Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sharia trumps free speech at Yale

Last week's column was about something that doesn't exist -- a multi-level strategy to combat the advance of sharia (Islamic law) across the West.

The strategy doesn't exist because there's little understanding that the entrenchment of sharia in the Western zone poses a threat to liberty in the Western zone.

This understanding doesn't exist because the critique of sharia (a legal system best described as sacralized totalitarianism) required to devise a defensive anti-sharia strategy, is not considered possible.

Why not? The main obstacle is, well, the advance of sharia across the West. In other words, we cannot criticize the spread of sharia simply because sharia, or its influence, has spread. Thus, from Norway to New Haven, from BBC to Fox News, the reflex reaction to critical commentary -- even a newspaper page of political cartoons -- is to follow Islamic law and stop it (or try), or just shut up.

That's certainly what Yale University has done, as events beginning in August demonstrate. That's when news broke that Yale and Yale University Press were omitting the Danish Mohammed cartoons (and other Mohammed imagery) from a forthcoming book expressly about the Danish Mohammed cartoons.

This sudden act of censorship, Yale said, was due to fear of Muslim outrage over the Mohammed cartoons again turning into Muslim violence. (Roger Kimball, Stanley Kramer and I have laid out evidence that Yale's censorship was also due to fear of alienating Muslim donors.) This violence, along with general Muslim outrage, has its roots in Islamic legal prohibitions of life imagery, criticism of Mohammed and sarcasm about Islamic law -- all outlawed by the standard Al Ahzar University-approved sharia manual, Reliance of the Traveller, and all tools for the political cartoonist moved to comment on the connection between Mohammed and jihad violence. And why not? Indeed, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the most influential Islamic cleric in the world, calls Mohammed "an epitome for religious warriors."

The publication of the Danish cartoons forced the question: What is more important to the West -- freedom of speech, or Islamic law masquerading as something Orwellianly known as community harmony?

With its censorship of the Mohammed imagery, Yale chose sharia. But that wasn't all. Wearing my hat as vice president of the International Free Press Society (IFPS), I asked Yale's Steven Smith, master of Branford College, one of Yale's 12 residential colleges, if he would be interested in hosting Kurt Westergaard, the most famous of the Danish cartoonists, at a "master's tea" for students. The IFPS was then finalizing Westergaard's U.S. tour long-planned to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the publication of the cartoons on Sept. 30.

Smith agreed and held the event on Oct. 1. And Yale, it seems, will never be the same.

Of course, Yale was already "never the same," something the Westergaard visit further confirmed. If the Western reaction to the Danish Mohammed cartoons exposed the humiliating bargain the West had already made with Islam, trading away freedom of the press in exchange for "community harmony," the Yale reaction to Westergaard's visit following its censorship of the Mohammed cartoons exposed the rotten fruit at the core of American academia: namely, the politically correct drive to censor material "offensive" to multiculturalism mated to the sharia-correct drive to censor material "offensive" to Islam.

Even now, institutional consternation at Yale over Westergaard continues. In the pages of the Yale Daily News, ire is directed at Westergaard's Yale host, Steven Smith, simply for having issued the invitation, as attested by letters from University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and "coordinator of Muslim Life for the University" Omer Bajwa, and even Smith's fellow Yale masters, Davenport College's Richard Schottenfeld and Tanina Rostain. At a panel this week sponsored by the Chaplain's Office and the Yale Muslim Student Association, several Yale professors discussed "what made the cartoons offensive ... and how the West's response heightened tension." (Given the West's near-universal capitulation, I'd like to have heard that last bit.)

The lesson here? Free speech about Islam at Yale is a liability: something to censor, oppose, even remove physically, as symbolized by the administration's decision to bus students to the edge of campus to attend Westergaard's talk. Campus security -- bomb-sniffing dogs, two SWAT teams -- was so extreme it stood as a reproach to critics of Islam, and perhaps as justification for Yale's decision to censor the cartoons in the first place.

Having shrouded free speech in the Islamic veil, Yale stands exposed.


Are nursery rhymes dying out?

What's Britain's favourite nursery rhyme? Apparently, it's Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, at least according to new research for National Bookstart Day, which offers a list of the most popular (you can see it below). They wouldn't be my top choices, although that may be because I favour them more for their tunes (a beautifully sung Little Boy Blue is a joy!) than their words...

I've always enjoyed telling nursery rhymes to my children, and they've enjoyed joining in, getting into the rhythm and starting off their journey into the world of books.

But apparently many parents now feel that nursery rhymes are too old-fashioned for their youngsters. Just over a third of those surveyed said they used rhymes with their kids, and almost a quarter admitted they had neversung a nursery rhyme with their child (which I find rather sad). And there is an age-gap problem too - younger people are far less likely to know the words to the rhymes.

In addition - and rather oddly - more than a fifth of those asked said they didn't use them because they were not considered "educational". Well, they may not teach you lots of facts or figures, but they do teach you about language, and stimulate your brain by remembering the words (and songs). And if you don't believe me, read what Professor Roger Beard, Head of Primary Education, Institute of Education, has to say:

"Sharing rhymes with young children is as important today as it ever was. It helps them to enjoy playing with language and to learn about its patterns and rhythms. Some favourite rhymes date back 200 years or more. For instance, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has an enduring simplicity, while also allowing children and grown-ups to share in their wonderment about the night-time sky. The appeal of other rhymes, like Incey Wincey Spider, is probably linked to the simple actions that accompany them and which are easily shared with small children.’

The top ten rhymes across the UK:

1) Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

2) Incey Wincey Spider

3) Round and Round the garden

4) Baa Baa Black Sheep

5) The Grand Old Duke of York

6) If you're happy and you know it

7) Humpty Dumpty

8) This Little Piggy

9) Ring a Ring a Roses

10) I'm a Little Teapot

(What no Mary had a Little Lamb or Hey Diddle Diddle?!)


At long last, a class act who might just save Britain's schools... if his party lets him

The disaster that is Britain's education system is arguably the single most important problem that faces this country. If people are ignorant of the world around them or unable to think for themselves, they will be incapable of tackling the failing economy, family breakdown or any other issue. Education is fundamental to a society's capacity to prosper. If the education system founders, a society loses the ability to function properly and its future is bleak indeed.

This unfortunately is the alarming position in which Britain finds itself. In one of the world's most advanced societies, the level of illiteracy among schoolchildren is astonishing. This year, nearly a quarter of a million children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly. Two-thirds of working-class boys at the age of 14 have a reading age of seven or below. More than half the children leaving comprehensives failed to get the basic requirement of five decent GCSE passes. Public examinations have themselves dumbed down. Universities are having to provide remedial courses to make up for the deficiencies in students' knowledge. Employers despair of school-leavers and even university graduates who lack the basics and can't think for themselves.

For more than two decades, politicians have tried and failed to remedy this grievous state of affairs. The problem was that they failed to analyse it correctly - and in the case of the Labour Government have themselves been a large part of the problem.

Which is why we should applaud the Tories' schools spokesman Michael Gove, whose passionate performance at last week's Tory party conference suggested that at long last here was a politician who does understand not simply that education standards and expectations are shockingly low, but why.

Setting out his now familiar proposal of freeing up school provision, thus opening the way for schools to choose their own examination systems and syllabus, he showed that he also understood and was prepared to tackle many of the warped cultural assumptions that were causing so many schools to fail. This entails, as he suggested, nothing less than taking on the entire education establishment.

For Gove has understood that the root of the problem lies in a bunch of destructive and positively antieducation ideas which - astoundingly - have become the entrenched orthodoxy in the education world. Unless the power of this establishment is broken and its ideology defeated, there is no possibility of any meaningful reform.

This is, to put it mildly, a tall order. The point about this education establishment - referred to in the past as 'the secret garden' because it is as enclosed and unaccountable as its ideas are impenetrable - is that it has crushed all opposition precisely because it is so all-encompassing. Previous attempts to reform the system all failed because even the best-intentioned political initiatives were subverted by the 'experts' who were asked to implement them. From civil servants to professors of education, these formed an unbreakable cartel which subscribed to precisely the ideologies they were being asked to replace.

The outcome was that every such initiative, including the National Curriculum and the National Literacy Scheme, and every quango such as the National Council for School Leadership, which trains head teachers, was subverted or hijacked by preposterous anti-education ideas.

Gove's proposals have to be set in that all-important context. Freeing up school provision is intended to break the stranglehold of that education establishment, from civil servants in Whitehall to the quango running the National Curriculum to the local authorities controlling school placements.

The idea is that by giving enhanced school choice to parents, teachers will be forced to abandon the ideological junk and teach the basics because that's what parents want. And the competition that produces will force the rest to raise their game, too. Not only that, Gove intends also to break the power of university-based teacher training courses, which fill prospective teachers' heads with ideological mumbojumbo, by expanding the Teach First scheme, which recruits the highest performing graduates into teaching.

In a further inspired move, he proposes developing a Troops to Teachers programme, to get Army professionals into the classroom, where they can provide discipline and leadership. And he also intends to restore to teachers the power to expel unruly pupils by abolishing school discipline panels, so that the number of vexatious 'human rights' challenges which have paralysed attempts to maintain order in the schools will be greatly diminished.

So far, so admirable. The great question, though, is whether he can really pull it off. For Gove's radicalism is tempered by certain contradictions in his proposals. Take, for example, the National Curriculum. While he says 'free' schools will be able to opt out of it, it will remain binding upon those schools which are still run by local authorities. So how does that fit with his 'decentralising' agenda?

He says he intends to use the National Curriculum to enforce the proper chronological teaching of history and literacy schemes that actually work. But bitter experience has taught us that, in the hands of central government, the curriculum invariably becomes instead a destructive ideological tool.

Gove thinks he can avoid this by abolishing the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which runs the curriculum, relying instead only on those experts whom he trusts to get it right. Good luck to him - but I'll believe it when I see it.

More disappointingly, his school choice proposal has a very serious flaw. The new 'freed-up' schools will not be allowed to select for ability. This is a bad mistake - and not just because it obviously undermines the claim that they will be independent of state control.

While a return to the 11-plus would not be desirable - selection at age 11 was too early and too rigid - some kind of academically selective school provision stands at the heart of making Britain both fairer and more competitive. This is because selecting by ability is crucial for the promotion of a meritocracy. And achievement by merit is the essence of a fair society.

European countries with successful education systems - Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands - all offer academically selective schools along with a range of others. This is because they don't suffer from the paralysing British hang-up about social class and differences in achievement.

But Gove instead chose to emulate the Swedish system, since although this allows school choice it does not permit academic selection. Yet Sweden, one of the most socialist and state-regulated societies on the planet, can hardly be a Tory role model.

Ruling out academic selection shows that the Tories are driven principally by the fear that their political enemies will say they are returning to their discredited past of caring only about the 'haves', not the 'have-nots'. Such concern for political positioning is dispiriting. Real free choice would mean a voucher system which could be cashed in at a school whether state-run or independent, comprehensive or selective. Now, that really would break the grip of the ideologues and lever up standards.

It is, after all, egalitarianism that has driven our education system off the rails. Tackling this most fundamental challenge properly requires both intellectual clarity and moral courage of a high order. Michael Gove has shown he has the former in spades. But his party will have to display rather more of the latter if he is to be allowed to become that oxymoron - an education minister who makes the grade.


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