The Great News Commentary Challenge

A good friend at university has a challenging outlook on life, challenging because it is often at odds with my own experiences. But this provides us with a great basis to use discussion to explore our historical studies and hopefully, give each other a more rounded view on life. Summer has been academically boring for the pair of us and we recently launched into a commentary competition; picking an article from the newspapers and writing a review. Here is the most recent from myself.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7998236/Unions-threaten-strikes-civil-disobedience-and-campaign-of-resistance-over-cuts.html

The war in Afghanistan is quiet, Iraq isn’t blowing up; William Hague has quietly slipped off the radar and a government has finally decided to follow up on Private Eye’s investigations into the CDC. It’s another quiet day in Fleet Street.

So to convince the public that they are on the blink of oblivion and UK society as we know it is about to irretrievably collapse the Telegraph presents the opening salvo’s of the Civil Sector Civil War. What’s left of the Unions, which shot themselves in the collective foot and allowed Margaret Thatcher to break them like old dry straws, have come out in verbal war against the governments alleged cuts. Predicting an Armageddon of public services the latest TUC has warned the public to be prepared for “a campaign of resistance the like of which we
have not seen in this country for decades”. As the article progresses the reader is left with the impressions of unity, of a TUC defending the public against a rapacious and ill-advised capitalist government, of a rallying cry to stop the massacre of jobs that the end of the article indicates has started.

Lets ignore the economy for a second as serious economic opinion is divided on the best way to handle the current deficit. While any IFA will advise if there is a debt to be serviced, cut back on anything but the bare essentials and get rid of that debt, global economics are a bit more complicate than a loan. This debt is costing the country a fortune to service, let alone depreciate. According to some the World Bank, G20 and Mervyn King all support this action. According to others these institutions are merely a front for a new world order and cannot be trusted.

Lets also ignore the fact that the Unions haven’t come out and condemned the previous government for the debt. This debt isn’t the problem of the banks, that’s the current world economic slump. The debt the UK faces is the £178bn run up in borrowing during the last government’s term in office. Yes that money might questionably gone to improve public services, but what is the point of that if you are only have to lose all that improvement because you can’t afford to keep it going? It would be refreshing to hear the Unions truly represent their people and condemn such poor fiscal management.

But they will not because, of course, all that additional “investment” in public services as swelled their coffers from all the new members of staff that have joined the various councils, quangos etc. Not only do the Unions have a duty to represent their members (which arguably they have not done by not contesting the previous government’s borrowing) which is right and proper, but their very fiscal survival depends on those members. The more members, the more security but lets not forget union officials have been caught enjoying the expenses account as lavishly as MPs. So there is also a question of a lifestyle to support. Finally the connection between Labour (in any form) and the Unions is tighter than any other relationship in the public sphere so to attack the only party they have any hope of truly influencing would be to cut out the last avenues of political power the Unions might have.

What also clouds the waters is the vast sums of money lost by various councils across the UK in the collapse of various Icelandic financial institutions. How many of the jobs we see going now are covering for these deficits? How many more jobs will be cut to recover this money and then blamed on the current government’s attempts to cut the national deficit?

All this before the outcomes of the Spending Review in October have even been hinted at.

The final consideration is the Telegraph’s angle on this. Are they preparing the ruling and middle classes for war? Are they garnering support for Cameron and his alliance? This is a deliberately confrontational piece without balance and with little commentary or opinion. Considering the readership of the Telegraph it can only be assumed that the paper is seeking to agitate those who have the least reliance on the very staff the Unions represent.

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A Missed Opportunity?

I was quite hesitant about posting this, especially on a day like today; but as I have mentioned before I tend to be fairly emotionally inert and I am not often afraid to stand up when I think its important. And with recent events I can’t help but think that this is important.

There have been three events that have hit the news from America this week; the anniversary of 9/11; the proposed Qu’ran burning by Pastor Terry Jones and the building of a mosque near to the 9/11 site. Of the three, the second, the Qu’ran burning, is the issue I do not intend to look at too much. In essence this is a minor issue blown out of proportion for some unknown reason. Now I don’t intend to upset devout muslims by this statement but while the burning of any book is, in itself, a sad state of affairs it can’t be avoided that this is an event that would have passed without too much mention if it wasn’t for the date and the media. In addition the people most likely to suffer for this is the thousands of Americans (and possible other english speaking people) working or visiting devout muslim lands. I hope that if this man does continue with his threat, the Islamic states and muslims everywhere realise that this is an empty and pointless gesture.

Onto what I hope is something many can relate to and understand. There has been some argument over the proposed building of a mosque near the 9/11 site. Obama has had to step in to lend his support to the building in the face of a possible growing body of public opinion of opposition to the plan. As an atheist and an unsentimental type of person, the building or not of this mosque really has little impact on me. I feel that the US is missing a golden opportunity to really show the world the cultural and spiritual maturity and opportunity of the country.

If there is a need for a building for religious purposes near to the 9/11 site, should it not be a multi-religion structure? Should not religious people from all over the world have the chance to come together to reflect on a tragedy that has cost the world far more than the nearly 3000 killed and over 6000 wounded on 9/11? Isn’t this a golden chance to develop a site open to all religions to develop into a centre of atonement, bridging and building links between religious peoples, helping them to overcome the levels of confusion, animosity, antipathy and ignorance about each other?

As an atheist I find little use for religion outside of the opportunity to use its records and presence to track the development of human society. Yet if we are going to have religions in the world, and if they are going to have the level of influence they currently have, then something like the site of 9/11 is a golden opportunity for religion to have a far more impacting global effect on human society and our understanding of each other.

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Why History isn’t Scientific

Part of last year’s orientation on History and Historiography was a discussion of whether History was scientific. Opinions were inconclusive but it was agreed that it wasn’t an Art!

Today I came across this definition of a Scientific Theory, and this resolved the issue for me:

“A Scientific Theory is a unifying concept that explains a large body of data. It is a hypothesis that has withstood the test of time and the challenge of opposing views”.

The key issue with History when matched against this definition is that it is subject to individual interpretation on a limited set of facts derived from even slightly biased evidence. Scientific theory often has the luxury of controlled environments; clearly defined parameters; control by the observer without necessarily changing the environment; the ability to repeat the process ad infinitum; it uses a logical and methodological approach to a subject which is underpinned by constants and laws which frame the theory.

History deals with the past interactions of humans on and in their environment. The evidence cannot be recreated. The evidence is often written or oral, and therefore subject to the creators prejudices, education, interpretation and bias. While a mass of humans can display certain predictable patterns, individual humans can also be illogical and take actions with no discernible basis. In addition because each original piece of evidence is unique, as it is lost or permanently changed or incorrectly interpreted, the Historian loses an opportunity to gain insight into an event. Each time this happens it becomes harder to define that event as a fact, and from that fact interpret the cause behind the fact.

History has many theories; economic, social, Marxist, political, post modern etc. What is clear is that these are not unifying theories. What has also been made clear is that, unlike a scientific definition of theory, historical theories are more hypotheses. They are criticised and critique by their opponents. They are at best rough approximations because of the problems associated with evaluating primary and secondary sources. In addition, if historians cannot agree on the causation of a historical event, then what chance is there of the rest of the world benefiting from that knowledge?

In the modern world Historians need to decide how their “product” best serves the world. Hughes and Dockrill say in their “Palgrave Advances in Cold War History” that “Historians argue that a proper understanding and dispassionate analysis of the past is essential if one is to make sense of contemporary realities“. For me the second part of this quote is, in essence, the nutshell of the historian. How has today been affected by the decisions and actions we took yesterday. This is a real and valuable product which the entire world could benefit from. The challenge is the first half of the quote, achieving that understanding and dispassionate analysis in the face of the almost insurmountable odds brought on by the glory of human inconsistency and individuality. In the end this maybe the ultimate function of the historian, to make the enormity of human existence relate to the individual reading the words.

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How Equal is Equality in Education?

I tend to spend most mornings having a quick flick through the news on three websites – the BBC, the Telegraph online and the Guardian online.  I appreciate what I am exposing myself on each of these sites (although I prefer the rugby reporting in the Telegraph more than any other paper). This gives me a variety of headlines and opinions so I can digest the news and form my own opinions.

One thing that does stand out is the comments on both the Telegraph and the Guardian, particularly when it comes to Education. Not only is it quite breathtaking how quickly the political lines are drawn, but how, in true internet form, the comments break down into firmly  entrenched positions with barbed comments thrown out targeted and random. The commentators aren’t having discussions; it’s a shouting match. This means on some very important and challenging subjects you can end up walking away from the whole mess, which is a shame because I am a firm believer of diamonds in the rough and you wonder if you have missed that small insight that could help you resolve your own opinions on the matter.

I have written before of how I feel it is time to take the politics and politicians out of Education. Politics can achieve much good, but so often it comes at a price, something which should not be a condition that needs to be considered when it comes to our children. In this particular section in the Guardian, comments about the A* grade at A level had quickly become a shouting match over Equality in Education particularly when it comes to free education vs paid education. All sorts accusations, opinions, counter arguments were being thrown around like so much confettee’d explosives. You had parents sacrificing everything to get their child a paid education, as it was seen as a better option in their area, then they were told how they were just worsening the situation, and were part of the problem and not the solution. Others defended the right for a person to spend their money how they saw fit, and that included on their child’s education. Still more saw the only way was to “close down” all the public and private schools and just have a state education system. Political ideology had far more to do with these comments than any sound and logical base of argument.

What these all failed to note was that in a capitalist system, the people with the money will always get what they want, no matter how you legislate. Ban private education? Bring in tutors. Ban Tutors? Bring in online VLE’s. Enforce state only education? Emigration. The second factor is that nothing is perfect and in any structure like a business, councils, education, you will have some who over perform, some who perform and some who underperform. While this underperformance can be ameliorated it cannot be totally eradicated. So while statistically we could offer our children a fair education, the realism is somewhere a school will be letting their pupils down, providing them with a below standard education. Add to this the middle classes driving up house prices in the areas with good schools, more and more families are becoming increasingly having to “make do” with what can be provided.

Lets skip around the question of making do – what is being provided as an education in this country is another kettle of fish entirely.

What we lack is an equality of opportunity. Lets forget every other equality as we know that inevitably to provide equality for some, we end up discriminating against others. Every child should have an equal opportunity to a good standard of education in their area and preferably from their local school. If you as a parent want more than that then you should be able to pay for it. What happens when this doesn’t happen? You can’t change provider to the best supplier in your area, because if you could afford to do that you would have done it already. You can’t sue anyone for breaking contracts.  You can’t “opt out” of state education and take your contributions elsewhere, taxes et al. You can’t apply for a housing support grant to help you buy an equivalent property in Oxford if your child has been accepted into Magdalen College School and you are from Merthy Tydfil. While as a parent you can question the quality of the education at your local school via the Governors and the LA, as a consumer you cannot choose to go elsewhere just like that as the opportunity does not exit, unless you are one of the few who can afford to sell up and move house or country. Now add on top of this that this isn’t equality for the parents either; the few routes through this maze are only available to those who can dedicate the time and resources to find them. There are too many dangerous cul-de-sacs for parents unused to fighting for the best.

As for schools, how many of them are set up to provide higher and more challenging levels of education for pupils who are academically gifted, while providing the same challenge through vocational or other avenues? How many primary, higher and secondary schools are flexible enough to provide the wide range of opportunities, educational experiences and chances to show qualified talents to their pupils? Why should a child have to leave school, just to find out where their gifts lie – that is something they should leave school already confident in.

With a country that has such a lack of diversity of career opportunities in markets that lay outside of “labours of love”, the question arises of to what end are we educating our children if the education system lacks the opportunity for them to show how they can shine?

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Why “Great Man” History matters

Its been a while since I put thoughts on screen. In part this has been because of the arrival of school summer holidays, and a wonderful 10 day visit from my nephew and niece. All this has taken a but of the wind out of me, and has meant a slow restart to the blog. In this I am thankful to Ubiquitous Rat over on Cool Religion for challenging me to to write an introductory article on atheism. That not only woke me up, it made me realise what a difficult subject atheism is to introduce.

Anyway, onto this weeks bog; and it is a big one. “Great Man” history is a traditionalist form of historical research. Historians as a whole tend to prefer written archives as a source of material for research and as you go back through time, writing becomes more elitist, more restricted and more specialised; as such only the rich and famous could afford to be written about. In addition, much writing was done by the clergy and, if we are lucky, the odd, educated clerk at court. As such we know so little about day to day life in medaeval times; in fact we know far more about the day to day life of Romans than we do for almost 500-700 years of British History.

“Great Man” history (GM) is still very much prevalent today, but in a different form. The liberalisation of History, the influence of Marxist theory, the growth of sociological studies and the impact of Post-Modernism has meant a huge decline in GM but it is still out there in the form of biographies and auto-biographies. As such there is not so much focus from academia on GM, and it is left to amateur historians and professional writers to explore these people (not that that is an issue).

There has been a huge explosion in popular history these days. From programmes like “Who do you think you are” encouraging an explosion in geneology, to books like “Sharpe” and even “The Da Vinci Code” (I know, I promise I won’t do it again). This has been driven by amateur historians and professional writers – again, no argument from me, but it has meant, I feel, that Historians have missed out on an opportunity.

With media driven shock stories of pupils not being able to identify key British Historical moments, the drive towards multicuturalism, the feel that society is changing almost daily, it is easy to think that British History is being eroded, undermined and forgotten. Again the media has been great, especially during the Blair years, of filling how minds with stories of appeasement, not celebrating our country’s past in order not to offend other nations and cultures; this could be seen as part of the drive to get British people to accept a European/Global identity instead of a national one. If this was the case, then indeed severing that link between the current society and its past history would be essential, but that might lie more within the bounds of a conspiracy theory.

So how does GM history fit into all this. Lets revisit my first point; over the entire course of this island’s history we know more about the central characters than we do of anything else. So for a start we are dealing with a better quality of source material than any other even though these sources are also open to interpretation and bias. The further back we go, the smaller and less developed societies were, the better it can be argued that these people were written about because of various factors including power and control – they therefore directly contributed to the shaping of our society today. So these people have had major impacts and are of historical note. This doesn’t diminish the contributions from every person since the start of society, but the advantage is that we have so much more information about the great historical figures. While this information is as open to promotional opinion and and bias as anything it is likely to be more comprehensive, with less gaps and more detail than much of the information we would have about the peasants, working classes or many other stratas of society.

This allows us a number of benefits. The first is about the persons themselves. “Great” people tend to have characteristics that have driven them to their position. Studying these people allows us to assess these characteristics and learn from them, to better understand them and ourselves. Maslow in his “self actualisation” theory used characterstics from some of the great people from around the world (although there is more than a hint of christian ethos bias in it). So we begin to expose ourselves to the concepts of strategy, politics, wealth management, influence  etc etc and this can also be given to our children allowing them to understand some of the traits needed to achieve, and therefore possibly wresting them away from the cult of celebrity.

Another great opportunity here is about critical evaluation. We have all this information, far more than information about the rest of us mere mortals, and we can begin to cross reference and question this information, to interpret it, to critically evaluate it. Using real information, primary and secondary sources, we can encourage pupils in schools to develop critical evaluation, intepretation and extrapolation skills which are immensely valuable but often overlooked. For instance a great project would be to take William Wilberforce, the man generally accredited with the success of the anti-slavery movement in this county, and to assess the man in light of some possible recent evidence to suggest that he was a director of a company in the West Indies that was still using slave labour after it was abolished by the crown, and that he actively knew and protected it. What does this say about the man and his society? What would it have been like to have been a freshly freed slave in the UK, who discovers this information? The opportunity to reflect ourselves through these great people, critically using the information about them, looking beyond them and into the society beyond them is an amazing opportunity and insight.

The real benefit to GM History is that it is common history. Every person in British history has made some impact on our society today. Everybody who is a citizen of this country has links to every great person in this country’s history. Every decision and action made by these people, good or bad is as much a part of our society as it was the moment they were made; and this is the same for every nation on this planet. Indivdually we are as much of a product of the decisions of Nelson, Wellington, Churchill, Alfred, Edward I, Isembard KingdomBrunel, Florence Nightingale, and Margaret Thatcher as we are of our parents and their parents.

So lets ensure we don’t forget our Great Men and Women of history, and spend so long looking at the flowers in the wood that we forget the majesty of the forest, and the glory that the mighty Oak brings to it.

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Education and Politics Mk II

I was going to have a crack about the merits of “Great Man” history and the danger of leaving it out of teaching history but recently I have been participating in some discussions on the Guardian site on the recent decisions by Michael Gove the UK Minister for Education. What struck me is that, taking aside that the people who post on these discussions might not be in any way serious in the comments, the discussions very quickly became about people’s political views and not about education or, and this is really shocking, the children. This isn’t about Mr Gove’s decisions but it is about politics and its relationship with education.

Education for All has been intricately tied to the state and politics since its inception in 1870. Not surprising when you consider the circumstances of its birth, the move to support it via local taxation and how, born of the ideals of the liberal movement closely guarded by the conservative establishment and used as cornerstone of the rising labour ideology, education has been at the forefront of political fighting. As such education has defintely suffered from the political swings in the UK, let alone from the various states of the economy over the past 130 years. This has meant that over a century down the line we have a lot of stakeholders all who think they are right, and the one stakeholder that has little impact of control of education is the very people it is designed to benefit – the pupils.

Now many will immediately come back with the argument that because the state funds and supports education in this country and society funds and supports the state and that we make up the society, its important that education reflects what we say it should, and as such it should support the current society and help it evolve into a future, better one. In short the link between society and education is inexticably linked. Hmmm, really?

First we don’t live in a true democracy. We live in a democracy of negative freedoms. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf, but not exclusively for us as many a political scandal has shown. In addition we didn’t get to choose the people who were up for election; we don’t get a choice over what laws and statutes need to be examined, revised or introduced; we don’t even get the choice of chucking a government out when we have had enough, we have to wait for the political process to give us that priviledge. We only get to choose the whats, whens, hows etc when the political system allows us to; and who manages the political system? Not us. So at the basic level, we do not have democratic control over our state, and this is a state controlling our education.

Now the link between society and education sounds very magmanimous, philanthropic and utopian. Until you read work by Paolo Friere and Ivan Illich. You can’t help but feel nagging doubts of familiarity in the words and analysis. When you add in experience, the basic reporting through media, a little bit of reading around and having your own child in the system, you begin to realise that society exerts a control over education that forces the children within it to mould themselves to one of several situations; either they are shoe horned into a system that does not necessarily suit them in every way; they are shaped and moulded by a teachers personal preferences and bias; or they are forced to rebel because the system just does not provide them with the enjoyment and motivation they are looking for. Now most pupils will fit into the first category and will generally do well or ok; question is could they do better in a system truly designed for their needs and development?

We have already mentioned the teachers impacts on a child’s education and how that isn’t just a positive one. In some research for a recent paper the is definite evidence to suggest that as a whole teachers are not a positive, success driven culture ready to embrace change and are as much political ideaologues as the politicians. As such this creates friction, a friction that makes the job harder for the teacher and this will get transmitted to the pupil either through fustration, or through a open or hidden rebellion against the system. Do we really want these pressures on the people who arguably spend as much time with our kids as we do?

And what about us? The Parents? Thanks to the Conservatives and New Labour we are now an additional pressure on the system. The idea is sound, parental input and choice should force schools to improve as customer choice and input does to business, especially as each individual child now has a cash worth. Parents as a whole have always had an active interest in their children’s education. Yet that has also created a tension because not only are parents demanding, myopic and uneducated in the pressures and workings of the education system, but they have also got their own expectations of how the education system should work based on the promises of the government. Parents are also individuals who have their own expectations and demands for their children.

870 words in and nothing about the children’s part in this. Their input, their needs and where they hope to be at the end of their education. 130 years of education and we still haven’t addressed this yet. 50 years of sociology and 100 years of child psychology to draw from and we still haven’t worked out how to link the child to the education, so that the child is the centre of it all and they drive it from the bottom to the top. Why? Is it because children are legal minors? Is it because we do not accept that children are individuals with their own preferences? Is it because we cannot appreciate that children love to learn? Or is it because at every stage of state education, children are the only one without a vote?

Lets get the politics out of education and lets get education to finally be about the child.

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Free Education?

I have been reading alot about education recently, appropriate considering my hopeful career move, and I have come to a first conclusion; politics ruins education. Lets just get rid of the politics and the politicians, establish a profession of people who not only understand education, but the business of education. Lets get education focussed back onto the pupils.

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