Wednesday, 30 November 2011

STRIKE! The farmers and the locusts.

Available from all good Waitroses
Strike day today. Perhaps you noticed? The Brothers and Sisters were knee deep in the entrails of stockbrokers today, as the workers of the world united and raged against the machine, and the machine stroked its white cat and wondered how it could manoeuvere forty thousand people onto a table so it could laser them into dog food.

Last night saw me jet off from parent's evening to speak at a meeting of NUT comrades in Wembley Park, which I am sure earns me an in with Arthur Scargill if I ever meet him at a cocktail party, which is unlikely. Although I was running on fumes after a rewarding, but exhausting day telling people endlessly about their child's undoubtedly unlimited potential, the welcome was warm and as ever, and it was an honour to speak and be listened to, talking about things I love to talk about: behaviour, behaviour behaviour. I even bumped into a few familiar faces.

'I object to be compared to bankers.'
I striked/ struck today, not because I am particularly animated by gestures, or by the illusion that George Osborne will magically pull a string of endless magic beans out of his anal iris that can pay for adamantine pension pots (although that's one circus I would QUEUE IN THE RAIN to see). It's been a long time since a British strike reversed a policy so deep and indomitable. If you believe the financial wallahs (and I have to, although I am perfectly aware that their pronouncements are as solid as strawberry mousse on most things, given that the future is a foreign country, and no man knows the hour of his departure, or foreclosure) then we are very much a busted flush; that we have lived beyond our means for too long; that the guardians of our financial destiny have written cheques that posterity could not cash. The cupboard is bare.

And I didn't strike because it was demanded; I am obstinately personal when it comes to morality, and I weep to think of anyone striking because they were afraid not to- and don't let's pretend that this isn't the case. Every man and woman has the right to chart the course of their own conscience, and I often feel that if it wasn't considered such an imperative to do so then many people would strike more easily. A picket line chills my heart- it is the opposite of what I believe freewill and ethics to be about; the good will, freely chosen and decided in a conscious, conscientious way. Forcing people to comply is what the bad guys do.

'No, Mr Bennett, I expect you to DIE.'
So what did I strike for? Not because I believed it would change matters; but not as an exercise in futility either. I stepped out for a greater cause; because when people take to the streets, governments are reminded of a fact that remains tacit in the main; that they remain in place at our behest; that we are the final arbiters of their destinies, and therefore our own. The moment the people decide they have had enough, they can shrug their shoulders and all shackles melt away, as if they were never there. This is the power that people have, and it is the power that they forget. 'No' is the most powerful weapon in the world. 'No.'

Of course, the Masters of the Universe have a million tactics to deter this power- and in some sense rightly so. The wisdom of the herd is often no closer to wisdom than that of a real herd; Plato derided Democracy as the will of the lowest common denominator, saddled with charismatic false prophets who can promise bread and circuses and lead the proles by the nose, as long as there is grape and grain to keep our mouths moving and our eyes shut. You know the rhetoric. Some of it is true.

But there is one last, doomsday weapon; the decision by people to refuse. It's blunt, but then so is a nuclear bomb. Hobbes feared no government even worse than poor government, and perhaps he was right; civilisation rattles along on the rails of rule, and we forget the privations of nature at our peril. Revolt easily runs into ruin; the London riots give us a glimpse as to what can happen when manners and civility are set aside for egoism and the savage pursuit of happiness.

Even THE EMPIRE is in.
Which is why rulers should pay heed when people fill the streets. Because it indicates that the rule of law is being challenged, not by opportunists and empty-headed hoodies farting on their leather-effect sofas, but by the people who drive the trains that keep everyone going to work, the teachers who teach their children, and by the men who pick up litter and change hospital sheets. People.

Should we consider that the cupboard is now bare? Of course we should. That's not why I was out. I was out because the farmers have been blamed for the prodigiousness and cavalier avarice of the locusts. Wealthy men have been allowed to play roulette with the savings and securities of helpless people who have been forced to entrust these people with their futures, only to find them used as a gambling chip on the baccarat tables of Wall Street and the City. There is an excellent- and unavoidable- case for contracting public expenditure. But I will watch my pension wither on the vine with a smile and a handshake the day that I see the same happen, proportionately to the Masters of the Universe. When the Lords and the CEOs and the Eloi agree to catch a tube, defer a bonus, or vote down an autopayrise...that's when I'll feel happy about the Big Society. That's when I'll believe that, to some extent, we're in this together. Until then, it's business as usual in the ghetto.

No exceptions.
I mean, I KNOW life isn't fair. I know that shit rains down on us from birth to the moment we topple with exhaustion into holes we had to dig for ourselves. But that doesn't mean I have to hold out a soup bowl, catch it, and wolf it down with a smile.


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Why NOT kill a President? The Book of Gove.

'And there was a mighty rush of unknown people...'
A Bible is, or will be on its way to every school. This, of course, has sent precisely half the chattering world into diabetic shock, and the other half into a righteous forced march. In 1858, the first transatlantic cable was sent from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan; it read; 'Glory to God, and peace to his people on Earth.' The cable had taken years to unwind across the uncertain plateaus and trenches of the Atlantic; every time it broke, they started again, usually from the beginning. Nowadays, people get upset when Bibles get sent to schools. I imagine if a new transatlantic message were to be composed today, it would be created by committee, and would be as exciting as a bowl of custard. Sic transit Gloria Mundi.

I'm an agnostic, and a militant one at that, not some woolly, uncertain gimp, but a soldier of agnosticism. My banner reads Uncertain in a polite but assertive way. I despair of fundamentalism on all points of the faith spectrum. I despair of the certainty that vilifies and demonises anyone who doesn't agree with the sacred truth of anybody, from Abu Hamza to Philip Pullman.

But, Bible -Bashers, why so serious? I've been thinking a lot about the roots of ethical systems lately, usually while accidental catching a flicker of TOWIE or 'I'm a celebrity' and wondering if these are the end times spoken of in the Revelation of John of Patmos. Where do we find value? Where does our idea of goodness come from? This kind of question genuinely disturbs my sleep; it's fundamental to the human condition. Why do we do what we do? What is the point of my, or your life? What is the point of education? Why do we teach? What are schools actually for?  Everything is linked.

'Blimey. Rule 34 ain't wrong, is it?'
All ethical systems have to be rooted in something (in philosophy, we could call this cognitivism, the offspring of moral realism) otherwise they are adrift. There has to be some kind of universal, undeniable value system to which we attach ourselves, otherwise we are making it up as we go along. If you're happy with the idea of moral relativism, that everyone gets to invent their own versions of right and wrong, then you're jolly welcome to it, but be aware that you commit yourself to neutrality and self-imposed silence on matters such as slavery, female circumcision, suttee, the death penalty etc etc, on the grounds that 'it's all relative, isn't it?' If you commit to realtivism, then  nothing is intrinsically right or wrong, and no one can stand in judgement of any other. 'Only God can judge me,' as the vile narcissist that is P-Diddy once said. Well, Mr Combs, not even him.

Possible anchors include: self-interest; virtue; duty. But an anchor is needed. The problem with rationalism and the ascent of reason as the rule and the tool of human ambition, is that it can never provide us with aims; only means. We cannot reason the nature of goodness; rather we believe in it, and then reason its execution- we reason the means to that ambition, not the ambition itself.

So when I read reports that Michael Gove wants to send every school in the UK a Bible, I recoil in desperation from the response of some who say, 'What a waste!' and 'Well, I hope The Descent of Man gets sent out too!'  Gove's actions may imply prescriptivism, but it isn't the prescriptivism that people are accusing him of. He isn't alluding to Biblical orthodoxy as some kind of state sanctioned Jesuit imperative that all schools should follow. Rather, it is the prescriptivism of the claim that the King James Bible is a core text in our civilisation and culture, and make of that what you may, but its position stands. The Bible doesn't need my shrill agnostic defence of cultural utilitarianism- I imagine it'll be just fine whatever I say. The Origin of the Species is a transformative scientific text; the Bible is not. Fair or foul, it is one of the lynchpins of our schema. Talk about it, spit on its face, weep on your knees before it, but don't ignore it.

Your argument is invalid.
What does need defending is the idea that there are some things that should be valued, and resistant to the claims of moral relativism. 'God is dead,' said Nietzsche, 'We killed him. Now anything is possible.' The syphilitic old rogue was implying that religion had been the anchor of morality for ages, and now that reason, the engine of the enlightenment, had blown out the votive candles, there was no need to be bound by the conventions of a society that only sought to enslave the strong. He was wrong about that- a secular age has birthed an enormous number of moral movements that have their roots in the human condition, Humanism being just one; the New Atheism being another. But what these movements all have in common is that they celebrate values, and hold them...I could almost say, hold them sacred.

Such movements aren't immune to the absolutist moral philosophy of their religious counterparts; they need them, otherwise anything is possible. The British Humanist Association, so resplendent in its secular representation, says that it...

' the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. We promote Humanism, support and represent the non-religious, and promote a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.'
Which is gorgeous, and I march with you brother. But riddle me this- where did we get those values from? It certainly wasn't reason; reason can't provide us with a guarantee of justice or equality; reason can press a man to enslave another, on the grounds that his self-interest is served; reason can teach a child that dishonesty is often the best policy, if he wants to prosper in a community of the trusting.

No, reason alone cannot provide values; only a moral choice can do this; we choose, freely or otherwise, those things we hold to be dear. 'We can do as we please,' said Bertrand Russell, 'But we cannot please as we please.' That simple aphorism holds the key to the dilemma; our intellect cannot govern our desires; our desires govern out desires. The intellect rationalises those desires, breaks them down into taxonomies of possibility and expediency, and somewhere in the fathomless abyss of our consciousness, a decision is made. Whether that decision is its own first cause or not, or merely the end of a causal chain, no one- and I mean NO ONE- has any claim to certainty about it.

Another child lost to vice and mysticism
So don't mock Gove for sending out a copy of the KJB to every school; mock him for many other things, perhaps. But let's not forget that, whether you hold the Host to your bosom, or reject it like a vampire, schools- and people- have to confront issues of meaning and values in their own lives. Reason alone cannot produce a society of virtuous men, no matter what the Caliphs of Humanism say- it just can't. Reason is sterile to kindness, or justice, or bravery; these are attitudes, and have an emotional content. Intellect sparkles with many prizes, but feeling isn't one of them. Sending out a Bible to every school sends out a powerful and simple message: consider this; consider what you value. Let all schools proceed from that point. What DO they value? What do YOU value?

Then, apply your mighty brain to the tasks ahead of you, awake, and conscious and lucid. We have, possibly inevitably, entered- or inhabited- an age where reason has been in ascendency for some time. I celebrate this evolution from instinct and superstition. Now that we enjoy the fruits of the enlightenment, it's time to press ahead to the next step of that enlightenment, and cast aside the New Gods and False Prophets that claim all will be well with science and jolly good discussion. They will not. Science is a neutral deity; a medicine or a poison. Reason cannot furnish us with purpose. Purpose is an arrow attached to our hearts; method alone stems from our science.

In the Clint Eastwood's Western Swan-song masterpiece 'Unforgiven', English Bob, the hired assassin is mouthing off in a carriage full of shocked Americans about the relative impossibility of Regicide:

English Bob: [discussing the assassination of President Garfield] Well there's a dignity to royalty. A majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. If you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shake as though palsied.
Barber: Oh I wouldn't point no pistol at nobody sir.
English Bob: Well that's a wise policy,  wise policy. But if you did. I can assure you, if you did, the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand... how shall I put it? In awe. Now, a president... well I mean...

'Why not shoot a president?'
Gove, yesterday, with a book. The BASTARD.
Why not indeed? In his oafish way, Bob makes a point. If you want meaning to emerge from rationalisation, then grab a chair, you'll be there for a while.

The problem is, of course, a political one; all politics can be broken down to a conflict of values, or the means of achieving those values. Once values are exposed, once the flesh of evidence and debate are stripped from their bones, then we can see politics for what it is: a competition of values. Sunlight bleaching those bones is the best cure I know for argumentation; once facts are established, honesty is possible. Would that we were so honest more often.

Why a Bible? Why NOT a Bible? Let people cast their anchors where they will, and hope that we can rub along together without destroying each other.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Children should 'be good, not bad when they grow up' claims man with degree.

'I'll be giving it all away in a minute.'
A leading Oxford academic has claimed that if children want to make a moral difference, they should 'become bankers,' despite increasing levels of evidence from banking, Planet Earth and everywhere else that this might not be the case.

'It's simple,' claims Will Crunch, described as an ethicist. 'If kids really want to make a difference, they should go into banking, make lots of money, and then do good things with it. See? Piece of piss. Much better than all that charity bullshit, hanging about on corners wailing about Pandas and cancer.'

Asked if the prospect of people going into banking with the sole intention of making, then giving money away, wasn't approaching an overly-optimistic view of human nature, Mr Crunch was defiant. 'Not at all. Next thing you'll be saying that people who go into an industry with no other terminal goal than the accumulation of profit, are intrinsically evil. Nothing could be further from the truth. Philanthropy comes naturally to these people. Look at all that good work BP does with the environment- even their logo is a flower or something now.'

Leading figures from the banking industry were cautious about Mr Crunch's findings. 'Of course, we welcome recruitment from the child sector. Banking requires millions of souls to feed our ravenous appetite for cruelty, waste and injustice- sorry, the needs of a flexible, free market. Only next week we plan to invest in Playbunny pyjamas for five year olds, and missile development in the third world, then sell it all when something else looks profitable, like sorrow or despair. Can we invest in those?'

'Is that my broker? Yeah, sell it all and give it to charity.'
'This is terrific news,' said Great Cthulhu, dark Lord of the realm of bleeding eyes. 'And it shows once again how academics can make the leap between theory and the real world. Bankers. Giving money away. Brilliant,' he said, laughing with five of his awful mouths.

The careers advisory service has yet to release a statement, although one spokeperson offered this comment: 'Have you thought about working in an office?' he said helpfully. Adam Smith, long regarded as one of the ideological forefathers of capitalism added his view that, 'Where there is man, so there is one indomitable factor: competition.' Then he added, 'And then they usually give it all away, 'cause we're like that.'

Sunday, 20 November 2011

2011 Edublog awards

This was the first I'd heard of these awards, although I have no doubt that all over the world lonely men and women annually wet their Y-fronts at the prospect, as I do. Someone kindly nominated me this year, so I felt that it was kind of my education blogger duty to do the same, although I'm aware that the chances of me now participating in what might well be essentially an Albanian pyramid scam are probably high.

I write A LOT, and what with that and teaching, I actually don't get much time to really sit on my thumbs and read too many other things on the net, although I try to hit things that are recommended to me. Some of the ones that I DO make time for regularly are:

Best individual blog:

Scenes from the Battleground

Old Andrew's infrequent (and I do mean f*cking infrequent) blog still packs punch every time it drops. More value added than Mossborne bleedin' Academy. More balls than Billy- Big-Balls.

Best New Blog

Mombasa Moods

Rebecca Gurnham's touching and personal journey from English teacher in the UK, to a galaxy away, teaching in Africa. Fascinating, thoughtful and beautifully bridges the personal and the political with a light touch.

Best Teacher Blog

The Learning Spy

David Didau- always interesting to read; vocal, spiky and bristling with enthusiasm for teaching.

Best resource sharing blog

The Edudicator

A newer voice, absolutely dedicated to the well being of other teachers. Unstoppable.

Best educational use of a social network

Just Trying to be better than yesterday

Kenny Pieper's increasingly well-written blog, tackling increasingly diverse educational topics. Better every week.

I'm sure there are many other worthies, but those are the ones that have tempted me into their perfumed boudoirs with their Henna stained index fingers beckoning me to enter their dark and musky narthexes.

Good luck, and don't spend all the prize money at once. And if anyone feels like nominating me then I WOULD NOT OBJECT IN THE SLIGHTEST.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Inspection reflections

The call arrives! It's what we've been waiting for!

Teachers are understandably worried they won't meet the standards.
But with only two days to go, they quickly focus on the important issues.

Staff are given brief guidelines about best practise.
They arrive! Everyone laughs when they realise the inspectors are people, just like them.

If inspectors DO come into your room, just act normally.

Students need to be gently reminded that lessons might be slightly more elaborate.

Even towards the end of the inspection, staff must resist the temptation to relax.

Eventually, the inspection is over.

Success! Congratulations, your lessons were Outstanding!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Cult of Clever: Stephen Fry and the Next Generation

Aren't other people just stupid? Not you, though.

I went to see Stephen Fry in what I was hoping was going to be conversation with the stricken muse of articulacy, Christopher Hitchens, at the Royal Festival Hall this week. Alas, the Hitch had selfishly developed pneumonia and begged out of the occasion, which meant that the evening, however charming, would be in deficit of a dialogue by a factor of one, which is often seen as fatal to the enterprise. But like the androgynous protagonists of Battle of the Planets, when Hitch unravels he is replaced by a fighting force of allies and confidantes: in stepped the Archbishops and Cardinals of atheism and reason, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Richard Dawkins, along with satellite contributions from Sean Penn (how odd), Lewis Lapham, Chris Buckley and others.

The loss was transformational; not that the night was a waste- it is never a waste to see such lions of loquacity prowling and strutting, and talking about themselves to a captive crowd- but that it became a homage, almost a video obituary taking place as the dying Socrates drank his carcinocidal cocktail in New York, and I could almost imagine the whole piece finishing with the operatic dénouement of Le Morte d' Hitchens. To witness your own valediction must be a peculiar experience.

Fry was, of course, value-added; replete with anecdotes and morsels of amusement and intelligence so easily expedited from memory to mouth that I imagined they were simply stuck between his teeth from the last time he ate a copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus with truffle oil and the tears of a hippogriff. Amis was the headline act, so commandingly confident about the process of putting one word in front of another that Fry almost looked mute by comparison. He alluded nicely to he and Hitchen's unconsummated buddy love, and we were introduced to a peculiar tour of the private snaps of the world's most hirsute columnist since Robin Williams wrote Dear Deirdre. Rushdie beamed down on the audience from the enormous satellite link screen like a latter-day deity, which must have disappointed any jihadists with long memories who fancied a punt, owned a tyre-iron and could read Twitter.
Dawkins' first ad campaign.

Penn impressed an audience of apparently easily impressed people by lighting a cigarette on screen; Fry commented that he couldn't have shocked people more if he'd dropped his pants instead. Penn, looking bleary and autonomously wealthy, worried me for a minute when I thought he might do just that. A fortunate interruption of the signal spared us all.

Dawkins seemed somewhat underused; but everyone agreed that it was nice he was there; otherwise the whole thing would seem like a very odd documentary of beloved intellectuals punctuated by Fry's sybaritic bon mots. It was a very enjoyable evening; a tribute rather than a conversation, and no matter that no matter was discussed more seriously than the average exchange on the Parkinson show, but it was what it was. Heaven forbid we should criticise something for what it is not: rather, criticise it for what it is. Negatives and non-existents are such frightfully slippery fish to catch, let alone cook.

This, my friends, is all you need.
What concerned me was the mood and fervour of some of the audience members; I noticed this before the show as I prepped my rusty brain with a Rusty Nail, and it was brought into sharp relief by at least one of the vox populi questions at the end. There was a hushed, awed tone of admiration and awe for the participants that was entirely understandable; great men are easy to admire, and men of great intelligence are great men. But the reverence afforded to them was what worried me.

As a teacher of philosophy and religion, I am immersed in the task of driving what I can loosely call structured thinking: the presentation of ideas and opinions as a process of facilitated justification, where mere advocacy and prejudice can be replaced by rhetorical syllogisms that can endure contest. I am also, as you can imagine, immersed in a lot of stupid. For every substantiated opinion, I hear ten knee-jerk outbursts. That's fine: that's what I'm there for- to challenge cant and bullshit, maybe even to have mine challenged once in a while by the rare outlier.

Children and adults both are sensitive to the vice of certainty. It is a weakness peculiar to humanity, that we are convinced intuitively of the following two premises:

P1: There is an objective moral truth
P2: I am the only one truly capable of perceiving it.

Letters to the usual address
Conclusion? Well, there are many. These two contestable, controversial contentions lead many to succumb to the weaknesses of tribalism, bigotry, and other synonyms for the parochial mind. Having an illiberal mentality is similar to public flatulence- it's always someone else, never you. I can say this with the certainty of the chastened because I have had, on several occasions throughout my life, my personal dogma detonated irretrievably. As Descartes, the Patron Saint of even-handedness once opined, 'Many of my previous, dearly held convictions, have proven to be false.' His attempt to find a foundational, unassailable truth led him to destroy the entire edifice of his beliefs, before finding that when the smoke had cleared, only the Cogito was left in the rubble. Some destruction required, contents may alter from description.

Which isn't to say that my own views and values are now somehow inoculated from assumption and self-deceit: merely that I am aware that such deceit exists in profundity. The epistemological Holy Grail of a fact known beyond doubt is such an eternal pilgrimage, that I appreciate how very uncertain most of our certainties are. In school, I feel it somewhat of a holy mission for me to challenge the beliefs of my students: not for the project of cynical assimilation, as if I were trying to sculpt every mind in the image of me, but rather as an attempt to put pressure on their beliefs to see if they buckle, bend or repel. What survives the fire is inevitably stronger; scar tissue may not please our aesthetic, but it is thicker than the untempered tissue from which it develops. And sometime, their ideas push back.

And that's what makes me uneasy whenever I go to one of these Cultish rallies: the assumed righteousness of some of the acolytes, who are more interested in having their certainties stroked and oiled by the Greek Gods of secular humanism, or fundamental Romanism, or any one of a million shades of conviction. In a dialogue between Hitchens and Fry, one could hardly expect gladiatorial discussion; I was more looking forward to an evening of easy, well-expressed companionable wit, like port with a friend by the light of a fireplace. It became, as I say, a tribute, as if the Hitch's Super Friends had joined to lay wreaths before his prehumous tomb.

'Here we are- the next generation!'
But the evening was soured by an unbearable ponce of a man who exemplified everything that was wrong with the Cult of Anyone: he bounded up to the microphone in manner that suggested a foppish mime running on the spot, and did something guaranteed to make me want to jump off something high: instead of asking a question, he launched into a monologue about...well, himself mostly, although he camouflaged it with cringing flattery for the demigods before which he crawled. And, in response to an earlier query, 'Where are the Hitches of the next generation?' he replied, arms akimbo, 'Here I am! We are the next generation, rational and ready for the .....' blah blah. If I paraphrase, I care not a jot. He was lucky I didn't spanner him with my handy spanner I keep for such occasions. If he was possessed of one vertebrae less than a full complement, I do believe he would have happily sucked himself off.

Certainty revolts me; self-congratulatory, infinite self-belief makes my entrails heave. The biggest danger for the New Atheist movement- and I applaud many of its intended aims- is that it becomes a new orthodoxy; that it disguises itself in the beard-and-glasses combo of open-mindedness, and by doing so, convinces itself that the battle for intellectual supremacy had been won. One's own axioms need to be tested constantly; imagine how embarrassed you would feel if you discovered you were wrong, and it was too late to do anything about it?
Cogito ergo Zod.
No ideology or demographic has the copyright on truth; no one is immune to the human vices of self-flattery, egoism, narcissism and the desire to be right. I love reading the Hitch; I am happy to doff my cap and acknowledge a man of superior discrimination and intellectual perspicacity. Such admissions are the natural tribute demanded when one recognises a height greater by far than one's own. But we should always be careful to assume that we are the keepers of the sacred flame; that our way is the only right way; that we and only we possess the revealed wisdom of the ancients. It is a flaw in most faiths, and increasingly it is a flaw in the non-faithful. And that is because it is a human flaw. We-I mean all of us- must be on constant guard against the villainy of congratulating ourselves. Aren't we clever? Aren't we intelligent?

People in every century have thought themselves more enlightened than their predecessors. Who is to say that we have acheived the Omega Brain State? What does their certainty say about ours?

'What the F*CK did you just say?'
The best place for a scared cow is on a plate with a little butter.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Young Apprentice 3: Smell the Roses

'LEWIS! I meant Lewis should stay!'
Quote of the night from Zara: ‘You know what they say: there’s no ‘I’ in team.’

Yeah,  but there is in ‘bullshit’.
Welcome, welcome, welcome back to the only game in town, Young Apprentice. I would have blogged last week’s, but I came up against the problem that THERE ARE ONLY 24 HOURS IN A DAY. We saw the genius of the Comfy Curve, and Harris the Hippo, and Ben got canned because he hadn’t been given a chance to shine yet and wasn’t that sad? With time, and support, we got over it.
This week the announcer boomed that the flower industry was worth £1.5 billion every year, like it was the introductory props link for the Sunday night X-Factor guest stars (‘3 billion petals in Norfolk! Grown in half a million gardens in Sunderland!) Flowers. Industry. I’ll never look at a tulip again without thinking of a spreadsheet.
A 7am start, and Harry M was ready at the door with a camera team, as you do. ‘You stay here and see if there’s a message,’ he told Lewis in his plummy, commanding tone, ‘I’ll get the girls.’ And I thought, blimey Boris has competition, the cad. It was Sugar, of course, mixing the teams up into a flower arranging face-off. ‘This task is all about profit,’ he reassured us, in case we had forgotten that the purpose of capitalism is anything other than sucking the jelly from your grandmother's corneas and selling it for a profit. Harry H was confused. ‘I can’t see why having the girls on the team will be good.’
You will, mate, you will, one day. It sounded like a quote from a Famous Five adventure.
Rich Mix embracing this week's theme of 'Canary Wharf Classic House'
Slippery Jim was up to his usual spiv tricks. ‘I just see these flowers as pound symbols,’ he said, confirming that the love of money is indeed the root of many evils, and the market place is where men cheat each other with oaths. Hannah took the lead of Team Atomic, with an unusual (for the Apprentice ) pitch: ‘I don’t overlook people becaue I’m overlooked myself,’ which was refreshingly modest and altruistic. But Hannah was a bunch of surprises, showing more teeth than the cameras have allowed her so far, especially later in the board room when she showed a distinct capacity to catch flack and catapult it back into the lap of her antagonists. Poor Haya got stuck with the arranging side of things because ‘she has a GCSE in Art', which just goes to show that sometimes you want to hide your light under a bushel if you don’t want to get saddled with the donkey work.  Just as well she didn’t mention a BTEC in wiping arses.
One thing you can’t get past the Beeb on: their cinematography pisses on everyone else’s chips from a satellite in space. London looks like a futurist Turner painting in widescreen HD,  a utopian metropolis of steel, glass and light. Little Lewis thought so too, gazing in yokel admiration as the car sped past the postcard charms of Parliament embankment. ‘This is gorgeous,’ he cooed, oblivious to uberfrau Zara’s attempts to form a business plan. ‘I want one of the task to be boats,’ he added. You should last so long, chum.
Meanwhile  Slippery Jim wants to make something clear. ‘I hate flowers and nature and animals,’ he said. We know, mate, we know. You love MONEY. And it doesn’t grow on trees. Mind you, you wouldn’t have known his vegephobia from his pitch to the five star hotel. ‘We see this as an art,’ he solemnly told the staff. Yes, James, the art of LYING to people because you just told us you hate all that green shit. He displayed his impeccable business ethics later on when he announced the instant that they won the hotel contract, ‘Let’s make it out of cheap shite.' Isn't he lovely?
For a second I nearly got my coat and my thermos and headed off to St Paul’s to shake my spear at Adam Smith. He really is a charmer. Still, at least he was true to his word: having scored the deal, he then went on to show that his vision of the art of flower arranging was similar to Berlusconi’s approach to the art of governance: screw ‘em. Alas, the five star hotel had other ideas about his clownish approach to chic statement table pieces. ‘I suppose we can use them to wipe our arses,’ I like to imagine they were thinking.
(The music for this show is very good, isn’t it? Moody, not so muscular that it intrudes. That’s the Beeb again. I forgive you for My Family: you made Frozen Planet. Mind you, Einaudi and Nyman should sue. I liked Danse Macabre wafting around as they spoke to the staff at Ghost the musical, and I adored ‘Sixty Seconds…to what?’ from Morricone’s spaghetti epics. Prokofiev would approve of the company.)
'Let's make it out of cheap shite.'
You have to admire Zara’s cojones when it comes to sales. ‘Sell it at £80’ she was told. ‘We can do it for £100,’ she said. Which is a ploy, I suppose. Perhaps she was confused, like when Harry H gave her the cost price over the phone for the bouquets. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘But what’s the cost price for THEM?’ she said, somehow missing the point of the term cost price. Mind you, after episode one’s display of mathematical bone-headedness, we should be grateful they’re using the decimal system. James, in a moment of astonishing candour, told Surallun, ‘I’m not very good with numbers,’ and compounded his suicide note with, ‘There’s not a lot of numbers in economics,’ before our grizzly billionaire host could pick his jaw from the floor.
Fans of watching TV through their fingers weren’t disappointed tonight, as Lewis kamikazed through the pitch to the Daniel Galvin salon (motto: ‘Is your au pair going on holiday this year?’) with his phone betraying him mid-pitch. Client: ‘That’s really bad.’ Lewis: ‘It won’t happen again.’ Comic pause. Phone rings again. ‘I don’t know how to work it,’ said a now-sweating Lewis. It was probably the owners of Fail CafĂ©, wondering if he wanted two sugars or three in his latte when they saw him the next day.
Mind you, Harry H and James went for the Pitch Fail silver medal when, in response to the manager’s pursed-lip insistence that the arrangements be small, chic and delicate, presented the Heliconia, an enormous triffid that could sit in the centre of the Wembley Arena and look comfortable. ‘We need a small, chic display.’ There you go mate, have a fucking six foot aspidistra. Job done!

It was East versus West, as Spitalfield and Westfield saw the stage set for the battle of the bouquets (or book-wets as Lewis put it. By this point, the hole in his keel was so large there’s no point even trying to pump water). Harry M performed magic by shifting the triffid onto a restauranteur who clearly had a thing for enormous walking plants and low sales; one of the customers even chipped in, ‘I’d eat more!’ which has to be the maddest condition for overconsumption I’ve ever heard in my life. They should sell Helliconias to mothers weening babies off the bottle. ‘Eat this or the triffid eats you.’
'Ahhh, bugger.'
In the end, Lizzie's team trumped Atomic by the kind of loose change you sometimes find in an old pair of trousers, and she and her crew were treated to what I can only describe as  posh tuck in Fortnum and Masons, every course a chocolate bonanza of delicacy. The ladies, because they are girls of taste, styled themselves up for the occasion marvellously. Slippery Jim, in a manner true to his business philosophy, threw any old shit on, presumably scraping the leftover chocolate-coated ants brains into his top pocket while no one was looking so that he could sell them to homeless people later on.

In the board room, Hannah (who was looking more and more like a young Louise Mensch) let Lewis off the hook because HE IS APPARENTLY CHARMED BY THE GODS LIKE ACHILLES. This, even though, when questioned by Sugar as to who was responsible for the failure of the task, he said, ‘Me, partially.’ You could see the old war horse, holding back a smile at the naivete of the kid, as if to say, ‘Christ, you won’t last long.’ Well he will, as long as Lakshmi the goddess of fortune apparently owes him a  favour. He could probably curl one out on the board room desk, and Sugar would say, ‘I’ll give you one more chance- but I’m watching you.’
Poison Ivy
The boardroom musical chairs were a predictable blood bath. Hannah showed guts, and I was sorry to see her go, but then she made the mistake of bringing back two Big Beasts into the ring: Harry H (a contender for the final) and Zara, the Amazonian woman-child. You can tell that those two have staying potential because of their power dressing. Despite Hannah’s efforts, the Taxi of Fail (which interestingly enough takes them home in the daylight for the junior apprentices; no doubt a sop to child safety) tolled for her. She was, I am delighted to say, mature and noble in defeat, suggesting that she has winning potential after all; fail; fail better next time. I often think that the one valuable life skill we usually neglect to teach our kids is the ability to lose; the skill of handling the inevitable losses and defeats that we will face as we flourish. Hannah had class and grace, and the competition was poorer for her absence.

'I am immortal!'
Back to Lewis the lucky leprechaun, who flounced out of the winners’ lounge like Zsa Zsa Gabor when he saw that everyone’s chum, Rugby Harry had dodged the bullet. Maybe he was upset that Hannah took the hit. If he has any sense he’ll be sacrificing another house-goldfish to the great Satan in return for week 4 immunity.
Next week: ‘She’s sleek, she’s sophisticated, and she comes from Barcelona!’ I have NO IDEA what this means, but it’s a Saga task for the tweeny apprentices, which promises a late-Summer special of third-age inappropriacy of Olympian levels as our plucky kids try and sell something to people over the age of twenty-five. Coffins, knowing them.

Laissez les bontemps roulez!
young apprentice coming soon......

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Educating Essex 7: Unfinished Symphony

Sponsors of Educating Essex
Stop all the lesson bells. I thought this blog would last forever. I was wrong. Educating Essex, sponsored by Honda, has been retired to the great Academy Elysium.

This is difficult entry, because EE has given me so, so much material that I feel like Wile E Coyote, a comic heartbeat after he realises he's run three steps over the edge of the canyon edge. *Looks down* *gulps* *looks to camera* *vanishes*

What on EARTH will I write about? Ach, but I felt this way when Jamie's Fantasy Game Show run out of juice; as you get older you realise that your heart will heal in time. There'll be other telly schools. They just grow up, leave you and break your heart *sniff*.

So what have we learned?

Apart from the fact that diameter is circumference divided by pi?

This week the documentarians at twofour gave us their all, in one mighty gasp of hole-in-one casting: Vinni (rap spelling and all) was brought back from the substitute bench, and we were introduced to their secret weapon of charm and awkward, vulnerable sincerity: Ryan, a boy so direct, so honest and so impeccably golden-hearted that the coldest, coldest heart would have thawed before him. If Liz Jones met him, she would renounce egotism and narcissistic cruelty.*

* Alas, not even he could do that.

A teacher, yesterday.
Ryan had been at Passmores for two years, and he, along with all the other students, were approaching their turning-out ceremonies fast. It provided the seven-story arc with a natural narrative terminus, like a slightly grittier production of Grease, albeit with less memorable tunes (unless you count Mr Drew's remix of Teenage Dirtbag or Ryan's humble, mumbled hippity-hop cover of Rockwell's 'Somebody's watchin' me'). It's a meme that every school drama can access, from Waterloo Road to American Pie: the coming-of-age lifequake when the child passes into adulthood, and it becomes time to put away childish things. As teachers, we live this moment in perpetuity, like the concierge of Miliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. We're doomed/ cursed/ blessed to act as midwives to the process of academic crowning, every year, over and over. (You'd think that we'd be asked out opinions a little more frequently, wouldn't you? Alas not. Teacher Voice has yet to be granted the same status as its moronic student sibling, which enjoys a perpetual renaissance.)

 Vic, our grizzled Head of Paediatrics has seen it all; as he admits at the end, he lives and breathes the well-being of his community, but when they go, he has another cohort that needs and deserves the whole school's focus every bit as much as the last lot. It's a generational story. Like nurses and doctors, we need to conserve our compassion for those directly in our care: to do otherwise would be to attempt to stretch our hearts to shattering point, regardless of how oaken they are. When they go, we still care, we can even miss them, but we're needed elsewhere. The world has to take care of them by that point.

'X and Y are two Geometrically similar solid shapes.'

Mr Thomas, the Maths

'Nice tie, boss.'
At first glance there wasn't much in common with this week's X and Y, Vinni and Ryan: one was an incredibly bright young man with problems, and the other was...oh. I see what they did there. Vinni, as we have already seen, was struggling with a fractious home life, and his own inability to refrain from pressing the self-destruct button. We see this all the time; so much talent, so much potential, so much waste. Obviously not being present at the numerous blow-ups designed to make teachers go insane with agitation, it's easy to see him as a cuddly project for someone with a kind heart. Only teachers know the kind of stress and damage that KLVs can cause to classrooms when the cameras aren't rolling; it's far easier to sympathise with a main characters when they are presented as tragic heroes, rather than villains with a streak of good. But I'll stick my neck out and say I can see exactly why Mr Goddard busted his nuts eternally for Vinni, because he was exactly the kind of kid you want to help. Something about KLVs bring out the mother/ father in you; you can see the alternate futures opening up in front of him, and most of them aren't pretty. Some of them are inspiring. If only someone could intervene....

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. As Ms Bird, the take-no-shit English Head of Department who got him through a remedial immersion course in English said, 'That's the pay-back,' when her young padawan squeezed a C in English- and who can blame her? We pay for our ambitions, like Fame, in sweat, and a win is a win, and we too deserve our moments. See, that;s the odd thing about our profession; when we win, others win. When they win, we win. To borrow from Aristotle, a virtuous man can only flourish in a virtuous community, and the community flourishes by the same process.

Prom Fright

'It's an imbroglio of epiphenomenalism, innit?'
The Leaver's Prom was EXACTLY as you would have designed it, if you had been asked, six months previously, to sketch out a teenager's fantasy of a posh do: white Hummer stretch limos that Arnie would have looked at and went, 'No, zis is too vulgah, even for me, aargh,' and half the girls looking as if they had been sprayed with glue, and kicked through a Disney dress-up box in the Playboy Mansion; all stripper heels and My Gypsy Wedding dresses.  I feel desperately sad for a world where teenage girls feel they have to dress up as video hos to fit in, and boys are allowed a gray suit and a buzz cut (no tram lines, mind), maybe a bit of Lynx if the ladies play their cards right. On the other hand I suspect the preening and the exaggerated, cartoon caricature of glamour is a custom as old as Noah. Plus ca bleedin' change.

Poor Vinni couldn't come to the party- instead of the Golden Ticket that Willy Goddard had promised him for trying, he Did Not Pass Go, and had to settle for hovering outside on his bike looking wistful. He deserved it, of course. And it was still sad. Vinni himself, because he's not stupid, spoke with grace and no little dignity to Vic, and the moment where he could see all his peers disappearing inside was heart wrenching. But not as much as the moment when Goddard's reserve cracked and he fell into an abyss of regret for the way things turned out with Vinni. 'It's a no-fail organisation,' he said with tears, as a million viewers knew what he meant. It's not often telly does this to you, but I think we were all feeling it at that point.

We were spared the brutal spectacle of teachers dancing. That's one thing Vinni can be grateful for.

'Pi so serious?'
But the emotional crescendo of this week, if not the whole series, was Ryan. Like a modern Galahad, he seemed too pure, too good for this world. He spoke with starry-eyed honesty about his situation, his asperger's, his life ahead, and his clumsy, beautiful thoughts about the future. If I say that the EE website describes him as 'He enjoys his own space and the company of Asterix books and fantasy novels,' then you know exactly where he's coming from. I used to program Commodore 64s and draw comic strips. I'm with you, brother.

We knew, as soon as he spoke, that he wasn't like other people/

'I'm not like other people,' he said (see?) and I thought, Jesus, it's Michael Jackson in Thriller (John Landis's pointless, brilliant prologue to the King of Rohypnol's' Hallowe'en-conquering masterpiece).

'I don't mean super powered,' he added, in case we asked him to melt steel with his eyes or something. 'Different.'

'What IS pi?'
If he was different, I could wish for a little more difference in the world. His conversation with Mr Drew was like watching Muhammed Ali talking to Marilyn Monroe; two Titans of EE meeting briefly on screen: Drew asked him what animals he had seen on his visit to the Petting Zoo; Ryan replied, 'A very small frog.' I don't know why that was so funny, but I could have watched half an hour of it.

Ryan was nominated for a Jack Petchy award. Surrounded by five adults all gushing with praise for his character, including Vic himself, he looked a stunned. 'Very nice,' he said, as if he was doing them a favour. At that moment I was reminded: Kids Like Ryan are what we come to work for.  Our job is to care for, to protect, to nurture and nourish KLRs as best as we can, and then set them free, into the world as carefully as we can, knowing full well that there's nothing more we can do; they've flown the nest. They may fall, or they may flourish, but from that moment on, they're in their own hands, or someone else's. Perhaps they always were, of course, but now we can no longer catch them when they fall. No wonder this job can break your heart- as we saw from Vic's reaction to Vinni's tumble.

Vic was in pieces as he confessed, 'If they fail, we fail.' His heart is so clearly in the right place, that I only cross him with caution, but I can only partly agree. When we have done everything we can, and when we have done even more than that, then we can only, we MUST be able to say that we have done our best. No man is responsible for things beyond his control, in the same way that I cannot be held to account for the actions of my ancestors.

Yet the quality of Vic's regret, and the sincerity of his guilt over the matter of the Fall of Vinni shows him to be a paragon amongst educators. His sentiments, while unrepresentative of his real responsibility, contain an emotional, maybe a spiritual truth. Who would you rather taught your children- someone who saw it as a holy mission to help them to flourish, or A N Other? I suspect I could give you my answer so quickly it would shame a mongoose auditioning for Kipling.

'What IS pi?'
Goddard and his Essex posse have received an enormous amount of praise, certainly in the cyber circles which I occupy. To my mind, this show has been a huge success, not merely for next year's application figures to Passmores (although, My God, there'll be a queue round the block back to Hackney this year; if you're sharp, you can set up junk stalls selling 'Mr Drew says...' T-shirts. And pies.), but also as a decent insight into the profession for non-specialists and non-teachers (or 'Government advisers' as they're sometimes called) alike. It's been criticised by the hard of thinking for bringing the profession into disrepute, which is a bit like saying that nurses are doing a bad job because watching them wiping arses is unpleasant.

In a society where automatic deference to authority has melted away in the race to support autonomy and child rights, the way we restore order and the hierarchy of age and experience is by structure, boundaries and loving care. We are expected to be so much more than the job description implies, and it's no wonder that so many people find the job hard these days. Society expects us to both fix and prevent its problems.

'What IS pie?'
Parents sometimes expect us to teach their children discipline, oblivious to their own intrinsic role in this process. Government expects us to imbue them with civic duty and societal values, while simultaneously asking us to deliver mathematically precise models of academic excellence, predicated on models of infinitely expanding outcomes and based on dwindling resources. The papers look to us when riots flare up, and I wonder where in my curriculum I somehow taught them to fire-bomb chip shops.

Visit any school with even intermittently challenging students, and you will see the challenges that teachers face. Only some of the problems come from the students. In fact, the problems brought to us by the students, we can deal with: I have a Black Belt in dealing with stroppy kids and soap dodgers. The biggest problems we now face come from without, as education is marketised and riddled with bureaucracy like Swiss cheese, shoehorned into shapes by well-intentioned, but essentially quite stupid people.

The mystery is solved at last. HERE it is.
Teachers Like Vic (TLVs) and Mr Drew, and Stan, and all the others, have been an honourable representation of the other side of the Daily Mail headlines; they are the buggers with their sleeves rolled up (and in Vic's case this week, a natty polo-shirt and tie combo. It's a look) getting in early and getting home late because they want kids to be nourished by a society they never chose to inhabit. There is no greater duty that adults can adhere to, than the axiomatic principle that we care for our children: a roof, food, water, and education. Until the IT revolution promised by the edu-prophets comes to pass, and all children learn personally from cerebral implants and virtual simulators, we educate most of our kids in schools.

Personally, I hope they all get a chance to go to a school like Passmores. Gentlemen; ladies: I salute you, and all my colleagues in schools across Britain.

Clear off, scumbags. Until next lesson.

Other highlights

'Have you heard of the Odyssey?' 'Is it a ship?'
  • I'm not saying the adverts that punctuated our favourite telly school were designed by Momus the Muse of irony, but the decision by Rimmel to flog their latest eye-spider gloop, seconds before Carrie 'What is Pi?' graced our screens was the most cunning piece of subliminal juxtaposition since Gilette started hawking razors during TOWIE. I'm just saying.
  • Oh yeah, and another advert was for the DVD release of Bad Teacher. 
  • 'Sponsored by Honda' is a phrase you will be aware of, even if only at some crepuscular, lizard brain cave of your psyche. The last image we saw was of a courier hammering down some lonely tunnel, carrying precious cargo that bore the blazon: 'Human Blood: fragile.' It certainly is.
  • Ryan's Oscar winning speech, where he picked himself up and Kanye Wested himself into Vic's emotional goodbye speech. 'Sorry Vic, Imma let you finish: but the last two years have been the best years EVER.' Rivers of molten mascara flowed down the central aisle of the assembly hall, and through the living rooms of Britain. I might have had a man-tear myself. A manly one, mind.
  • Vinni's quick-as-a-flash assistance to his mate in Mr Drew's Panopticon, when asked what a rhetorical question was. He didn't even have to think before he described it with an example, and I thought to myself, that kid is smart. Hopefully in a few years he'll pick himself up and get it together, because there's brains in that young man's head.
  • Bex Conway's valiant, brilliant pastoral efforts, as ever. Followed by some wry but possibly very wise advice from Mr King about KLVs: 'It's very ambitious to plan for a win; sometimes the most you can expect is a score draw.' 
  • twofour's website reports that Twitter saw over 100,000 tweets about the series. Sorry about that.
  • The last episode accrued 7.4% of the available audience. What on EARTH was everyone else watching?
  • 'School is a series of bruises.'- Vic. Amen to that.
'We'll clear off, then.'

If you want to know how the kids have gotten on after the show, go here to the Channel 4 website to get the skinny. Or if you can bear the Daily Mail, they've done a piece here.
Mr Drew is interviewed here.

Thank you for reading this far, masochist.