Sunday, December 12, 2010

Unlearning the Lessons Being Taught

Islamists aren't the only threat to speech critical of Islam. Many European states, for example, have criminalized speech acts through legally enforced "political correctness" embodied in "hate speech" laws. In America, where it still remains (more or less) legal to think and speak, the assault on free expression is being waged on a different front, our universities. The target? The minds of America's youth.

Far from being bastions of free thought and critical inquiry, our universities, through speech codes, security fees, and other tactics, begin the "political correctness" indoctrination process early, teaching young Americans what they may and may not say (READ: think). Naturally, included in the realm of the verboten is expression deemed critical of Islam.

One Philadelphia organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to protecting individual rights on America's campuses, is fighting back and has handled a few cases that will be of particular interest to our readers:

Student group slapped with "security fee" for Wilders event:

In October of 2009, the student organization, Temple University Purpose (TUP), sponsored an event with Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who currently faces prosecution for "hate speech" in the Netherlands. Several weeks later, the group received charges for an additional "security fee" for the event. Charging extra security fees for a controversial event because of a potential hostile reaction from the audience has been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it financially burdens speech. Citing this precedent and through dogged persistence, the FIRE succeeded in having the fee withdrawn.

College Republicans investigated for fake flag "desecration" at anti-terrorism event:

In 2007, San Francisco State University's College Republicans were subjected to disciplinary action for stepping on mock Hezbollah and Hamas flags as part of an anti-terrorism event. With help from the FIRE, the witch-hunt was ended and students escaped punishment. Later, with the assistance of the FIRE's Speech Codes Litigation Project and the Alliance Defense Fund, the College Republicans delivered a little disciplinary action of their own, raising and winning a constitutional challenge to the university's speech code.

"Portraits of Terror" art exhibit censored:

In 2006, then Penn State student, Joshua Stulman's exhibit "Portraits of Terror" was pulled by the university just three days before its opening. According to FIRE President, Greg Lukianoff, the exhibit was censored "twice: first because administrators didn't like what it had to say, and later out of fear that violence would ensue if his artwork were shown on campus." The FIRE has helped raise awareness of the incident through writing and a short documentary. Is there anyone out there with the courage to show this exhibit?

Through cases like those enumerated above related to expression concerning Islam, and through countless others directed more generally at protecting individual liberty on our campuses, the FIRE is helping students to unlearn some dangerous lessons they are being taught at our colleges and universities about the scope of individual liberty. To paraphrase Judge Learned Hand, liberty lies in the hearts and minds of men and women; if it dies there, no laws can save it. Those at the FIRE understand this proposition and are fighting to keep liberty alive in one of the places it counts the most.


How can it be right that an 11-year-old boy can call me a f****** cow - and there's not a thing I can do?

Letter to Britain's education boss from a British teacher

Dear Mr Gove,

When I heard the proposals for your latest White Paper, even a cynical, hard-bitten old teacher like me gave a feeble cheer because I thought finally here was one educational reform I could really applaud. I am referring to your plan to revive languages in the English Baccalaureate.

I am biased of course; as a languages teacher, my enthusiasm for my subject allowed me to hope that it might go some way to redressing the past decade's shocking decline in language teaching. That was the inevitable consequence of the batty decision to make languages non-compulsory. Any fool could have predicted the result.

The decline is by no means restricted to languages. Last week, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that one in five British 15-year-olds failed to meet its minimum requirements in maths and reading.

Britain fell from 17th to 25th for reading and from 24th to 28th for maths in the study of 65 developed nations - our pupils are now behind those from Estonia, Lichtenstein and Slovenia. Education here is described as 'stagnant at best'.

But then, as I pondered your language reforms, the awful truth hit home: I would have to carry on teaching pupils who don't want to learn a language. You might say that I can't have it both ways; that I can't think it right that all pupils should have the opportunity to learn a language, but then also dread having to teach the difficult or less than able ones. But I am dreading it.

At present my GCSE classes are a haven of calm. I teach lovely pupils who are bright and who choose to do a language and actually see the point of it. This is a stark contrast to the situation further down the school.

Let me give you an example of what it's like to teach children in the bottom set at Key Stage 3 level (those aged between 11 and 14) at a bog-standard comprehensive school, not in some inner-city hellhole, but in one of the leafier suburbs of a town in the Midlands.

Last month, an 11-year-old boy walked late into my class and proceeded to disrupt it so badly that I could not teach. He threw pencils at his classmates, called out when I asked him not to, refused to work and disrupted all the other pupils until finally I had to have him removed from the classroom because he called me a 'f****** cow'. His actions were totally unprovoked by anything I had said or done - he said it because he knew he could get away with it.

His punishment? He had two days off school - a so-called ' exclusion' - because that's the only sanction we have. And now he's back in my classroom, doing the same all over again. Did I get an apology? No chance. Did his parents telephone me to say sorry? Of course not. Why?

Because I'm a teacher. And it's OK to treat us like that. After all, they pay their taxes don't they? They practically employ me.

Do you know the worst thing, Mr Gove? I was not shocked to be sworn at by an 11-year-old boy. It's not shocking because it happens frequently in my school.

And there is absolutely nothing I, nor my headteacher, nor even you, Mr Gove, can do about it. Because you and those who came before you have taken away any sanctions we once had. Because those children and their parents have all the rights and none of the responsibilities. Because an 11-year-old can swear at me, but if I tried to physically remove him from my room against his will, I would be accused of assault and suspended. How can you think that is right?

A colleague in the English department has also had problems with a girl in his class. She refuses point-blank to do any work and her father refuses to allow her to do detentions. Well, you might reasonably say, he signed an agreement to abide by the school rules when his daughter came to us as an 11-yearold in Year 7, so why not just tell him to take her somewhere else? The truth is we can't.

We're not allowed to kick out pupils, even if their parents won't support us. We will have to put up with her behaviour and her smug, you-can't-touch-me attitude until she leaves.

The girl has now been withdrawn from my colleague's class, not because he finally managed to get rid of her but because she accused him of assault. He didn't touch her, of course, and he is a fantastic, caring teacher with 20 years' experience. It's because the girl's father has kicked up such a fuss that it's the easiest option. A tacit admission that we can do nothing about her and her behaviour. Can you imagine the frustration and anger that arouses in us?

As a mother myself, that father's attitude appals me. If, when they were younger, my own children had been rude to any adult, let alone a teacher, I would have been mortified. I would have telephoned the school or gone there in person to apologise and my child would have been punished. I would not have cared about excuses such as not 'getting on' with the teacher or 'not liking' a particular subject. I wouldn't have cared because life and learning are not always easy or fun.

And that is the problem. Over the years teachers have been bombarded with new initiatives and brilliant ideas from people who, in all likelihood, have not faced a classroom full of children for years.

Today we must all produce 'outstanding lessons', as the jargon has it. Teachers must be entertaining and the pupils must be constantly challenged and stimulated. Forgive me for thinking, Mr Gove, that as a teacher with years of experience, I should be allowed to have the occasional lesson which is not brilliant or fantastic or fun, but just an hour when the pupils listen to me and accept that I might have something of worth to impart to them.

Instead, all my lessons have to be 'child-centred' and I must remember at all times that 'every child matters'. At the beginning of each year I am given lists of information about my pupils. These indicate whether they are Children in Care, Gifted and Talented, have Special Educational Needs, are entitled to Free School Meals or, worst of all, have Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (EBD).

We get plenty of those and we know exactly what to expect from them. The children with EBD will be the ones who disrupt lessons, who refuse to do their homework, who talk while the teacher is talking, who will not turn up for detentions, who will swear at teachers, who will basically make life as difficult as they can. And you can bet your bottom dollar their parents are a pain, too.

And what do I do with these lists? I am supposed to put them in my register and plan my lessons accordingly. I am supposed to be aware that every child learns in a different way and at a different pace. I am supposed to produce different resources or objectives for each child so that I can prove that I am a good teacher.

Can you imagine the work and stress that that causes? Because some other Secretary of State thought that 'inclusion' - the notion that all pupils should be taught together - is a good idea.

Never mind the poor teacher who has to cope single-handedly with a class that might contain a boy who has a reading age below six alongside a gifted pupil. You wonder why pupils become disruptive?

And don't be deceived by those teachers who insist that they have no problems with children. Rubbish. They are frightened to admit that they have problems because that would mean not that they need more sanctions to control these difficult kids but that they are bad teachers, producing 'boring' lessons. And God forbid a teacher should be 'boring'.

The trendy propaganda is that engaging lessons will make your pupils want to learn, even if it's bottom set French last thing on a Friday afternoon. I would love to see you teach such a class just once, Mr Gove, let alone face the little darlings week in week out. And with no sanctions to help you. And a senior leadership team whose hands are tied too.

Oh, and remember that if you phone the parents to say that their child is behaving badly, they will deny it or prefer to believe that you are to blame.

Don't get me wrong, Mr Gove, the vast majority of pupils I teach are great. They have supportive parents who are keen for them to do well and expect them to behave with respect. But it only takes a couple of children whose parents are not supportive and who think it is OK to abuse teachers to ruin a class.

Don't think, either, that I don't work hard. Even though I've been teaching a long time, I listen patiently to all the new initiatives and I do my best to keep up with them. I really do. I work two or three hours on Saturdays and a couple of hours each evening, planning lessons that I hope will be stimulating and interesting. But I am getting so tired of it because it doesn't matter how hard I work.

I can't deal with a class containing pupils with such a wide ability range, and who have all the other problems that I'm supposed to know about.

I can't deal with a class of nine EBD children who hate French and therefore me. And whose parents probably say they don't need to learn a language because they're never going to use it anyway.

Am I old-fashioned in thinking that in the classroom I deserve some respect just because I am an adult? That I deserve to be listened to just because I'm a teacher?

Because of that brilliant idea a decade ago to make the subject noncompulsory, languages inevitably became less and less popular because, the truth is, they are difficult. You actually have to learn stuff and remember it. Why go to all that trouble when you can do food technology, drama, dance, PE or travel and tourism NVQ and get a higher grade with far less effort?

Education is supposed to produce rounded students who have an open, healthily enquiring view of the world. Instead we are producing pupils who have no thirst for knowledge, no interest in other cultures and no inclination to study just for the sheer pleasure of it.

They are learning that they do not need to work hard - they just need to sit back and be entertained. They will be fed information in bite-size chunks that don't require too much uncomfortable chewing or swallowing. The refrain I hear more often than any other is: 'I don't get it.' Too many pupils won't even try to get it. They would far rather give up and blame the teacher for making it too hard or too boring.

I doubt I will be able to continue working until I'm 60, Mr Gove, if you get your way because I don't have the energy it requires even now to control a class of 11-yearolds who can't concentrate, can't spell and can't see the point of anything which doesn't entertain them. What a sad state of affairs that is.


Banish Mickey Mouse from the republic of learning

Social inclusion is a worthy goal but it must not come at the cost of academic standards, says Christopher Pearson, commenting from Australia

In the 1930s, about 5 per cent of Australians went to university. By the late 80s, the figure had risen to about 25 per cent. If the Gillard government's targets are met, 40 per cent of today's primary school students will attend a university.

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne and this year's Boyer lecturer, says this is a good thing. "All Australians, whatever their means, should feel encouraged to participate. Only when citizenship is available to all who seek [membership of the global republic of learning] will we realise the potential of this republic of learning."

You don't get to be vice-chancellor of a great seat of learning without a combination of intellectual ability and guile. It cannot have escaped Davis's notice that the expansionary policies he is so fulsomely endorsing will compromise what remain of the academic standards in the sandstone universities, let alone their besser-brick competitors. The most charitable gloss that can be put on the version of his fourth Boyer Lecture published in Inquirer last Saturday is that he's being diplomatic about something he must privately deplore and is powerless to stop. (As an aside, no doubt he hopes that Melbourne's new generalist first degrees will sandbag it, to some extent, against a rising tide).

But it can be argued that Davis and Julia Gillard are setting the bar too high. If a degree is good enough for 40 per cent of the population, why not extend the privilege to all as a citizen's birthright? Surely Labor's commitment to equity and social justice demands no less.

Inadvertently, Davis makes the case. "For younger adults, the lack of university or a higher-level vocational qualification doubles their chance of unemployment. Less education is statistically linked to lower income, a higher chance of poor physical or mental health, less involvement in community or civic life and, for men, a lesser chance of getting and staying married. Missing out on education flows through to every part of life."

When it's put like that, the question arises: what is so special about the lucky 40 per cent? Why should their incomes and life chances be boosted at the expense of everyone else? We can be confident that the proportion of people with high IQs hasn't magically increased to keep pace with the percentage of people admitted to tertiary education since the 30s. Rather, statistics tell us that most of the 40 per cent heading off to university will be of no more than average ability, just like most of the excluded 60 per cent. The inescapable conclusion is that the process of choosing winners and losers will be outrageously arbitrary.

In stressing the desirability of social inclusiveness in the undergraduate population, Davis gets into a rhetorical bind. "People expect university entry to be based strictly on merit. Elitism - at least elitism based on something other than intellectual ability - is untenable. If Australia is to be a meritocracy, drawing in students from all walks of life is essential."

As readers who are growing long in the tooth will recall, referring to people "from all walks of life" was a post-war social workers' cant term for alluding to the poor, which strikes an odd note in our brave new world. So does appearing to sanction intellectual elitism, especially when the policy you're advocating has precisely the reverse intention and guaranteed outcome.

If Davis were being frank with us, he'd have to admit that the 40 per cent inclusion principle was so arbitrary that a university entry scheme decided on the basis of students' hair colour, the month in which they were born or indeed their parents' income or postcode would make just as much sense.

In Australia we've already reached the stage where all you need to get into arts courses at Deakin's Warrnambool campus or La Trobe's Albury is a tertiary entrance rank score of 50. Such courses are not even attracting the top 40 per cent of school-leavers, so we can expect a further systematic dumbing-down of tertiary standards in the future to which Davis beckons us.

In his first Boyer Lecture, introducing the theme of "the republic of learning", Davis spoke of the way in which "a handful of humanists in the time of Erasmus has grown to more than 150 million higher education students and staff worldwide". This is as callow and shameless a conjuring exercise as I've seen in a long time. It calls to mind Julian Barnes's line about expecting the past to suck up to a triumphalist view of the present. No one apprised of the achievements of Renaissance scholarship could expect to be taken seriously when suggesting they could be conflated with what these days passes for tertiary education. I think that over the holidays Davis should read Erasmus's In Praise of Folly.

As a longstanding advocate of meritocracy, I'm all in favour of policies that open up tertiary education to able people from backgrounds of disadvantage. If, in the process, some middle-class dullards with a misplaced sense of entitlement are excluded, that's fine by me. The professional classes have no automatic right to entrench themselves to the third and fourth generation.

What I object to is lowering academic standards and debasing the currency in the name of social inclusion. Davis's reassurance that "the republic of learning, once the preserve of an elite, is on the road to democracy" just won't do. It should go without saying that it's demeaning to working-class people to assume that the only way most of them can get a tertiary education is by offering them Mickey Mouse courses.

Then again, considering that education services for foreign students now amount to such a large source of national income, the debauch of academic standards is a very short-sighted approach. Apart from the weather and proximity to home, in 10 years why would the most talented Chinese or Indian students pay good money to study here? Perhaps, in the future, leadership in the tertiary sector in Australia will come from private universities that see the competitive advantage in setting the highest standards and refusing to compromise on them.


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