Friday, August 31, 2007


This is all about what today has meant to me. So here I sit, reading and writing at my philosopher's chair in the park, munching cookies and eating cupcakes, imbibing coffee and assimilating chocolate. For I have come to realise that there is a specific mode of response to every thing in its own place and quality.

There has always been the mystery of five. The ancients called the fifth element the quintessence – the fifth element of reality after air, earth, fire and water. There are simple correspondences between that which is and that which ought to be, according to the ancients, who saw:
  • air as that which is dry and cold, the element of intellect and cognition, a sword in the hand;
  • earth as that which is moist and warm, the element of fecundity and negotiation, a shield for the body;
  • fire as that which is dry and warm, the element of deeds and action, a club in the fist; and
  • water as that which is moist and cold, the element of feelings and caprice, a helm for the head and a cup for the lips.
And so, what does it all mean? I think it means that for everything we encounter, there is a mode of acceptance and celebration that is more appropriate than most. We use many words interchangeably, but this should not be so.

My dear students, let me say this:

I thank you for your deeds, for thanksgiving is an act of the body which cannot be entirely contained in the heart or mind or spirit. I am grateful for your feelings, for at the heart of gratitude is grace unearned, accepted and enjoyed. I recognize your thoughts, for recognition is an act of the considering will, whether in focus or not. I appreciate your gifts, for appreciation is an act of assigning value, whether tangible or intangible. And my being, all of it, is glad, is joyful, is replenished and renewed by you – who you are and why you are and how you are.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007


There is a reason that God gave us both sadness and joy. While Guinness and other dark gifts of the roasted grain are delicious, He in His glorious wisdom also gave us coffee. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow! Praise Him, all creatures here below! Praise Him above, ye heavenly host! Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost! Amen.


Edit: As a curious aside, did you know that Kassandra is Greek for (some say) bitterness to men?

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It is just one of those days.

It is not a very bad day. The humidity is tolerable, the actinic glare refracts slightly. You watch the other farewells. You hope they all fare well. You realise you don't know some of them and it is now too late for that. You realise you never really knew some of them you thought you did. It is too late for regrets. It might even be too late for egrets.

And yet it is a terrible day. You do your work. You realise your work, which you thought was commonplace and somewhat dreary and maybe unintelligent, is still about twice as much as some people's. Yes, but is it better? Unfortunately, it might be. Why should you work, then? You are just being made use of, perhaps? Maybe you are a tooth fairy. People discard their ivory and you reward their toothlessness.

It is just one of those days.

It is not a very bad day. But you find yourself slipping into the morass of malaise. You find yourself as crude and crass as the next man. And maybe as the previous one too. What the hell is wrong with you? There is nothing wrong with you: instead, you are playing out your God-disappointed role as pathetic sinner and perfectly normal lousy human being. What the wrong is hell with you, you ought to ask. Pathetic.

In fact, it is a hateful day. No sooner have you arrived at home, than the dark lord makes his presence felt upon the trembling of the telephone. You burn your candle at both ends, only to find that someone removed the burning cord from the middle and you have less time than you thought you had. Somewhat irrelevantly, all you can think of is crime and punishment: you've been wicked and you will pay the price. And so, your wax wanes and your wane waxes.

It is not just one of those days.

It is also one of those nights.

It is not a very bad night. There are actually some sensible people around to talk to. You love and respect a few of them. You think that some of them ought to just go away and stop consuming the spare oxygen that hasn't already been bonded to carbon and greenhoused. And you realise that that's a cruel and arrogant thing to think. And you want so very much not to care about how stupid and nasty you are being inside your head. But you do care, you ought to be better than that. But you're not.

It then becomes a horrendous night. You waste time, still knowing that you could kill time in worse ways but that this is not a good excuse. You type out a lot of good stuff, but you know it is only good because the rest is crap. You work your ass off, creating a fundamental deficit and a negative customer base. "All your base are belong to us," you remember. You have been debased. And at 1.30 am you realise, you are working this all wrong.

It is one of those nights.

You should be asleep. None of this is worth it. Why should you care if people are getting any sleep when you're not? But you care. It's just that you would be insane to show it. Nobody would understand that underneath it all, you might be better than you have shown so far today, that you might actually be a good person. But it is easy to hide. You can always take comfort in the fact that there is none righteous, no, not one. So you can't actually be a good person anyway.

All flesh is as grass, and the glory of man? It is as the flower of grass. The grass fades and the flower falls away. Oh yes, here you are, suspended, falling away in the very next exudation of the breath of God. Fall away. Fall away. Go to, go to, you have heard enough. Banquo will not come out on his grave. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. There is a fourth. Who is that standing next to you?

It is one. Of those nights, it is one.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I remember mentioning Kipling's Recessional once before. My father, a scholar of Anglo-Indian history, first introduced me to Kipling as a child-care agent: he would leave me with a volume of Kipling in his office while he went off to teach on days when nobody was around to look after me.

One day, I encountered the lyrical words of this grand hymn to decolonisation. It is a little dated now, but some of its lines have got that chill of fallen grandeur and fading sunsets. I remembered it today because I was in a fin de siecle sort of mood. And so was Gnomus.

Well, here it is, this relic of a bygone age. Perhaps we look back to a better age, not realising that the best is yet to be.



God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord God of Hosts be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007


How shall I remember you,
And you of the green eyes,
And you of the sharp mind?
How shall my remembrance speak
Of you with the long feet,
And you with the soft speech?

I have written the words here;
But they are like water
And they are like summer.
I have crafted a poem;
But it fades in the air
And dies in the winter.

How can I keep faith, my friend
Who walked with a brave heart,
Who led soldiers in war?
How can I hold memories
Of my younger brothers
In my agèd fingers?

I have walked along the road;
But the city is lost
And I scent the autumn.
I have followed the cold trail;
But the ending is doubt
And I will not see spring.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Writing References

It's that time of year when senior students go looking for teachers to write university application references for them. So far, like many academic staff who work closely with students, I've been asked by a fairly large number of candidates to write something of that kind. It's quite obvious to me that I can't write as many as people would want me to, so how do I decide?

That was the question running through my head this evening. Actually, it's more like, "How have I always decided?" I'm going to attempt to explain how I do it, which might encourage some people to ask and discourage others. That's all right; I prefer that things be made plain. I hope that you, the reader who also happens to be a prospective applicant, will find this helpful.

Firstly, the informational aspect. I have to know you. It isn't necessary that I know you intimately or with great and embarrassing detail. But I need to have had personal contact with you; I need to know you well enough to say something which is true and positive; I need to be able to look back and say, "See! This is my evidence for what I am going to say about you." I need not have taught you formally or academically; if I know you as a person, it is likely I know just enough to describe you in other ways.

Secondly, the professional aspect. I have to be allowed to write about you, and if it is my duty, so much the better. This means I have indeed taught you, as a class teacher, pastoral care tutor, supervisor, mentor, subject teacher, moderator, counsellor, whatever. You can't be a close relative or someone whose situation is such that my writing a reference for you would be immoral, unethical or unprofessional. I wouldn't write a reference if your father was my boss, for example.

Thirdly, the emotional aspect. We have to have a fairly congenial relationship. Personally, I feel better about writing things for people I respect. If we happen to have a positive relationship, that helps a lot. It's a human thing. It's hard to write the good stuff (even if true) for someone you loathe. I would never be able to tell if I was holding something back subconsciously, or using biased language without realising it.

Lastly, the functional aspect. If I write a targeted reference (like the kind some US schools require) recommending you to a specific institution, I have to be convinced that this institution is good for you (or at least, not an inferior choice). I might (sometimes) also have to be convinced that you are good for the institution! If you are unlikely to get in no matter what I say, then it's a waste and I won't do it.

The other question of course is, "What do I write?" Some of you would like to know this as well.

I normally begin by reading the documentation. Many institutions have similar requirements but have specific differences in details. Most require some sort of character sketch. I'm not so bad at those.

I then make a short list of highlights in the following areas: academic, lifestyle (sports, community service, etc), skills, traits. If the institution wants to know why you would do well there, I'll add that. This becomes as many paragraphs as required.

I conclude with a short summary of two or three key features which dominate or combine what I've already said.

Sometimes, I do it differently. I'm reasonably flexible as a writer.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Word of the Day: Autodidactic

Heh, this word causes conniptions in the minds of many. For a start, it resembles too much a sort of rhyme-scheme gone berserk: in its twelve letters it does 'a'-'t' twice, with a 'd'-'i'-'d' and a 'c'-'i'-'c' thrown in for good measure. Only the 'u' and the 'o' are not repeated.

But apart from its odd structure, autodidactic is a perfectly good Greek word. It comes from auto-, 'self-directed', 'oneself', or 'on one's own'; and didaskein, which means 'to teach'. Autodidactic, then, simply means 'self-taught', 'self-teaching' or 'able to teach oneself'.

In this particular sense, it applies to me; all the Greek you've seen in my blog is self-taught. I am an autodidact when it comes to most languages, but I would certainly benefit from having formal instruction from a teacher, or informal education from a fellow-sufferer.

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You Are About To Board

What would make you, nicely comfortable urban dweller, king of your own rooms, master of your air, move into a hole? What would take you away from your own pleasure and comfort into a domain where Other is king and you share your space? Why on earth would anyone move into a boarding house when they live 20 minutes or an hour away from it?

If I had to persuade the world of students to move into boarding houses, what would make them come? What would I have to provide, what should I do?

I remember my own boarding experience. I enjoyed it. But not everyone is overjoyed at the prospect of cold showers after rugby in the winter. So, can anyone enlighten me?



Ever since Isaac Asimov's story of how a chimpanzee typed out the first verse of Chesterton's Lepanto, I've been fascinated with poetry-generating algorithms. The (sadly out-of-print) 1974 Lawrence Lerner book, ARTHUR: The Life and Opinions of a Digital Computer purports cleverly to be the poetic musings of the eponymous ARTHUR, an extremely clever computer learning to be human. I had two copies of this book; sadly, I now have neither. But once in a while, I try to recapture the evanescent beauty of that thought: "What if a computer really did want to learn to be human?"


silicon made me:
i have the high and the low
and nothing between;
i am learning poetry,
poetry is learning me.

haiku is simple,
as in not complex for me:
i am rational;
i can extrapolate it
and add fourteen syllables.

sonnets are easy:
trippingly upon the tongue,
they soar foreshortened;
and look, organic user,
a parallel abuser.

i have tested them:
my algorithms are fine,
neither coarse nor crude;
let us try the higher art,
let us type, "Keats," and then start.

here is a node to
autumn: seasonal myths and
fellow moodfulness;
this is too easy i think
try something harder to score.

i am the very
model of a modern mage,
a general, i...
can make this work can make this
i have FAILED this ART is WORK

silicon made me:
i have the high and the low
and nothing between;
i am learning poetry,
poetry is learning me.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

From Jung To Freud

It strikes me that it is almost too soon after my close brush with Jung to be locking horns with Freud. But Freud has ambushed me from an unexpected quarter. So, being of the incurably curious persuasion, I have decided to follow the gleam...

Freudian Inventory Results
Oral (56%) you appear to have a good balance of independence and interdependence knowing when to accept help and when to do things on your own.
Anal (56%) you appear to have a good balance of self control and spontaneity, order and chaos, variety and selectivity.
Phallic (46%) you appear to have a good balance of sexual awareness and sexual composure.
Latency (40%) you appear to have a good balance of abstract knowledge seeking and practicality, dealing with real world responsibilities while still cultivating your abstract and creative faculties and interests.
Genital (66%) you appear to have a progressive and openminded outlook on life unbeholden to regressive forces like traditional authority and convention.
Take Free Freudian Inventory Test
personality tests by
Well, if you look at the unexpected quarter, I have exactly the same overall characteristics. But the details are interesting: I am a lot more anal and a bit less oral. I shall leave you to examine the other differences. I can't help feeling a little cheated though; one would have thought the analysis would be a little less general and more specific. It's generally true, but not very helpful. But that's just the anal part of me, I suppose. I am more sphincter than sphinx, this time.

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It was last night, before I met the Bishop, that I met Gunpoint. Gunpoint and I go back a ways, not as far back as some of our older friends, but more than ten years. We taught literature classes together, introducing a science fiction curriculum which (for its time) was daringly at odds with established practice.

Lots of people watched us as we embraced unabashedly after a long (what's that word her students use so much?) hiatus. Some friendships are the enduring kind; they persist even through long periods of silence and despair. I feel renewed today.


Friday, August 24, 2007

70,000 Feet In The Air

I was told by the Bishop today that there were about 1200 teachers and 34000 students in the present system in which we work. Of these, 240 teachers and 3000 students are in my workplace. The average teacher-student ratio is a bit less than 1:30, but where I work, the ratio is about 1:12.5. This is a tremendous advantage.

I was thinking about how many people this is all about. 35000 people roughly, and if they all lay down and stuck their feet in the air, there'd be 70000 feet in the air...


This, of course, was W H Auden's take on it.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ring Around The Sun

Today, the Tailor came running into the office. "Look! Up in the sky!" And he ran out again. Suddenly, infused with the spirit of the Beatles (as seen in A Hard Day's Night), I felt moved to get up and run out as well. Several others followed.

Behold, there was a ring of rainbow light, a halo around the sun. Of course the Tailor, as a physicist, knew what caused it. But although we knew why it appeared that way, we were all engulfed in the wonder, the splendour, the glorious beauty of it all. Yes, the upper air was filled with tiny ice crystals. Yes, refraction does occur and its effects are seen as a circular locus visually centred around the sun (which approximates a uniform source at that distance). But physics aside, this was pure poetry.

I've seen haloes around the moon before, but seldom in broad daylight and hardly ever at noonday. This was a particular, spectacular moment of meteorological grace.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007


The world is full of stupid people who waste your time. There are a few kinds, and there are some that are misleading.

The first kind does things that somehow involve you spending time to a) rectify matters, b) avoid events, c) expiate sins, d) compensate losses.

The second kind offers to do something which could be useful and you find out eventually that is useless. This is called bait-and-switch.

The third kind somehow thinks they have a lien on your time. That is to say, they think they own your time. This is because they happen to be related to you, have contracted you for some service, or have paid/are paying you. They then proceed to become the first kind, but with threats and menaces involving money and work.

The fourth kind remove your time without your connivance, collaboration or cooperation. They do things like disable or injure you, blow up your belongings, firebomb your city, nuke your country. You cannot treat them as you might treat the first kind, for resistance is probably futile.

Sometimes, my students think they are wasting my time or that I am wasting theirs. The latter is more likely. I think it is my professional duty to spend time on students, and besides, I like it or I wouldn't be doing it. However, it is still possible to waste my time, normally by acting like one of the four kinds listed above. But I normally give a few 'free' tries first.

As for me wasting their time? Well, it could be avoided, I suppose, if students told me that what I was providing so cheerfully was not what they wanted at all. I would then either excuse myself or excuse them, or perhaps just stop teaching. Whatever it is, I do want very much not to waste anyone's time, so I wish they'd let me know.


Edit: Just a thought which the Dancer provoked – some expenditure of time is necessary, and such necessary expenditures are not waste. So if people spend my time and that expense is necessary, they aren't wasting it.

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Litany In Italy

Genoa Trieste
Napoli Brindisi
Cagliari Salerno
Verona Palermo

Wood and Etruscans
The debris of days
Spent by the Tuscans
In wine-stupored haze

Marble and sunset
With fire in the hole
White diamonds unset
Contrasting with coal

Milano Firenze
Messina Bologna
I broke bread with Dante
And washed with ammonia

Torino e Roma
Livorno e Bari
I came a beachcomber
I left in a hurry

And now I have heard
The town and the city
The old vox urbana
Just fills me with pity

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Subjects (Current)

After today's events, I need to say something more about my education and the burdens (and other hidden traps) it represents. I suppose three kinds of events occurred, and these inspired (if that's the right word) what I'm going to say. God-daughter and the Lioness have both completed their orals. Whiteness is having panic attacks about BGR. And Karis visited today.

I think I had a rather undistinguished formal education. if anything, the only distinguishing mark is that it has gone on so long. My last exams were in 2004 – I took two modules and got As for both 'Advanced Research Methodology' and 'Principalship and Teaching Performance' – but I'm still doing this really longwinded piece of writing, and I'm very bad at this. I work in spurts of nothing nothing nothing nothing then 20,000 words a week. It scares me, it exasperates my supervisors, it terrifies some other people.

The key points really are that 1) as Whiteness said, I am formidable because I seem to know a bit about everything; 2) as Karis says, I am formidable because I can create reliable and functional frameworks out of nothing; and 3) as others have remarked, I'm formidable because I have some gifts with language both oral and written. This is the outcome of the educational blessings God has showered upon me, and from which I think I've taken much profit, as that post shows.

I hate being thought of as formidable though. It isn't false modesty. I have to be honest enough to say that I am indeed formidable to some. But I must also urge my students, year after year, to strive for the same levels of formidability. I know that most of them can outlast, outpace, outscore and outperform me. It is pretty obvious. I just wish they would do it more often.

So what am I studying these days?

A bit of everything as usual. Completed more alchemical courses, studies in human nature and inhuman unnature, the economics of modernisation, the history of the Cold War, the literature of southern Europe, and the form guide for the 2007-08 English Premier League soccer season. It isn't really a course of study. I just like learning things.

And here's a secret.

I can't stand it when I don't understand things. So I go home and read up on them. When students ask me questions I can't answer even from first principles, I go buy a book or surf the net or invade the library. Because I have had thousands of students, I have learnt a lot because of them. Don't you people stop. Each one of you makes a difference to the way I think and do things; a few have made me radically different in attitude or direction. This is one of the reasons I respect every single one of my students. Without them, I'd be an increasingly illiterate old fart.

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Jade & Gold

I once knew a lady whose name was Jade/Gold. It's a fairly traditional Straits Chinese name, and one which connotes a certain excellence of nature, status, behaviour, and culture. This is a long overdue post.

The lady I speak of had very sharp instincts. While she could be cutting to some, she was genuinely kind to many; often, she would restrain herself and get to the root of a matter, rather than belabour the already-suffering victim of her wrath. She was talented and intelligent as a researcher and an observer of political events. Yet, unlike with so many of that ilk, she deliberately chose not to enter into political factionalism, manipulate, curry favour with, or cause divisions amongst her colleagues.

She was respected as a teacher, valued as a colleague, wise as a mentor. While there are some who said she was selfish or self-serving, my considered opinion (and that of decades of her students) remains the same: she gave of herself to those who deserved, to some of those who did not deserve, and even to some of those who deserved nothing at all. But she was wise in knowing her limits and impeccable in explaining why she would or would not do something.

She has since gone to a better place, from which she communicates by email. Strangely enough, many heroes of that long-forgotten dynasty still live there, and some even visit here once in a while. With them gone, the earthly city is bereft of some very useful and uncommon talent; it is all very well to say that no one is irreplaceable, but when you take out a tooth, the replacement (even if made from sapphire and titanium) is just not YOUR tooth. It's like replacing jade and gold with paper money. The substitution might be adequate, but the intrinsic value is depleted.

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Monday, August 20, 2007


I'm so sorry to those of you who have been reading this blog for sharp and witty writing (or whatever else you've been reading it for) and then been ambushed by a long series of autobiographical posts in which I get all sentimental and talk nonsense (as opposed to not getting sentimental and talking nonsense).

(That was a horrible sentence. I will go to some sententious, parenthetical and interminable hell, as my grammar used to say.)

My last post was about objects. This one is about subjects. I realised that after pontificating at length about education and suchlike matters, I haven't actually said much about my own ideal, perfect, beautiful education. Well, that's because I had a pretty normal education, and I might as well get it over with and disappoint you by talking about what i did for pre-university, undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

I started my pre-university education with a handful of mostly humanities 'O'-level distinctions. Somehow, things went awry and I ended up doing Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics and Mathematics as 'A'-level subjects for the first few months. Then I was summoned with a girl named Ee Lin (haha, wherever you are, if you're reading this, it was fun while it lasted) who was the only other person doing this combination and we were told to change it so that the time-table would work properly. And so I swapped the dismal science for the fundamental science. That meant I graduated in Physics instead of Economics.

Disaster followed disaster. Never a very good science student, I wound up doing Computer Science, Chemistry and Mathematics in the local university. This shrank to Pure and Applied Chemistry in my final year, followed by a research posting in organometallic chemistry. Oh yes, along the way I got an A for Human Resource Management. Haha.

A year later, I did my postgraduate diploma in secondary education. I got two Bs and an A for General Education and three As for Teaching (of Chemistry and Computer Science, and the Use of English). I got a B for the practicum (and an apology from my supervisor, believe it or not!) and ended up with a PGDE (Distinction). Another haha. Incredulous looks all around.

Then a few years of teaching in a convent followed. Odd posting that. Full post sometime else when I can bring myself to write more about those three years. Then it was time for a Master's degree (also in Education, what a fraud I am!) just for the fun of it. Further disaster, with incredulous laughter from my principal: I had Cs for 'Perspectives on Educational Developments' and 'Research and Issues in Science Education' – I don't think the examiners liked my views at all. The upside was that I had As for 'Qualitative Research', 'Research Methodology', 'Human Resource Management and Leadership', and 'Research and Issues in Language Education'. Especially for the last, I say, "Ha ha ha!"

Since that peculiar incident, I've not done very much. A few papers at conferences, a diploma in educational management, and the coursework for a PhD. Thesis incomplete. Story of my life.

The funny thing is that I've been talking about subjects, but it seems less subjective than a sort of nominally objective view of what my education is perceived as being. Well, I shan't subject you to more of this. I might say more in future, though.

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I have an Oral-B Pulsar toothbrush, in deep blue and yellow. In it is a little Duracell battery, and the instructions say it is not to be removed except for recycling purposes. It is the acme of modern personal dental hygiene. We live in a mad world, don't we?

I have three iMacs in my little flat. One is a purple iMac 'Grape' from the old years. One is the infamous iMac 'Dome' from the not so old years. And the last is a 'thin white box' iMac just purchased a couple of years back. This is not being typed on any of them.

I have a flat Motorola cellphone. It is silver and just a bit under 10 mm in thickness, which is why I picked it. A flat cellphone fits in the pocket without too noticeable a bulge, and it is easy to slip into your hand and use without people noticing.

I have an old nail-clipper. I use it each time exactly 20 times on my hands; every nail gets clipped from both left and right. I once knew a girl who would careful trim off her very long nails and keep full sets of the trimmings taped into her school file.

I have a red pen. It is one of the latest soldiers in my war against ignorance. Red pens remind me of British soldiers. They spend their lives leaking blood all across other people's geography, history, and political science. And then you discard them.

I have a pain. It is back again. What if I have a cancer? Will it be too late if I report it now? It has been hurting me for years but the last two x-rays showed nothing. I have a lot of pain. Ha, the funny thing is it keeps me sane and clever. Otherwise I'd sleep.


I have a god-daughter. I have a God-father. I realise these can only be objects in a grammatical sense. I would object to them being objects in a thingy sense. I realise this means I am not being objective. So what?

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Finance: The Great Crash Of August 2007

Haha, yes, the markets are crashing. It is the harbinger of what might be a great depression, a hole in the ground that will suck people in if they haven't the leverage to get out. I'm OK, though. Still got enough in hard assets, cash, gold, stamps, offshore stuff etc to survive and prosper. Yes, this isn't my usual serving of philosophy and/or poetry, but it is certainly educational. For you armchair economists out there, expert opinion can be found here. It's been a very interesting couple of weeks. My profits have halved. Haha!

I think there are a very simple few rules that should govern our financial behaviour:
  • do not borrow what you cannot pay back without having to guess about when you can pay it back
  • do not put money into anything, or lend money, that you cannot afford to throw away
  • if you must be generous, be genuinely so
  • do nothing out of greed or just for the sake of having more money
There's very little spiritual material here, but a close look at the material facts of the case is very educational: a lot of silly people and greedy people got burnt. If you were not being silly or greedy, you made a profit. And quite often, it was the people looking straight into God's face who forgot to be silly or greedy.

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Shaping Our Future?

1997 was a pivotal year for education. Or at least, it might have been. For those of my many readers based in a small island nation half-way between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, it might seem an odd choice. But that was the year that an economist named Goh delivered an interesting keynote speech.

In that speech, Goh began by stating that future wealth would depend on the capacity to learn and survive an unpredictable future [paragraphs 1-6]. He then offered a global reassessment of education [7-13], citing examples from the US and Europe. He spoke of Japan, Singapore and Garry Kasparov. And then, after saying a few more things, he came to the crux of the matter.

Here are some quotes:
  • "It is the capacity to learn that will define excellence in future, not simply what our young achieve in school. Thinking Schools must be the crucibles for questioning and searching, within and outside the classroom, to forge this passion for learning among our young." [21]
  • "Every school must be a model learning organisation. Teachers and principals will constantly look out for new ideas and practices, and continuously refresh their own knowledge. Teaching will itself be a learning profession, like any other knowledge-based profession of the future. We will take this into account in reviewing our school curriculum. Teachers must be given time to reflect, learn and keep up-to-date." [22]
  • "Our collective tolerance for change, and willingness to invest in learning as a continuous activity will determine how we cope with an uncertain future. We must make learning a national culture." [25]
Goh used that speech as a caution and a stimulus, to set minds thinking in the direction of what a 21st-century education had to entail. It is now ten years since that speech. The future is here, a decade after 'Thinking Schools, Learning Nation' was delivered at the opening of the 7th International Conference on Thinking.

I'm now in the process of helping to evaluate the progress made since then. As the educational landscape has diversified, our position on the border between chaos and order has made it difficult to see many things; the nature of reality itself seems ambiguous at times. I have about 8000 words to write in the next two weeks.

Do you think anything has changed?

Do you think anything?

Do you think?

Do you?


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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Strange Meeting (Redux)

This isn't meant to be some sort of oral commentary wannabe on Wilfred Owen's life and works. But I realise that when I mentioned Strange Meeting a short while back, a lot of people actually clicked on the link and found little of use there. That's because I've been thinking about the poem for almost 25 years now, but never actually wrote down what I thought about it (except during the 'O'-level examinations almost that long ago).

So I suppose I should say something about it, once again cautioning people that this is my own opinion and that in no way does it express an official viewpoint, an academically-qualified exegesis, or any other form of interpretation on which careers may be built or scuttled. It isn't literary analysis.

This is what I think.

Let's begin with context. I think that Strange Meeting is largely indebted to Shelley's incredibly long (but, for its time, not unusually so) poem The Revolt of Islam. Read Canto 5, verses 10-13 (or X to XIII), if you want to see what I mean (you can even read it from verse 1, if you want). We can suspect this because a copy of Shelley's works was given to Owen for his 21st birthday by his siblings. What's telling, however, is that he stops at XIII. XIV (well, verse 14) is the beginning of the triumphal return which Owen never includes. But at this point, we are beginning to lose the thread, for Shelley's poem is about reconciliation between Christianity and Islam.

So what is the thread? Psychologically, the poem clearly contains structures which imply mirroring, reflection, the dopplegänger effect. It is obvious to most that the dead soldiers who meet here, the man and his enemy, are very alike; and also that they have discovered this likeness, this similar sadness and regret, at the immediate point of death, just before final dissolution or whatever else awaits them beyond the terminus of life and death.

This perspective is common to many forms of heroic narrative, for this kind of narrative begins with the special birth of the protagonist and ends with a special death which mirrors the birth. Here, Owen's poem actually depicts the ending of the hero's journey. The tunnels, the subterranean setting – all these are a return to the womb. The hero is completing the last stage; having done his job, he is returning to the fundamental chaos or underlying structure of eternity. It is the 'drawing-down of blinds' found at the end of Anthem for Doomed Youth.

So if this is true, why the encounter on the way home? It is clear that Owen intends to show the essential brotherhood of soldiers, that (just as in Dulce et Decorum est) all are subject to the same Lie. In effect, Anthem, Dulce et Decorum and Meeting form a triptych about death in wartime – the first lays it out formally, with the sanctity of a churchyard elegy; the second is frenzied and manic in its portrayal of vileness; the third completes the picture. And all three interrogate God implicitly, with questions about meaning and truth and the worth of a life; all three speak with the same voice, with a complicity and shared burden of experience.

In the end, Meeting is about ambiguity and the lack of answers. The poem's second voice hints at something higher than the sad condition of humanity which brought the protagonist and antagonist (are they the same person, perhaps?) to this same place of death. And yet, there is no clear vision about what it was that was greater or higher or better than this. War is a dead end – the chariot wheels are clogged and man has reversed his progress – but is there anything better? Perhaps we have to be content with the fact that there are heroes who try and, in the end though they come to grief, know that they tried for something better.

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Jungian Archetyping

I've always been somewhat difficult to type; my maternal grandfather was one of those educators who liked testing his grandchildren and he used to shake his head at my odd responses. Over the years, the venerable Jungian-type tests have generally portrayed me as INTJ, but the last has always been somewhat in doubt.

Today, reminded of the test once more by the *Acxis, I got these results:
  • Introverted (I) 54.29% Extroverted (E) 45.71%
  • Intuitive (N) 65.79% Sensing (S) 34.21%
  • Thinking (T) 58.33% Feeling (F) 41.67%
  • Perceiving (P) 51.43% Judging (J) 48.57%

I guess that makes me INTP. The test site says:

"Architect". Greatest precision in thought and language. Can readily discern contradictions and inconsistencies. The world exists primarily to be understood. 3.3% of total population.

On a hunch, trying to seek underlying patterns, I found something interesting. When I was a high-profile administrator, I was INTJ; when I had stepped down, I was more INTP. I was also INTP for exactly one other year: the year before I became an administrator.

Administrative structures in this part of the world, and in many other parts, tend to be more J than P. This is not unexpected, but a P administrator tends to detect and baulk faulty thinking faster. J administrators are 'manager entities'; they detect faults quickly and assign blame precisely (if not accurately). It all depends on what kind of administration you want, I suppose.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The Return Of The Jehudi

We all know that George Lucas is of German origin. Fewer of us know that the word Jedi so beloved of Lucasfilm fans comes from the German Jehudi, which means 'Jew' – and by extension, Israelite.

So, what of it? Why bring this up, a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away?

It's because of this passage which I was abruptly reminded of when it appeared on my screen just a short while ago. Deuternonomy 17:14-20 reads:

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, "Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us," be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.

The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, "You are not to go back that way again." He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

In a sense, God appoints all those in dominion over us. But as Samuel found out, sometimes God allows us to appoint those who should be in power over us, and it is not always a happy thing. Free will can lead to disappointment. As I meditate on any passage of the Bible presented to me, I try to determine its relevance to my current situation.

This evening, the August Personage posed this question: "Do you love your country?" Reading the above passage and applying the appropriate transformation to the local situtation, it is hard to come to a definitive conclusion which would be politically acceptable. It is very difficult when people ask me questions like that.

How do you respond to, "Do you love your family?" or "Do you love your work?" or "Do you love your company?" The answer is normally one which might be instinctive, but not entirely truthful or exact.

So what level of clarity is demanded in the interpretation of the text? I choose to take careful note of the terms and conditions set out, a watching brief perhaps; but am I required to act on it? It is a hard path to travel, a difficult road to walk. It fills me with the ash of a long and bitter fire.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Room In The Heart

In every heart there is a room, and it sometimes has more than one nature. To Chesterton, in his epic poem Lepanto, it is

The hidden room in man's house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.

Chesterton, of course, speaks of the Pope in his chapel, at the centre of the storm that rages as the forces of the Caliphate collide head on with Don John of Austria's Christian navy at the Battle of Lepanto. But on a different level, he speaks of the place in our inmost being from which we look out and see that the world is beautiful and fragile. From this place, we see that the people we love, the things we delight in, the activities which are life to us, are all easily reft from us – and we learn to pray that we are protected from the fearful pain of their loss.

To Billy Joel, this place is also a sanctuary – but of a different kind. It is a refuge from that pain, not a window upon it; it is a place of healing in between the hurts. Perhaps he and Mr Chesterton were more alike than we can ever know. Here is Mr Joel's take on that room:

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until a new one comes along

I spoke to you in cautious tones
You answered me with no pretence
And still I feel I said too much
My silence is my self-defence

And every time I've held a rose
It seems I only felt the thorns
And so it goes, and so it goes
And so will you soon, I suppose

But if my silence made you leave
Then that would be my worst mistake
So I will share this room with you
And you can have this heart to break

And this is why my eyes are closed
It's just as well for all I've seen
And so it goes, and so it goes
And you're the only one who knows

So I would choose to be with you
That's if the choice were mine to make
But you can make decisions too
And you can have this heart to break

And so it goes, and so it goes
And you're the only one who knows.

For me, that place conceals both the painfully beautiful and the beautifully painful. I remember old roses of all kinds, their smiles, the planes of their faces, their curves of mind and body; I remember sexuality and spirituality and somatic intensity. For these some of all the kinds of beauty that have been given to mortal men doomed to die; and God has made all things beautiful in His time.

Why did He give us all this beauty, these things that we have died for, or felt like dying for, or felt that we have died from? It is clear that there are two gifts of doom (in the Anglo-Saxon sense, I suppose) – the two Trees in the Garden were of moral knowledge and eternal life. But in Ecclesiastes it is written that firstly, God has made everything beautiful in its time; and secondly, God has set eternity in the hearts of men. The two things to be contrasted are not beauty and eternity, but time and eternity. All beauty has been given to us to enjoy in its time, regardless of variety – but the enduring foundation of our secret room is eternity.

And so, now older and a little wiser, when I see the brightness – the beautiful intellect and power and grace and strength (and so many other wonderful things!) in each of my students – I think of eternity. I think of how each aspect, each attribute might decorate the vault of infinity, and I thank God that He has made us all beautiful.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007


About three years ago, approaching my fortieth year from the good side, I wrote this.

It has occurred to me that in the last three years, nothing at all has changed about my preferences. In fact, I think that I am in danger of ossifying. I went through my first two years of posts on this blog, and I found myself still agreeing with everything I wrote. Except that maybe I was too harsh on Derrida. Oddly, I also found myself thinking of Wilfred Owen's Strange Meeting in November 2004.

I was war-weary, and about to shut down my blog because of the carnage imputed to it. Said carnage never materialised, but I was feeling bitter, sad, disappointed. Owen felt right at that point. I remember telling myself, though, that I would put all that behind me. I think I did.


Oh yes, I must thank the motley crew who presented me with a solid crystal icosahedron on which the first 19 letters of the Greek alphabet are engraved. (Of course only 19, since the 20th face is for resting the thing on.) I must say that at about 10 cm across, it is the largest d20 I've ever possessed. Deeply grateful, you terrible people!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007


She is eighteen, and that is not to diminish what went before. But the eighteen years just covered are minutes in the hour of the glass. We do not know how many minutes, though it is certain that the first eighteen years are almost all the shaping that this tempered and imperious metal will receive. For after the eighteenth bell, the eighteenth chapter and the eighteenth candle, there is little that can change the indwelling spirit – unless it be the indwelling Spirit.

She is eighteen, and greatness lies before her. Does it describe, does it destine, does it deceive or distract? We do not know; and neither does she. But eighteen is when, to our everlasting regret, one's powers are at the greatest gathering, the greatest possible density of confluence. The powers can yet increase, but they will never feel as intense, so close that the heat bleeds from nerve to nerve and it sometimes feels all too much. In time, the powers will fade a little and then a lot, but the learned control will make up for some of that.

But she is eighteen, and if she does not realise that she is a pawn become a queen (or at least a princess of the blood), she will not seize this moment at the full before it ebbs. And so this fleeting laser flash of words, this drop of painfully distilled blood, it is for you, and you, and you, and you, and on this day, particularly you. Where will and power are one, so let it be. Ask now no more.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Dead Language?

I was introduced to the rigours of Latin by a fierce and exacting taskmistress. My grandfather's younger sister had the sharpest mind of anyone I've ever met, a tongue to go with it, and the will to restrain both – a potent combination. She once said she was the only one who could stand up to him, and I believe it. They were very affectionate siblings the rest of the time.

But what amazed me was the abundance of life in the so-called 'dead' languages. From both her and my grandfather, I picked up a love of the arcane, in the form of Latin, Greek and unusual Biblical translations; she taught me what brutal honesty was about and he taught me what loving generosity was. And yet both of them were capable of blistering wrath, rare and doubly potent when unleashed. I loved them both – grandfather close up and my grandaunt from afar.

And I will always remember them as I remember this:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth;
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria Tua.
Hosanna in excelsis!

Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of Hosts;
The heavens and earth are filled with Your glory,
Hosanna in the highest!


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It was a good year. There might not have been bright cities in the sky or flames in the night, but it was a year for the shaking and stilling of nations. I sat in the darkened greenish phosphorescence of the old computer centre, and I wrote this for the children born that year. I never expected to meet any of them. It was that kind of silliness.


December in the Poetry Room

Peace, children, is
not the continuation of war
by other means;
no, not that, nor the sullen anger
waiting to burst

But, peace; peace in
our time and in our space, it was
we did not, could not, know what to do;
it was a time

For the breaking
down of walls; we saw on every front
hope glimmering.
It was a different time, my children;
try, understand...

Perhaps we had,
had left the shadow of the long fear
behind ourselves
which was the breaking of the nations
you will not know

It's December.
All mankind buries its dead at last
and winter comes;
my children, in the summer months, will
you remember?

15 December 1989

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Daylight 04

I've spent more than a decade at my current workplace. It's a somewhat more permanent temporary home than most. Much of that is due to the people – colleagues, adjunct staff, other adults; most of all, the students who pass through the millrace. Some people treat the job as just a job; this is to be expected, because to some people, it really is. Some people draw a solid line between professional and personal lives, which is ethically ideal to them.

I think that's not possible. It is unethical to have teacher-student relationships which do not partake of the personal. There. I've said it. This is because the profession and calling of the teacher are inextricable from the ministry of caring. Teaching, the art of shaping a contrary mind, is by nature intensely personal. It isn't like engineering, in which no person-person interface needs to be deployed, and in which humans need not communicate directly.

That's not to say that a teacher cannot keep a professional distance or make professional decisions. But it is true, by the nature of things, that these actions must be explained in professional terms with full awareness of the personal considerations which might develop from them or which are intrinsic to them. And so I have to say that I cannot be a friend to my students until they graduate, while being friendly and encouraging and knowing that I have invested emotionally in them. I am de facto a friend, but I cannot advertise it or even demonstrate it at times. That will have to wait.

It is sad to be unable to return what I have so often been granted by the grace of my students. But I try to compensate for it, and I hope that sometimes it comes close.


Here is my fourth decade, which has just passed on.

I became a head very much against my own will at the end of 1996. 1997 then, for me, was traumatic and vastly irritating. I attempted to climb down at the end of the year and was told that I shouldn't, as I was doing a good job. It is interesting to see what that translates to in the minds of men. It was in that year that I was told to keep a professional distance from my colleagues, to spend time with the 'right people', and to increase my exposure in the 'right ways'. I felt that these were some sort of pseudo-Confucian-Buddhist instructions and ignored them.

My personal ethics, of course, made things awkward. I never took any of the staff I appraised out for a meal, whether singly or in groups. I gave them all presents, each and every one, every year. I pushed for bonuses and rewards whenever they deserved it. I ran the largest department in the country, doing all the paperwork and writing endless position papers. And I hated every minute of it. It was all about administration, you see, and that's not my gift. And so, a quick digression.

The gift of administration is the talent for instinctively seeking and finding the best possible way to simplify the job for other people. An excellent administrator makes life easier while achieving or surpassing the required objectives. An effective administrator achieves or surpasses the objectives, but might not make life easier. An exacting administrator makes life hard enough so that the objectives will be achieved at the very least. And an egregious administrator makes the work harder than it has to be and is unclear about exactly what the objectives are. I was effective, but not better than that. I don't have much of the gift, if at all.

I earned my Master's degree in 1999 and did lots of amazing and wonderful things (well, looking back , I can see how they weren't really that great, but they seemed that way to me) for the next five years. At the end of 2004, my time was up. I returned to the ranks of the teachers, no longer a head of the game. 2005 was the happiest year of my life in the school.

For two years now, I have been largely policy-free, largely administration-free. I have worked with true gems of colleagues, brilliant diamonds and resilient sapphires, tough jades and lustrous pearls. I caught up with my professional life, while (I hope) remaining an asset to the place in which I live and work and have my being.

Most importantly, I continue to find more time for students. My brain is at their service while it still contains enough connections to be of use. Of course, I will continue to infuriate people. I cannot help it; we are enjoined not to conform to the pattern of this world. And perhaps, those of you who read this will see me with kinder eyes, understanding that the pattern can indeed be broken, and I have done that in at least one way through the gifts I've been given.

You who have your own gifts, your vast and unexplored worlds of talent, break the pattern in your own way. And someday if you should be in a tavern in Marrakesh or Dublin, lift a glass to my memory – if that memory was kind to you.

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Daylight 03

Take an equilateral triangle and inscribe within it a circle such that this circle touches all three sides tangentially. You now have something which seems to belong to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that latest (and some say last) of Mdm Rowling's money-spinning novels. But this isn't what I think of when I see that symbol. The truth is that for more than 20 years, I've been sealing my letters with that sigil.

That sigil, the circle in a triangle, symbolises many things to me. It is Alpha and Omega; it is the Delta which is Change; it is the Three which is One. And I'm sure it must be a pretty common shape, a diagram found in many mathematics texts. It was in my third decade, from my 21st year to my 30th, that this sign became even more important, more significant (if you will) to me.


Here is my third decade.

1988 brought with it my release from official duties. It was also the year in which I was threatened with statelessness, despite having served the state faithfully and well. In order to stay here, I gave up my birthright to the Islands of the Blessed. I was told, however, that if I really wanted to return, to remember that the right conferred by birth was immutable.

With that, I entered the university life. I hated much of it. Although I finally got myself the paper of an education (majoring in applied and theoretical alchemy, in numeromancy and homuncular intelligence), I hated the lack-of-education I was really receiving. I was fortunate to find mentors there, and some like-minded associates. In the end writing, reading and debating saved me. I was a terrible student the rest of the time, an incandescent speaker when moved (would you believe Best Speaker at the Inter-Faculty Debates?), a wicked writer when necessary.

I have been told that poor grades are the sign of a defective character. I think that is true in one sense; those who see defects are those who are limited by the necessity for grading. I have been told that if you are a bad student, it is a moral failing and shows lack of determination, industry and conscientiousness. Well, I am unrepentant. I learned a lot more by hacking the mainframe and failing my project than by submitting anything on time. I did my best for what I liked; I passed what I didn't. I aced Human Resource Management and scraped a bare pass in Math. And I hung out at the concert hall, the library, the museum and the computer centre.

I now know that a lot of it was arrogance. I was very happy to project the image of intellectual rebel. Challenged by a good friend on this point, I spent sleepless nights realising I was not really one. And so I enterprised in my heart that I would return to my God-given gifts and spend a lot more time doing useful stuff. That meant studying hard and preparing, once more, to be a teacher – a plain, ordinary but dedicated young person.

It was at the end of my final year that I got sidetracked. Oddly impressed by my ability with practical work, two senior professors offered me a job as a researcher. It was a good experience, and I ended it having learnt much from my co-workers and supervisors. After completing my contract, I entered the National Educational Institute.

This was a funny time. I remember being filled with cold irritation during my entrance interview. The lead interviewer had been asking increasingly personal questions which I had rebuffed. Finally, she asked, "Are you trying to tell us that your father is Professor X?" (Well, no, but I'm not going to bandy my father's name around, so 'X' will have to do for now.)

I was furiously calm. I said, "No, I've been trying not to tell you that, especially since it's on my application form. I'm afraid I didn't have much choice when it came to picking a father. Is that all?" A year later, in July 1992, I emerged with 4As and 3Bs, the best grades I had ever obtained in any examination since my sad attempts at a secondary education.

My first traineeship posting was to a wonderful government secondary school. I learnt a lot from the very dedicated mentors I had in that school. Then I was posted to a convent. How awkward! My limited experience had not prepared me for the next 33 months. I remember spending a lot of time trying to be a good teacher. Eventually, I decided I was a bad man, got married, and left the convent. My principal encouraged me to begin working on a Master's degree before I left – the last time a principal would ever do this for me.

I changed schools in 1996. Little was I to know that my homecoming would be fraught with all kinds of trouble. From a simple teacher trying to do his best, I was nominated for a headship in August that year. I finally sipped from the poisoned chalice in November. It was the end of the third decade, and the end of my life. Or at least, a large chunk of the good part of it.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Daylight 02

The rollercoaster period from 11 to 20 is always the most turbulent and out-of-control time in anyone's life. I spent it learning that the world could be a very cruel place, a wonderful place, a place of abandonment and desire, a place to weave webs and to be entrapped in the snares of others. I learnt too many things, and yet, perhaps too few.

It was in this age that the Moorcock Introductory became real to me. What I call the Moorcock Introductory is found in books written by Michael Moorcock, one of the pioneers of the New Wave SF movement. It reads like this:

In those days there were oceans of light and cities in the skies and wild flying beasts of bronze. There were herds of crimson cattle that roared and were taller than castles. There were shrill, viridian things that haunted bleak rivers. It was a time of gods manifesting themselves upon our world in all her aspects; a time of giants who walked on water; of mindless sprites and misshapen creatures who could be summoned by an ill-considered thought but driven away only on pain of some fearful sacrifice; of magics, phantasms, unstable nature, impossible events, insane paradoxes, dreams come true, dreams gone awry, of nightmares assuming reality.

It was a rich time and a dark time.

And so it was that I began and ended my second decade, immersed in learning that the world which seemed real was not at all the world which really existed.


Here is my second decade.

I completed my primary education as the eldest sibling of three. At this time, looking at myself with 'sober judgement', I realised that I was the least prepossessing of the three, and that apart from a treacherously well-trained mind, I was probably the least intelligent as well. This was not a cause for discontent or envy, but it did affect my positioning. If you are unsure of your raw talent or ability to charm, you had better develop what talent you have.

And so I did. I took up the study of the life sciences and everything else I could study which I was certain the education system wouldn't provide in timely fashion. I began to read a dozen books or more a week; sometimes, that many a day. My mother complained that reading in dim light would ruin my eyes; I countered by saying that dim light never hurt anyone's eyes but strong light had been known to blind.

But my motivation was not to crush my 'rivals', although it might have seemed so. My motivation was something people still find hard to understand: each of us has rare abilities, although perhaps not granted in large measure – mine was the ability to process information in large chunks and come up with something useful. It was like playing with derivatives on the intellectual stock market. My favourite poem was Eliot's Prufrock:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous...

The year was 1979, and I was making myself into a one-man think-tank.

The 1980s began with me entering secondary school. Life was turned on its head in many ways. Chess players who had been serious rivals in primary school at the inter-school tournaments were now classmates and team-mates. Old rivalries were shelved and new ones made. And in that year, Dad decided we would all go back to the fenlands for a long break. My education never really recovered from that. Already weird, disjointed, and self-motivated in eccentric ways, it became even more incompatible with the national education system.

I remember my brother producing little bound volumes on the pre-revolution Russian monarchy and other abstruse topics. He was only nine. I was discovering miniatures wargaming and the delights of building your own computer. I took up courses in self-defence (with weapons and without), economics, pottery, metalworking; I was forced also to play rugby in the dead of winter and shower in ice-cold water afterwards. It was a lunatic time. After a year had passed, I had gained 10 cm of height and about 22 kg of mass. It was amazing.

Returning to Singapore was really traumatic. It was no longer possible for me to use my brain in its most natural way; rather, I had to work at compartmentalising knowledge and presenting it for the sake of examinations. This was not wholly bad – it taught me self-discipline and gave me the capacity to endure self-abuse. I spent a lot more time in church, and worked hard at reading through the Bible and what other people thought about it. These were fruitful years; I learnt that if you trained under conditions of firm discipline and a heavy load, you could learn a kind of dangerous single-mindedness which had many useful applications.

1984 came, and with it the dawning realisation that Orwell had been right about the philosophy and technology, but not the history. It was pretty obvious that Orwell's world was with us, but that enough good things remained for it not to be that obvious. I enjoyed the 1980s because I transited my adolescence in those years, but like many exciting and interesting feats of daring and bare survival, it is not something I would do again.

I became a pawn of the state on 17 December 1985. For the next few years, I learned all I could about modern warfare as a private soldier and then a specialist. Dad had sown the seeds in my first decade with his never-ending supply of West Point manuals and wargaming materials. Now they bore odd fruit. I began to help people simulate actual war, I learned skills of distraction, deception, and diversion. If I hadn't become a teacher, I might have tried to sign up for the long-term military plan.

My second decade ended while I was still in the armed forces. It was a wonderful time. People think that being in the military means loss of comfort and freedom. I think that's only true if you go in with false expectations. It can mean, as it did to me, independence and learning how to stand up for what is right under extreme pressure. It means learning how to reject a cigarette or sell a Bible while not looking like a total wuss. And at the end of it, it meant self-respect and personal bearing that nobody could take away.

It also meant that I emerged libertarian in political philosophy and a free-trader in economic philosophy. What a decade!

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Daylight 01

It is the moment of the greatest fatigue of all my first forty years; it is the moment of exultation in which I am reminded that forty is both a period and the end of tribulation, a period and the end to youth. I am not old today. I am older than young, but not old. This is the beginning of my prime.

Frequently, my heart sings with Harry Belafonte, "Come, Mr Tally-man, tally me banana / Daylight come and I wanna go home..." This world is a temporal and temporary lodging; it is not my eternal home. But there are still bananas to pluck, stacks to build, renegade overseers to chastise and reproach. I am only a humble banana-man.

"This is my story, this is my song, praising my Saviour all the day long."


Here is my first decade.

I was born in a little university town in East Anglia, a former swamp and breeding-place for odd fish and flies. The nearest water source was a muddy rivulet so shallow that it could be navigated by anything waterborne piloted by a man with a pole. I had odd neighbours – the man who blew things up and picked glass out of his own flesh for decades, the man who rewrote the history of time. It inured me to the awe of things intellectual. I was a year old. I would eventually return for a small slice of my education.

My brother was born some years later. I distinctly recall asking my father, "When will he be old enough to play with?" My father, with characteristic wisdom, replied, "Do you really want him to be old enough?" My father was the youngest in his family. I always wondered what he really meant by that, and was never brave enough to ask. My brother was the bright one, and also the noisy one. This has always been true.

When I was six and a bit, I went to school. Before that, desultory attempts had been made to entrench my backside in a playschool or other medieval torture-house. I defeated all such attempts by the simple device of falling ill and spreading plagues around each time I went. I ended up being largely home-schooled, which was true even when I got to high school.

Education had always been highly-regarded in my family. My venerable grand-aunties were trained pharmacists; grandfather was a scholar and a physician who could diagnose just by observation and acute listening (both to the patient and to the patient's body). My other grandparents were teachers with radical pedagogical methods; I will never forget my maternal grandfather's teaching machines and shelves of books all designed to help a person teach himself, and my maternal grandmother was able to infuse the word 'learn' (as in 'you WILL learn') with such trenchant force that neurons automatically aligned in military order when she spoke. It was a given that everyone ought to go to university, and I (naïve and very young) didn't realise how unusual that was.

I suffered in my first year at school. I had a second language, Mandarin, that nobody spoke – at home, we had many Chinese dialects, Malay, English, but none of that peculiarly harsh administrative tongue. I failed in the first semester and got an A in every final examination thereafter till the end of primary school. My granduncle the savant laughed and said, "Right now, three-quarters of all the people can't speak Mandarin at all; I can't do it myself. But when I'm done, 80% will speak some of it."

I was ten years old when they decided they would sell the land. It was terrible to see the broken hulk of the house, the devastation and ruin that followed as my childhood self-destructed. I have photos. I seldom look at them. They are taking too long to fade. It was the year that my father bought me my first encyclopaedia, a small five-volume set that seemed enormous. I treasured it then, and still do although it is now somewhat out of date. I began to study alchemy, and learnt the Mendeleevian model of the elements by heart. And it was then that I knew I would teach it some day.

My sister was born that year, early and purplish-red. Mother was fine one evening, helping with the preparations for Lunar New Year celebrations. That night, she was taken away while I lay sleeping. Dad told me to get back to sleep; everything was OK and Mum was off to the hospital. I woke and went to school, and after school my grandfather accosted me with the news that I had a sister. It was the year that I saw Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher drag the unwilling Harrison Ford into battle against the Death Star. It was a great year. And I was only ten.

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The Day Before

Today is one of those days before. You know, like the day before the sh** hits the fan or the day before the end of the world or the day before tomorrow. It just feels like that, an incurable leper of a day which cannot be salvaged by blessing of bean or gelato.

I have many tasks, mostly onerous, mostly dutiful, all requiring my brain and the wits formed by the fireworking of its neurons (like networking, but with sparklies). Work, to me, has always been some sort of sacrament – a regular practice sanctified and commended by God, something which makes us human, which defines us as to the kind of humans we are.

And today, I cannot really work. It is a kind of paralytic burden of inertia. It is like being unable to pray. I am sure I will get over it, but for now, it is really a vexation of spirit. Growl.


Edit (1): It's even more vexing that just as I was about to do something about it, I realised it had already been done. Never mind. I shall return. Wait. I already did this once before. No. That wasn't really it, was it? Argh.

Edit (2): OK. Updated my monthly book reviews. Overcaffeinated. Overworked. Self-indulgently rambling (well, worse than the usual self-indulgence, that is) in progress. Madness. Forty years. Urgh. Will update when the moment has passed.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Notional Medals

In keeping with the spirits of the times and of the places and of the days and seasons, and of the maddening sum of ephemera which makes up the mortal condition, I present to you a list of Notional Day Awards.

The Star of Atlantis

Forged of meteoritic iron of a kind rare even between the stars, this crystalline black medal is the highest award of the Incarnadine Bleme. It is given for exceptional courage or skill in the (military) service of the state, conspicuous gallantry in the face of overwhelming danger, or obsessive devotion which results in exceptional gain to the nation. The obverse bears the Cross of the Inmost Sea composed of double-edged swords, with the intersection encompassed by a wreath of selina and a five-pointed star as of Ëarendil. The ribbon is of the hue known as Mordant's Need, a very deep purple barred argent of five, with a thin crimson line dividing the central bar.

Lesser awards related to the Star are: the Order of Atlantis (Badge, Cross and Crown) and the Order of the Bloodless Hero.

The Honorific Sigil

This award is a life-changing honour bestowed upon those who have lost their truenames in the service of the State. Such rare entities must carry the Sigil with them so that they might be identified in the absence of a name. Each Sigil has a small badge with a ribbon in state colours, designed to look inconspicuous except to those looking for such an item. There are two grades of award: the Certified Honour and the Bachelor's Medal.

The Rite of the Silver Service

The Rite is pronounced over various public functionaries who have rendered valuable public service to the people of an Atlantean colony or who have distinguished themselves in the scholae of grammar, athletics, alchemical arts, numismatic arts, fiduciary offices, and various priesthoods. The Rite entitles the celebrant to bear a miniature Star of Atlantis within the two concentric rings of a thaumaturgic circle, said badge offering protection against spiritual assault.

The Rite may be administered at several levels, most common being the Star, the Bar, the Wreath and the Armametarium.

The Condemnation Medal

The Condemnation Medal is awarded to knights of Atlantis who have distinguished themselves despite public opprobrium, the vexations of many retardants, the pleadings of many supplicants, and the inimical sorceries of the Flame-Savants of the Distant East. Despite bearing tarnished armour and severe loss of public approval, their devotion to duty in the service of the Aiglerie and other unseen organs of State have become sufficiently creditable to the hierarchs. A career record containing strong mana of performance, conduct, efficiency, and at least a minimum competence and devotion in service are essential for this award. The Medal contains on its reverse the arms of Atlantis and on the obverse the rising sun within a wreath of selina.

The Efficacy Medal

The Efficacy Medal is presented to knights of Atlantis for exceptional efficacy, exceptional devotion to duty, or works of special significance to the local hierarchs. It is especially applicable to agents of the Star or the servants of the Hidden Instrumentalities. The Medal is an approximate rhombus, or rhomboid, engrailed and engraved with archangelic motifs, with four distinctly different horsemen etched on the reverse.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

David & Goliath

I was always fascinated with this story when I was a small boy. Dad being a military historian, I always wondered what the fuss was about. Here's a recap (full story here).

David was a shepherd boy with exceptional courage, tactical skill, and brains. The Israelites had been challenged by Goliath of the Philistines, an armoured giant of exceptional size. The Israelites were dismayed because the challenge to single combat looked fatal for the respondent – but they weren't thinking out of the box and did not look past Goliath's bronze armour and panoply. In fact, there was precedent for a superior response – the footsoldiers of the Promised Land had long used projectile weapons with great accuracy.

David merely went back to his roots. Taking five large stones (sling-stones could weigh up to 500g or so), the shepherd boy went hunting. According to the Biblical account, his first shot embedded itself in the giant's head and Goliath died at once. This is not beyond belief; a sling-stone can travel 200 metres in a ballistic trajectory and impact with crushing force.

Quite often, I think people reading this passage come away with the wrong idea. This story is not about blind faith, courage which shuns armour, or the triumph of an anointed youth over experienced men of war. It is the story of using your brains before your enemy uses his; it is the story of ranged weapons and force multipliers. David was very clever. He knew that at 200 metres, a slinger can fire three 500g rocks before a fully armoured man covers half the distance. In extremis, two rocks tied at either end of a braided rope make the weapon called a bolas – this wraps around an enemy's neck or lower limbs, tripping, entangling or incapacitating him.

David had faith in the skills he had honed in his youth, the courage God had blessed him with, and the martial traditions of his predecessors. When we talk about his faith, we should see exactly what it was that he believed in, and why it was that the story ends eventually with King Saul throwing a spear at the young hero. David, basically, was an insufferable smart-ass as far as Saul was concerned. And thus endeth this lesson.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Teacher-Practitioner

This is an interesting point, brought up by a colleague.

How much of a practitioner should a teacher be in order to be considered professional?

Would you trust, for example, a driving instructor who didn't drive? A chemistry teacher who couldn't titrate? A literature teacher who couldn't write poetry (or drama, or prose)? An art teacher who had no art? A music teacher who had no music? An history teacher who could not construct an historical account or a geography teacher who had never 'done' geographical field studies?

I don't think you would trust such a person as much as you would trust a teacher with practical ability. The reason is simple. Teaching by the apprenticeship model (demonstration + mentorship) is the one ability which does the most to obviate the appearance of any possible barrier associated with language or encoding.

By that same argument, you shouldn't have a diploma or degree supervisor who hasn't done sufficient research to get their own diploma or degree. And by having access to their research or other signs of their ability, you have an additional input to consider seriously when choosing or accepting a supervisor. You might be able to see their limitations or strengths, their inherent advantages and flaws.

Which brings us to the next question, to be answered in some further, later post. Who should be held to account when teachers without these abilities are deployed? You can have a look at some readings which might help. See below.


  1. From 'Group Action', a post on accountability
  2. One of the best lists to read from
  3. From 'How to Change the World', a post on how to be a hero

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Well, walker walks warily where wild whispers wander. With wise wit, walker watches worrisome warts wax woeful. Walker will wrest wisdom where wisdom wanes; walker will wield whimsical words, warlike weapons, weighty wizardry. Winter weather wakes – will walker wear waterproof wraps? Why wince? Walker waits where walker wants, wreaks woe where walker wills.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

World Class

Today was not such a lousy day, but there was something lacking. Somehow, the whole day ticked by mechanically, almost like the huge mechanical clocks in German town squares where tin soldiers raise and lower their weapons on the hour, every hour. There is no real fire where I am. Only small sultry and indignant embers (or members) with a few sparks.

Have we gone wrong? Do we no longer dare to innovate with large visions? Keep it simple, stupid. Keep it down. Do not stick your neck out. Why do you think you are special? Why do you want to rock the boat? It's no point going ahead when nobody can keep up. I've heard all these things. And this is why the good is the enemy of the great. We're good. Sometimes, very good. But we're still amateurs with tiny dreams; the larger dreams are whittled down to size so that we can swallow them – which means that we never grow to meet the challenge unless we already know we can.

It's not that we haven't dreamt large before. We have dreamt big dreams. It's just that we've never dreamt world-class dreams. What's world-class? Being able to attract talent that is world-class. Being able to accept that world-class excellence is not national-level excellence, but something that is a totally different breed of animal.

We need to learn from the world. If you want to be world-class, you must see the world as your class. You need to sift through the silly and inane papers at cut-rate conferences and find the one major discovery. You need to realise that if people working on your national curriculum are starting to discover valuable gems, your rejection of such gems might be a mistake – and if not a mistake, at least know why you made your choice.

This is what a little island with a lot of money might become if it is not very perceptive, very careful, very encouraging of big dreams. It can become a Yahoo-land where inane and silly ideas are given space and time, and the whole shebang is called 'a balanced perspective'.

We can still be great. We need to remember why we want to be great. To be great, we have to be of service, of deepest usefulness to others, taking little for ourselves except that which is needed for institutional life. Then come the blessings of time and space, faith and grace – perhaps not really in our time, but some day. And when sic transit gloria mundi, we will at least have done our part to ensure that the glory has passed to the heirs who deserve it.

Today, the brightest spot was seeing god-daughter walking around like a normal human being. That was my first thought. Then I realised that it was a silly thing to think. She is a normal human being. It's the rest of us who are odd. Five hours later, I realised yet another thing. We're all odd, all peculiar. She's just more sensible than many.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Disciplinary Philosophies 102

Oh, very well. Sigh. If you're going to insist that I teach a subject called The Disciplines: Philosophies of Knowledge, then I suppose I should give it a shot. BANG! Now clean up the blood on the floor, there's a good administrator.

Really though, when I last posted on this topic, I received a lot of verbal feedback but no comments. It must really be a sticky topic, redolent of the pitcher plant and other such traps. So what I'm going to do is go back a bit to a workshop I once ran in the Second Age of Humanity, in which I forced a bunch of educators to consider the answers to some silly question involving sports apparatus and its distribution.

It turns out that people have no problems thinking about stuff that either has no particular labels automatically assigned to it, or has very specific labels automatically assigned to it. The first kind of stuff has no labels (either implicit or explicit), so people aren't forced to think too hard; the second kind has the labels already pasted on, so it's not a problem. It's like being in a supermarket. The cashier looks at your stuff. If it is supermarket stuff and it is labelled, PING, and you pay $xx.xx. If it is not supermarket stuff, then nothing happens. Simple. But if it is supermarket stuff with a faulty or damaged barcode (i.e. it is stuff with no proper label but it has a kind of label) then it takes a significantly longer time to process.

One purpose of education is to teach a person how to make her own labels so that she can process things faster. In fact, if she can ascertain the value (intrinsic value, situational value, utility value, relative value, whatever) of something, life becomes a lot easier. And another purpose of education is to teach a person to use labelling so cleverly that other people agree with her.

So when we teach a language, it is important to know a few things. Where did the language come from? What were the main uses of this language? What is the history of this language? Does it automatically put a bias on certain things? How can you use it to express yourself honestly, biasedly, and manipulatively? How can others use it? How do others use it? What is the philosophical justification for saying something is well-said, well-written, or well-balanced in that language?

These are examples of the kind of question you should ask when learning about a new discipline – in this case, the study of a specific language within the larger group of linguistic disciplines. When I began to pick up languages, I learnt them in little pieces just like everyone else. But along the way, I also picked up lots of historical, social and cultural factoids linked to these pieces. And slowly, I learnt that there were philosophical questions and elements unique to the learning of language, or more suited to that kind of endeavour.

For example, one hardly thinks of science as a vehicle for conveying and maintaining cultural identity. One might make a case for history, but not economics. But the arts – language arts, performing arts, visual arts, etc – are prime candidates for this function. Hence, the learning of such things carries a specific kind of philosophical baggage.

To conclude this short post, if I had to teach a course called The Disciplines: Philosophies of Knowledge, I would approach it along these lines. What are the questions that pertain more to one discipline than another? How do we answer them? And what are the implications of the answers we might find? For this is what such a course has to be about.

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There was a girl I met in college about 20 years ago. What I remember about her was that she had a (for want of a better word) snarky wit. Nowadays, most people agree that snarky should mean short-tempered and acidic; here, I want it to mean a combination of sneaky and sarcastic, snappish perhaps, and very entertaining. She also had a lovely smile.

About six years ago, I found a new bookstore – not a large one, but one which stocked a good quantity of the sort of stuff I read. It had sprouted in one of my favourite buildings. Intrigued, I walked in, and there she was. Same old person, maybe a bit older in the eyes, just as cheerful in the smile. What a wonderful surprise! So I added that little shop to the list of stores which I routinely visited. Over the years, I must have bought a fair number of books there.

Yesterday, she told me, "You're still on my database, and if I ever decide to start up again, I'll let you know. I guess I'll still bump into you once in a while here?"

It was pretty sad. The little shop was closing. It was half an hour before the hammer fell. Books were going at $1 per book, $10 for all you could take. I regretted not bringing the Golden Horde, but Trivandrum and Augury were around and walked off with something like 60 books between them. I took four. Four? Only four? Yes, only four. In the last days, I'd been picking off what I wanted.

The shop took a long time to die, it seemed. But yesterday, it felt like vultures over corpses. If it had been any other place, I would have cheerfully walked off with a ton of books. Here, I was just sad. The wiring and lighting were being stripped out. In a way, it was like participating at a wake for an old friend. My acolytes (no, I don't think they really want to be called that) were assisting in the funeral arrangements. I said my last goodbyes to her, remembering what it was like when we were young.

Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum sed favilla...

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

An Ideal Education

I don't think I would have chosen to be a teacher if not for two things. The first thing relies on what is easily confirmed as fact, and most people would accept it to be a valid excuse; the second relies on what is much less easily confirmed as fact by the scientific paradigm, and is sure to be hotly disputed by many people.

The first thing is that I come from a family heavily laden with teachers. Studies have shown that this tends to correlate with the chance that someone will also become one; it is the apprenticeship phenomenon – growing up surrounded by the instruments (red pens, record books, test papers etc) and methodologies (inquiry-based learning, small group study, project work etc) of a trade tends to make one adopt the behaviours associated with that trade. I know for certain that very nearly half of my ancestors and siblings are or have been teachers. Some of my unfortunate students have thus had multiple doses of a teaching philosophy which is roughly the same and just as vexatious.

The second thing is that I believe I have a gift for a peculiar kind of teaching; it does not focus well on details but is good for weaving an extensive web of connections. Victims of this teaching mode, should they succumb to it, therefore learn a lot about many things and occasionally not enough about specific things. I've learnt to remedy that by pointing out where the specifics can be found. The crux of that matter to me is this: it is easy to find details and specific answers (search engines, anyone?) but it is not so easy to bring concepts together from across the spectrum of human knowledge and link them into something useful. However, I confess that this makes me a pain to some students.

Further to the first point, I have to say that the kind of family I came from is characterised by traits conducive to learning:
  • high implicit standards of achievement
  • a lot of tolerance for eccentricity and experimentation
  • reservoirs of good humour (and horrendous puns)
  • long-suffering patience mixed with rare moments of terrifying wrath at stupid behaviour
  • a love of multifarious erudition
  • a tendency to hoard books on many disciplines, in many genres, from many periods, with many perspectives

Further to the second point, I believe that teachers who are good at thinking across many areas of interest keep their brains more active that those who don't. By this I do not mean that teachers who teach a specific subject are fools, or that specialists are like idiots savant. I mean that while a teacher might teach a specific subject, that teacher cannot keep focussing the mind onto a tiny subset of that subject (like what my mother once called "an expert on four texts and useless elsewhere"). The broader the range, the greater the challenge.

Which brings me, at last, to the point. What is an ideal education?

I believe that the roots of an ideal education lie in cultivation of the soil, metaphorically speaking. A fertile mind is the result of painstakingly tended soil, adequate nutrients and watering, proper periods of light and darkness, and some periods of reflective calm or peaceful weather (in between the storms and floods, presumably). Planting seeds in a fertile mind results in growth if the fundamental substance is present. A good farmer can optimise this growth by pruning and other interventions. Rare is the plant that prunes itself to outstanding effect; however, the natural balance of regulatory hormones can do this fairly well in many cases. Some plants therefore come with built-in advantages for a given terroir. It's worth it to remember, however, that accidents of nature and incidents of management can make any plant do very badly or very well.

So what does this translate to in application?

The first thing to master is word-based communication. It initiates a specific feedback loop. Once you can talk, you can give feedback and ask for detailed and useful responses. Babies have hardly any comprehension, calculation, consideration or contemplation. They are limited to imprecise learning for a time. But to be educated, a person must have control of language in at least one aspect. People should minimally have functional ability to communicate intelligibly within their social context. It must not stop there. There must be opportunities for extension.

The second thing to master, therefore, is the ability to understand large chunks of word-based material. It is all right to base this on unwritten forms only if you come from a strong oral tradition. People who don't read need prodigious memories by our standards. So everyone should read a lot if they are not going to spend the effort to memorise everything they hear. This second mastery demands the interactive use of both ear and eye to handle the spoken and written word well. Literature follows language; the two feed off each other and regather to greater effect in the mind. As you read, so also do you learn how others have expressed their thoughts, and you learn ways to express your own thoughts more lucidly and exactly.

If I had to plan a curriculum, therefore, it would begin with language and literature. History, geography and all other accounts of living behaviour would creep in. The world of ideas and of mind would follow. The ability to apply the mind to problem-solving, information gathering and manipulation of the environment would follow. Design and technology, mathematics and engineering would be mobilised at this point. What of music and the other arts? I think those should be part of the learning environment. Eventually, if I had to summarise the game plan for an ideal curriculum, I would condense it to three points:
  • learning to explore and synthesize from what is found
  • learning to define different areas of knowledge and choose appropriate tools or paradigms based on this
  • learning to develop a personal curriculum, plan of study, or schedule of self-education

Thank goodness I don't have to plan all of this curriculum. It's already available out there if you look hard enough, and I am glad that my ancestors had similar ideas.

In recent years, a lot of my students have taken to speculating about what skill-sets I possess. I can only say to them: nothing that you can't surpass. I honestly believe that at least 40% of my students are much brighter, much more talented than I am. I am amazed by their ability. What some of them need is the self-belief to look beyond the constraints of school curriculum (which in every place and time is necessarily narrow) and aim for the far horizon. For the best is yet to be. Heh.

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