Monday, October 12, 2009

A letter from a child

Recent videos of American children in school singing songs of praise for Barack Obama were a little much, especially for those of us old enough to remember pictures of children singing the praises of dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. But you don't need a dictator to make you feel queasy about the manipulation of children. The mindset that sees children in school as an opportunity for teachers to impose their own notions, instead of developing the child's ability to think for himself or herself, is a dangerous distortion of education.

Parents send their children to school to acquire the knowledge that has come down to us as a legacy of our culture-- whether it is mathematics, science, or whatever-- so that those children can grow up and go out into the world equipped to face life's challenges.

Too many "educators" see teaching not as a responsibility to the students but as an opportunity for themselves-- whether to indoctrinate a captive audience with the teacher's ideology, manipulate them in social experiments or just do fun things that make teaching easier, whether or not it really educates the child.

You can, of course, call anything that happens in a classroom "education"-- but that does not make it education, except in the eyes of those who cannot think beyond words. Unfortunately, the dumbed-down education of previous generations means that many parents today see nothing wrong with their children being manipulated in school, instead of being educated.

Such parents may see nothing wrong with spending precious time in classrooms chit-chatting about how everyone "feels" about things on television or in their personal life. But while our children are frittering away time on trivia, other children in other countries are acquiring the skills in math, science or other fields that will allow them to take the jobs our children will meed when they grow up. Foreigners can take those jobs either by coming to America and outperforming Americans or by having those jobs outsourced to them overseas.

In short, schools are supposed to prepare children for the future, not give teachers opportunities for self-indulgences in the present. One of these self-indulgences was exemplified by a letter I received recently from a fifth-grader in the Sayre Elementary School in Lyon, Michigan. He said, "I have been assigned to ask a famous person a question about how he or she would solve a difficult problem." The problem was what to do about the economy.

Instead, I replied to his parents: With American students consistently scoring near or at the bottom in international tests, I am repeatedly appalled by teachers who waste their students' time by assigning them to write to strangers, chosen only because those strangers' names have appeared in the media.

What earthly good would it do your son to know what economic policies I think should be followed, especially since what I think should be done will not have the slightest effect on what the government will in fact do? And why should a fifth-grader be expected to deal with such questions that people with Ph.D.'s in economics have trouble wrestling with?

The damage does not end with wasting students' time and misdirecting their energies, serious though these things are. Getting students used to looking to so-called "famous" people for answers is the antithesis of education as a preparation for making up one's own mind as citizens of a democracy, rather than as followers of "leaders."

Nearly two hundred years ago, the great economist David Ricardo said: "I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and powerful a sufficient inducement to turn aside from the straight path of honesty and the convictions of my own mind."

The fad of assigning students to write to strangers is an irresponsible self-indulgence of teachers who should be teaching. But that practice will not end until enough parents complain to enough principals and enough elected officials to make it end.


Dumbed-down Britain

Popular British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson says that the Pythons assume a higher level of education than most Brits have today

I knew all the Python sketches off by heart. And the books. And the films. I still do. And I still fly off the handle when someone misquotes. It was Norwegian Jarlsberger, you imbecile. I know it’s really called Jarlsberg but that’s not what Cleese said. How can you not know that??!!?

Only last week, I was asked by a keen young reporter to recite my favourite Python sketch into her camera for a feature she was making. I did Novel Writing.

Novel Writing is another reason Python turned out to be important. It’s the reason I’m married. My wife is a huge fan of Thomas Hardy and was deeply impressed that I knew the opening page of The Return of the Native. She never realised that I was simply reciting a Python sketch. In the same way that she never knew when I hummed Nessun Dorma that I was singing what I thought was the music from a commercial for Pirelli.

Novel Writing is at the very heart of what makes Monty Python so brilliant. The notion of Thomas Hardy writing his books, in front of a good-natured bank holiday crowd in Dorset, while cricket-style commentators and pundits assess every word he commits to paper is a juxtaposition you don’t find in comedy very much any more.

To get the point you need to know that while Hardy may be seen as a literary colossus, there’s no escaping the fact his novels are dirge. We see these attacks on intellectualism throughout Python. To understand the joke, you need to know that René Descartes did not say, I “drink” therefore I am. You need to know that if you cure a man of leprosy, you are taking away his trade. And that really Archimedes did not invent football.

Today my encyclopedic knowledge of everything Python is seen as a bit sad. Former fans point out that Cleese has lost it, that Jones is married to an eight-year-old and that Spamalot was a travesty. Worse. Liking Python apparently marks me out as a “public-school toff”.

There’s a very good reason for this. Nowadays people wear their stupidity like a badge of honour. Knowing how to play chess will get your head kicked off. Reading a book with no pictures in it will cause there to be no friend requests on your Facebook page. Little Britain is funny because people vomit a lot. Monty Python is not because they delight in all manifestations of the terpsichorean muse.

When you go on a chat show, it is important you tell the audience straight away that you were brought up in a cardboard box and that your dad would thrash you to sleep every night. If you want to get on and to be popular you have to demonstrate that you know nothing. It’s why Stephen Fry makes so many bottom jokes.

And then you have my colleague James May, who says that, occasionally on Top Gear, he would like to present a germane and thought-provoking piece on engineering. But I won’t let him unless his trousers fall down at some point. I’m ashamed to say that’s true.

It’s also true that today no one ever gets rich by overestimating the intelligence of their audience. Today you make a show assuming the viewers know how to breathe and that’s about it. It’s therefore an inescapable fact that in 2009 Monty Python would not be commissioned.

The only example of intelligent sketch-show comedy in Britain today is Harry & Paul. And what’s happened to that? Well, it’s been shunted from BBC1 to BBC2. And you get the impression it’ll be gone completely unless they stop using Jonathan Miller as a butt for their wit. Today you are not allowed to know about Jonathan Miller because if you do, you are a snob.

That’s why my Monty Python appreciation society is so small and secret. Members speak every morning, each giving one another a word or phrase that has to be placed in context by six that evening. Last month I was given one word: “because”. And I got it. It’s from the Four Yorkshiremen. “We were happy ... Because we were poor.”

The Pythons were laughing at that idea then. We’re not laughing any more.


Australian universities rate highly by world standards

DESPITE a hammering in the Asian media over student safety, and fears for the higher education sector's international reputation, Australia's elite universities have consolidated their place in the global rankings. Times Higher Education today published world rankings showing Australia's Group of Eight research universities are all placed in the global top 100.

The ranking, a collaboration between THE and higher education consultants Quacquarelli Symonds, is used around the world by consumers - parents and students - as well as academics looking for work and employers seeking recruits. Universities are ranked in six categories, the most important being peer review. Scores are also given by international students.

Coming as it does in the same week as US-based Australian researcher Elizabeth Blackburn's Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, this year's THES ranking is a fillip to a sector struggling to maintain its international standing against intense global competition. The Australian National University remains the standard bearer for the Group of Eight with an international ranking of 17 - down from the 16th place it enjoyed for the past three years. The ANU is the first university listed on the league ladder outside Britain and the US, which maintain their joint stranglehold on the top positions. Harvard once again claims the No1 world ranking, while Cambridge leapfrogs Yale to take second place.

The other big movers in the top 10 were University College London, whose rise from 7th to 4th relegates Oxford to 5th, a rank it shared with Imperial College London, and California Institute of Technology, which drops five places to 10th. Of the Australians, the University of Sydney gains one spot to tie for 36th place with the University of Melbourne, its perennial interstate rival. Melbourne improved two places on last year's ranking.

The University of Queensland also rose in the rankings, from 43 to 41, as did Monash, from 47 to 45, while the University of Adelaide vaulted from a disappointing 106th place last year to regain a position within the top 100 at 81. The University of NSW dropped two places, from 45 to 47. And while the University of Western Australia slid one place to 84th, it will consider this a minor victory given its fall of 19 places between 2007 and last year.

Senior figures within the higher education sector will feel some relief at the consolidation of Australia's position against the backdrop of negative international publicity generated by the overseas student debacle in the private training sector.

The other international bellwether of university performance, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University world university ranking, will be released next month. The SHJT ranking focuses more on research in the sciences and is regarded by most experts as a more rigorous measure than the THES league table, if more mono-dimensional.


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