Thursday, February 04, 2016

Meet the British students fighting campus censorship

If there’s one thing that really gets on my nerves, it’s the idea that students today are uniquely intolerant. The explosion of campus censorship in recent years has made bashing campus politicos a kind of commentariat pastime, with fortysomething columnists wheeling the little blue-haired pillocks out each week to give them a good kicking. But while the students’ union censors deserve everything they get, all too often campus censorship has been painted as a generational phenomenon – as if undergraduates appeared from the womb with a Safe Space policy in hand.

This is a copout. It distracts from the profound, long-running trends that have undermined the value of free speech, both on campus and beyond. What’s more, it gives the campus censors too much credit, and the vast majority of students too little. Every time a speaker, a newspaper, a pop song or a novelty hat is banned on campus, the students’ union hides behind two words: democratic mandate. But, as anyone who’s ever met a student knows, students’ union officials represent no one other than their own prudish selves.

The closing of the campus-radical mind, the transformation of students’ unions from outlets for young people’s ideas and ambitions to glorified therapy centres, has driven the vast majority of students away. To pin the blame for campus intolerance on all students, most of whom will never have voted in an SU election, is to downplay the scandal of campus censorship. Students’ unions across the country are smearing their own members as soft-headed simpletons, unable to handle views they might find offensive and only ever one lads’ mag away from a spot on the sex offenders’ register.

But this is not to say that students are apathetic. Far from it. As SUs have become more and more intolerant, switched-on students have merely taken their discussions elsewhere. What’s more, as petty authoritarianism has crept into all corners of campus life, regulating not just the speakers they can hear but even the chat-up lines they can deploy, it’s gotten more and more undergrad backs up.

Over the past three years, through our work on our campus campaign Down With Campus Censorship! and our groundbreaking Free Speech University Rankings, we’ve met hundreds of students who are sick of being patronised. And, in the wake of the huge splash made by our FSUR 2016 findings last week, many of them have already made waves of their own.

At the London School of Economics, former spiked intern Charlie Parker has launched the LSESU Speakeasy, which has already hit headlines in the Evening Standard. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, spiked writers Blair Spowart and Charlie Peters have been covered in pretty much every outlet north of the border after setting up their own spiked-affiliated group, which will be making mischief in the Teviot this term.

From London to the Lothian, we’ll be working with students across the country this year to help them make mischief and have out the hard arguments against campus censorship. But there’s plenty that’s been bubbling away already. Today, in the run-up to our conference, ‘The New Intolerance on Campus’, at Conway Hall in London on 17 February, we’ve put together a series of exclusive video interviews with some of the campus freedom fighters we’ve met on the campaign trail.


How ‘progressive’ education patronises the poor

Tarjinder Gill

Deprivation is, it seems, destiny for children in British schools. Or at least it is according to Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Bousted recently used her column in the Times Educational Supplement to berate ‘those now in charge of education’ who have the temerity to ‘refuse to accept that teachers alone cannot compensate for the lost life chances of poor children’.

Bousted is critical of those she describes as being ‘great adherents of ED Hirsch and his powerful knowledge curriculum’ who refuse to accept that children living in poverty ‘find a narrow academic curriculum, topped off by timed exams, alien to their lives and their interests’.

Schools cannot and should not attempt to solve all of society’s problems. Teachers are already expected to spend too much time promoting citizenship, character, healthy eating and anti-bullying initiatives. However, this does not mean that poverty is an excuse for low educational attainment. Children from poor families are every bit as capable of mastering a rigorous academic curriculum as their wealthier peers.

Fortunately, a growing number of teachers now take this view and have high expectations for all their pupils no matter what their home circumstances might be like. Unfortunately, this group of teachers is now Bousted’s sights – she accuses it of being the ‘New Blob’. The original ‘Blob’ was, of course, former education secretary Michael Gove’s derogatory label for those who stood in the way of his reforms.

If the New Blob comprises those who do not accept poverty as an excuse for low attainment, then count me in. Progressive education, idealised and promoted by the original Blob, of which Bousted was proud to declare herself a member, has become deeply entrenched in British schools. It has proved itself to be toxic to the life chances of the poorest in our society.

Back in the 1960s, prime minister Harold Wilson backed a comprehensive education system on the promise that it would effectively provide grammar schools for all. Alas, this was not to be. Instead, the knowledge-rich grammar school curriculum was attacked as ‘middle class’ and ‘elitist’. Teachers, trained by progressive educationalists in universities, started to enshrine prejudice against working-class children into the core of the education system, at the same time as flying the banner of equality.

A commitment to teaching the ‘best that has been thought and said’ has been replaced by an array of educational fads. Teachers are encouraged to focus on ‘relevance’, only teaching topics of ‘interest’ to less well-off children. However, such a focus merely reinforces existing inequalities. The obsession with ‘relevance’ means that, by virtue of their differing experiences and backgrounds, middle-class children benefit from a richer curriculum than their working-class peers.

'Discovery’ or ‘inquiry’ learning similarly reinforces inequalities as it promotes the view that children should discover knowledge for themselves rather than being directly taught. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, children end up sitting in a deep, sandy pit of their own ignorance. Is it any wonder that some give up?

Our success as human beings stems from our ability to learn from, and build upon, what is already known. The focus on ‘relevance’ and ‘discovery’ is driven by a fear of authoritarianism. However, this anti-authoritarian approach to teaching is not anti-authoritarian at all; rather, it gives children power and responsibility they are unable to exercise wisely.

A BBC Panorama documentary on the state of British schools, ‘The Best Days of Their Lives?’, was filmed the year of my birth (1977). The programme depicted the breakdown of discipline in the classroom, which resulted from the political undermining of the authority of the teacher. Similar scenes are still being replicated today.

An inability to evaluate or revise practices deemed to be ‘progressive’, and, if necessary, try a different approach, demonstrates the education establishment’s unflinching commitment to such ideas. It also shows a wilful ignorance of the collective experience of thousands of teachers.

The failure of so-called progressive teaching methods has not led to a culture of excuse-making. ‘Sort out poverty, deprivation, home circumstances, racism and sexism’, the progressives cry, ‘and our methods will eradicate bad behaviour and enable these children to succeed’. In the meantime, poor children are treated as collateral damage. Badly behaved pupils are allowed to disrupt the learning of other pupils and are lavished with special attention. This neither supports the child with behaviour problems nor their classmates.

This common occurrence stems from the idea that educating poor children is secondary to meeting their pastoral needs. But even if this were true for a small number of children, it should not be the basis of all teaching.

Bousted is right, the ‘reality of poverty is unsavoury’. However, perhaps unlike her, I have lived in poverty and had an education that transformed my life, enabling me to escape it. In order to back up her claims, Bousted must pretend that I and all those like me don’t exist. Such ‘progressives’ fail to recognise teachers, like those that taught me, were able to guide us to repeated academic success.

It’s an unpleasant truth that the ideology Bousted and her supporters espouse continues to fail poor children up and down the country. Challenge government policy by all means, but remember this: it is the duty of those for whom education offered a brighter future to make sure that ladder is not pulled up.


Illinois' reform governor says state preparing to take over Chicago Public Schools

Fifty years of financial and classroom failure is too much for Illinois' Republican reform governor.

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

"Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday said he's preparing for a state takeover of Chicago Public Schools and has told state Board of Education members to start looking for an interim superintendent for the city’s cash strapped school district.

At a news conference in Springfield to discuss legislation that would change the state's procurement process, Rauner said he's already told the state Board of Education to begin the process of identifying who can take over as superintendent of CPS.

"The state's going to be ready to step in and take action," Rauner said a day after the Chicago Teachers Union rejected a contract proposal from CPS.

"I asked our administration. I believe it's coming. I believe a state takeover is appropriate," Rauner said"

CPS, whose bonds are rated as junk, recently proposed a budget that includes deep cuts in spending as it faces enormous pension obligations. The Chicago Teachers Union, whose members apparently aren't very good at math, calls the proposed budget "an act of war."


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