Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Commence This

Our friends at the Young America’s Foundation note that there are exactly zero conservatives among the commencement speakers at Ivy League universities this year, though this shouldn’t surprise anyone by this point.  I have a theory on this: the Ivy League is still reeling from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address, “A World Split Apart,” which was a fulsome attack on everything that Harvard stands for.  It could well have been called “A World Split Apart—By Harvard.”  If you’re old enough to remember, it caused a huge ruckus.  Won’t ever let that happen again.

So who did Harvard honor at commencement this year?  Oprah.  Need I point out that she’s attained the dimensions of people who only need to be referred to by a single name.  Like Bono.  Or Prince.  Or Cher.   Or Yanni.  Though—sorry—I think Oprah, as a commencement speaker, could well deserve the nickname “Yawnie.”

Anyway, of all the places one would least have expected criticism of Oprah at Harvard, Time magazine would be high on the list.  In fact it wouldn’t have even made my list.  Yet here is Time, suggesting that Harvard is embracing a devotee of “phony science”:
    It’s possible to admire Oprah Winfrey and still wish that Harvard hadn’t awarded her an honorary doctor of law degree and the coveted commencement speaker spot at yesterday’s graduation. .

    Oprah’s passionate advocacy extends, unfortunately, to a hearty embrace of phony science. Critics have taken Oprah to task for years for her energetic shilling on behalf of peddlers of quack medicine. Most notoriously, Oprah’s validation of Jenny McCarthy’s discredited claim that vaccines cause autism has no doubt contributed to much harm through the foolish avoidance of vaccines. . .

    This vote of confidence in Oprah sends a troubling message at precisely the time when American universities need to do more, not less, to advance the cause of reason. As former Dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, pointedly noted in a blog post about his objections, “It seems very odd for Harvard to honor such a high profile popularizer of the irrational. I can’t square this in my mind, at a time when political and religious nonsense so imperil the rule of reason in this allegedly enlightened democracy and around the world.”  . . .  Oprah Winfrey’s honorary doctorate was a step in the wrong direction.

Good for Time.


The pupils who think cheese is a vegetable and fish fingers come from chickens: Study highlights primary children's ignorance of food

One in three primary schoolchildren think cheese comes from plants and one in 10 says tomatoes grow underground.

A new survey reveals a young generation with unhealthy diets and an alarming belief in food myths.

Nearly one in five children says that fish fingers come from chicken and pasta is produced from animals.

Research by the British Nutrition Foundation among over 27,500 children across the UK also found many were skipping breakfast and too few eat fish.

Over three quarters of primary school children and nearly nine out of every ten secondary school pupils know that people should consume five or more portions of fruit and vegetables each day. 

But two-thirds of primary school children and three-quarters of older pupils reported eating four or less portions of fruit and vegetables daily, while two in every five children at secondary school don't think frozen fruit and vegetables count towards their five a day.

The research also shows that an alarming number of children do not eat breakfast each morning, which increases with the age of the children. 

On the day of the survey, one in 10 primary school children had skipped breakfast, rising to nearly a quarter of 11 to 14-year-olds and a third of 14 to 16-year-olds. 

Up to a quarter of children said they did not eat breakfast every day. Official advice is for children and adults to eat at least two portions of fish each week.

However, the survey found 16 per cent of children of primary school age never eat fish, rising to one in five children at secondary school.

Only one in six of children aged five to 16 years eats fish twice a week.

Around one in 10 children never cook at home, although three-quarters would like to cook more.

Roy Ballam, Education Programme Manager at the British Nutrition Foundation, said: 'Through this survey one in five (21 per cent) primary school children and 18 per cent of secondary school pupils told us that they have never visited a farm.

'This may go part way to explaining why over a third (34 per cent) of five to eight-year-olds and 17 per cent of eight to 11-year-olds believe that pasta comes from animals.'

The survey was conducted as part of the BNF's Healthy Eating Week, which involves more than 3,000 schools and 1.2 million children.

Mr Ballam said: 'Through Healthy Eating Week, we hope to start the process of re-engaging children with the origins of food, nutrition and cooking, so that they grow up with a fuller understanding of how food reaches them and what a healthy diet and lifestyle consists of.'


A British primary school that sounds rather wonderful

A stately pile in Shropshire houses a family-run prep school seemingly untouched by time

Boarding school heads often claim: “We’re one big family”. This is not only metaphorically but literally true in the case of Moffats, an extraordinary, quiet anomaly of a school snuggled away in rural Shropshire, which is run by eight members of the original founding family, the Englehearts.

Everyone here is someone’s cousin, or sister – or if not a member of the immediate family, then part of a community of “Old Moffats” (OMs), known unofficially as “Moffateers”. OMs frequently marry other OMs. One cousin even married the cook’s daughter…

Most of the family are former pupils themselves; the current head, Robin McCarthy (née Engleheart) lived in the house from birth, although, she is very quick to point out, she has “been away” – for 25 years; first to Oxford University, where she captained the women’s cricket team, and later as deputy head at a large prep school in the south of England.

She is the sixth member of the Engleheart family to lead the school, taking over from her brother-in-law Mark Daborn, a former surveyor and now the school chaplain, who held the post for 18 years, until last September. Mark also teaches mathematics and geography.

His wife Alex (Robin’s sister), takes English and drama; their son James offers forest crafts and survival skills, cricket and war games. “It might seem like jobs for the boys,” Robin says, “but if we need a specialist we get one in.”

The family is careful to select people who will respect the Moffats ethos. Appointments and big decisions are made by mutual agreement.

“Of course, we fall out sometimes,” Robin admits. “But there’s never anything that can’t be resolved by communication. The issue of our positions causes no friction. When Mark handed over he felt there was someone he could pass it on to without what he’d achieved being undermined.”

A few decades back England was liberally speckled with such establishments, but no longer. As Anne-Marie Hodgkiss, membership officer for the Independent Schools Association, delicately puts it: “Moffats is not alone... but it is certainly not in the majority.” The fees — £5,148 a term for boarders — are perhaps the least remarkable aspect of the operation.

The uninitiated might raise an eyebrow at the idiosyncratic spirit of the place but the school is well aware of the possible dangers of operating below the radar. “We don’t just examine ourselves,” Robin says. “We deliberately have outsiders coming in.”

Moffats functions as a limited company, owned and run by family members through a board, advised by an independent non-executive committee of former pupils, parents and local people which meets once a year, in much the same way as a board of governors. “We are all involved in things outside of school, which stops us becoming too insular,” Robin’s sister Alex says.

Also in the family are: piano teacher Francis Engleheart; Paul Engleheart, who teaches Latin, music, IT and junior sports; Robin’s youngest sister Kate, a riding instructor; and Julian Engleheart, the bursar. The ninth Engleheart, nine year-old Isabel, is a pupil.

Together – with a little outside help – they run the tiny, co-educational school of only 67 pupils, aged three to 13, over a third of whom are boarders, mostly full time. Moffats’ “home” is the daunting Georgian, Grade I listed Kinlet Hall, near Ludlow.

“People panic and say 'How can you be viable?’” says Robin. “We say that’s our business. As for the house, we haven’t got any parts we can’t use. We have run at this size for 79 years, why should we change now? The school went up to more than 90 pupils in the Nineties but because we don’t, and won’t, and can’t build, it was all a bit of a bulge. The fewer there are, the greater the opportunities.”

With secret doors, subterranean passageways, a wargames cellar and a riding school, all set in a glorious 110 acres of Shropshire countryside, there are plenty of opportunities to engage young imaginations.

I notice rows of in-line skates, which Robin tells me are “fantastic for speed bumps on the drive”, a croquet lawn, fields of equestrian jumps and walls of photographs from the sailing camp in Cornwall.

“What we do with them in our spare time is our own hobbies,” says Robin, a croquet nut and sailor. “They learn eccentric things but they also learn that a passion for something is part of life.”

From the age of seven, children wander freely in the grounds. They share the chores, and television is strictly limited to a historical soap on Friday evenings and a film on Saturday. Hobbies are undertaken in the two-hour lunch break, with the school day finishing at 6pm.

The children have created their own games, such as Rickets (a cross between rounders and cricket), Relievo (defending an old cedar tree) and one simply called “The Game”, which seems similar to tag rugby. Despite lacking a proper gym and swimming pool, Moffats fields junior and senior teams in most mainstream sports. “But we don’t need to win matches to feel good about ourselves,” Robin says. “It’s about playing hard, winning graciously and losing well.”

Horses are integral to school life; pupils can keep their own at school or choose from seven sturdy, ever so slightly Thelwellesque school ponies. “Some schools have speech day, we have a gymkhana,” Robin laughs.

Music is also respected. In the “Big Room”, a former library, now a concert hall, final-year pupil Baska Enkhjargal, from Mongolia, is working hard at a grand piano. At lunch we meet Mikuu Oluwayemi, 13, from London, a full-time boarder and keen guitarist and Asan Hems, 10, preparing for grade one flute. The children are self-confident and polite, with impeccable table manners. Kea Waite, 12, from Devon, steals the conversation, telling us all about her 14 parrots, sister called Hannah (also at school) and a horse-mad mum who works at Birdworld.

The pupils are not shy of engaging Robin in friendly banter and using her first name; there are too many Englehearts here to have it any other way. “Don’t tell Robin,” eight year-old Tom Gameson whispers, intending Robin to hear, “but I like Alison, the ICT teacher, best. I’ve never had a bad mark.”

Tom’s classmate William Freeman, eight, loves the school grounds: “It’s like having a massive garden to play in.” His mum Sue, a former Moffats pupil herself, flies Tornados in the RAF in Yorkshire. She values the Moffats’ prized qualities of sportsmanship, confidence in public speaking, integrity and determination which, she says, helped shape her own career. “The Englehearts became my second family as my parents were abroad. There was no doubt in my mind where William was to be educated.”

As for the academic side, the Moffats method might seem a bit Heath Robinson – there is a lot of “mucking in” and doubling, or even tripling of roles – but the most recent Independent Schools Inspectorate Report (ISI), in 2010 gives a picture of a school that is doing an entirely satisfactory job of preparing its pupils for a successful transition to senior schools, and also in the trickier task of pleasing parents.

Robin insists that her staff are all of high calibre and well qualified; albeit not in every case with an actual teaching certificate. “I never think of it in those terms,” she says. “We all have some sort of professional qualification for some part of what we do, although there’s no rule that says we have to.” Indeed, four staff members are Oxbridge graduates, but unusually, there is no honours board in the entrance hall and there is apparently no hothousing of pupils for entrance examinations. “I would like to think a child does well because they are a natural scholar, not because they have been pumped full,” Robin says.

Nor does she kowtow to the ISI: “I’m more interested in us doing well what we feel we must do well. We hope inspectors will agree but I won’t do it for the sake of inspections. We’re not part of the normal circuit of obvious names,” Robin says. “We aren’t flash. We don’t boast about our scholarships, although we do have them. We offer something completely different.” (There were, in fact, three scholarships earned last year: to Stowe, Concord College and King’s Worcester.)

What of the future? “I’m not worried about what happens in the next 10 years,” Robin says. “We don’t need to be possessive about it as a family, if someone wants to take over when the time comes.” The latest crop of Englehearts are, as yet, showing few signs of wanting to fall in line: several have gone into farming and one is an airline steward. But then, as Robin points out, she herself came back.


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