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Friday, January 30, 2009

The Captains and the Kings Depart

It is okay to admit to some nostalgia for the British Empire?

One of my students, a Pakistani, asked me recently how I felt about it. It was a difficult question. On the one hand, I was raised in Canada on my grandfather's old boys' books, published in the early years of the 20th century. They made the British Empire seem a glorious thing. On the other hand, I am ethnically Irish, and my grandmother never let me forget that the Irish were treated very badly by the English.

All that being so, however, perhaps it leaves me as fair a judge as we can find. And I do feel some nostalgia.

Is empire wrong? Not necessarily. It is wrong if you believe in the primacy, the essential rightness, of the nation state. But the nation state is, at its core, to be perfectly frank, racist. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were the ultimate nation states. Isn't a multi-national state morally better? Does it not better conform with the universal brotherhood of man?

By the same token, if the person heading your state is of a different ethniciy or race than you, is that a problem? Only if you are racist. Only if you have a problem with, say, President Barack Obama. Or Queen Elizabeth II, ethnically German. Or the Scottish Gordon Brown.

Certainly, empire was good for human prosperity and human progress. Expanded, open trade makes everyone richer. Open trade in ideas makes us all the wiser. As The Economist once pointed out, only in very recent years has China recovered the same portion of world trade it held in 1900. The notion of the white people “looting” the dark races was, for the most part, a myth, though there were some exceptions. The foreigners made their profits, but the local workmen got their pay, and the local merchants and entrepreneurs their prices and their contracted fees. The British kept the peace, dealt fairly ont he whole, and they left some very fine infrastructure, infrastructure that is often still relied upon, a half-century or more after the last foreigners left.

What of the shame of the local people, being treated as if they were wards? Fair enough; but the same argument ought to hold equally against foreign aid. Let them pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, then?

Of course, an empire is not a democracy. There is that criticism, surely?

Agreed; but I think it is also objectively fair to say that not all societies can handle a democracy. I recall the Saudi Ambassador to the US explaining this to Bill O'Reilly, on the latter's show, and being hooted down by the host. I knew he was right, but knew I would once have agreed with O'Reilly. I heard the same argument from a Vietnamese neutralist back during the US-Vietnam War, and doubted him.

But, having lived in various places around the world since, I now believe it—just, I might add, as Thomas Jefferson did. A democracy needs, first and foremost, a responsible ruling elite who are prepared to enter into a gentleman's agreement not to abuse power once they attain it, and to peacefully pass it on to someone else when the system requires it. That needs a huge amount of trust—trust, for example, that they are not themselves immediately going to be imprisoned or executed by their successors.

Without that, no democracy will last past the first fair elections; as history has repeatedly demonstrated. And, failing democracy, a disinterested, but essentially honest, foreign ruling authority may be the best remaining alternative.

In fact, an empire, acting as a court and police force of last resort, can be the ideal guarantor of democracy. It would have been best, perhaps, if the British Empire had worked harder in this direction. Nevertheless, it may have sown some seeds. And I suspect the fundamental insight was right, that the societies over which Britain held control were not ready for democracy for the most part.

India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Ireland, Malta, and others emerged from the Empire as functioning democracies. Had the Empire lasted longer, perhaps more would have as well. It may not be coincidence that there seems to be a correlation between successful democracy post-Empire, and how long Britain held control over the territory. The oldest colonies have experienced the most successful transition.

That being so, the British Empire might, I think, in the end, have taken another course. A course that was actually proposed by many at the beginning of the 20th century. It might have slowly evolved into an international federation, like the EU, with nations becoming full partners in an Imperial Parliament once they had established their democratic traditions.

Perhaps it is for that lost opportunity that I feel most nostalgic. Had it come to pass, we surely would have avoided much human suffering: in the partition of India, in Idi Amin's Uganda, in apartheid South Africa, in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, in the Sri Lankan civil war, in the Yemeni civil war, in Saddam's Iraq, in the partition of Cyprus—even, perhaps, in the ongoing tragedy of Palestine.

It would be a very different world.

And wouldn't it, frankly, be a better world?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Buy Gold--Or Paper Mills


Here's a graph that scares me, courtesy of Captain Capitalism: it claims to show the US monetary supply.

It looks as though scrip is being printed at an unprecedented rate.

My guess is that the theory is that this will prevent deflation, as money has been sucked out of the system by the credit collapse.

But it sure looks reckless to me.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Indian Takers

According to this story in the National Post, aboriginals are being harmed by the “reparations” payments for the harm done by residential schools.

Should have seen that one coming.

Inevitably, now, having been called upon to pay for free schooling for aboriginals, and then for reparations for paying for free schooling, the rest of us in Canada will be called upon to pay reparations for the reparations for providing free schooling. Then, perhaps, reparations for the reparations for the reparations for providing free schooling.

And so on it goes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Excommunicating Holocaust Deniers

There is currently great controversy over Pope Benedict’s lifting of the excommunication on four bishops of the St. Pius X Society (SSPX); because one of them, Richard Williamson, is quite recently on record as believing the Holocaust has been overstated. Williamson holds that, on best historical evidence, only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis, not the common figure of 6 million.

This has Jewish groups in an uproar, amid charges of anti-Semitism.

I don’t agree.

Why is it up to the Catholic Church, in the first place, to decide and pronounce on a matter for scholars of history? Surely those who want this would also have to condone the Church pronouncing on matters of science, and can no longer object to the prosecution of Galileo. (Even if you accept that Galileo was prosecuted on his scientific, and not his theological, views). And, even if Williamson is demonstrably wrong on his history, why is this a matter for excommunication?

Perhaps the opponents of Mr. Williamson wish to claim that the historical evidence is so overwhelming that no one could in good conscience believe what he believes. It cannot be so—there are of course no detailed records of who died in the Holocaust, and any figure we arrive at is an estimate. But what if it were certain? If so, it would still be perfectly possible to believe it—if one were insane. It is even perfectly possible to believe a historical falsehood without being insane, if one is sufficiently ignorant. And neither insanity nor ignorance, if it is not willful, is a sin.

In order to condemn Williamson, or indeed any “Holocaust denier,” the Church would have to determine that he is claiming to believe something he does not believe—i.e., that he is guilty of the sin of lying. Without a personal confession, how can they possibly do so? And even if so, is lying normally cause for excommunication?

Indeed, is such a lie likely? What could be the motive, in denying something everyone else believes to be true? This is never going to earn one respect, wealth, a comfortable life, or many new friends. It is only going to cause one problems, at a personal level. In fact, as Williamson himself pointed out, denying the conventional wisdom on the Holocaust can lead to prison.

What could be worth it? Williamson’s opponents would probably suggest hatred of the Jews is sufficient. But I doubt it. Suppose Williamson really did, for whatever reason, hate Jews to a point approaching infinity. Still, why would he suppose that expressing this historical opinion would be of any value? For, contrary to claims, his expressing his opinion on this matter is highly unlikely to do any harm to any Jew.

Indeed, for the opponents of Williamson, there is a Catch-22 here. If the true numbers of the Holocaust are so certain, Williamson’s remarks are necessarily harmless, as the ravings of a madman, because easily disproven. If, on the other hand, they have any credibility, they are legitimate comment, and may not be silenced.

Moreover, in the absence of any other plausible motive, it seems almost certain that anyone who openly denies the full extent of the Holocaust is doing so, in fact, out of genuine conviction, and therefore in good conscience. They are doing so, not against conscience, but in order to stay in conformity with it. They really must believe what they are saying.

Accordingly, therefore, though they may be objectively wrong, it follows that “Holocaust deniers” ought to be treated with deference, not condemned, by those of us who care about conscience. They are not bad people; at worst, they are good, but misguided, people.

This includes Ernst Zundel. A Jewish friend who knew him remotely was troubled to learn that Zundel would turn down contracts on moral grounds: he would not, for example, airbrush a scene for a client to hide pollution.

This, not incidentally, is the farthest thing from a real Nazi, the farthest thing from a Hitler. It is at the opposite extreme. Hitler was a perfect opportunist, a complete psychopath. He believed nothing.

We have met the Nazis, and they is us.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Welcome to the Village

Patrick McGoohan died last week.

Though largely overlooked in recent years, in many ways, McGoohan was the most impressive character to emerge in the 1960s.

It was an era of great male charisma: James Bond, John Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, and more, and more. But for charisma, none could top Patrick McGoohan. No less formidable a man than Orson Welles claimed McGoohan intimidated even him with his stage presence. The veteran actor Leo McKern attested that, after playing an especially intense scene with McGoohan, he required the immediate services of two psychiatrists.

Unsuprisingly, then, McGoohan was early offered the role of James Bond. He certainly fit the concept better than Sean Connery did—a fine amateur boxer, better looking than Connery, with a better upper-class accent. He turned it down—twice.

He turned it down as a matter of principle: he could not condone the sleazy sexual element, and he thought the Bond stories were gratuitously violent.

For Patrick McGoohan was, first and foremost, a serious Catholic.

When he finally agreed to take a role in the secret agent genre, as “Danger Man” for British TV (aka “Secret Agent”), he had two requirements written into the contract: series plots must always rely on strategy before violence was contemplated; and no kissing. “Television,” he explained, “has a moral obligation to its audience.”

By the mid-sixties, he was the best-paid actor, they say, in England. In those days, you can be sure, given the times, he could have had any woman he wanted, in any way he wanted. Yet, to his credit, he died last week still married to the woman he wed in 1951, before his fame. He was the real article.

At the height of “Danger Man”'s success, he walked away. He was bored with it; he did not want to repeat himself. He pitched instead a completely new series, which he conceived, starred in, produced, largely wrote and sometimes directed, called “The Prisoner.” This is where I came in: I became fascinated by it in reruns a few years after its initial, deliberately limited, run in 1967.

“The Prisoner” is obviously allegorical; and there is something eternal and universal about it. It is that something, to my mind, that distinguishes great art. In it, a secret agent who has resigned is trapped in a place called “The Village,” while some unknown authority tries to extract information from him.

But if “The Prisoner” is allegory, and “The Village” in which he is trapped is allegorical, what is the allegory? One one level, definitely, it is an allegory for life itself. The story is Pilgrim's Progress, the progress of a soul struggling against temptation. But if you are being literal-minded, there is really, in the end, I believe, only one coherent explanation for the Village: what it is, and where it is, in relation to the real world. “The Village” is, quite precisely, the Catholic Purgatory. Nothing else fits—in it, clearly supernatural things happen, and in the final episode, “Number One,” the shadowly figure in ultimate control of the Prisoner's fate, turns out to be the Prisoner himself.

This is correct Catholic doctrine. God does not punish—we choose our punishments ourselves.

After “The Prisoner,” McGoohan more or less retired—he only appeared on stage or screen episodically after it, though he surely must have been offered many scripts, many roles. He had enough money, and disliked fame. "I abhor the word 'star,'” he observed. “It makes the hair on the back of my neck want to curl up."

He was, in sum, a great man: a great artist, and at the same time great in a moral sense. A very rare bird.

I have often argued that the Sixties were, in their inception and essential inpiration, a revolution of cultural Catholicism against Modernism; but a revolution that was, in the end, highjacked by other forced and destroyed.

Patrick McGoohan is a model of what the Sixties ought to have been and become.

But he himself foresaw their failure, too. The prediction is explicit in “The Prisoner” that, among other things, “The Village” is a model for a new world order.

And it is just about what we have today.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama. Barack Obama.

I missed the Obama inauguration on television. Everybody, I hear, is expecting wonderful things. But I was busy watching old reruns of The Prisoner. I was hit hard by the recent death of Patrick McGoohan, and may have more to say about him soon. But in the meantime, I have gained from this an insight into what the James Bond phenomenon and fascination with secret agents back in the 1960s was all about.

On its face, it was nonsense. A secret agent is essentially a government bureaucrat. Who can believe that any real government bureaucrats are that clever, or work that hard? But it all spoke to something important to many in the 60s—one bit of evidence is how easy it was for everyone to believe that the Kennedy assassination must have been the result of some sort of conspiracy.

The opening sequence to The Prisoner series, I think, gives a clue. It shows the agent, played by McGoohan, offering his resignation. He bursts through the doors of some underground control centre to confront his boss. And there, behind his boss, sitting at his huge desk, is a map of the world, with all the bits of the British Empire and Commonwealth still coloured pink, and little lights flashing in places like Capetown, Wellington, Montreal and Sydney.

It was the world as it no longer was in 1968, when the series was made, even though in other matters it strove to be high-tech for the time, full of scientists, gadgets, and secret weapons.

The Second World War was, in 1968, still not that long ago. It changed the world drastically, and I think for many in Britain in particular, the changes were one hell of a shock, even if Britain won. For Britain, it was a classic Pyrrhic victory. The expense of it blew away their empire.

I think their fascination with secret agents and the technological gizmos of the Ms of the screen was wish fulfillment. They wanted to believe that, although this visible empire seemed to be gone, there was still a secret network below ground that held together—that all appearances were deceiving and Britain really still was a major player. Moreover, they were working on a secret weapon or weapons that would, some day soon, make this all apparent, and see everything revert back to the way it was and ought to be.

I think the wish was strongest in Britain, but reverberated also through most other nations. For Germany, it was the end of its quest for greatness; for France, a great humiliation; for the US, an end to supposed innocence. The James Bonds were figures of reassurance that somewhere there were people in command who understood all that had happened and were making sure it was all going to work out okay. People of infinite savoir faire, working in secret, full of a sense of the irony of it all. All a big joke, really.

Which brings us to the Inauguration. For the cult of Barack Obama is rather reminiscent, to me, of the cult of James Bond. A man on a white horse who will somehow pull or hold it all together.

But what is it that is so in need of saving? The USA? I don't think so. The US may be in bad shape right now, but so is everyone; I see no fair comparison with the condition of Britain post war.

But times more generally are changing, and we may be going through a similar shock. The Soviet Empire, one half the old equation, fell; China and India rise. Many old liberal verities have been proven hollow. It may be liberalism, the liberalism that found its touchstone in the human rights movement of the 1960s, that needs a black man of infinite savoir faire who seems to know what is really going on.

Just as Britain in 1960 needed a man of the old imperial upper class.

Real change?

Everyone needs a cover story.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Teachers and Eternity

Please do not think, gentle reader, when I criticise the current method of training or of certifying teachers, that I am criticising teachers; do not think, when I criticize contemporary standards of art, that I am criticising artists. Just the reverse of the reverse of the reverse: it is because true teaching and true art are so important that I feel I must fight mightily against their subversion.

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians (12):

28And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[d]? Do all interpret? 31But eagerly desire[e] the greater gifts.


This ranks vocations in order of their true importance—not in the eyes of the world, but from the vantage point of eternity. Apostles, in current terms, are surely the priests, the formal successors of the apostles; more broadly, say, religious leaders. Prophets are second—in modern terms, artists, those who are inspired. Blake made this connection, and I think it is exactly right: an artist's work is the Holy Spirit speaking through him, or it is nothing. Teachers come third; no mean place.

Who works miracles? I think at least a case could be made that the modern profession referred to is engineering, which regularly produces visible and, quite literally, “supernatural” wonders. Surely it must be so—God would not abandon the church. The gifts of the spirit must still be with us; they would not have been withdrawn. Some modern vocation must then involve the working of miracles, or else it would be so. And if so, which other then than engineering?

Gifts of healing? Here the true physicians. Gifts of administration? The businessmen. Speaking in tongues—or, as it can also be rendered, “speaking many languages”--the translators, linguists, and interpreters.

I'd say teachers do rather well by this classification: below artists and clergy, but above doctors, engineers, and administrators. Lawyers do not even figure--which sounds right. They are no doubt of a different party.

All of these, then, are vocations. They are gifts of the spirit. They require a certain knack, if you like; and without it, nothing more can be done.

But more than that—all are essentially religious in nature. When, as in this blog recently, one wants to argue for the fruits of true prophecy, as in "by their fruits you shall know them," no doubt the presence or absence of these gifts should be taken into the ledger.

And aren't they evidence for the truth of Christianity? At its inception, Christianity set its own criterion for its truth, that it should be judged by the fruits it produced. Moreover, it cited these as its expected fruits: accomplishments in priesthood, art, education, engineering, healing, administration, and languages.

And is it not Christian civilization that currently leads, by common consensus, in all of these fields? Has it not led in all for at least the last five hundred years?

But the fact that these are gifts of the spirit leads to another, more sombre, consideration. Without that religious anchor, all these endeavours have accordingly lost their meaning, lost their direction, and must inevitably eventually lose their powers.

That is where both modern teaching, and modern art, have gone astray.

No: that is where modern teaching, modern art, modern engineering, modern medicine, modern administration, modern linguistics, and even to a large extent modern priesthood, have gone astray.

This is suicide.

But even amongst this larger group, teachers, for obvious reasons, hold a special responsibility not to do so, not to stray. What could be more perverse, more in the service of evil, than to lead others to follow a path that is wrong?

St. James sounds the warning bell (James 3):

1Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.


Hence my concern. That, and for my own two children...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Fountain Just Keeps Flowing




Snore.

The National Post today reports, on the front page, a shocking new art exhibit. Thanks to generous federal funding, the UQAM gallery is currently featuring Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca No. 5, a machine that recreates the stages of human digestion. Patrons are then encouraged to buy the actual stools produced by the machine, each individually signed by the artist. No doubt not cheap.

It is a perfect example of a very well-established genre, working like a well-oiled timepiece. Key to the success of the art and the exhibit, of course, is that it makes possible the perfect shocked headlines—“taxpayers’ money being spent on s***!”, and all that. The shock and outrage are of course exactly the point. Great PR, drawing people to the exhibit and boosting the artist’s name and marketability.

And the sophisticates, those in the know, are able to effortlessly show their greater sophistication buy buying this s***. For them, it’s a complete no-brainer, conveniently allowing them to appear smart without having to actually, you know, think. They can trot out the tired old clich├ęs they’ve been trained to say. “Every generation of artists tries to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable as art, which materials, which ideas,” explains the museum’s curator, Wayne Baerwaldt, justifying his no doubt substantial academic’s pay.

It works well for everyone; except, of course, it really is s***. There is just nothing else there. There’s nothing in the least new or shocking about it all; because the shock itself is predictable, familiar, and therefore feigned. As is the newness of it, the pretense of pushing forward some boundary. Just the reverse; it is plain evidence that art has not pushed forward any new boundaries for roughly a century. It’s all been done, quite literally, on an average of once every two weeks or so in every largeish city for the last hundred years. Who has not seen similar headlines about similar works of art more often than they can count? Urine-soaked statues, statues made of dung, nude artists, preserved body parts, and on and on. Shocking? Boring and predictable.

And, if you take away the shock value, what could really be more banal? What could be more trivial than s***? What could be more superficial than skin itself?

If there was a point to be made here, it was already made, completely, once and for all, by Marcel Duchamp with his 1917 “sculpture” Fountain, which was, quite simply, a urinal. That was it. Is there really anything in Delvoye’s Cloaca No. 5 that was not already fully expressed in Fountain, almost a hundred years ago?

It’s all a sham, then; it’s all a fraud. It works for funding agencies, galleries, and critics precisely because, not knowing what they are doing, they need something perfectly predictable to know it is art. This is exactly what Duchamp was protesting against, and even his work has been twisted to fit the gallery mold. It works even better for artists, because once established and identified as “artists,” they are able to churn out the expected product now without any real effort, and, even better, without talent.

Way to go, Pharisees!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Memories of Great Teachers

Teacher friend Brian Millar contributes to my project of defining a good teacher by adding his own reminiscences:

Miss M

My grade 1 teacher, Miss M. She was a kindly grey-haired old lady who had been doing it for years. I think she had a normal certificate which meant she had two years of education beyond high school, such as it was on the prairies in the 30's. When she discovered I was reading novels from the children’s library upon entering grade 1, she made a deal with me. I could read my own book under the desk as long as I followed along and read Run, Spot, Run (which I thought was horrendously stupid and a waste of time) when my time came. She had turtle races on the window ledges and bunnies and hamsters in the class (note - livestock in any form is not permitted in today’s politically-correct schools). She kissed our boo boo's, put on twenty five pair of mitts and boots at two recesses, lunch and going-home times, and was generally a saint. I think even the newly immigrated kids (mostly German and Italian, right after the war) learned to read, speak English and do their arithmetic.

Od:
Based on your description, I think the divine Miss M. exemplifies the following four points:

1. Not disciplinarian; gives students their head and their dignity as much as possible consistent with good order.
2. Loose with curriculum; avoids the assembly-line for a more relaxed, holistic approach, open to the real world outside the classroom.
3. Varies her teaching techniques and experiments with new material and approaches.
4. Shows an interest in her students as individuals.

She might have been weak on general knowledge, or might not. BM notes that she had only two years past high school in formal education. But possession of a degree is only an indication. She might have been self-taught. As were Shakespeare, Einstein, Walt Disney, or Bill Gates.


Mister L.B.

My grade 8 teacher was a fellow by the name of L. B. He was a Maori from New Zealand and the first person of colour I had ever had any experience with. He was a jazz musician good enough to replace Oscar Petersen in his trio when he was sick. He drove a Volvo P1800 convertible and was in love with our skinny English teacher, whom I hated. He taught us history and music, but mostly he taught us whatever came on any given day. We were a "gifted" class and finished our official curriculum in about 15 minutes. He had some of the druids in his music class – who, compared to my group, were dumb as posts. He still inspired them with quizzes on cars, on music, on sports ... and he genuinely seemed to like and understand them, possibly because he grew up rough himself. He brought anthropologists and musicians to school as guest speakers.

We had one student who was from Alabama ... still had the accent. She almost got thrown out of school the first week when she loudly declared no nigger was teaching her or telling her what to do. He changed her attitude and mind so much she bawled her eyes out in June when we learned he was going to Toronto.

Od:
Mr. B was obviously not a stickler for the curriculum, showed an interest in his students as individuals, varied his teaching techniques, and was not a disciplinarian. Also, it seems clear, he was very knowledgeable.


Mister A.

Mr. A was my grade 10 drama and social studies teacher. By many standards he was incompetent. You could get him talking about local flora and fauna or the geography of the region at the drop of the hat when you were supposed to be studying dates and names from the War of 1812. Thing was everyone listened and he turned more than a few people on to being curious about one subject or another. His real strength was Drama. He took three groups from a crummy little prairie town to the Dominion Drama Festival finals. He had us doing stuff in high school that nobody our age should have even touched.

Od:
Not a stickler for the curriculum. Sounds too as though he must have been an entertaining speaker; otherwise how did he hold student attention? Also surely demonstrated broad general knowledge as well as considerable skill in his official subject, drama.

So far, it sounds to me as though my description of good teachers from memory is holding up. I hope more will chime in.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What is the Sound of Right Brain Teaching?

Brian Millar, my teacher friend, forwards an article titled “What Makes a Good Teacher.”

It is worth looking at, because it is a fine example of what is wrong with most stuff coming out of the Education Schools. It is only too typical of the genre.

Most notably, the author lays down rules for what makes a good teacher without citing any authority, evidence, or argument for them. Where did they come from? Were they beamed from Mars through her tinfoil helmet?

Perhaps this comes from the continuing need in the field to conceal the fact that it has no verifiable data. But the most disturbing aspect of this is that it is a hellacious model to present to someone aspiring to be a classroom teacher, because it is exactly what you should not do. You should never teach what you are teaching as the received Truth From On High (unless it is). You should give your students their own heads, and let them think for themselves. Indeed, that is the most valuable thing you can teach them. The UNESCO respondents seem to agree with me.

The next problem is that the terminology is deliberately inexact--inexact enough for people to interpret the advice more or less as they like to support their own preferences, or to claim that their present practice, whatever it might be, fits. "Have expectations of success for all students"? How is that manifested? "Tolerate ambiguity"?

It is, in sum a waste of my time as a reader, and would be a waste of my time as a student. It has zero content.

I especially love the quote from the Tao Te Ching with which it ends. The Tao Te Ching is an extremely ironic document; it has much the paradoxical nature of the Zen koan. It is unlikely to be helpful to the typical classroom teacher. What is one to make of this:


Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
Simple in actions and thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
You reconcile all being in the world.


Oooh… profound.

The Tao Te Ching also advises that the best government is one that feeds the people's bellies, keeps them frightened, and tells them nothing.

Friday, January 09, 2009

On Magic Negroes

If you can get past the cussing, here's a really fine piece of writing. Best thing yet on the "Obama the Magic Negro" controversy.

No More Teachers' Dirty Looks!

Someone at UNESCO has actually thought of asking students around the world what makes a good teacher (hat tip to my teacher friend in Kamloops, Brian Millar). The data is limited, and the responses we see were selected by an adult editorial team, but it's a useful first test of my own idea, expressed recently on this blog, that students at the lower levels are competent to assess their own teachers; and to see if my own impressions of what made a good teacher for me are generally shared—even, indeed, across cultures.

In fact, the impressions of these young kids seem mostly pretty sensible. The only comment that raises doubts for me is Albrecht's (10, from the Czech Republic): “A teacher should have an athletic body.”

But to be fair to Albrecht—the same issue comes up in student evaluations of profs at the tertiary level. Profs at RateMyProfessors.com are evaluated on being “hot.” And how foolish is this, really? This is someone we are obliged to stare at for hours, days, weeks on end. Isn't that easier to do if this is a pleasant experience?

The impressions also seem to tally with my own, confirming my nine points on what good teaching involves.

I note, for example, that the responses do not seem to support a disciplinarian approach:

Note Rose, 9:

"You need to be kind, trusting and friendly to me... you must listen and understand us all... never lose your temper or ignore us... I like a smile and a kind word."

Marie-Isabelle, 11, of Ghana agrees:

"A good teacher must reason with children instead of beating them."

So does 11-year-old Jana:

"They shouldn’t be very strict and angry, because it makes children afraid of them and unwilling to go to school."

Catrina of Portugal writes:

"She makes the classes an amusement and not a prison."

Yeah, exactly. That's my own Mr. Moore well-described.

Omar from Morocco makes that same point I do about playing loose with the curriculum:

"A good teacher answers the needs of the pupils and not only the needs of the chosen programme."

Others talk often of the need for education to be holistic, not just in the given subject.

Kabyemela of Tanzania, 13, agrees with me that subject knowledge is important. Other respondents at least hint at it. Nawal writes:

"A good teacher is someone who transmits to the future generation what is the most precious to her: her culture and her education."

Almost everybody talks of the importance of seeing the students as individuals, and of enjoying teaching for its own sake.

The problem is that this is not a random survey—the printed responses have been selected. We do not really know if they reflect the larger body of responses or not.

Still, it is suggestive.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

More on Good Teaching

A teacher friend of mine, Brian Millar of Kamloops, has suggested that my list of good qualities in a teacher lacks something he has seen in surveys:

“The teacher had to be able to admit they made mistakes. Humanness rather than subject knowledge.”

I think he’s right, even though I want my data to come from personal recollections by adults, not any other course. But this does: it tallies with my sense that the good teachers I had level with the students, and do not assume an air of superiority. I just missed putting that in point form at the end.

So here’s my added ninth amendment on good teaching:

9. Does not talk down to the students. For example, admits and corrects any mistakes.

But I disagree that this is an "either/or" proposition in relation to subject knowledge. If a teacher were often making mistakes, then looking them up and correcting them later, I do not think I would have been at all impressed. And the real problem here is teachers who make mistakes, and then do not correct them. Better to correct the mistakes, quickly and clearly. Better still not to make them.

I can recall a specific instance in this regard: a high school teacher I had first for math, then for history. She was a recent arrival from Scotland, and she was teaching us Quebec history, in Quebec, and I felt that having her do this was an appalling waste of my time as a student. She did not know, for example, that the PQ was a left-wing party; she was teaching us that it was right-wing. I corrected her, she looked it up, and praised me next day for speaking up. Okay, that was nice, so far as it went, but she was still wasting our time and committing malpractice as a teacher. Thought so then, think so now.

Subject knowledge matters. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

BM adds the following, again from his knowledge of studies:

“They had to be perceived to be fair. Didn't matter if it was strict or laissez faire - consistency in the rules and not perceived to play favorites.”

I'm of two minds here. Intellectually, this seems to make sense. But in practice, it is not true of my own experience. Perhaps there is a confusion here between "strict" and "academically rigorous." I have found the best teachers to be demanding academically, but not strict. They generally did not give a fig about discipline in class. They cared about work actually produced.

Conversely, when I think back to the teachers I had who were disciplinarians, I conclude that at best I did not find them memorable. My general impression then was that they had a screw loose in some vague way; and I still think so. Not that I ever ran afoul of any of them--I was a model student in disciplinary terms.

I suppose it is possible that a strict disciplinarian may appeal to other students, though. It may be a neutral trait overall, just not for me.

Doe any of my many readers (hi, Bob!) have anything to add?

A Religious Fruitcake

As a Catholic, I was struck by a recent comment on an email list I subscribe to. The author pointed out the high level of corruption in the Philippines, and suggested this was because it was a Catholic country. Then he cited the Biblical injunction “By their fruits ye shall know them,” saying this was a proof of the falsehood of Catholicism.

I'm afraid the worst of it was that it struck me as fair comment. Yes, indeed, that is the standard by which we are to judge a false prophet, as Christians.
Still—does “fruits” mean only moral behaviour in a negative sense, not doing wrong? It seems not, since elsewhere in the Bible, the “fruits of the spirit” are described: Galatians 5:22-23; “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” This goes beyond the negative concept of simply not cheating anyone; and, in fact, one has the vague impression that Filipinos do rather well on love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, faith, and meekness on the whole. Rather better than the average Canadian.

Then there are the “Gifts of the spirit,” which are also represented as seals of one's religious bona fides, and may be referred to here. These are even broader: healing, prophesy, teaching, exhortation, leadership, speaking in tongues, the working of miracles, and so forth. Then there are other things that might seem “fruits of the spirit” in a colloquial sense: works of art, philosophies, scientific and geographical discoveries, technologies...

But let's, for the sake of argument, make an attempt to measure moral behaviour by religion, and see what we come up with.

First stop: Transparency International, which keeps a tally of perceptions of corruption by country, by survey of international businessmen.

Here's their current list of ten most corrupt, with largest religious affiliation as determined by the CIA World Fact Book:

D. R. Congo - Catholic 50%
Equatorial Guinea – Catholic
Chad – Muslim 53.1%
Guinea – Muslim 85%
Sudan- Muslim
Afghanistan - Muslim
Haiti- Catholic
Iraq - Muslim
Myanmar - Buddhist
Somalia – Muslim

But that's only half the story. We need a balance; otherwise a religion might be penalized purely for being more common. Here, as a check, are the least corrupt ten:

Denmark - Protestant
New Zealand – Protestant (40%)
Sweden – Protestant
Singapore – Buddhist (42.5%)
Finland – Protestant
Switzerland – Catholic (42%)
Iceland – Protestant
Netherlands – Catholic (30%)
Australia – mixed Christian (Catholic 26.4%, Anglican 20.5%, other Christian 20.5%)

Awarding one point for each appearance on the top ten, subtracting one point for each appearance in the bottom ten, with half points to both Catholic and Protestant for Australia (Anglicans are never sure which they are):

Overall ranking of religions from most to least corrupt:

Muslim: 6 – 0 = 6
Catholic: 3 – 2.5 = 0.5
Buddhist: 1-1 = 0
Protestant: 0 – 5.5 = - 5.5

Credit where credit is due: a big win for Protestantism. And a big loss for Islam. The influence of either Catholicism or Buddhism seems just about a wash, in terms of the common good.

But wait. We are not done. “Corruption” is not the only form of misbehaviour, even in strictly social terms. To get a full picture, we also have to factor in the crime in the streets.

I can find no set of lowest figures. But Nationmaster has a list of the highest crime rates per capita:

Dominica – Catholic 61.4%
New Zealand – Protestant
Finland – Protestant
Denmark – Protestant
Chile – Catholic
United Kingdom – mixed Christian
Montserrat – mixed Christian
United States – Protestant (51.3%)
Netherlands – Catholic
South Africa – Protestant

Now we need somehow to balance this with a lowest ten, again to prevent bias against more common religions.

It is less than a perfect match, but I find a decent list for robberies per capita. In the lower reaches of the eighty-some countries covered are:

Yemen – Muslim
Oman- Muslim
Armenia – Orthodox Christian
Dominica – Catholic
Seychelles – Catholic
Maldives - Muslim
Cyprus – Orthodox Christian
Iceland – Protestant
Burma - Buddhist
Qatar – Muslim

Compiling these stats on the same basis, raking religions from most to least felonious:

Protestantism: 5
Catholicism: 2
Buddhism: -1
Orthodox: -2
Islam: -4

That doesn't help the Protestant record. Interestingly, some of the same countries with lowest corruption have the highest crime rates; there seems to be a definite inverse relation here.

Adding both together: highest numbers being rottenest “fruits”:

Catholicism: 2.5
Islam: 2
Protestantism: -0.5
Buddhism: -1
Orthodox: -2

I guess we should probably all become Eastern Orthodox; or if you lump all Christians together, Buddhist.

But it is at least as striking that all religions seem to be all over the map. The same religion seems capable of producing the most corrupt or the most honest society, the most crime-ridden, or the safest.

Moral of the story is that there is no moral of the story. Go and sin no more.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Ten Worst Predictions of 2008

This list makes me feel a little better about my inability to predict events of the past year.

I wasn't the only one.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Let Johnny Choose His Teacher?

There is currently no good way to evaluate an elementary-school teacher.

Classroom observation is useless, because it is demonstrably subjective—two evaluators rarely correspond in their observations. It is also useless because we do not actually know, we cannot agree, what classroom traits make a good teacher.

How students do on standardized tests is a better measure. But even here, the correlation between two classes taught by the same teacher turns out to be low, and most subjects yield no coherent pattern. If you stick to math, and measure the same teacher teaching exactly the same curriculum over three years, you can come up with something statistically significant—for about 30% of teachers. Fifteen percent will perform significantly better than others, and fifteen percent will perform statistically worse.

How useful is this? At most, it is useful only for evaluating the teaching of math. For there is no reason to suppose that the techniques that work best for teaching math work best for other subjects.

We do, by contrast, have a good method of evaluating teachers at the tertiary level. We simply ask the students. As they are there voluntarily, and are adults, they are best placed to assess their own experience. Studies show that their evaluations also correspond well to the results of standardized tests, and remain the same after years in the workforce.

It's that simple.

So what would happen if we evaluated elementary and high school teachers the same way?

Heck, it might work. The assumption is that students below the age of majority are not responsible, not able to judge. They will vote for anyone who gives them candy, and against anyone who gives them homework.

But think back to your own experience. Are there teachers you loved at the time whom you now doubt were very good? Or vice versa?

Not me.

It would be an interesting study, and I appeal to readers to give me feedback on this question. Has your opinion changed on teachers you had in grade school and high school? Are there teachers you thought then were bad whom you now think were good, and vice versa?

If not, that means our adult judgement confirms our childhood judgement, and therefore that kids are indeed competent to rate their teachers even at that level.

In my own case, three teachers in particular stand out: Miss Anastasia Tobin, in Grade 2; Mr. Moore in Grade 6; and A.P. Smith in Grade 13 (yes, in those days in Ontario, there was a Grade 13). All three were a joy, all three have influenced me deeply, and formed a part of what I am. I loved them then, and I love them now. I had other teachers who were good, and some who were bad, but these three stand out.

To continue the thought experiment, can I say anything about what made these teachers exceptional for me?

First, all three seemed terribly knowledgeable. Surely this is the essential thing in a teacher—to know a lot?

But this was not the only issue. I had other teachers who also had strong academic credentials, and presumably knew a lot. And they were good teachers. But they did not shine as these ones did. There was more to it than that.

The more distinctive and impressive thing, it seems to me, about these three, if I can put it in words, is that they leveled with us. They talked to us straight; they did not talk down to us.

Miss Tobin, for example, I still recall, explained to us that she was supposed to teach us to spell “today” as one unhyphenated word; but that she herself always spelled it “to-day.” When I insisted, having taught myself to read, that the word “foreigner” ought to be read with the “g” sounded, she disagreed, but then let me read it aloud my way. When I objected to the taste of cod liver oil, she did not insist on me taking my capsule every day with the others. And when I asked if I should marry Terry Tozer, who sat next to me, she advised that it might be a little soon for such decisions. In sum, she treated us in Grade 2 as if we were human beings with a right and an ability to choose and make decisions for ourselves.

Mr. Moore was equally wonderful. He did not stay on the curriculum. He would go off on all manner of subjects. From him I learned why pilots can lose consciousness when a plane nose dives. He talked to us about James Joyce's word play, with examples, and about John Lennon's too, in his books—perhaps a little closer to our level. He talked to us about the controversy over the birth control pill, and reasons why the priest should face towards or away from the congregation—not saying what should or should not be, but giving the arguments both ways. He was knowledgeable, and clearly had some special literary talent. As a result, he had a knack for explaining things; he was entertaining to listen to. It was teaching as a rhetorical art form. I have noted this since—that good writers make the best teachers.

He did not just lecture. He would also have us talk, or write—he staged formal debates, and we put together a newsletter. He encouraged literary talent; and was a keen critic of it. He was, for example, the first teacher who ever pointed out to me that I was using unnecessarily fancy words in my writing—a vital stylistic issue.

He was interested in thought for its own sake, and writing and speaking for their own sake, and wanted to encourage both in us.

A.P. Smith was also loose with the curriculum. He threw in a week or two when we worked with an issue of Atlantic magazine instead of the textbook. He brought in guest lecturers. He was certainly not a disciplinarian, any more than were Miss Tobin or Mr. Moore. He let us hand in assignments at any time, so long as it was still the same term. He let me talk shamelessly in class, flirting with the girls near me; to the point that other students complained to me. He talked on a personal level, as if we were all friends in a living room: I learned that he liked jazz music and Leonard Cohen's poetry; he was aware that I had conflicts over politics with my father, and was big on Marshall McLuhan.

One other matter in which these teachers seem exceptional: I retain a strong impression of how I did in their classes. It seems this was always made clear. I knew in Grade 2 that I excelled in reading and spelling, but was weak in penmanship. I knew in Grade 6 that I excelled in composition, but was not doing well working in groups, or at phys. ed. I knew I used too many fancy words, and that I did not complete my homework. I knew in Grade 13 that I excelled in composition. I often do not have such clear impressions for other classes, in other years.

Partly, these teachers remembered to praise. But it was not all praise, either. They levelled with us, both ways, more than other teachers. The feedback was also detailed, and credible. I hear it said that students want teachers to be “fair.” That was part of it; but not just that. It is more important that they see and deal with each student as an individual. Often the standards by which student work is judged seem arbitrary, artificial, or even nonsensical, for the sake of some abstract quantifiability, which passes for “fairness.” With these teachers, the standards on which we were judged seemed sensible and realistic—they only marked what really mattered, and what mattered got marked.

Was it just me who liked these teachers so well? I believe not. I know from other students and other past students that Mr. Moore has a continuing fan club. Mr. Smith was and still is respected by everyone in the small town for his great knowledge.

Can I summarize from this the traits of a good teacher? Not terribly well—specific examples of the way they taught, as above, seem to me to convey the idea better. But here's a stab at a few points:

1.Knowledgeable; not just in their own field, but good all-rounders with wide general knowledge.
2.Good speakers.
3.Not disciplinarians; give students their head and their dignity as much as possible consistent with good order.
4.Loose with curriculum; avoid the assembly-line for a more relaxed, holistic approach, open to the real world outside the classroom.
5.Vary their teaching techniques and experiment with new material and approaches.
6.Show an interest in their students as individuals.
7.Enjoy teaching and are doing it for its own sake, not for money or status or the chance to control.
8.Speak clearly of how students are doing.

All of which, if it applies more generally, might suggest certain directions for teacher training.

Do readers agree? Do they have any experiences or points to add?

Friday, January 02, 2009

My Track Record as a Prophet

A year ago, in a post aptly named “The Year in Wild Guesses,” I gave my predictions for 2008. So—how did I do?

I was afraid you'd ask. Not very well.

1. Republican John McCain beats Democrat John Edwards to win presidency of the US.

I expected some big gaffe or scandal to take out Obama even before the Democratic nomination. Bad call. I made the same mistake with Clinton's reelection in 1996. I was sure there was another sex scandal waiting to be discovered. I was right; Monica Lewinsky. But it showed up after the election. I suspect Obama will turn out to be implicated somehow in the current Blagovich scandal in Illinois. But it won't matter that much—he's just been elected, and nobody will want to put the nation through an impeachment proceeding so soon after an election and in such troubled economic times. It will more or less be ignored, and will set a very unfortunate precedent.

2.No federal election in Canada.

Wrong again. I did not foresee the very bad economic turn, and so did not foresee Harper calling the election because he figured the economy was about to sour badly. As it turned out, he probably should not have called the election, though. He gained nothing by it.

3.No US or world recession in 2008.

Wrong again. My gut feeling, though, is still that the economic news will turn out to be less bad than it looks now. My instincts say the economic fundamentals are strong, that this is a structural issue that does not change the underlying economic realities. Once the necessary restructuring is complete, I feel things will come roaring back.

4. The government of at least one of the following countries implodes: China, Cuba, North Korea, Myanmar.

Did not happen—but all seem shakier now than a year ago. I make the same prediction for the coming year. It's just a matter of time. The current economic downturn is more dangerous for China than for any other major economy.

5.News of a demographic shift in the developed world—more babies being born.

No clear evidence of this yet either.

6. A spate of books responds to the atheist books of the past year, and sells well. Militant atheism becomes a bit of a laughing stock.

No sign of this either. Militant atheism has just kind of faded—not with a bang, but a whimper.

7. More breakthroughs in biotechnology. At least one major cure.

I think this one happened. Most significantly, a trachea transplant using the patient's own cells, tricked into becoming stem cells, to create the new trachea. This is major: it suggests that ultimately, all human organs can be replicated from the patient's own cells, and transplanted without any rejection issues. We will then be made entirely of replaceable parts. If one part wears out, back to the shop for a new one.

8.Violence in Iraq continues to decline. Iraq is generally reevaluated as a success. Bush’s popularity rises.

I was right on Iraq; but not on Bush's popularity. The economic crisis saw to that.

9. Muslim militancy visibly on the decline.

Is it fair to say this? Probably not, with the assault on Mumbai. I think it is losing support among the broad consensus of Muslims; but I'm not sure how visible that is yet.

10. Microsoft will lose profitability; Google will grow.

Right on this. Microsoft is on the way out, and I think that's pretty clear now. I think Google will keep growing, but the hottest tech company in the new year may be Nintendo. Mark my words: the Wii controller system is going to unlock a lot of cool new things in the next little while. It's going to be bigger than the Graphical User Interface.


In sum, I did quite badly. But it was, as these things go, a very unpredictable year, a year of many surprises. I think everyone else who tried to predict 2008 did badly too.

I feel even less confident going into 2009. Things have been changing so quickly, it is hard to guess yet where they might end up. Here are the few additional thoughts I do have:

1.Russia is in for a bad year. Its newfound assertiveness cannot be sustained.

I think Russia's recent rise has been funded by petroleum prices. With oil now dramatically down, those cheques can no longer be covered. Russia must pull in its horns quickly, or it will hit financial trouble. In addition, the Russian government is in an awkward situation. So long as things have been going well, Medvedev as president and Putin as PM have appeared to be working together. But ultimately, they are threats to one another personally. Their jockeying for power may cause both to make decisions that are not primarily in Russia's interest. And it will become more tempting to break ranks if things start going wrong. Even without the decline in oil prices, the general economic downturn will make it hard for Russia to sustain an image of general progress.

2. Since neither Israel nor the US have done anything yet over the Iran nuclear program, I do not think they will. They have missed their best chance, if there ever was one. Bluff called. Iran will go nuclear.

3. In Canada, the political situation is fascinating. I predict another election in the new year.

Will the proposed Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition take power? I think not.

If I were Michael Ignatieff, I would not see anything in it for me. Defeat the government, and the GG may instead call an election. The Liberals are not prepared financially for another election; and the polls currently look bad for them. If, on the other hand, the GG grants the coalition a chance to take power, what is gained? It would look very bad: taking the prime ministership without ever facing the people, or even the rank and file of your own party. And Ignatieff hardly comes across as a man of the people to begin with. The legacy of the last similar coalition—the King-Byng-Meighen affair—suggests the voters would punish him at the next election, when it came. So, if I were Ignatieff, I would be looking hard for a reason to back out. The Conservatives are likely to give him one in their formal budget.

From then on, though, the Tory government would be balancing on a knife edge. If the polls turn bad for them, the opposition will enthusiastically vote no confidence. If, conversely, the polls turn very good, they will want to get out of this situation by calling an election. With the economy in bad shape, the polls should be quite volatile.

I do not have a strong sense of who would win this election, because the circumstances in which it would be held are unclear, but I think the Conservatives are the likelier bet. Harper's background in economics and steady image are selling points if people are worried about the economy; Ignatieff has no special appeal in this regard. I think the coalition talk may have permanently tarnished the Liberals—they are no longer credible as the party of national unity. They are hoping for some bounce from Obama's success in the US, but I think Canadians are too cautious by nature for this. They will want to watch Obama'a administration for a few years before they decide whether it is the right thing for Canada. Only then, if their judgement is still favourable, will they decide whether Ignatieff or the Liberals look similar—and may decide they don't.

In any case, Happy New Year!