supposed to work for us, and that their power is ours, delegated to them for specific purposes, and that they answer to us, is necessary. They must not be allowed to forget it. It doesn't matter whether you agree with whatever the protest is about, or with the exact motivation of those carrying out 'escrache', 'acoso', recently in the name of those who haven't paid their mortgages, but as long as their behaviour remains within certain bounds, we should applaud them, for they are carrying out the vitally important act of making our rulers' lives more uncomfortable.

The same applies, to a certain extent, to civil servants also. I will recognise that there is a considerable difference of degree, since they are, on the whole, simply trying to make a living like the rest of us and happen to have found that particular path. Some of them are even useful to us, rather than to the government.

But having acknowledged these points, they are people who have chosen to work for the government,* which pays them with our money. They do not answer to us, they answer to other people like themselves, and we have almost no power boycott them, as we would a professional or company who hadn’t served us well, or we simply didn’t need. We have nowhere else to go. Whether we want to use them or not, whether they are necessary to the public that pays them or not, whether they are competent at what they do or not, they are paid by us, but they do not serve us. None of them create employment. Very few of them are directly productive. Most do not even contribute, very indirectly, to the growth of the economy. They pay no tax, of course, they are a great financial burden to us and most of those who are useful to us rather to those who make and enforce the rules perform their functions in a very inefficient way because of the structure and regulation of their organizations.

They are different from those of us who produce things, are paid voluntarily by people using their own money, pay tax allow the political employment to exist in the first place. I do not advocate harassment of civil servants, but I see no reason why their anomalous position should not be mentioned from time to time, and kept before the general public and themselves.

*No, I haven’t come over all paranoid. The older I get (the less young, shall we say), the more I realize that politicians are not doing it for me, or for you, or for the country or its people. Therefore they should be encouraged to do as little as possible, and to answer for what they do do. Nothing should be easy or comfortable for them. Everything I do in my work is open to the scrutiny and criticism of my employees and my clients, and they exercise that privilege whenever they think it appropriate to do so. This is, on the whole, a good thing, and I see no reason why those who pay the politicians and the government employees should not exercise the same privilege, with the same benefits for us all.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

An Englishman's Trousers

This morning I went to a gentlemen’s clothes shop I patronise- because they have no truck with fashion, they just have good clothes that are always the same, I choose a colour and that’s that- to have the hem of a pair of trousers taken up. Mrs Hickory had given them to me some time ago and they had been forgotten in the wardrobe before I had had a chance to do it. I decided it was time to make them wearable. So I tucked them under my arm and strode forth.

It was a fine day, the sun was shining, children were playing, fresh-faced, full of energy, cats were lying in the shade and lizards in the sun. None of which is especially relevant, but it gives you an idea of how it felt to be preparing for a meeting with the tailor. 

"Morning", I said. "Morning, Mr Hickory", they said. This is a small place and I buy a lot of trousers.
"Trousers", I said. "I have these trousers... I have some trousers... I thought I'd look for some trousers..."
The sentence was less lucid than it might have been because somewhere in the middle of it I realized that the trousers in question were not in the bag in my hand, and neither was the bag. I later discovered they were both still at home on the chair by the door where I had put them so as not to forget them. For the moment, all I knew was that they were not in my hand.
I couldn't admit this, of course. To say, 'Sorry, I've made a mistake. I'll be back later', was, for some reason, beyond me at that moment. So with the word 'trousers' on my mind, and on my lips, repeatedly, I asked to see some. For half an hour I discussed trousers, tried on trousers, approved trousers, criticized trousers both constructively and otherwise, chatted idly of the past and present of trousers and the trends for a gentleman' summer wardrobe, before I finally had the presence of mind to say that I had better consult my wife, and left.
Now I am wondering whether, when I go back tomorrow, whether I shall have to buy the trousers we discussed today, or if I can successfully make a good excuse. I think I can swing it, but it will depend on how the conversation turns. In any case, a good pair of trousers never goes to waste.
Some good has come of it, however. It proves that, despite living the life of a Spaniard, looking and sounding like a Spaniard, in many ways thinking, feeling and remembering like a Spaniard, deep within me there still beats the heart of an Englishman,
for surely, only an Englishman could be that absurd.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Spring and Blogging

The original subtitle of this blog was ‘When I work out what this blog is about, I’ll let you know’. It was intended to express the truth about the state of my intentions, but it was only a filler that I expected to change quickly. In fact it stayed there for more than two years. Well, that’s blogging, I suppose. You never really know where it will take you.

But I did change it eventually, and now this little experiment in talking to myself is subtitled as you can see above. It not only reflects the current state of my intentions, it is also slightly more informative for the reader who stumbles across it. An improvement, then.

But is it really true that this what I want to limit myself to? Do I need to feel bound by it?

Hedgehogs are pretty, exotic, neurotic, fetishistic, sociable when they want to be, and very funny, usually when they don’t want to be. Everyone loves a good hedgehog story.

Beauty is very much a subjective thing, of course, but the perception of beauty is often shared, and we may be happy to learn of and understand the beauty that others have seen. If it is not found to be shared, it can come to be shared, and that sharing is a pleasure in itself.

There is beauty in mathematics, and perhaps one of the things that makes a mathematician is the ability to recognise that beauty. There is a beauty in music which I think is only truly appreciated by musicians. There is a beauty in almost every aspect of the world and of human existence which some of us can recognise and be inspired by. The arrival of spring reveals a great deal of hidden beauty in the world which in turn shows up as greater beauty in our soul (or spirit). It is quite possible that a conscious, intelligent being could not exist without a concept of beauty. Without it the mere instinct for survival would not be enough to power our will to live. I like to find beauty.

Truth, the third leg of my rather lopsided blogging triangle, is a completely different matter. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, even to define truth, much less agree on what it is.

There are many ways of presenting the truth, many ways of believing you have arrived at a truth, but in the end it depends very much on the rules applied to the search, and on the context in which they are applied. Pure mathematicians use strict definitions and rigorous logic; it is possible to identify truth and falsehood absolutely, within the universe of concepts to which those rules have been shown to apply coherently. Applied mathematicians wave their hands about. Politicians, men in pubs and bloggers shout, bombast, misdirect, appeal to common sense, mysticism or the intellect of the reader/listener, and more or less make it up as they go along in their attempts to be seen to be right, and to have their pronouncements accorded the accolade of truth.

What was true is suddenly shown to be false. What once was, is not. What was not, now is. We argue about facts when we should be arguing about definitions, we argue about definitions when we should be arguing about facts. We argue about both when we have little or no understanding of either, and ‘the truth’ is often simply the point that I, or the other chap, got bored with the argument.

Despite all of these difficulties, I shall continue to blog about truth, because I think it matters, and the search for it is endless fascinating. And I shall continue to blog about beauty and hedgehogs because they make life more fun. And I shall occasionally talk rubbish, because not even I can be right all the time ;-).