British schools

A Reasonable Voice from the Past

As someone who already has way too many hobbies, I avoid politics like the plague.  My main exposure to politics in those times when Argentina is not close to a national election (one month every couple of years where you can’t listen to the radio in the car without being bombarded) is on social media.

I watch in amusement and horror as lunatics on the left and right register their unworkable, extremist views for all to see.  The arguments between left and right are always fun, but those between left and left are usually the best of all.  Since history tends to argue hard against the more extreme forms of socialism, these tend togo down some spectacular theoretic rabbit holes.  Anyone caught arguing for common sense, moderation or even a slightly less fantastic dogma is vilified and is subjected to one of those famous internet pile-ons.

All of this has led me to believe one of the old jokes from the right, the one that states that the preferred battle formation of the far left is the circular firing squad.

And it’s always been that way.  It’s popular among the ignorant (or the unscrupulous with a political axe to grind) to speak of George Orwell‘s Animal Farm or 1984 as allegories against capitalism, but the truth is they are both direct strikes at the heart of the Soviet Communism in the 1940s written by the most famous overtly socialist writer of the 20th century.

No one would say these were measured strikes.  But Orwell was capable of subtlety, too.

Down and Out in Paris And London - George Orwell

Which neatly brings us to this.  Down and Out in Paris and London is also by George Orwell, and it is also a book which looks to further his socialist agenda.  But instead of attacking his enemies within the party using bitter satire, he uses the one tool that is always effective, even with people who don’t share his views: promoting understanding.

He, the gentleman writer of impeccable breeding, credentials and education, takes us on a guided, first-person tour of life in the lowest slums of Paris, displays how to get work as a kitchen helper and then joins the tramps of the London environs.  The difficult nature of these lives is brought to life in his words–it’s not a coincidence that Orwell is a celebrated novelist; regardless of subject matter, his writing brings the action to life.

There isn’t much plot to speak of, of course, as this is mainly a descriptive exercise, but it is still packed with incident.  Even better, it is a mix of nostalgia in the vein of In Search of England with a reveal of a social class the book’s readers will be unfamiliar with (as will all modern readers, since the life depicted therein no longer exists).

In a world where it seems that the accepted way for politics or activism to be discussed is with anger and the utter denial that an opponent might have any good qualities, books like these (see also  remind us that public discourse was once the province of people with intelligent arguments.  Remember those days?  Now it seems to be the place for people who only read things that agree with their point of view and let their little, inconsequential echo chambers and their confirmation bias do the rest. (and end up with conclusions like Trump wants to be dictator for life and Bernie is a communist who wants to put everyone on collective farms).

Social conditions have changed for the much better since this book was released.  There is no post-war scarcity, and the world is mostly democratic today, but the book still resonates.  Apparently, unlike social media controversies, good writing and clear thinking are timeless.

The edition I read was–ironically–a Folio Society book (ironically because reading socialist books in luxury editions seems somehow wrong).  I can’t post a link here because it’s no longer available from Folio, but I do recommend tracking down a copy as the reading experience is certainly better than what you’d get from cramped text and yellowed paper.  Besides, buying this one second hand seems perfect, considering the subject matter.

Highly recommended, even–perhaps especially–if the online screaming has turned you off politics forever.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death intertwines stories to form a novel spanning generations and crossing social barriers.  You can buy it here.

Impressive Youth

One thing we see quite a bit of are posts on social media and articles on supposedly reputable news sources that express horror over the terrible literacy and writing habits of teens and young adults.  Some sources blame text messaging (LOL) while others wring their hands over the terrible decline in the educational system under either the left or the right, depending on each individual or media outlet’s political leanings.

Of course, here at Classically Educated, not only do we believe that every political party has an unfair bias against the cultural elites (which is irrelevant in this context, but we like to remind everyone of it every chance we get), but we also believe int he scientific process.

Which means that we decided to put the theory to rigorous scientific examination* to find out if all the fuss was justified.

The first thing we did was to try to track down some modern writing from young adult, maybe someone younger than 22 or 23 years of age.  Fortunately, one of our editors works with a woman who fits the bill and also enjoys doing some creative writing.  So we asked her for a story.

After reading it, we were pretty depressed.  It needed a little polish, but, other than that, the story was not only competently written and well thought out, but it the ending was brilliant.  In fact some of our editors and contributors, who are also writers wept openly and are considering giving up their word processors because if the forthcoming generations are going to write that way, we’re all pretty much doomed anyway.

More importantly, the writing was grammatically correct with not a LOL or WTF to be seen.  It was even set in a culturally interesting milieu.

Of course, we still weren’t convinced,  A twenty-one-year-old might not have been affected by the full brunt of the texting-centric social culture, and therefore might have outgrown it.  What we really needed was something written by teens and pre-teens to figure it all out.

Impresiones 2011

Fortunately, we had something to hand, a small volume of prose and verse published by a school called Belgrano Day School in Buenos Aires.  This is an institution very much in the spirit of those we listed among our World’s Most Awesome Schools.

The book in question is entitled Impresiones: A Bilingual Anthology (2011) and is perfect for our purposes because it has prose and verse in both English and Spanish.  It should give us a pretty good idea of whether the people immersed in the texting culture were having any literacy issues (we chose the 2011 edition because the authors are now adults, which means we’re not exposing teens to any particular scrutiny, but they were teens when this was written).

Well… while none of our editors decided they had to give up literature forever after reading this, the writing, on a sentence and grammar level, is all very good.  Even in those stories written in English (remember that these are students whose first language is Spanish) were well-written, and seemed to be thought out in English (one of the easy ways to tell when a story was written by a Spanish speaker is that the sentences, while grammatically correct, use a word order that is more typical of Spanish than English–dead giveaway that the writer was translating as he wrote, not thinking the story through in English).

It might be argued that these examples are no use because they’ve been curated.  The anthology was probably the best writing of the year at that particular school, and the woman’s story was an outlier: written by someone who is set on becoming a writer.

Infinite Monkeys With Typewriters

That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t really matter.  You see, it’s always been like that.  Even twenty or fifty years ago, most people wrote like a drunk chimpanzee.  The joke above describes the literary efforts of any given 99% of the population in whichever era you choose to name.  But the fact that the good ones are still good puts any idea that texting obsessively is killing the language.

Which makes sense if you think about it.  There’s a good analogy for this which we don’t remember the source for (if it was you, drop us a comment and well give due credit): Text messaging is like playing catch.  It’s not a rigorous exercise in perfection, but it can’t do the person doing it any harm; after all, it’s still writing, and not everything is ROFL.

So everyone can stop panicking and go back to your political arguments.  We, by the way, are trying to clone Tiberius.  Now THAT was a leader (you can yell at us in the comments, that’s what they’re for).

 

*All right, we didn’t do a rigorous scientific examination.  We looked at a couple of isolated anecdotic cases.  So sue us.

Progressively Getting Dumber

Grouped tables in classroom

It’s not often that Classically Educated pulls something out of the media to discuss – but this article in The Telegraph had us nodding in agreement

Essentially, The Telegraph’s article tells how countries which use text books to help structure learning of the sciences and mathematics are consistently outscoring British children in test scores.  It also describes how the progressive elements within  Ofsted, the UK agency charged with, among other things, evaluating teachers, have been setting standards that, wittingly or unwittingly, have been leading to the eradication of textbook teaching from British public (public, in this case being used in the global sense, as schools run by the government – not in the traditional British sense of non-home-schooling institutions) schools.

This isn’t as silly as it sounds.  Some of the basic tenets of progressive education include the push to have students be more creative, which means that having a less-structured and more participative approach in the classroom would, on the surface seem to be a good thing.  When one combines this with the value placed on non-traditional strengths such as emotional as opposed to “traditional” intelligence, the classroom becomes a much more free and inclusive environment.  In theory, it sounds like a winner.

Pink Floyd's Conveyor Belt

The origins of this attitude can be traced back nearly fifty years to the Plowden report*, which advised on the state of the British public school system, and is pointed to as the basis of modern British progressive education, and certainly raises many points that have been addressed effectively.

However, the report encouraged abandoning the old structured teaching method of a teacher standing in front of the class and imparting knowledge at a board, in favor of a much more participative model… which, in turn means that teachers have since been evaluated in this light, and textbook teaching has fallen way out of favor.

Like many ideas that sounded great on paper, however, this has become a huge mess, and British public schools have dropped out of the top tier in all the sciences, which isn’t surprising.  Structure is important in teaching certain subjects and, like it or not, maths and sciences are usually the subjects that make people easily employable and make nations powerful, and all the latest reports have been arguing that while the progressive model might be good for some things, it is very bad at teaching students.

Teachers begging for help

This, of course, makes us sound like a stereotypical old man (“Back in my day, children had to learn, daggamit!  And we knew Latin!  Not like today’s young ruffians!  Now get off my lawn!”), and it’s true that people have been complaining about the decline in education for the past two hundred years**.  But the fact that people are inviting children to essentially teach themselves science, and then are surprised when said children are embarrassed by youngsters from South Korea in all the tests is mind boggling.  It’s obvious that a more structured approach is going to yield better results.

Of course, this system, which was designed to help improve the education of children who couldn’t get access to private education is only harming the very people it set out to help.  Private schools are still using the best methods available, and are more agile in their ability to switch from one to another as new information comes along – which means that they are mostly exempt from these pitfalls (although not entirely).  I seriously doubt that Eton will be bowing to progressive thinking if they fint that their academic prestige is going down.  They’ll simply revise until they find a balance that works better than everyone else’s to retake their place at the top of the list.

Even Ofsted seems to be revising its position, albeit quietly (progressives can be surprisingly aggressive and activist when their sacred cows are challenged by the real world and, horror of horrors, actual data), but it might already be too late for an entire generation.

After all, learning that competition and structure are bad and knowing that everyone is intelligent in some way or another is not exactly conducive to getting a high-paying job in a globalized economy which includes highly motivated people from countries where they are taught to compete and hone their knowledge and “traditional” intelligence from a young age.  Under that model, countries who’ve surrendered to the progressive utopia seem destined to become the new third world, as countries who are working to get ahead – particularly countries in Asia – take the leading role.

Or they might not.  The west may actually react in time.  But either way, it should be interesting to watch.

* With an honorable mention to the members of Pink Floyd, of course.

**If you have any doubts about what our view is of this, just take another look at the title of this blog and think about it for a few minutes.  We’re sure you’ll figure it out!