13 January 2023

Are schools bad for people?

Extract from chapter ‘Dozing in the staff room’, in:

It’s your time you’re wasting: A teacher’s tales of classroom hell, by Frank Chalk (pseudonym):
The group [of teachers] on the next table are discussing one of the ‘Please make me famous, I’m desperate’-type programmes that seem to be on the telly every night these days. When I first started teaching, and we’re not talking in the Dark Ages, most teachers were reasonably serious-minded people who wouldn’t have given a moment’s thought to this tripe. Now the staff room is littered with dog-eared copies of Heat, OK and Garbage (OK, I made the last one up). The group [of teachers] chatting about the show seem quite fascinated by it; at least, they show a working knowledge of the various characters and their moronic machinations.

I must admit I really cannot understand this mad desire to be famous, although I know it inhabits almost every single one of my pupils. I can understand people wanting to be rich, because it increases the options available to you and should, in theory, take away financial worries (although no doubt it brings its own problems). But the desire to be known by everyone strikes me as plain weird.*

* Frank Chalk, It’s your time you’re wasting, Monday Books, 2006, p.66.

01 November 2022

Children and Mill’s principle of liberty

J.S.Mill (1806-1873)
As quite a young child, I was under the impression that it was a basic principle of accepted morality and legislation that an individual’s freedom of action should not be restricted except in so far as his actions might impinge upon the freedom of others. A century ago this principle was to a large extent respected. Provided you kept the law you could make your own decisions, subject to the resources and opportunities you had, and could try to enlarge your resources and opportunities. The law, it is true, violated the principle by including some moral elements, such as a prohibition of homosexuality, which could scarcely be justified as restraining the infringement of the liberty of others, as between consenting adults. A law of this kind was evidently based on psychological grounds, that people doing things of this kind might generate disapproval in others, and persons should be protected from having to feel such things.

Although the modern world has repealed the penalties for homosexuality between consenting adults, this is scarcely likely to have been out of concern for individual liberty; more likely the repeal was made because sex is the modern opium of the people, it being supposed that if they are encouraged to fill their lives with such harmless distractions they will not notice more serious oppressions.

Nowadays legislation is frequently justified on statistical grounds: that we must bring about a state of affairs in which society as a whole is the way we (that is, the legislators) would like it to be. I first noticed this when a law was brought in prohibiting the taking of what are now called GCSEs before a person’s sixteenth birthday. Even at the time, and before I realised how serious the effects of this would be on my own educational prospects, I thought this to be surprisingly immoral legislation. Surely a person was not doing anyone else any harm by taking an exam younger than the average? The only harm you could be said to be doing was psychological: it might make other people jealous. But then the acquisition of any benefit in life might make other people jealous. If you started to take psychological considerations such as this into account you could plainly justify practically any restriction of individual freedom of action. What other people would like best would be to see you living a dull, unambitious life, enlivened only by such diversions as they permitted themselves, such as the aforementioned opium of the people.

30 September 2022

The basic moral principle — II

Part 1 of ‘The basic moral principle’ is here.

Having stated the basic moral principle, it can be seen that it is freely violated in modern society.

What destroyed my education, and has made it impossible for me to recover from the effects of that destruction ever since, was not au fond the hostility and oppressiveness of any particular individuals, but the intrinsic immorality of the modern ideology. My parents were operating in an environment in which there was no shortage of people to prescribe to them how they should regard me.

The legislation which prevented the taking of the School Certificate and other exams before a certain age was a clear violation of the basic moral principle. It was denying to the individual who might be taking exams, or to his parents who were supposed to be considering his interests, the right to evaluate for himself how serious were the advantages or disadvantages, in an existential perspective, and in view of his individual characteristics and outlook, of taking an exam of a certain kind at a particular age.

People’s lack of sensitivity to this basic principle of morality, even so soon after the Second World War when the Welfare State had been in force for only a few years, was shown by the fact that even supposedly conservative newspapers found no fault with the legislation. Protests were made on behalf of a few children who were clearly going to be prevented from taking exams that they were well able to take, but newspaper articles which discussed such individuals were only too willing to impose solutions of their own, on the lines of ‘If he/she is so clever, he/she can easily pass the time reading books/playing chess/doing good works.’

This shows that the willingness to impose solutions and interpretations on other people’s lives was already well developed. No doubt it always has been, and that is why there is little hope of the basic moral principle being upheld, except in a free-market society in which an individual can defend himself against other people’s ideas of what he ought to want by paying with money for what he does want.

Of course, the young person is necessarily at a disadvantage so long as he has to depend on decisions being made on his behalf by a parent, and even more so if he is dependent on decisions being made by someone who has not even some sense of genetic bonding with him. One of the things which would have saved my education from complete disaster, so that its inverse could be said to be the cause of its ruin, would have been an age of legal majority which was related to mental rather than chronological age. On the most conservative estimates of my IQ, I would certainly have been, on that basis, of age and free to make decisions for myself well before the School Certificate situation arose.

Clearly those most likely to be disadvantaged by the age-limit legislation were the most precocious (in those days it was not yet explicitly stated that there was no such thing as precocity). So this legislation conveyed to all and sundry that there was no need to take into account any special individual requirements that might arise from special ability. This was treated as implying also that the possibility of any special needs arising from unusually extreme individual characteristics should not on any account be entertained. The latter is pretty much the principle that has been applied to me throughout my life. Could it be that people realise that ignoring the particular requirements which arise from outstanding ability is a good way of providing it with the handicaps which are desirable to cancel the likelihood of its possessor being able to make use of it? Of course by now it has become acceptable to assert that there is no such thing as precocity or outstanding ability anyway. At that time people liked to refer gloatingly to cases of child prodigies who had ‘fizzled out’. The implication of this was not that they had not retained their ability, but that some strange innate deficiencies had rendered them unfunctional in later life. From time to time throughout my life, including quite recently, I have read newspaper articles quoting educational ‘experts’ as remarking on the number of early high achievers who finish up without an academic career. This is supposed to constitute a proof that this is a perfectly natural outcome, but it might just as well be taken as a demonstration of the hostility towards them, and their consequent inappropriate treatment by the educational system.

Some twenty years ago, in connection with the then fashionable proposals for the further deterioration of the university system, Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University was quoted* as saying, ‘Why exactly should Britain’s plumbers and secretaries and telephone operators have to pay for you to come to Warwick? You will earn far more than them. You will have much more interesting jobs.’ This shows how hopeless it is to expect the state to provide for the differing needs of individuals. In reality, there are many factors, of which measurable IQ is only one, which affect the circumstances and types of activity which an individual needs for his well-being. It is impossible to quantify the weighting of these factors in an individual case, and it is a violation of the basic moral principle to impose conditions on him which take into account only very few factors.

And, supposing (as I do) that IQ and other innate characteristics strongly influence the individual’s aptitudes and temperament, let us remember how heavily outnumbered by the majority of the population at large is the minority (about 3%) even with IQs above 130, at which level a child is (or used to be) referred to as ‘gifted’. Really outstanding IQs, at a level which used to be described as ‘near genius’ or ‘potential genius’, constitute a tiny minority of the ‘gifted’ population. So how can it possibly be expected that a democratic society will provide adequately for the needs of, say, the top 1% of the population, of whom the remaining 99% are jealous, and whose success and well-being they resent?

* The Times, 31 May 2000.

31 July 2022

The power of the lie

The power of society depends on the power of the lie. The power of the lie is very great.

The power of the individual depends on the right of possession and the sanctity of facts. Neither of these is recognised by society. It is only under capitalism that there is a recognition of the individual’s right to the facts. He has a right to the facts about his possessions. Consequently facts are themselves regarded as possessing a certain value. In a socialist society no one has any right to the facts. There is no point in facts at all. The power of the state, which is the sole good, is best safeguarded by there being no facts.

People are subjective, but some people are more subjective than others and those who believe in society are the most subjective of all. This is because they have abandoned to society their right to assess facts for themselves, in return for the power that society will give them over others. The high priests of society are social workers, doctors and psychiatrists. Their function is to convince others that they are being subjective if they venture to criticise society.

25 May 2022

The evolution of education

There is a sense in which the authoritarian figures of a socialist society are far more authoritarian than those of a capitalist one. To illustrate this, let us consider the development of authority in the educational system, and the state of affairs regarded as acceptable at the present time.

In a primitive society there is no education in the modern sense. The child joins in activities designed to produce food and so on more or less as soon as he is able, and acquires practical skills from his elders as he goes along.

Education starts to arise when some individuals become rich enough to release their children in their early years from attending to physical necessities, and are either free enough themselves to teach them such things as languages and arithmetic, or can pay for someone to devote his time to doing so. So when teachers arise in the course of a developing civilisation they do so first as paid employees, or even slaves, of the parents.

As civilisation develops further, various charitable and communal efforts may be made to provide an education for at least some of those whose parents are not providing it for them, but this is clearly an imitation of what the parents who do provide for their children’s education see fit to provide.

Finally it is recognised that the amount of effort people are prepared to make to educate other people’s children voluntarily is incommensurate with people’s ability to produce children to be educated; and the task of supplementing the private educational system is passed to the state, with its unlimited power to confiscate money from individuals.

This causes a great change in the status of the persons in roles of authority within the educational system. They are no longer the servants of the parents, they are agents of the collective, and they will feel free to assume a position of superior wisdom where parents are concerned, and even to interfere at will between parents and children.

The final stage in this process is not quite with us at the time of writing. The private educational system, shrunken by taxation and restrictive legislation as it is, is still present and provides a standard of comparison. By this standard it may be perceived that state schools may be very good at generating the right social attitudes and at interfering in people’s lives, but private schools are still better at setting people up to succeed in life, with a higher standard of academic attainment and possibly certain psychological characteristics which result from a less degraded environment. It is therefore regarded as desirable that this standard of comparison should be eliminated altogether, and whatever is provided as education in state schools should be the only standard of what education can be.

12 March 2022

The Romany Rye

George Borrow (1803-1881) was an English author who was contemporary with novelists such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Well-known in his day, and celebrated for several decades after his death, he is now somewhat neglected.

Borrow is best known for two semi-autobiographical novels (Lavengro and its sequel The Romany Rye) which feature, among many encounters with colourful characters, his relationships with members of the Romany folk, whose language he learnt. I read these two books when I was eight and was very struck by them.

The passage below, taken from the Appendix to The Romany Rye and written by Borrow, may convey some of the flavour of the books.
Lavengro is the history up to a certain period of one of rather a peculiar mind and system of nerves, with an exterior shy and cold, under which lurk much curiosity, especially with regard to what is wild and extraordinary, a considerable quantity of energy and industry, and an unconquerable love of independence.

It narrates [the hero’s] earliest dreams and feelings [...] his successive struggles, after his family and himself have settled down in a small local capital, to obtain knowledge of every kind, but more particularly philological lore; his visits to the tent of the Romany chat and the parlour of the Anglo-German philosopher; the effect produced upon his character by his flinging himself into contact with people all widely differing from each other, but all extraordinary; his reluctance to settle down to the ordinary pursuits of life; his struggles after moral truth; his glimpses of God and the obscuration of the Divine Being to his mind’s eye; and his being cast upon the world of London, by the death of his father, at the age of nineteen. [...]

In the country it shows him leading a life of roving adventure, becoming tinker, gypsy, postillion, ostler; associating with various kinds of people, chiefly of the lower classes, whose ways and habits are described; but, though leading this erratic life, we gather from the book that his habits are neither vulgar nor vicious, that he still follows to a certain extent his favourite pursuits — hunting after strange characters, or analyzing strange words and names.
Illustration from Lavengro
(by E.J. Sullivan)
Those who read this book with attention — and the author begs to observe that it would be of little utility to read it hurriedly — may derive much information with respect to matters of philology and literature [... The book] is particularly minute with regard to the ways, manners, and speech of the English section of the most extraordinary and mysterious clan or tribe of people to be found in the whole world — the children of Roma.

08 December 2021

Beethoven’s housekeeper

Beethoven had a housekeeper.* She did the cooking and housekeeping while he composed music. I am sure the modern view of the matter is that Beethoven did not need a housekeeper, or, if he did, he should not have done. Plainly, they should both have composed music, and both have cooked their own meals. The fact that Beethoven composed music better than the housekeeper could have done is beside the point. It is the business of society to iron out these unfair advantages of endowment, not to enhance them. Why should the housekeeper not have had just as much chance to practise creative self-fulfilment?

It is interesting to observe that the housekeeper could probably have composed music just as well in the intervals of her cooking and housekeeping as she could have done if she had had all day free to devote to thinking about music. Beethoven, on the other hand, probably could not have composed nearly as well as he did if he had had to do so part-time. This proves that the housekeeper had a better social adjustment than Beethoven, and is all the more reason why Beethoven should not have received preferential treatment.

* The housekeeper’s name was Sali.

(Extract from The Corpse and the Kingdom, due for publication in 2022.)

22 October 2021

G.I. Gurdjieff

G.I. Gurdjieff
George Gurdjieff (d. 1947) was a mystic who believed in the possibility of a higher state of consciousness, and who tried to convey a method for reaching that state. Although he published several books, his ideas are best approached via the work of his pupils, particularly that of Peter Ouspensky. In his book In Search of the Miraculous, Ouspensky tells of his meeting Gurdjieff in Saint Petersburg in 1915 and of how he spent several years trying to learn from him techniques for overcoming ‘mechanical’ psychology.

Central to the teaching of Gurdjieff is the idea that the normal human personality is largely mechanical, and that the ego falsely imagines itself to be in control, and able to make choices, while in reality it is merely reacting predictably to impulses. In order to make genuine choices, Gurdjieff held, it is necessary to develop radically different psychology, which requires first overcoming the delusion that you are already in control.
I asked G. what a man had to do to assimilate this teaching.
   ‘What to do?’ asked G. as though surprised. ‘It is impossible to do anything. A man must first of all understand certain things. He has thousands of false ideas and false conceptions, chiefly about himself, and he must get rid of some of them before beginning to acquire anything new. Otherwise the new will be built on a wrong foundation and the result will be worse than before.’
   ‘How can one get rid of false ideas?’ I asked. ‘We depend on the forms of our perception. False ideas are produced by the forms of our perception.’
G. shook his head.
‘Again you speak of something different,’ he said. ‘You speak of errors arising from perceptions but I am not speaking of these. Within the limits of given perceptions man can err more or err less. As I have said before, man’s chief delusion is his conviction that he can do. All people think that they can do, all people want to do, and the first question all people ask is what they are to do. But actually nobody does anything and nobody can do anything. This is the first thing that must be understood.
   Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him — all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind.
   Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the results of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels — all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything.
   It all happens.
   To establish this fact for oneself, to understand it, to be convinced of its truth, means getting rid of a thousand illusions about man, about his being creative and consciously organizing his own life, and so on. There is nothing of this kind.
   Everything happens — popular movements, wars, revolutions, changes of government, all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as everything happens in the life of individual man. Man is born, lives, dies, builds houses, writes books, not as he wants to, but as it happens. Everything happens. Man does not love, hate, desire — all this happens.
   But no one will ever believe you if you tell him he can do nothing. This is the most offensive and the most unpleasant thing you can tell people. It is particularly unpleasant and offensive because it is the truth, and nobody wants to know the truth.
   When you understand this it will be easier for us to talk. But it is one thing to understand with the mind and another thing to feel it with one’s “whole mass,” to be really convinced that it is so and never forget it.’
P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, Harvest Books, 2001, pp.20-21.

18 August 2021

Richard Church’s levitation experience

Richard Church (1893-1972)
Richard Church was a poet and novelist who was particularly active during the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps his best known work of prose is the semi-autobiographical trilogy consisting of the novels The Porch, The Stronghold and The Room Within.

Church became better known in later life for his childhood autobiography, Over the Bridge. In this, he recounts two phenomena which he experienced while spending time in a convalescent home (he was prone to poor health as a child).

The first experience involved the perception of time.
One heavy morning, when the outside world was iron-bound with frost, I stood at a long french window in the play-room waiting to go down to breakfast. The sun was just risen beyond the ground, and stood above the lawns, his great red disk etched with naked twigs of the bushes. Under these bushes a gardener was chopping down a dead tree. I watched him. The axe flashed red, and fell. It rose again. The movement, steady and sure, fascinated me. Suddenly I realised that the sound of the blows did not synchronise with what I saw. The thud came when the axe was on an upstroke, ready for the next blow.

I disbelieved the evidence of my eyes. Then I thought my spectacles (those miracle workers) must have betrayed me; or that my illness had begun to affect my vision. I stared intently, screwing up the eye-muscles against any possible intrusion of light or irrelevant image. But the picture I saw and the sound I heard remained disparate. Then, while I stared, knowledge came to me; the knowledge that follows a recognition of fact, of concrete experience, bringing with it a widening both of the universe and of the individual's understanding of it. [...] I had found that time and space are not absolute. Their power was not law. They were not even unanimous; they quarrelled with each other; and through their schism the human imagination, the hope, the faith, could slip, to further exploration where intuition had formerly hinted, but where logic and fatal common sense had denied.
Church continues by describing a second experience, involving him apparently levitating.
Since time and space were deceivers, openly contradicting each other, and at best offering a compromise in place of a law, I was at liberty to doubt further, to carry on my exploration of the horizons of freedom. Still conscious of the warm blood whispering in my veins, I looked down at my wrist and saw the transparent flesh, the bird-bones, the channels of blue beneath the skin. All this was substance as fragile as a plant. It could not possibly outweigh the solid earth under my feet, where I and the rest of duped mankind walked with such docility. [...] I sensed, with a benignancy deeper and more assured than reason, that my limbs and trunk were lighter than they seemed, and that I had only to reduce them by an act of will, perhaps by a mere change of physical mechanics, to command them off the ground, out of the tyranny of gravitation.

I exerted that will, visualising my hands and feet pressing downwards upon the centre of the earth. It was no surprise to me that I left the ground, and glided about the room (which was empty) some twelve or eighteen inches above the parquet floor. At first I was afraid of collapsing, of tumbling and hurting myself. But I had only to draw in a deep breath, and to command the air through the heavy portions of my anatomy, watching it flow and dilute the solid bone and flesh through the helpful chemistry of the blood, this new, released and knowledgeable blood, and I soared higher, half-way to the ceiling. This thoroughly frightened me, and I allowed myself to subside, coming to ground with a gentleness that was itself a sensuous delight.

I could not leave the matter there. I must put my discovery to the test again, and accordingly I drew in a deep breath and was just about to visualise that downward pressure of will upon body, when the door opened, and a nurse came in.

'Why, little boy?' she said. 'Haven't you heard the breakfast bell?'

Then she took a second glance at me, stooped and peered into my face. 'Is anything wrong? Are you feeling poorly this morning?'

I was almost indignant, and disclaimed the suggestion that I might have a temperature, for that would mean going to bed in the large ward where a pail stood conspicuously in the middle, on a sheet of mackintosh; an improvisation which disgusted me.

I hurried away without replying, leaving the nurse looking after me with some inquiry in her manner. The corridor and staircase were empty, for everybody was at breakfast in the vast dining-room below. Here was another opportunity! I drew my breath again, I scorned the liars of time and space, I took the presence of Christ into my hollow, featherweight bones, and I floated down the staircase without touching either tread or baluster. Alighting outside the dining-room door, I entered and took my seat, content now to live incognito amongst these wingless mortals.

Extracts taken from Richard Church, Over the Bridge, London: Heinemann, 1970, pp.170-173.

13 June 2021

Mary Somerville, Scottish polymath

Mary Somerville, born Mary Fairfax in 1780, was a Scottish scientist, known particularly for her books on astronomy and other physical sciences. Somerville College in Oxford is named after her. However, when I was at Somerville there was little sign of her in the college. I came across no portraits of her, and none of the undergraduates I knew seemed aware of who the college was named after.

In spite of the limited availability of education for girls at the time, Somerville seems to have seized her opportunities whenever they arose. For example, when she heard a teacher advising another (male) student to read Euclid’s Elements, she decided that she should do so too, as it would help her understand a textbook on navigational theory.

Her inheritance from the death of her first husband gave Somerville the freedom to pursue intellectual interests. She started to make a name for herself in 1811 when she was awarded a medal for solving a mathematical problem.

In 1827 Somerville was hired to translate Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. She produced an expanded version of the first two volumes which was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens. This book made her famous, and remained a textbook for undergraduates until the 1880s. Somerville’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, sold over 10,000 copies and consolidated her reputation in physical science.

When Mary Somerville died in 1872, she was described in an obituary as the ‘queen of science’.