Sunday, 18 August 2013

Latest on the Backbencher - Our Mutual Interest

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Getting Agents of Reason out there has been and is proving difficult but along the way I have met some really nice like-minded folk - Unusual Historicals is a group of writers with many different styles but who have been kind enough to take me on.

The ideology of evidence and evidence of ideology

Saturday, 11 May 2013

First published in The Backbencher May 5th 2013

The madness of measuring learning

John Issitt

It might be an inherent need to control. It might be an artifact of modern management systems. It might be the legacies of the Enlightenment. Whatever its causal origins we have ended up being dominated by measurement.

Weighed and tested we arrive at preschool where we are put on a learning programme in which our progress is closely measured against ‘standards’. Whoa betide us if at the precious age of 5 we show no inclination to associate the ink stains in those things called books, with particular sounds. If we don’t progress according to the mysterious rules written by the experts we are quickly labeled with ‘special needs’ and given extra ‘help’.

With luck we guess the game according to expectation and move into our first 12 years of constant measurement. Weekly tests, termly reports, average scores all build to an estimation of performance delivered by means of A stars or Cs. The abundance of numerical values measures our personal worth and supports the expectations of what we should be and do and think. Crucially the business of learning anything is given only in terms of assessing it. It is not possible to just learn stuff, to think about it, to explore it or challenge its foundations  - what would be the point of that???

Beaten into submission we come to believe that the whole point of the learning enterprise is to say the right things in the right way and thereby establish that we have the right learning. The numbers which certify our learning cannot lie. Drilled with the instrumentalist discourse that establishes that the only point of doing anything is doing it right where doing it right equates to getting the right score, learning dissolves into assessment according to criteria with a numerical value. Learning effectively is assessment which is measurement. The means really has become the end.

Escaping the performance league tables we buy a place at University where we might hope to really learn. We expect to move from ‘schooling’ to expansive creative cutting edge thinking and rich exploration of our world. Sadly though we find the same instrumentalist carry-on. Feedback given exclusively in the interests of securing success in the next assessment. Yet more criterion given in mark bands. The deep fear that if you score anything less than a 2.1 the whole business has been an expensive waste of time and it has been true all along – you really are not that bright!

The measurement game twists and turns and entwines us in its formulas and outputs. As student-customers we measure the quality of our student experience, the quality of the teaching, the speed and relevance of the feedback in helping us to achieve guess what – the right score.

The constant requirement to measure everything – every feature of our lives and particularly our learning – strangles our thinking. Nothing is legitimate if it is not measured. But now we are in strange times in which it is difficult if not impossible to see the way forwards. Surely it is time to rethink what this business of learning really is about.  The relentless pursuit of top scores by the best who can compete the most effectively may have been the right guiding principle in the evolution of our culture in the past. But now we face new challenges and a new reality – the oil is running out. Measuring ourselves and making that measurement the statement of our worth doesn’t seem to offer the solutions we need.

What about releasing ourselves from the validation procedure of measurement? Maybe we should trust ourselves and each other and most importantly, our young people, a little more?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Education – an essentially political act

First published in the Backbencher April 28 2013

Education – an essentially political act

The two most obvious reasons why education is such a political football are firstly, that everybody is an expert on education – one way or another we have all had one. Secondly, schools are one of the few places where significant numbers of human beings regularly do something together that really matters. Add public funding, the needs of the economy and the fact that wealth reproduces wealth largely by means an unequal education system, and you can see why the education card is played again and again by those in power.

Education and more specifically schooling, is a constant and very hot potato. There is rarely a day goes by when media reports don’t reveal a new policy or concern that British values are going to the dogs because of irresponsible teaching or lack of discipline. In government back room planning meetings educational policy is one of the keys to obtaining and keeping power. The current gang of politico top dogs, most of whom had a highly privileged education, use the card repeatedly and brutally. Their most common sports are ‘Teacher Bashing’ – there is nothing like having an ‘enemy within’, and the fear inducing balloney of ‘falling standards’ – which of course justifies their next education policy ‘reform’.

The political dimensions of education are many layered and hold immense but subtle power over us largely because for most of us the words politics and education don’t sit well together. We feel that our children shouldn’t be subject to whatever political chess play is going on in Whitehall. But ironically and perhaps paradoxically, it is precisely our will to protect education from politics that plays into the hands of the political tricksters.

The core uncomfortable tension comes from the fact that education is itself an intrinsically political business. It nurtures careful thinking and insight – thinking which necessarily exposes received assumptions and thereby challenges dogma and the authority of our political masters. Learning is a political act because its aspiration is towards freedom – freedom to think and act. As such it draws defensive responses from those in power - seen most vividly in the innumerable instances of teachers and scholars in nearly all cultures becoming the target of punitive measures – measures specifically directed to stifle that aspiration to freedom.

At a more practical level of politics, education serves to structure our society. It maintains the social order by instilling the values of decency, competition and what counts as success and it distributes life chances accordingly. Education exists in the social world and necessarily reflects the way the world is. Here is the dilemma: in fact our world is an unequal place, but the advertised mission of education is an egalitarian one – it aspires to something it cannot deliver.

Given its political sensitivity it’s no surprise that education is such an ideological arena and that the political agendas that drive those ideologies are kept hidden. Performance management, target setting and ridiculous levels of assessment ensure a thick layer of apolitical discourse throughout the whole educational system. As a result political understanding and the will to political action is trained out of our young people. The egalitarian and democratic mission statements posted in school entrances function as sanitized glossy sound bites rather than producing real distributive equality. Abstract political understanding is entertained only within strictly defined syllabi and students arrive at University tutored to believe that learning is exclusively about hoop jumping the system and hard wired against anything political..

I exaggerate to make the point – there are lots very bright, politically astute and motivated young people around but the general level of political awareness is subdued and especially so in respect of the deeper functioning of schooling.

All the educators I know see their work in terms of offering genuine benefit to those they teach. In the broadest terms, their motivation is to help students develop, acquire skills, and contribute to society. The educational project is a politically good one – its target is a good life for everyone and is delivered under the authority of ‘equal opportunities’. But it is because education is such a social good and so central to our lives and our aspirations, that it is so politically important and why Gove and the boys have it constantly in their sights.

First published in the Backbencher April 23 2013

Revolutionary Egypt

Revolutions tend to follow a pattern – the situation becomes intolerable for too many people, leaders emerge and the old regime is thrown over. Not long after, the revolution goes bad as the new leaders introduce worse conditions than existed before and lives are thrown into brutal disarray. The seeds of anarchic self-destruction are somehow built into the revolutionary project from the beginning although rarely recognized at the time by those who are living through it. The legacies of Robespierre, Stalin and Mao are well known cautionary tales for the youthful would-be-revolutionary.

So what of the recent revolutionary ‘Arab Spring’ in the Middle East – does it fit the same model? We should first note that the term ‘Arab Spring’ carries western assumptions that imply an eventual goal to grow to look like western summertime democracies. We – or at least western media – continue to read the events of other cultures through a lens configured by our values and our history.  Our default assumption is that what happens will be right if it fits our model and wrong if not.

Such cultural imperialism is either niave or ideologically contrived. We are not simply witness to the unfolding of these events, we are instrumental in it – economically, militarily and historically.  The track of global capitalism lead by the west is not optional, it is causal and structures the possibilities for the ‘Middle East’ – again a term configured by its position relative to the West. We would like to believe that the blood is not on our hands and we try our hardest to preserve that illusion, but we are wrong.

I travel to Egypt quite regularly and have several Egyptian friends – what do I see when I look in their eyes a few years after their revolution? I see increasing anxiety, fear and despair. They don’t know where the revolution is going and they imagine the worst. The Muslim Brotherhood led by Mohamed Morsi has suggested that Palestinians could live in the Sinai – a suggestion treated with horror by the people who live there. Unemployment is high and the streets of big cities are no longer safe. Even more ominously the pay of military personnel has been increased nearly four times – a move clearly intended to buy their loyalty. My Egyptian friends comment with a measured degree of humour, on the irony of this because the revolution was in large part a revolution against the oppressive military – but it is the military that ends up being heavily rewarded! Buying off the security services clearly fits the pattern of the big revolutions – it expresses the fragile paranoia of a marginal leadership.

I tend to move my conversations quickly on to brighter subjects when my friend’s emotions rise and their eyes beginning to water, but the fact that I have to do this worries me even more. The fears they are dealing with are not mere abstract cerebral matters for political discussion, this is their lives and the futures of their children at stake and there are very few positive indicators. On the occasions – usually when there is no one else around – that our conversation does go to speculate the future, their talk is bounded by hope and faith rather than reasoned speculation.

And there is perhaps the nub of the matter. We assume that the affairs of humankind should and could be led by careful equity structured reason. Sadly and especially when we are pressed in to conflict, reason seems to fail us and we reach for something else.

What is it? Prayer?

Reactionary Mind

First published in the Backbencher. April 21 2013

The Reactionary Mind

The Reactionary Mind

The fear that stalks the reactionary mind is the prospect of the loss of power. The fear goes as deep as it possible to go in the human psyche and impels action. Power and most importantly fear of its loss, does corrupt – it forces those with it to protect it from those without it, at all costs. Its most obvious examples are seen in the brutal gangsters who operate their protection rackets through sheer physical strength. We should note though that not all gangsters follow the model of Bonny and Clyde – gangsters come in many, often highly respectable, suits.

But power is a ubiquitous feature of human life and rarely is it given up easily. Lived out in the actions of men over women, landowner over landless, wealth over poverty, manager over managed, the reactionary mind feels threatened and preoccupied with self preservation to the extent that defensiveness structures what it is. The reactionary’s raison-detre is the maintenance if not extension of its own power – it looks out to see and interpret the world in terms of personal threat.

Within ‘civilized societies’, the fist cannot be the first defensive manouvre for the reactionary although it always lurks ominously not far behind the veil of social relations. The same rules don’t apply to other societies however - the fist is more easily, more justifiably, wielded towards external threat – any ‘other’ that doesn’t have membership of ‘our’ world.

Within civilized societies the reactionary mind has to deploy some form of reasoning and turns to the tactic of controlling the semantics. It polices the groundwork of possibility, constructs commonsense and claims a version of reality that flatters its own interests. ‘There is no alternative to the way we run things’ it says to any challenger ‘because life is only possible the way we run things – look around you its obvious and any attempt to change the rules has ended in chaos and destruction. You must accept the way it is and your position in it.’

The problem is though that the reactionary mind is simply that - a reaction - it has no real philosophy despite the tub-thumping ideological trickery of the largely conservative heads in which it sits.  Principles are thrown to the wind when the self interests of the powerful clash – witness the constant schism between the pro and anti EU Tories.

The reactionary mind is forced into all sorts of defensive contortions because the position of power it holds has been arrived at through luck or brutality – attributes that have no real credentials or philosophy. For the most part people inherit power through forces beyond their control, or they fight for it. For such fighters they have got where they have by assuming the rules of the jungle. When they get their position of power, the unthinking reaction to defend it structures the way they think.

There is no real intellectual coherence to the reactionary mind despite the occasional ‘I worked to get where I am’ justification. It is luck that the winners were not born under the carpet-bombing or a thousand years ago or in some hell hole - they have merely exploited the circumstances in which they found themselves.

That’s not to belittle the sincere efforts of many – most people do engage their lives and the world honestly and some attain positions of power from where they operate decent and considered agendas. But these are not the reactionaries. They are not normally inclined to knee jerk reactions in defense of positions of power once they have attained them albeit the cut and thrust and greasy pole of the hierarchy promotes them to.

The worst of it is that the reactionary mind is suspicious of everything and sees threat everywhere.

Not much good if we really want to play fair and find sustainable solutions to the problems we face.

First published in the Backbencher April 14 2013

One reading of the politics of the 1970s is that civil breakdown and the winter of discontent was caused by out of control greedy Unions run by communist Union bosses holding the country to ransom. Another reading is that the manufacturing and industrial base of postwar Britain was no longer sustainable. Shifting market relations and global capitalism led production to countries with low wage costs and the civic strife we saw did not originate from the work of individual hands but changes in the economic base.

The first explanation posits the individual as responsible, the second posits the structural relations of capitalism. The distinction is a salient one with Mrs Thatcher in mind. Was it her hand, her wicked ideology that took us on an evolutionary U-turn? Well in one sense yes – she deregulated the financial sector which led to the meltdown we see around us. She foisted the Poll Tax on Scotland, sold off the railways and the housing stock. She began the dismantling of the welfare state – a project that is a necessary consequence of the logic of conservatism and is clearly continuing today. It was her that rejeuvenated the self-help greedy loads-o-money ideology of Samuel Smiles  – ‘it was er wot done it yer oner!’

But there is another important sense in which she could not have done what she did without the conditions which allowed her to. The stage set had to provide the scene on which her, to my mind intensely ugly, brand of Toryism could appeal so strongly to so many. It was her moment but it was a moment in which the structural conditions generated the possibility for her individual agency to act. In academic terms we could say that the case of Mrs Thatcher expresses the never-ending dialectic between the material and the economic on the one hand and the ideological and the individual on the other.

When Mrs Thatcher’s death was announced last week, several old socialist minded, miner-supporting friends contacted me in various states of celebratory inebriation. ‘She’s dead’ they said ‘Good’. I had mixed feelings.  I could not rejoice at the death of a fellow human being who, whilst I abhorred her politics, was an old lady with some form of dementia. My friends sensing my unwillingness to celebrate with them, told me off –‘She died in the Ritz man not some horrible housing estate, how can you feel sorry for somebody who did so much damage to so many people’s lives and sold off the family silver?’

Well she was still a human and she wasn’t Eichmann or Himmler and there is a sense in which she thought she was doing the right thing. Furthermore, she was an actor amongst other actors. You could say that all she did was tactically use the weaknesses and hypocrisies of the opposition who just happened to be on the same political stage she was - Arthur Scargill and a Labour party in complete disarray were a gift. What happened was that in her ideological hands the new structure of capitalism unfolded.  She was just good at it, she knew when she was on a winner and when the wind was in her favour.

This tension between individual and structural forces is a perennial if not ubiquitous feature of the human condition. In various ways aren’t we all caught in the same contradictory game?

We might be able to hold her to account for her personal acts, but we can’t bring her to book about the structural relations of capital. For me she was more  puppet than puppet master.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

First published in the Backbencher 7th April 2014

Professional boundaries – solid or see-through?

The civic world is built by professional boundaries. Normally there is a uniform involved – the sharply pressed suit for the executive, the wig for the judge, the Range Rover or Mercedes for the successful manager. Normally there is a place in which particular actions are performed – the senior management team in the boardroom, the doctor in the surgery, the teacher in the classroom. Normally there is a professional voice which operates by virtue of specific boundaries.

This is what many a social scientist would call a ‘subject position’. It is a position which is both policed – some things can said but not others – and serves to police  – you must do what the professional decides. It also constructs identities – professional people very often feel like they are the subject position they fulfill. In fact many people really believe in their social identities and see their roles in terms of a natural calling, an expression of their innermost being.

Some people feel comfortable in the clothes they wear, others less so. These are discontents – those who don’t buy into the constructed identities they have to fulfill and contest what they see as the artificial boundaries of normality. To them their projected identity feels arbitrary. The social trappings, the emperor’s new clothes and King Lear’s ‘vile lendings’ are so thin and built from such shifting and contradictory grounds that there seems very little to really substantiate the authority being exerted.

For the outsider this artificiality becomes clear when the professional abuses their boundaries or, in fact and not uncommonly, they don’t know really what they are talking about - they are guessing and claiming a legitimacy for what they say only by virtue of their social status. Even worse, at the point the professional decision maker negotiates best position in the market-place, so-called professional standards are routinely ejected to the dustbin in the interests of market share or brutal exigency.

Being ‘professional’ can be genuine but it can also be a smokescreen to the fact that nobody knows what to do in new situations - people are just doing what seems right and what will probably preserve their jobs. In such situations the fragile see-through figure of ‘the professional’ becomes apparent. In the real world decision making is driven as much by hope, guesswork, opportunism and responsibility avoidance as it is by so-called professional knowledge or experience.

The practical reality though is that we need the doctor, the manager and the teacher. We need the structure of professional relations in the same way we need family relations. We need parents to tell their children what to do as a matter of practical management but also, ironically, in order that the children can contest the power being exerted and thereby find themselves. Boundaries, whilst frustrating, are necessary at many levels and in many ways.

Our identities are defined and given status by the society we live in and this is a necessity – how else could we function? But the fact that social identities are necessary, isn’t, it appears, sufficient to confer real meaning and real authority on what ‘the professional’ says.

Operating boundaries in the civic world is a matter of survival. It is impossible to to exercise your duties for long if you don’t. But in these days of deep cultural anxiety the professional has to grip their boundaries both more tightly and more sensitively. Like a hunted animal they have to be constantly alert to potential threat. They live in fear of the next performance review or legal challenge to their authority or shift in the game-plan that will leave them high and dry.

If you’re not any good at operating professional boundaries (probably because secretly you don’t believe in them), you’re likely to be paying a high personal cost. Actually your boundaries are more porous than professional standards expect. Actually you don’t really want to live like that.

How long can you carry on?

Friday, 5 April 2013

John Issitt tries to talk sense

First published in the Backbencher 8th March 2013


We are hard wired with the assumption that the world and the people in it can be understood.  The belief that there are causal, probably simple, underlying explanations that we can find and live our lives by, is fundamental to the human psyche. Surely the world is coherent, surely we can make sense of it, we just have to find the right keys to unlock it. The eighteenth century Enlightenment and the beliefs in science and reason that flowed from it, has structured the western mind with an ironically religious faith that world will yield to sense.

Yet we get the Holocaust, the insanity of wars, the perpetual fact of inequalities reproduced again and again by a system of market capitalism through which there is seemingly no alternative. Our aspirations, our life energies are driven towards sense and coherence, but reality confounds us at every step. And its not just the big questions and dilemmas that contradict sense. What was going on with that fashion for young men to wear their trousers so the gusset was round their knees? Why is Boris Johnson the Mayor of London? I haven’t found anybody who can make sense of these delirious features of the human condition.

Many of the confusions here are due to slippery semantics which serve to put us off the track. Smokescreen delusions comfort us with the implication that actually there really is a sense – we just haven’t found it yet. For example there is what analysts might call a ‘category slippage’ in the movement from ‘sense’ to ‘being sensible’. Was the decision to drop the atom bomb ‘being sensible’ Yes at one level – it saved lives in the long run but it was hardly sensible if you were underneath it. Did it make sense? Yes at one level but no at another. But it is in that movement – that ideological and rhetorically fuzzy movement from ‘sense’ to ‘being sensible’ that humans are lead from a strictly cerebral demand for understanding to the world of action. The problems have beguiled us over the centuries and leave us floundering and struggling with the dilemma. In the Hindu religious tract the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna is on the battlefield. Should he act to take arms against his brothers? He acts but not through the determinations of sense.

Looked at closely it is very often difficult to discern sense either in the world or in the actions of people. Consider the current UK weather patterns – arctic conditions at Easter? The spring buds on the trees that were just appearing 10 days ago are in a state of utter confusion – should they grow? No but their DNA driven reproductive cycle is telling them they must. Consider the panic over the euro and the problems in Cyprus. What sense will all those be-suited bankers, politicians and publics make of that? You will find a localized kind of sense – a sense made by particular people and particular conditions but German, Brussels, Russian and Cypriot ‘sense’ is starkly, and in that case ominously, different. At least it won’t be any sort of universal sense that sorts out a solution – it will only be raw power and self preservation that will do that and the end result will not make much sense if its not you being preserved.

Yet the assumption that somebody or something will be able to make sense of it all is written in the sub strata of our being. Surely we are merely temporarily confused? What are the candidates for a source of sense? God? Well I leave that to you. A super computer? Possibly but I doubt that the multiple processing of zeros and ones will do the trick. The progress of science? Doesn’t look likely given the current state of physics. Aliens? Err.

What about taking a different approach and accepting that we just don’t know -accept that we cannot make sense of it? One of the insights of the normality confounding philosopher Jean Baudrillard, was that that there is nothing more profound than the absence of sense.

Food for thought?