Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Rot of Intolerance at Swarthmore

It’s nice when they make things perfectly clear. You step on to a college campus and you are beset by people parading around telling you how much they love “diversity.” Then you find out that when anyone who holds an opinion not perfectly in line the the contemporary gospel of race-gender-environmental sensitivity, they are shouted off campus.  If they had been invited to speak at campus, they are disinvited, or if that wasn’t possible their appearance is subjected to sophomoric protests.  As I put it last month in The New Criterion, contemporary academia presents us with that oxymoronic phenomenon, Illiberal Liberalism.

Many well-meaning folks, I’ve observed, tend to discount the seriousness of this development. No matter how egregious the episode, they are ready with an extenuating excuse. It was an exception. It was not as bad as you made it seem. It was quickly remedied by a caring/sharing administration.  Et very much cetera.

It will be difficult, I think, for such hear-no-evil types to argue away Peter Berkowitz’s Open Letter to Swarthmore’s Board of Managers.  Berkowitz, himself an alumnus of Swarthmore, wrote to urge the tony but financially troubled institution to choose carefully in its search for a new president.  Please, he asked, please pick someone who will uphold the traditional values of liberal education, values that centrally include tolerance for competing views of the world.  Contemplating what actually happens at pampered institutions like Swarthmore, however, it is difficult to be sanguine. Berkowitz cites one episode that, in its crisp fatuousness, epitomizes so much that is wrong with higher education today.

Princeton Professors Robert George and Cornel West differ sharply in their philosophies. George is a conservative Catholic, West is some variety of Leftist firebrand. Despite their differences, however, they are friends and often appear together to debate. This is how it should be on college campuses, of course, since colleges are institutions that were formed to encourage free inquiry.

But that formation took place long ago.  When the pair came to Swarthmore in February to debate “same-sex marriage,” they were greeted by angry protests. Listen to Erin Ching, Class of 16: “What really bothered me,” Ching was quoted in the Swarthmore student newspaper as saying, “is the whole idea that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion. I don’t think we should be tolerating [George’s] conservative views because that dominant culture embeds these deep inequalities in our society.”


Armed teachers — school shooters

There are several items in the news these days about “allowing” some teachers and administrators to be armed in order to respond to “school shootings.” In fact, some schools are actively in the process of providing for this. Even more surprising is the fact that many in “law enforcement” are starting to support the idea.

While I very much agree that teachers, like anyone else, must be free to carry arms for self defense, maybe a better alternative to armed teachers and “guards” in “public schools” is to stop gathering hundreds or thousands of helpless potential victims into these tactical nightmare environments.

There are many much better alternatives to government indoctrination camps. The risk of an actual shooter is a much smaller problem than the unavoidable fact that government “education” is dedicated to the eradication of critical thinking and individual liberty.

Educator John Taylor Gatto in The Underground History of American Education describes Prussian thinking at the time:

The Prussian mind, which carried the day, held a clear idea of what centralized schooling should deliver: 1) Obedient soldiers to the army; 2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3) Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6) National uniformity in thought, word, and deed.

Home schooling, UN-schooling and so forth are excellent alternatives to government “school,” but not the only ones by any means. The key is to get government OUT of our business completely, OUT of our schools, hospitals, beauty salons, and the many thousands of other things they’ve decided to control, “for our own good” – like guns, for instance.

In that case, parents could get together and form any number of mutually agreeable and practical alternatives, employing tutors or bringing in grandmothers to teach what they know best. Cooperatives and private schools today groan under a weight of foolish and counter educational burdens that would make Atlas scream.

So that’s really the solution… Atlas must shrug… Parents must stop believing that government has any legitimate authority over their children’s education – or anything else.


The Prince of Wales is absolutely right – bring back grammar schools

Academic selection offers working-class pupils their only hope of the glittering prizes

It was a stormy graduation day in Cambridge on Saturday. Drenched with rain, the students in their gowns looked like penguins emerging from the sea. Parents wielded golf umbrellas, the sword and shield of the English middle classes. The downpour could not extinguish their justifiable pride: a degree from a university often ranked number one in the world is still a glittering prize.

But as the graduates splashed down Trinity Street clutching their BA (Cantab), I wondered how many had come to this beautiful, fiercely clever place from a state school, as I did. The latest figures reveal that state-educated applicants bagged just over 61 per cent of Cambridge places in 2013/14, down from more than 63 per cent. Despite the university spending more than £4 million a year on “outreach” work to identify talented pupils from deprived backgrounds, Cambridge’s social mix remains stubbornly static.

To coincide with the raising of tuition fees to £9,000 a year in 2012, the Coalition insisted that universities set targets designed to boost entry rates among students from disadvantaged groups. A turf war ensued. In the red corner, there is Professor Les Ebdon, head of the Kafkaesque Office for Fair Access, who wants Cambridge and other elite institutions to set the most “challenging benchmarks” – ie to wave in underqualified students from poorer homes and spurn brilliant, privately educated ones in the noble cause of social engineering. In the light blue corner, we have Cambridge’s director of admissions, Mike Sewell, who insists that the university is roughly on target with state-school admissions, but remains a “highly selective institution” which allocates places on merit and does not operate a “quota system”.

As the thunder rumbled above King’s College Chapel at the weekend, a storm was brewing elsewhere over the Prince of Wales’s meddling in education. David Blunkett claimed in Royal Activist, a Radio 4 documentary, that the heir to the throne urged him, as education secretary, to support grammars. “I would explain,” recalled a self-satisfied Blunkett, “that our policy was not to expand grammar schools, and he didn’t like that. He was very keen that we should go back to a different era where youngsters had what he would have seen as the opportunity to escape from their background, whereas I wanted to change their background.”

With hindsight, David, how did the “changing their background” thing work out? Well, according to every indicator, white working-class children are failing dismally. Only 32 per cent get five decent GCSEs. In the latest Pisa ratings, which compare the performance of 15-year-olds across 32 countries, Britain’s showing was pitiful: we came 26th in maths and 23rd in reading. The day is fast approaching when England won’t even come top in English.

An impartial observer might conclude that the experiment in comprehensive education, stretching over almost 50 years, has been a disaster that has enfeebled this country at a time when its youngsters desperately needed to compete with ferociously focused foreign competition. My own homeland, south Wales, has gone from being an educational powerhouse, sending thousands of bright youngsters to Oxford and Cambridge, to a sitting-at-the-back-of-the-class-with-raffia-mats dunce. The only part of Britain to buck the dismal trend is Northern Ireland, which – surprise, surprise – clings to a grammar-school system that helps children escape their background, as Prince Charles suggested.

Thank heavens, indeed, that there’s someone prepared to stick up for intellectually gifted children whose parents can’t afford to buy private schooling, so instead have to survive in chaotic classrooms that are the enemy of learning. But what a cruel irony that the people’s party has set its face against grammar schools, while the next King, a scion of hereditary privilege, is left to speak up for the only proven engine of social mobility.

How dare David Blunkett patronise the Prince, implying that he is merely some kind of rose-tinted nostalgist? It is the “progressive” system that has brought about near-perfect apartheid. The rich can buy the best private education for their children; the well-off can buy a house near a top state school, or employ tutors to coach their offspring to get into one of the few remaining grammars; and the reasonably well-off can also hire tutors to supplement a bad-to-mediocre state education. The poor, meanwhile, get what they’re given. My parents, who both attended the excellent Llanelli Grammar School in the Fifties, would certainly have fallen into that last, most abject category. Today, a child born into their circumstances doesn’t have a hope in hell of academic success. I have no words for how angry that makes me.

If a drug that had improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Britons was suddenly withdrawn from the market because it hadn’t been able to cure everyone, there would be a national outcry. Yet that is exactly what happened with grammar schools. In order to cover up their error, politicians of all parties fostered a mendacious exam system which inflates children’s level of achievement, making it almost impossible for admissions tutors to pick out the best candidates. MPs and ministers then have the nerve to harass universities such as Cambridge – which, quite naturally, don’t wish to admit students who will dilute the excellence that the Les Ebdons of this world so fear and despise.

I remember one despairing Director of Studies in English at Cambridge telling me that he had stayed up all night, going through applications, trying to uncover a single state-school kid he could let in. “If you find a promising one, there is always another story behind it,” he sighed. “The parents turn out to be head teachers or something.” Why could he never find a pupil from a comprehensive on a par with one from Eton or St Paul’s? Is it because people from my background are inherently thick – or is it because government has destroyed the grammar schools, and an academic ethos that would have enabled us to fight on a level playing field?

Read my lips, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband: grammar schools are oversubscribed because they work. In a recent ICM poll, 70 per cent of voters supported the retention of the 232 grammar schools in England and Northern Ireland. Some 76 per cent would like to see new grammar schools, especially in urban areas. Support is strong across all age and income groups – but especially, and very revealingly, among the young. A staggering 85 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds want more grammar schools.

The old argument trotted out by politicians is that grammars do well for their own pupils, but harm other schools locally. Yet that scarcely bears scrutiny at a time when so many British pupils are failing abysmally. We have a comprehensive system, with hardly any grammars, and we are second to bottom of the European literacy league. How much worse could things get?

The Prime Minister says voters don’t want to see children “sorted into sheep and goats at 11”. So does that mean they want donkeys at 16? It’s really not complicated. Without academic selection, Britain’s got talent, but too often it is doomed to bloom unseen. The Education Act of 1996 emphasised “the general principle that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents”. Well, most parents I know are in wholehearted agreement with Prince Charles. We want more grammar schools, and we want them now.


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