roots – how do we see ourselves spatially

I was just reading the chapter on Benedict Anderson in “Key Thinkers on Space and Place1.  Anderson forged the concept of a national imagination, the way nations are as much, or more, a construct of socio-cultural imaginings than physical topography or legal/political sovereignty.

However, this made me wonder whether this conception itself was very culturally specific, to what extent do people relate to nation as opposed to other areas.

I was reminded particularly of a conversation with, the much missed, Pierro Mussio. He explained to me the distinct nature of Italian cultural identity, which tends to focus on regional and local identity before national identity, partly because Italy itself is quite young as a nation state (a mere 150 years in a country which sees itself in terms of millennia). There is even a word “campanilismo”, which is literally relating to the “bell tower” (campanile) in a town, meaning one’s primary loyalties lie to that bell tower, that town, that community.

How do you see yourself?  Are you British or Geordie, French or Parisian, American or New Yorker?

I know I see myself as ‘Welsh’.  Wales is part of Britain, but my Britishness is secondary to Welshness.  I was born and brought up in Bangor Street, Roath Park, Cardiff, but again while the street, area and city are foci of nostalgia, it is the Welshness which seems central.  For Fiona she is Cumbrian (rather than Wetheral, English or British), Steve who is visiting is British, but says his brother would say Scottish, despite both having spent equal amounts of time in Scotland whilst growing up and since.

I asked people on Twitter and got a variety of answers2, most quite broad:

“I always think English rather than British but I don’t have a more specific area to identify with.”

“I think I primarily think of myself as both “Brit” & “northerner”. Lancastrian when differentiating myself from Yorkshire lot!”

“in decreasing granularity I’m a Devoner (south, of course!), west country-er, English, British, European, World-ean.”

Some less clear:

“I’m confused specially. I am Coloradan and American by birth, but feel more at home in England, and miss Scotland.”

“ooh, complicated. I’m British but not English. that’s as specific as I get.”

The last perhaps particularly interesting in its focus on what he is not!

Obviously the way we see ourselves varies.

The choice of a ‘level of granularity’ for location reminds me a little of the way in which we have some sort of typical level in a classification hierarchy (I think Lakoff writes about this); for example you can say “look at that bird”, but not “look at that mammal”, you have to say “look at that dog” or “look at that cat”.  This also varies culturally including subcultures such as dog breeders – saying “look at that dog” in Crufts would hardy sound natural.

Some cities have specific words to refer to their natives: Glaswegian, Geordie, Londoner; others do not – I was brought up in Cardiff, but Cardiffian sounds odd.  Does the presence of a word (Cumbrian, Welsh) make you more likely to see yourselves in those terms, or is it more that it is that, where cities have forged a strong sense of belonging, words naturally emerge … I sense a Sapir-Whorf moment!

Now-a-days this is even more contested as loyalties and identities can be part of networked communities that cut across national and topographical boundaries.  In some way these new patterns of connection reinforce those focusing on human relations rather than physical space as defining countries and communities, but of course in far newer ways.

However, it also made me think of those parts of the world where there are large numbers of people with problematic statehood.  There is how we see ourselves and how states see us.  We tend to define democracy in terms of citizenship, and laud attempts, such as the Arab Spring, that give power to the people … but where ‘people’ means citizens.  In Bahrain the Shite majority are citizens and therefore their views should be considered in terms of democracy, whereas the migrant workers in Libya fleeing the rebels in the early days of the recent Libyan war, or the Palestinians in Kuwait during the first Gulf War were not citizens and therefore marginalised.

Defining citizenship then becomes one of the most powerful methods of control.  This has been used to powerful effect in Estonia leaving some who had lived the country for fifty years effectively stateless, and, while not leaving people stateless, in the UK new rules for electoral registration could leave up to 10 million, principally the young and the poor, voteless.

In the days of the nation state those with loyalties not tied to geography have always been problematic: Gypsies, Jews before the establishment of Israel, the various Saharan nomad trades.  Many of these have been persecuted and continue to suffer across the world, and yet paradoxically in a networked world it seems possible that pan-national identity may one day become the norm.

  1. I’ve got 1st edition, but 2nd edition recently come out.[back]
  2. Many thanks for those who Tweeted responses.[back]

Private schools and open data

Just read short article “Private schools aren’t doing as well right-wingers like to think” by Rob Cowen @bobbiecowman1.  Rob analyses the data on recent GCSE results and finds that independent schools have been falling behind comprehensive schools in the last couple of years.  He uses this to refute the belief that GCSE standards are dropping, although equally it calls into question David Cameron’s recent suggestion that independent schools such as Eton should be given public money to start ‘Free Schools’2.

However, this is also a wonderful example of the way open data can be used to challenge unsupported views including official ones or ‘common knowledge’.  Of course, during the recent voting reform referendum, David Cameron expressed his disinterest in data and statistics compared with gut feelings, so the availability of data is only half the battle!

Graph shwoing comprehensive vs independent school performance

  1. Thanks to Laura Cowen @lauracowen for re-tweeting this.[back]
  2. See BBC News: Cameron: ‘Eton should set up a state school’[back]

Do teachers need a 2:2

Those in the UK will have seen recent news1 that the Education Secretary Michael Grove is planning to remove remove funding for teacher training from those who do not achieve a 2:2 or better. A report on the proposals suggests this will reduce numbers of trainee science teachers by 25% and language teachers by a third.

An Independent article on this lists various high profile figures who got third class degrees (albeit all from prestigious universities), who would therefore not be eligible – including Carol Vorderman, who is the Conservative Party’s ‘maths guru’2.

The proposed policy and the reporting of it raise three questions for me.

First is the perennial problem that the reporting only tells half the story.  Who are these one third of language trainees and one quarter of science trainees who currently do not have 2:2 degrees? Are they recent graduates who have simply not done well in their courses and treating teaching as an easy option? Are they those that maybe made poor choices in their selected courses, but nonetheless have broader talents after careful assessment by the teaching course admissions teams? Or are they mature students who did not do well in university, or maybe never went, but have been admitted based on their experience and achievements since (as we would do for any advanced degree, such as an MSc)?  If it were the first of these, then I think most parents and educators would agree with the government line, but I very much doubt this is the case.  However, with only part of the story how are we to know?  I guess I could read the full report, or maybe the THES has a more complete story, but how many parents reading about this are likely to do so?

Second is the implicit assumption that degree level study in a particular subject is likely to make you a good teacher in that subject.  Certainly in my own first subject, mathematics, many of the brightest mathematicians are unlikely to be good school teachers. In general in the sciences, I would far prefer a teacher who has a really deep understanding of GCSE and A level Physics to one who has a hazy (albeit sufficient to get 2:2 or even 2:1 degree) knowledge at degree-level. I certainly want teachers who have the interest and excitement in their topic to keep up-to-date beyond the minimum needed for their courses, but a broad ‘James Gleik’ style popular science, is probably more useful than third year courses in a Physics degree.

Finally the focus on degree classification, suggests that Michael Gove has a belief in a cross-discipline, cross-department, and cross-institutional absolute grading that appears risible to anyone working in Higher Education. Does he really believe that a 2:2 from Oxford is the same as a 2:2 at every UK institution? If so then I seriously doubt his ability to be hold the education portfolio in government.

To be fair this is a real problem in the Higher Education system as it is hard for those not ‘in the know’ to judge the meaning of grades, especially as it is not simply a matter of institution, often particular parts of an institution (notably music, arts and design schools) have a different profile to the institution as a whole. Indeed we have the same problem within the university system when judging grades from other countries. This has not been helped by gradual ‘grade inflation’ across the education sector from GCSE to degrees, driven in no small part by government targets and independent ‘league tables’ that use crude measures largely unrelated to real educational success. Institutions feel under constant pressure to create rules that meet various metrics to the detriment of real academic judgement3.

If the government is seriously worried about the standard of teachers entering the profession, then shift funding of courses towards measures of real success and motivation – perhaps percentage of students who subsequently obtain public-sector teaching jobs. If the funding moves the selection will follow suit!

… and maybe at the same time this should apply across the sector.  A few weeks ago I was at the graduation at LIPA, which is still managing near 100% graduate employment despite the recession and severe cuts across the arts.  Not that employment is the only measure of success, but if metrics are to be used, then at least make them real ones. Or better still drop the metrics, targets and league tables and let students both at school and university simply learn.

  1. Hit headlines about a week ago in the UK, just catching up after holiday![back]
  2. Reforms of teacher training will bring mass shortages, report finds“, Richard Garner, The Independent, Thursday, 11 August 2011, p14-15.[back]
  3. In fact, I came very close to resigning earlier in the summer over this issue.[back]

Osama Bin Laden – if only we had let him go to court 10 years ago

Just hearing the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death and thinking what a waste of 10 years and numerous lives. Straight after 9/11 the Taliban put Osama bin Laden under house arrest and offered to hand him over to an international Islamic court. Just imagine the world today of we had taken up this offer. Instead of a Robin Hood figure and now a martyr, he would have been a criminal tried and convicted.

Osama bin Laden had few friends in the governments of the Mulsim world, even the Taliban, which had been secretly trying to get rid of him to the US for some years before 9/11. Maybe the Islamic court would have had him imprisoned or executed itself. Maybe it would have extradited him to the US to stand trial there. Either way it would have been under an Islamic aegis, rather than perceived as an act against Islam.

Just imagine the world now with no Afghan war, no perceived invasion of Muslim countries (although maybe the Iraq war would have happened earlier without Afghanistan to take attention). So many thousands of lives. Possibly no Bali, Madrid or London bombings.

One of the reason there was no public pressure at the time for this legal rather than military route was the lack of reporting. I was perhaps fortunate to be flying on 9/11 and spent the three weeks after in South Africa where the detention was well reported. When I returned home, it was mentioned just a few times in interviews and discussions and in each case the interviewer ignored it and moved on to a fresh questions as if it were too embarrassing to be discussed. I heard later that, in the early days after 9/11, the BBC was more open in its reporting, but got its ‘wrists slapped’ by government, and so, by the time I was back, was avoiding difficult issues; something that sadly seems to be the case since in many conflicts.

If 10 years ago we had cared more for justice than revenge, then Osama bin Laden could have been a symbol of unity between Islamic and Western worlds, jointly prosecuted and condemned for the killing of innocents. Instead he has become a cause of division, that is unlikely to end with his death,

the real tragedy of the commons

I’ve just been reviewing a paper that mentions the “tragedy of the commons”1  and whenever I read or hear the phrase I feel the hackles on the back of my neck rise.

Of course the real tragedy of the commons was not free-riding and depletion by common use, but the rape of the land under mass eviction or enclosure movements when they ceased to be commons.  The real tragedy of “the tragedy of the commons” as a catch phrase is that it is often used to promote the very same practices of centralisation.  Where common land has survived today, just as in the time before enclosures and clearances, it is still managed in a collaborative way both for the people now and the for the sake of future generations.  Indeed on Tiree, where I live, there are large tracts of common grazing land managed in just such a way.

It is good to see that the Wikipedia article of “Tragedy of the Commons” does give a rounded view on the topic including reference to an historical and political critique by “Ian Angus”2

The paper I was reading was not alone in uncritically using the phrase.  Indeed in “A Framework for Web Science”3 we read:

In a decentralised and growing Web, where there are no “owners” as such, can we be sure that decisions that make sense for an individual do not damage the interests of users as a whole? Such a situation, known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, happens in many social systems that eschew property rights and centralised institutions once the number of users becomes too large to coordinate using peer pressure and moral principles.

In fact I do have some sympathy with this as the web involves a vast number of physically dispersed users who are perhaps “too large to coordinate using peer pressure and moral principles”.  However, what is strange is that the web has raised so many modern counter examples to the tragedy of the commons, not least Wikipedia itself.  In many open source projects people work as effectively a form of gift economy, where, if there is any reward, it is in the form of community or individual respect.

Clearly, there are examples in the world today where many individual decisions (often for short term gain) lead to larger scale collective loss.  This is most clearly evident in the environment, but also the recent banking crisis, which was fuelled by the desire for large mortgages and general debt-led lives.  However, these are exactly the opposite of the values surrounding traditional common goods.

It may be that the problem is not so much that large numbers of people dilute social and moral pressure, but that the impact of our actions becomes too diffuse to be able to appreciate when we make our individual life choices.  The counter-culture of many parts of the web may reflect, in part, the way in which aspects of the web can make the impact of small individual actions more clear to the individual and more accountable to others.

  1. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (December 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248. … and here is the danger of citation counting as a quality metric, I am citing it because I disagree with it![back]
  2. Ian Angus. The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons. Socialist Voice, August 24, 2008[back]
  3. Berners-Lee, T., Hall, W., Hendler, J. A., O’Hara, K., Shadbolt, N. and Weitzner, D. J. (2006) A Framework for Web Science. Foundations and Trends in Web Science, 1 (1). pp. 1-130.  http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/13347/[back]

Qualification vs unlimited education

In “Adrift in Caledonia“, Nick Thorpe is in the Shetland Isles speaking to Stuart Hill (aka ‘Captain Calamity’).  Stuart says:

“What does qualification mean? … Grammatically, a qualification limits the meaning of a sentence. And that’s what qualifications seem to do to people. When you become a lawyer it becomes impossible to think of yourself outside that definition. The whole of the education system is designed to fit people into employment, into the system. It’s not designed to realise their full creativity.”

Now Stuart may be being slightly cynical and maybe the ‘whole of education system’ is not like that, but sadly the general thrust often seems so.

Indeed I recently tweeted a link to @fmeawad‘s post “Don’t be Shy to #fail” as it echoed my own long standing worries (see “abject failures“) that we have a system that encourages students to make early, virtually unchangeable, choices about academic or career choices, and then systematically tell them how badly they do at it. Instead the whole purpose of education should be to enable people to discover their strengths and their purposes and help them to excel in those things, which are close to their heart and build on their abilities.  And this may involve ‘failures’ along the way and may mean shifting areas and directions.

At a university level the very idea behind the name ‘university’ was the bringing together of disparate scholars.  In “The Rise and Progress of  Universities” (Chapter 2. What is a University?, 1854) John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman, recently beatified) wrote:

“IF I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot;—from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”

Note the emphasis on having representatives of many fields of knowledge ‘in one spot’: the meeting and exchange, the flow across disciplines, and yet is this the experience of many students?  In the Scottish university system, students are encouraged to study a range of subjects early on, and then specialise later; however, this is as part of a four year undergraduate programme that starts at 17.  At Lancaster there is an element of this with students studying three subjects in their first year, but the three year degree programmes (normally starting at 18) means that for computing courses we now encourage students to take 2/3 of that first year in computing in order to lay sufficient ground to cover material in the rest of their course.  In most UK Universities there is less choice.

However, to be fair, the fault here is not simply that of university teaching and curricula; students seem less and less willing to take a wider view of their studies, indeed unwilling to consider anything that is not going to be marked for final assessment.  A five year old is not like this, and I assume this student resistance is the result of so many years in school, assessed and assessed since they are tiny; one of the reasons Fiona and I opted to home educate our own children (a right that seems often under threat, see “home education – let parents alone!“).  In fact, in the past there was greater degree of cross-curricula activity in British schools, but this was made far more difficult by the combination of the National Curriculum prescribing content,  SATs used for ‘ranking’ schools, and increasingly intrusive ‘quality’ and targets bureaucracy introduced from the 1980s onwards.

Paradoxically, once a student has chosen a particular discipline, we often then force a particular form of breadth within it.  Sometimes this is driven by external bodies, such as the BPA, which largely determines the curriculum in psychology courses across the UK.  However, we also do it within university departments as we determine what for us is considered a suitable spread of studies, and then forcing students into it no matter what their leanings and inclinations, and despite the fact that similar institutions may have completely different curricula.  So, when a student ‘fails’ a module they must retake the topic on which they are clearly struggling in order to scrape a pass or else ‘fail’ the entire course.  Instead surely we should use this this as an indication of aptitude and maybe instead allow students to take alternative modules in areas of strength.

Several colleagues at Talis are very interested in the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), which is attempting to create a much more student-led experience. I would guess that Stuart Hill might have greater sympathy with this endeavour, than with the traditional education system.  Personally, I have my doubts as to whether being virtually / digitally ‘in one spot‘ is the same as actually being co-present (but the OU manage), and whether being totally student-led looses the essence of scholarship, teaching1 and mentoring, which seems the essence of what a university should be. However, P2PU and similar forms of open education (such as the Khan Academy)  pose a serious intellectual challenge to the current academic system: Can we switch the balance back from assessment to education?  Can we enable students to find their true potential wherever it lies?

  1. Although ‘teaching’ is almost a dirty word now-a-days, perhaps I should write ‘facilitating learning’![back]

UK internet far from ubiquitous

On the last page of the Guardian on Saturday (13th Oct) in a sort of ‘interesting numbers’ section, they say that:

“30% of the UK population have no internet access at home”

I couldn’t find the exact source of this, however, another  guardian article “UK internet audience rises by 1.9 million over last year” dated Wednesday 30 June 2010 has a similar figure.  This says that Internet use  has grown to 38.8 million. The National Statistics office say the overall UK population is 61,792,000 with 1/5 under 16, so call that 2 in 16 under 10 or around 8 million. That gives an overall population of a little under 54 million over 10 years old, that is still only 70% actually using the web at all.

My guess is that some of the people with internet at home do not use it, and some of the ones without home connections use it using other means (mobile, use at school, cyber cafe’s), but by both measures we are hardly a society where the web is as ubiquitous as one might have imagined.

morning newspaper: MPs and Elgin Marbles

I usually only read the newspaper when travelling and either do the ‘free mineral water with newspaper’ deal (usually the Telegraph, maybe the only way they can sell newspapers), or whatever they have in the hotel or plane.

The front-page news today is the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid convoy, which needs no further comment.

of MPs

However, I also got yesterday’s Independent when I arrived at the Holiday Inn near midnight.  One of the main stories then was still the ‘outing’ and resignation of David Laws.  The key issue here (at least in principle) was not that nature of his personal relationships, but that he had not disclosed that the flat on which he was claiming rent belonged to his partner.

I was glad to see Mark Pack’s commentary in today’s Independent take a robust view of this, noting that while Laws may have broken rules (still to be determined), there had been no financial gain involved, and indeed the arrangement had saved the taxpayer money.  Pack’s contempt of the Telegraph was perhaps not unexpected in a column in a rival newspaper, but echoed my own feelings.

I was happily abroad during the height of the MPs expense ‘scandal’ last year, but was appalled at the coverage, not least because my travels take me to countries in Europe which would give anything to have the high standards of public office we take for granted in the UK.  In the end a handful of MPs may (still sub judice) have abused the system, but the vast majority were simply trying to do their job.

A short while ago I happened on the web on a page detailing the expenses of a Cardiff (now ex) MP Julie Morgan, when MPs expenses came under the spotlight, she rechecked her previous claims and indeed, with more careful checking, it turned out that the claims she had made on her mortgage did not match the actual expenditure.  Over the five years of the last parliament she had accidentally over-claimed in two years to the total of £800 … but in the other three years had under-claimed to the tune of £1900.  The rules meant she could not retrospectively be paid for the under-claimed years, but did pay back the £800 for the over-claims.  Despite being £1100 out of pocket, one of the lowest claiming MPs and indeed paying significant amount of her own salary to help maintain her constituency office, on the books she will part of the statistics of the large number of MPs who repaid expenses and so appear to have been doing wrong.  Crazy!

and of Marbles

Back to today’s newspaper and deeper into the Independent a very old story that is entering a new phase: the fight for the return of treasures from around the world displayed in British Museums.  The most well know is of course the Elgin Marbles (maybe Germany may claim them as security for Greece’s Euro-bailout), but others include African treasures taken during punitive raids by British soldiers in the 19th Century.

The issues seem clear-cut for a Liberal-minded Independent reader, but maybe things are more complicated; certainly some of the items, including the bronze ‘Birmingham Buddha’ would not have survived to the present day if they had not been removed – if only the Victorian adventurers had also removed some of the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in the 1990s.

I wonder how far repatriation should go, what is the statute of limitations for national treasure?  Maybe as the Birmingham Buddha travels back to India, several hundred shiploads of railtrack and steam trains will be repatriated to the UK, offloaded at Felixstowe docks and moved overland to form a mountainous sculpture of piled steel in the centre of Birmingham.

Having just been in Italy, I am sure there are many Italian artefacts in British museums, but then in Rome there are a number of Egyptian obelisk’s removed by the Romans 2000 years ago.  However, I would be surprised if, in turn, the Egyptians had not taken artefacts from other parts of the ancient world.  For that matter, what about the work done by the Israelites in Egypt before the Exodus?  If not for the fear it might be taken seriously I might suggest Israel could claim this.

In fact, these treasures are often more symbolic of the greater rape of natural resources and human labour that still continues today in many parts of the world today.  Indeed being brought up in the shadow of the South Wales coal valleys, I am well aware that the benefits of natural resources rarely go to the countries where they are found nor the labourers who mine them.

One of the key arguments against repatriation of ancient artefacts is that the curatorial standards are higher where they are presently.  Indeed the pillage of Iraqi sites after the fall of Saddam could be seen as overwhelming evidence that institutions such as the British Museum do the whole world a service.  Repatriation of artefacts to less secure countries would put at risk our shared global heritage; after all who knows what civilisation the UK and US will decide to decimate next.

final solution

During the Holocaust the Nazi regime killed somewhere between 250,000 and 1,000,000 gypsies1, a greater proportion of the gypsy population than of the Jews.

While the Jewish holocaust brought widespread sympathy (even if muted by Israeli actions now-a-days) and a recognition of the evil of anti-Semitism.   However, prejudice and persecution of gypsies has if anything hardened.   Since the Second World War, nomadic life styles in the UK have been made all but illegal by the banning of camping on common land that was accepted (albeit often reluctantly) in previous centuries.  Legitimate camping has been made ever more difficult as gypsies are usually refused planning permission to buy their own land, and in recent years UK local authorities’ duty to provide at least some official camping places has been relaxed, meaning that in most parts of the country there is no legal place to stop.

The front page of the Sunday Express reports the latest attempt to ‘crackdown’ on the ancient way of life of this people, turning what was until now civil prosecutions into criminal law.  I had thought the Cameron-Clegg coalition we had elected had been between Conservative and Liberal parties, but it seems more like the BNP.

Britain, and we are not alone, is still seeking to finish the work that Hitler started.

  1. Because gypsies were often off record, it is harder to obtain the exact number, hence the wide variation.  For more details, see  “Gypsies in the Holocaust” at the Jewish Virtual Library and Porajmos (the devouring) at Wikipedia[back]

and they said they would protect front line services

Just been at a public meeting about imminent cuts in the school here on Tiree. In a small school like this (120 pupils) losing several posts isn’t just a matter of shrinking slightly, but means that whole subjects, such as French, drop off the curriculum.

There are two issues here.  One is for the island and other small communities, as the funding formulae assume class sizes that are untenable in a small school; that is making sure the cuts that come, and we know they must, are applied fairly.

The second is  wider, remembering that all parties in the election promised to protect ‘front line services’; this is part of  a cut across all education provision in the region – everywhere there are less teachers … and this is before the harshest budget cuts begin.