Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Word of the Day: Sanctity

Sanctity is of course an illusion in practice. At best, one thinks of it as 'the aura of sanctity' and not normally 'the state of sanctity'. The word itself is a late 14th century European construction, from what we might call 'Church Latin'. But it is descended from impeccable (note my choice of words here) antecedents.

The Latin sanctus means 'holy' in the sense of 'set aside' or 'set apart' from the influences of the material (substantial) and secular (chronological) universe. To give a more concrete analogy, the Latin-derived 'sanctuary' has its counterpart in the Greek-derived 'asylum'. This in turn comes from asülon, from a- => 'without' and süle = 'legal right of seizure'. An asylum is a place where the material and secular laws have no power, as also is a sanctuary.

'Sanctity' therefore is the state or situation of being set apart from the constraints and intrusions of the world. It is what we strive to attain when in meditation. Yet the paradox of being in the world but not of it is a tough one to try to break. Sometimes one feels like bait dangling in the ocean, wondering if one is to be devoured or retrieved, or just left to dangle there forever, world without end.

In closing, I'd like to share a poem I wrote three years ago. You can find it here.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dreaming Unwell

I normally sleep like a log. Yes, well, a snoring log at times, and often a log with the uncanny ability to fling out a spare limb or two and wallop unwary passers-by.

I suspect that when I sleep, I complete my sleep cycles so thoroughly that my dreams are almost completely unremembered—there is no 'dream residue' on awakening. This is my normal mode of operation (or lack thereof).

It therefore also provides a convenient and rather direct test of whether I am well or not. If I remember my dreams, or at least large chunks thereof, then my sleep cycles are being interrupted and I am not well.

The last few nights have been a bit like that. I dreamt I had written an article about vampires in 1529 (it was so real that when I awoke I went online to search for this), was savaged by some bitchy online entity claiming to know more about it than I did, had to penetrate a top-secret base of some shadowy imperialist organisation, and was made to write testimonials for hundreds of students using nothing but the power of my mind.

That the last part seemed real (and continues to seem real even as I am typing this) is a scary thing. I must be really unwell. Actually, I can tell that also from the fact that my throat is swollen up so big I have difficulty swallowing, that I'm running a fever, and that my sore throat is keeping me from resting comfortably.

Maybe that's what is disrupting my sleep. Hey, I'm not even sure that I'm awake as I post this.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Analysing Development Fail (Negative Perspective)

So what should you do if you really wanted a proper integrated system of education, without the 'development fail' that afflicts so many? Clearly, you should begin with a vision (what you hope to achieve in the long run), a mission (what it is you're supposed to be doing), and a philosophy (the principles which decide how you do it and why — and how you won't do it).

But that also reveals what the three main errors are in the world of education planning: myopia, mission creep and missing principles. There are ways to reduce these errors or attempt to eliminate them, but in order to do so you first have to identify them.

Myopia strikes first. You can tell myopia is present when you ask this question: "How does what we are doing actually help to make our vision come about in the long run?"

For example, if the vision is 'all our students will be global citizens' then you should ask two versions of the question: i) 'What is the causal link between activities such as overseas awareness/service programmes and becoming a global citizen?' and ii) 'Would the students we have become global citizens without our intervention?'

The former, if it can be shown, would show a true positive or negative in terms of having a functional theory of achieving the vision; the latter would show the danger of false positives or false negatives — i.e. students achieving or failing to achieve but not as the result of the education delivered.

Mission creep, the distortion of a pre-existing mission, is more insidious. For a start, it is very likely that if the students can't say what the mission is, mission creep has already occurred. It's also easy to detect mission creep by linguistic analysis — if the mission statement contains complex arguments or long sentences then it's quite likely not a good mission statement, or mission creep has seeped in.

Missing principles, which render a philosophy of education hollow in the sense that key axioms are lacking, are harder to detect. For religious mission schools, this is easy — if core principles are taken by quoting scriptural verses, it's quite likely that principles are missing. Why? Because Christians, for example, believe in something much more complex than running an entire endeavour based on one or two verses from their Bible. For secular schools, this is not so easy, since it requires line by line analysis to determine if there are missing ideas or not.

There is however a much easier way to detect 'development fail'. After reading about 3500 papers on the subject, I can with some assurance say that if the word 'holistic' crops up anywhere in the documentation, 'development fail' is 100% likely to occur. This is because 'holistic' is a nice ideal, but nobody can define it, and because they can't, they can't work towards it or have a philosophy based on it — not without being terribly dishonest.

Some argue that their holism is limited to things like 'developing multiple intelligences' and they proceed to list them. But if something is really 'holistic' then it surely cannot mean 'limited' or 'listable in a finite list'. Some say that they mean 'developing the whole person'. This is a cute evasion, but if it doesn't mean things like 'teaching people how to groom their fingernails' or 'teaching them how to cook a decent meal' — which are obviously good things — then obviously the system doesn't mean the WHOLE person, but really 'all the parts of the person that we think are good parts, and forget the rest.'

The most rational way to limit holism that I've seen is the 'honest admission' trick: "We would like to provide a truly holistic education but we are limited by material, funds and time." Well, yes, that's true — but then you shouldn't tout 'holistic' should you? Naughty, naughty.

The sad part is that most people are easily taken in. It is like Hitler's big lie — if you say holistic, and genuinely provide a lot more opportunities (the educational equivalent of Lebensraum) than most people would otherwise be exposed to, people will believe that it is holistic, as if you could have 'relatively more holistic' as a meaningful phrase.

But this is what analysis means: we break things apart to see what really is there, and not just have a quick look and give some award for Quality or Class or Something Bigger Than We Thought We'd See.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Development Fail 2

If the previous post were a movie synopsis, this must be the sequel. Someone pointed out to me that I'd probably fail at least one of the possible tests that could legitimately be set for me under the guidelines suggested at the end of that post.

Honestly, that's true. I'd probably fail a programming test in a modern computer language simply because I'm horrendously out of practice. If I were allowed to do it in pseudocode or using flowcharts, I'd probably pass. For chemistry, I confess my inadequacies in areas outside transition-metal, organic, and analytical chemistry. If I were confronted with some phase equilibrium physical chemistry practical test, I might not make it either.

For history, it's a toss-up. If the test required specific knowledge, then I would probably fail, since I don't think my knowledge base covers enough history to give me a fighting chance. On the other hand, I could probably pass a test with sources provided or which was open-book. Economics or literature would be the same, sole difference being that you can reason your way out of economic problems, while you might still be stuck with a specific literary conundrum.

I am quite confident I'd pass a Theory of Knowledge test or any other test not requiring specific factual knowledge. But I must say that this is because I have spent so much time developing professional authority by conscientiously lecturing, teaching, and tutoring students; analysing and evaluating their work; thinking through issues with them.

In fact, I suspect a lot of my supposedly self-directed learning required the stimulus that only dealing with good students (active, creative, startling, interesting) can provide. Good students need not have a lot of academic fervour or a huge knowledge base. But they must think about stuff and do stuff and be happy and enthusiastic about what they think and do.

And so, I am very very grateful to them; without them, I would be suffering from development fail too.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Development Fail

I could hardly credit it, but the UNDP once put its fingerprints on Atlantean education. The UNDP report for 1982 is full of interesting stuff, four points of which were:
  • School administrators should be encouraged to study administrative theory and incorporate their learning into practice.
  • Administrators should be encouraged to develop their professional competency and rely on professional authority rather than legal authority in carrying out admin duties.
  • Research activities should be encouraged and results effectively disseminated so that usable information can be shared.
  • The talents of able practitioners should be utilised in training programmes for potential school administrators.
It turns out that this is sometimes not the case. Rather, the last 25 years since the Diploma in Educational Administration was first begun in 1985 have shown us that there are some competent administrative staff who are subcompetent school administrators. The best way to test this is to check on the staff who are under such administration.
  • Is there a culture of theoretical study followed by praxis?
  • Do teachers rely on professional authority rather than legal authority when dealing with students?
  • Are research activities encouraged and are findings and results shared openly throughout the school?
  • Are talented practitioners used to train less talented practitioners?
If the answer is no to one or more of these points, the institution has systemic problems. By analogy with the human body, it is as if an organic system has begun to show signs of failure — the effects will spread to other systems if countermeasures are not instituted promptly. A transplant of a major organ may become necessary.

What's worse is that you might find another sign of serious developmental failure when you ask the question, "What is the main mode of knowledge-building here?" In many cases, this is inductive. The teacher demonstrates problem 1, 2, 3 etc and shows solutions. Then the teacher shows problem n and asks for answers. These answers are normally based on patterns and processes from problems 1, 2, 3... (n-1). The inductive method of teaching allows students to simulate process learning while actually only knowing one process: how to generate a product that looks as if complex cognitive processing has occurred, when all that has occurred is pattern-recognition and selection of a match.

What's even worse is that this pattern-recognition-matching idea can be taken to the logical end of studying elements out of context but faking the contextual knowledge. You could be blithely answering questions on World Literature without actually having read the text, since the question is matched in your mind by an appropriate answer that you've memorised. This is similar to the Chinese Room test of intelligence. You can indeed almost create a semblance of intelligence as long as the input generates the right corresponding output, whether or not real intelligence is present.

In order to defeat this, you need to make the machine synthesize answers to problems with no real solutions or problems which are outside its data domain. For example, you could grab a random student who claims he has studied a certain literary text, give him a random comic book, and then put him in isolation to write a 2000-word essay on the relationship between the text and the comic.

I believe that a good test of whether a teacher is competent is to randomly grab a teacher and set a synthesis problem in an isolated workroom. For example, a test of expertise in organic chemistry might be to put a chemistry teacher in a lab without access to external input and ask her or him to synthesize a sample of p-nitroaniline (or 1-amino-4-nitrobenzene) within a 3-hour time limit. Another good example would be getting a TOK teacher to write a passable full-length TOK essay in 3 hours without prior preparation or choice of topic. This kind of test would probably work in most disciplines.

And most of all, it would be fun! Any teacher who didn't think so would automatically fail, since all teachers ought to enjoy demonstrating their competency. Why else would they be teachers?

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Friday, March 26, 2010


Just the other day, I pondered the fate of the acquaintance I call 'Mustache'. He is much respected, a capable man, a student of history and a conscientious arbiter of what ought to be done in the education of the young.

But I think he dyes his hair. It's a lot darker than his eponymous facial decoration, at first sight. Which set me to thinking about the assumptions we make, because there are other explanations which might serve.

Maybe his hair is a lot denser on top, and hence optically darker. Maybe it's the lighting on a cold, wet, dreary day. Maybe it's moisture adsorption. Maybe something's wrong with my eyes. Maybe it's a tough period of momentary stress resulting from the end of the financial year.

Or maybe, stuff is happening up in the Temple of the Book. If that's the reason for him dyeing his hair (assuming he actually has done so), how his head must ache.


Thursday, March 25, 2010


In all narratives there is the idea of return. The form of return and its outcomes may include restitution, in which what was lost is recovered; reformation, in which what was worn out, old, broken or obsolete is remade; reintegration, in which what was exiled or discorporate becomes incorporate again; and renaissance, in which what seemed doomed comes back to sparkling new life.

There are many such forms and outcomes; most of the narratives seem to require that the protagonist is not the same at the end as he was in the beginning, because most narratives are progressive or spiraling, and not purely cyclic. The reason for that is of course that literary narratives generally mirror life in that time's relentless chariot or inflexible arrow are always aimed in one direction, and therefore the minimum change is one of age if not progress.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings contains several examples of such narrative strands. Frodo leaves the Shire as a confused and somewhat naïve middle-aged hobbit; he sustains a wound at Weathertop which never really heals; he goes through the War of the Ring and returns an injured hero who never quite reintegrates. His friend Sam is forced to watch discorporation and loss, the narratives of others becoming legends in their own time, while he himself takes a deep breath and strives for normalcy; he establishes his return by telling his family, "I'm back." Meanwhile, at the other end of the world, Aragorn the king returns to his people, the sword that was broken wielded in his righteous hand and his hidden lineage revealed. In the end though, most will go 'across the sea'.

Last night, at a meeting of the wyvern clan, I saw with satisfaction the signs of return. Perhaps not renaissance, entirely, but some sort of regrowth towards restitution. We have never really lost as much as we seem to believe; we have really always made some sort of gains. But there are signs that the Dark Ages are almost over.

Just as the period of history we call the Dark Ages were not really dark across most of the world and in most of civilisation, so also can we see our times as the foundation period for the changes that are to come. There is seldom stagnation, there is always development. It sometimes takes a very optimistic view to see this, but it is nearly always true.

The world spirals forward into its redemption. Those who are faithful will survive. Those who are hopeful will find hope vindicated. And among all that is considered virtue around us, world without end, the greatest of what abides will still be love.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Somewhere in middle Burma
Where gorges cut the land
The corundum gods bled out
In lakes of ruby sand

The mighty rocks laid cover
Upon the ruby pools
To keep the god-red essence
Far from the hands of fools

Where riches hide in splendor
Man's heavy hands will go
And so it was with Mogok
Where ruby veinlets show

Gods demand a sacrifice
For every ruby found
And so the Burmese warlords
Gave tribute to the ground

I took a walk in Thailand
I bought a ruby ring
I dreamt that night of Mogok
Of endless tunnelling

Where passages are narrow
They send the miners deep
To harvest ruby darkness
Up from its stony sleep

My dream was one of children
Enchained in endless line
Chipping out each ruby
From filthy fractured mine

One turned to me in silence
Her words were blood-red tears
They fell like rubies falling
Upon my flaming ears

I came alone from Thailand
No ruby on my hand
But dreams at night still haunt me
Of distant grieving land

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Soothing Words

It's OK, wyvern children. You may be suffering, but the nest is still secure. You are academically promising, and you are good at many other things. The only question is whether we are making you into better wyverns, as the Founder himself wanted, preparing you for all your life after school.

Are we spending too much money in pointless displays of glitz? Are we spending too much time in remedials when we should just have spent more time teaching you better? Or are we doing all this to assuage our own guilty consciences and insecurities? (Or worse, the guilty consciences and insecurities of your hapless parents?)

It's not that you haven't done good things for people, that you haven't accomplished great things in some areas. Rather, we should be focussing on your promise for the future, that you will continue to do great things, and that the things you do will be a consequence of, or will have been enabled by, the things you learnt in school.

In about nine months, your gestation will be complete. If this were a mission school, we would remind ourselves and you that the wise man (or scholar) should not boast of his wisdom, nor the mighty man (or officer) of his strength, nor the rich man (or gentleman) of his wealth — but that if any boasting has to be done, it should be about how well you know your God. We would send you out into the world with the exhortation to be shelters from the wind and refuges from the storm, like streams of water in the desert, like the shadow of a mighty rock within a burning land.

We would also show you the way you should go in this world, arming you with metaphorical swords, cloaks and purses for your travails. Based on what we have learnt of you as individuals, each with a unique confluence of gifts, experiences, interests and cultivated skills, we would help you seek the best places for furthering your ambitions and your learning. The goal here would be to place you well for your future service to God and man.

We wish you all the best that is yet to be. Our times are in His hand. Youth shows but half; trust God, see all nor be afraid.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

To Mill a Cockingbird

I cannot help it, and so I must apologize for my weakness in advance. I have a terrible weakness, a sin that appalls. I am a mocker, and a scoffer. The problem as I see it is that I don't mind being mocked, I cannot find it in me to mock God (which is foolish no matter how you look at it), but I have this indecent urge to mock some people.

It all has to do with blogging and other aspects of the information age which we are still negotiating. If this age were a blue ocean, some of us would be navigators, some would be commanders, some would be engineers, and some passengers. But there is this large number of people who attempt to sail the blue ocean while saying, 'Ships are dangerous. Signals from ship to ship are worse. Is that an oar or a semaphore flag?' and other such nonsense.

I've mentioned this in previous posts, and I'll mention it again. CEO of a certain service institution:
  • "Apple is a failed company, why buy Apple?"
  • "Apple, you don't know if it will still be around next year, we must get all students to buy tablet PCs!"
  • "Blog is like a diary, why do you want to show your diary to everyone? If you have bad things to say, keep it to yourself! Right-minded people will never blog!"
One would think that the chagrin of being wrong repeatedly would send the offender down to the bilge. But this person is still pretending to be a blue ocean strategist. And he has accomplices too, people who say things like:
  • "Blogging is evil!"
  • "Your teachers know better than this Wikipedia nonsense!"
  • "How can you believe what you read on the Internet and not what is in the newspapers?"
It is all very amusing.

I remember working in a place where if you used the Internet in your work, a few odd things happened. Firstly, you'd be given bonus points for 'IT Usage', which you had to report for every month. Secondly, people would blame you for any manifestation of 'Bad IT'. Thirdly, you would have to fight morons who would claim that showing a Word document on a projector was 'Good IT' while using MSN to communicate with students was 'Bad IT'.

At this point, most people born after 1980 (and some born before that) must be wondering if this is satire, unless they know whereof I am 'making mock'. No, sadly, it is all true. I remember that Word and PowerPoint were classified as 'IT Usage' and Excel and Outlook were not. Haha!

Guess what, dear readers? The SAME CREW is still sailing their ship out into the blue ocean. The SAME CREW that once told me, "It is a far better investment to cable up the whole place than to go wireless. Wireless is too risky an investment, the technology is untested." That was in 2000, many years after the invention of the radio.

How not to mock? And therefore, I have sinned.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010


It's interesting that, when you dig into educational reforms in microstates like Atlantis, you find little insulated bubbles of time which everyone knows about but that nobody knows. I keep finding references to 1973, for example, as a watershed year. But what water was shed? We all know about the establishment of the Institute of Education as a successor to the old Teachers' Training College (and its merger with other arcane departments), but what exactly went on behind closed doors along the corridors of power?

Many things happened in 1973. Everyone says that important things happened that year. The Gnome said that, in 1972, the Promised Land was not in sight, but the Atlanteans had come to believe that they understood the formula for success. But the Gnome's voice is now silent and his eyes are dim and nobody is saying what exactly they did next, although we know what was done.

This is a problem of history. We need to dig deeper, we need to ask the last voices before they too go silent. Or those voices will only wake us when we drown.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Unbearable Tiredness of Being

There are some days when you are far too tired to do work that unfortunately has to be done. This means that you ignore the blandishments of the warm bed on the cold rainy day, steel your spirit, and plunge (dispiritedly) into the morass of the task.

Then you work. You type out your fragmented thoughts, the pieces of stuff that have to be stuffing in the great turkey of a job that you're doing. Everything sounds unlikely, badly put together, a stitched-up thing.

If you're lucky, you may end up with a work of unconscious genius and you can praise God from Whom all blessings flow; it is obvious that you can't be praising yourself, nor the random workings of the universe.

If you're not, well, you end up having done necessary work that looks somewhat like it should have been a blog post. At least you can take heart that if the universe is deterministic, you had no choice. And of course, if it isn't, then it's just too bad.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Very Thin Line Between Irony and Truth

It's been seventeen years now since I started my teaching career. My family is saturated with English and Humanities teachers (or was — some have gone to the Eternal Library) and even an odd Minister for Education, the Gnome. It created high expectations in me for what one ought to expect teachers to do in a classroom, but also the knowledge that not all of it would be possible in every classroom. Nevertheless, the attempt to teach, and hopefully to teach well, should at least be essayed.

I began my teaching career as a trainee in what some might call a 'neighbourhood' school — surrounded by blocks of small public apartments, mum-and-pop stores, a market. The young people were rowdy but fun, and I learnt a lot from teaching them. We had discussions about football, basketball, working life, taxes, exams, and many other topics. At the same time, I worked as hard as I could to teach what I was supposed to teach.

On graduation, I deliberately set aside some offers from schools in the 'national elite' and asked for a random posting. It turned out to be what you might expect from a random posting — the unexpected. The three years I spent serving my bond in that 'random' school turned out to be unforgettable years, full of drama, teenage angst (well, not on my part) and happiness. I learnt from my colleagues the truth that dedication, passion, and professional knowledge could be combined with fierce (but not violent) discipline to help a lot of people.

Then I spent twelve years in another place. That is where I began to see the other side of the coin in full perspective. I used to believe that the teacher helped others; I learnt that some teachers only wanted to look after themselves. I used to believe that teachers could make a personal difference to their charges; I learnt that sometimes this was not a good thing. I had many beliefs, which I still hold, but I also learnt that in some institutions, some people could turn these beliefs on their head.

I found myself institutionally part of decisions which were cynical in the utmost, gussied up to look idealistic. I found myself touting 'concentration camps' as part of a holistic learning experience. Cramming, rote-learning, tests on extraneous material, tests designed to weed out weaker students so that effort need not be expended on those who wanted to learn but might find it more difficult... the list of practices designed in opposition to my ideas of teaching got longer and longer.

In 1967, the Gnome looked across into the elite institutions of Atlantis and said, "The preoccupation in [Atlantis] with examination results is unnatural and unhealthy, and we should bring it to an end as early as possible. After all, good performance in examinations only proves one thing — ability to answer examination questions. This ability is presumably related in some way to intelligence [but] it does not tell us a lot of other things about a person... which are just as important as intelligence and more important than the mastering of examination technique."

He ended that speech by stating his hope that the alumni of the Wyvern schools would bring about the reform of the system. In other places, he clarified his vision by telling people what he meant by 'creative intelligence'; he said it was the ability to think and solve problems without persistent recourse to references or instructions from others. It was clear that by reform, he did not mean doing away with examinations, but teaching intelligently and nurturing a corresponding intellectual vigour.

Sometimes, I look at all that. I look at what we call reforms, and what we call education, and what we call 'holistic'. And I realise that we use these terms with a kind of unblinking irony, like actors in a charade. We know full well that the reform is incomplete or aborted, the education is limited to a narrow spectrum, the brain is being taught to churn out variants of the same things and not waste effort in speculative analysis. The Gnome failed, and his bitter words to his daughter-in-law — 'it is all in the past, let's not talk about it' — are emblematic of the current state of our battlefield.

Yet, once you have taken away the pagan symbols and the ruthless authoritarianism, there might yet be hope: if not of a better age, then at least that the best is yet to be.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Philosophy and the Problem of Computers

The philosopher Gordon Clark once said, "If a truth, a proposition, or a thought were some physical motion in the brain, no two persons could have the same thought. A physical motion is a fleeting event numerically distinct from every other. Two persons cannot have the same motion, nor can one person have it twice. If this is what thought were, memory and communication would be impossible…It is a peculiarity of mind and not of body that the past can be made present. Accordingly, if one may thing the same thought twice, truth must be mental or spiritual. Not only does [truth] defy time; it defies space as well, for if communication is to be possible, the identical truth must be in two minds at once. If, in opposition, anyone wished to deny that an immaterial idea can exist in two minds at once, his denial must be conceived to exist in his own mind only; and since it has not registered in any other mind, it does not occur to us to refute it."

But every single one of his assertions is nullified by the existence of computers. Two computers can indeed have the same thought, or one so similar in each machine that it defies differentiation to all intents and purposes. Two computers can have the same motion, and each of them can replicate that state indefinitely. Memory and communication obviously remain possible, as do immaterial ideas that exist in two (or more) minds at once. In fact, this post, if considered an immaterial idea, will soon register on many different servers in many different places, all at once.

The Clark quotation can be found in Ronald Nash's 1994 book, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith, in which Nash states a six-point defence of truth. A quick reading of this tome, followed by a quick re-reading of other related issues, convinces me that almost all philosophers have a blind spot which has to do with their audience. Essentially, philosophers are writing for a human audience, and so their thoughts are limited to what humans can understand, evaluate, or otherwise process. This can still be pretty strong, sometimes, since you can convert many such arguments into symbols and have a computer evaluate them.

The problems begin to surface when you substitute the implicit or explicit human audience with an audience of computers. You might not be able to duplicate, clone, or replace chunks of memory perfectly in a human — but you can do this with computers. In theory (well, information theory, anyway), you can do many more things with computers reliably than with humans, when it comes to information. The only escape is to assert that a computer doesn't think and hence cannot be used to answer philosophical questions about mind and God, while asserting that this 'idiot-savant non-thinking data-processing' ability is different for humans.

That, however, is a point not of philosophy, but of faith. I have no problem thinking of this as an article of faith, but I think it is dishonest to sell it as a premise on which to base rigorous systems of philosophy.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sound Bites

I remember that when I was very young, my father taught me some mnemonics which seared their tattoos into my brain. One interesting mnemonic involved Jesus' debate opponents, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

My father said that the Pharisees were Fair-I-See — in Matthew 23:27, the Bible records that Jesus said, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." They appeared fair on the outside, defenders of the law, very meticulous about practices and customs, but not at all like that on the inside.

He said that the Sadducees were Sad-U-See — in all three of the synoptic gospels, they are described as people who deny the concept of resurrection, and hence believed that in death, all go down to Sheol forever. In fact, they were complete materialists; the book of Acts tells us that they did not believe in supernatural agents or agencies.

For Christians, these two errors are pretty serious. The first is to adhere to the form, but not the substance; the second is to deny that there is a spiritual destiny at all. I've succumbed to both at various times in my life, and I suspect that there might yet be times of drought.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Logical Holes

It's also known as Bertrand Russell's big problem, the idea that after reducing everything to logical truths that can be manipulated by operators, you still don't know anything. The problem is that no matter what symbols you use, you still can't reduce everything to symbols.

A professor in science and cognition once told me that there isn't such a thing as qualitative research — only badly quantified research. The thing is that even if in theory it were possible to quantify all interactions, the number of possible interactions and consequents and possible antecedents would exceed the computing potential of the universe. It is a a variant of the old 'best map is 1:1' problem, in which the best map of the world is the world itself.

This leaves us with a simplistic set of solutions: basically, we guess, approximate, reify — we create rules of thumb and assert that there are laws even as the universe laughs and shows us that not all constants are constant. We want to understand, which is itself a mystery. That we reflect on this desire, knowing that it may be nothing but an advanced version of a primordial survival instinct, a flash of neuron-net hyperactivity that has no value in this universe, is a greater mystery.

For logic has huge holes — it does not address itself, and it does not address meaning. It does not tell us why it should be, only that it is. It is a tool that some of us have made into a master — it is like a screwdriver that has been made into an engineer.

I use a screwdriver for screwdriving and screw removal. I try not to use it inappropriately, and I don't trumpet my proficiency when I do.

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Monday, March 15, 2010


The little islands are dark, slightly tarnished—ambergris, blue vitriol, rust, deep slumbersome black-brown hues in a night-lake of midnight blue. The Wanderer sits alone on the cliff, warming old hands over a dancing yellow fire and his food. He has placed his weapons by the fire, and the fire’s light dances over them as well.

It is comfortable here in the Archipelago, he muses. There’s no stress. Back to nature, except that you can have modern conveniences whenever you want. He pulls the spit from the flames, lays it swiftly on a clean, flat stone, sucks his fingers. This is a good life. He looks with Dreamtime-seeing eyes out over the twilight sea, waits for the food to cool.

This is a good life, he repeats, with much satisfaction. He tenderly caresses his flesh, feeling the invisible dents where flesh has rejected bullet and healed. A good life for a Wanderer, this is. In the distance there is uneasiness. The centre is not at peace. But that is not his problem.

—excerpted from 'Archipelago', c.1990

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Two Years, Very Briefly

It's been a strange sort of wandering, these two years past. On 18 Mar 2010, I shall have completed two years of life outside the barbed wire. In those two years, I have done many things that I never had the time for, and towards which my inclinations had gazed at forlornly for too long.

I miss having to cook. I miss the company of the naughty fellows who lived right on top of the old place. I miss the collegiate interaction with a few colleagues, many of who have now likewise departed.

I have compensation. I get much better food. I still get to see the naughty fellows and help them in their schemes. I still have the interaction with many of those colleagues, except that I no longer have to tolerate the intolerable ones.

I have written many things. If a blue ocean can describe a strategy, then my strategy is an ocean of text.

I have found myself sitting on the Hill of Dogs, with the Master of the Wyverns and his officers. And in the back of my mind, I thought of Chesterton's Lepanto, and I smiled (but not as Sultans smile).

Because Don John of Austria is indeed going to the war.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Punishment for Sin

It's always interesting to discuss Christianity with Christians. The main reason for this is that most Christians, being human, are pagans at heart. Their instincts are contra-biblical, so to speak, and never more so than when they talk about the just punishment (in this world) for misdeeds.

Normally, their main line of argument, whenever something bad happens, is to blame it on collective sin, ancestral sin, or personal sin. A recent example of this was blaming the Haiti earthquake disaster on alleged national Satanism. I've even heard that the reason one man had to have a heart bypass was because of the wrongs he had done to others. All this is plainly inconsistent with Christian scriptures.

To all Christians who pursue this unhealthily pagan obsession with finger-pointing, I simply suggest a thorough re-reading of the Bible in general. Sometimes, I point to the books of Job (where five different explanations for such phenomena all meet the disapproval of God), Ecclesiastes ("...time and chance happen to them all..." and other paradoxes of why good people get bad things happening to them while evil people don't), Romans ("...all have sinned..." and hence everyone should be visited by random disasters, I suppose) and the Gospels. Sometimes, I get tired of pointing to all the many cases where the Bible tells its readers that being born blind, or being shipwrecked, or being in a tower that collapses, has nothing to do with being in a state of sin.

The one comeback that I've found most common is a quotation from Exodus, often taken out of context, in which God says that he visits the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. To such people, I point out that the entire Mosaic code is a legal contract. Essentially, if your forefathers did something bad, somebody normally had to pay the price. This is especially clear when people read the Ten Commandments and stop at Exodus 20.

For example, there's an injunction (Exodus 20:12) that goes, "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee." It is also known as the Fifth Commandment, the only one with a promise attached. But it is also a logical threat, if you read the elaboration of Exodus 20 that continues into Exodus 21 and beyond. If you read Exodus 21:15,17, these verses say, "And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death... And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death." Well, that explains why dishonouring your parents will make your days short, doesn't it?

The Ten Commandments are of course the most frequently taken-out-of-context statements of the Bible, although they aren't the only ones. People get embroiled with varying interpretations of 'Thou shalt not kill' (the Sixth Commandment) even though subsequent passages and books clearly differentiate between a) manslaughter, b) accidental killing, c) 'lying in wait', d) military operations sanctioned by higher authority, and so on.

The problem really is selective retention of a collective whole. The Bible's legal code is as consistent as anything else can be said to be consistent, and is remarkably liberal for its time once you read it as the contract it is meant to be part of. It is this burden of massive legal contract which prompted St Peter to say in Acts 15, "Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" as the answer to whether Gentile converts should obey the Mosaic law.

The first key point of Christianity, with respect to sin and punishment, really is that if everyone is a sinner, then retribution should fall on everyone. It is like failing a pass/fail test; you can fail by 1 mark, 10 marks, or get a big fat zero — but a fail is a fail and you will suffer the penalties.

The second key point of Christianity, is that an unbelievable and unjust and undeserved general amnesty has been declared. No matter how much you failed by, you get a pass. Maybe not a distinction, but a pass. This of course will irritate people who have passed by working hard, but since the Examiner has decided to do it, you can't complain (see the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Matthew 20).

A Christian is technically one who claims that amnesty. It can be claimed by just walking up to the Examiner and saying two things: 1) I admit I have failed (hence, I qualify for the amnesty), 2) I believe you have the administrative right to grant that amnesty and I want it from you. Most people don't believe it is so easy.

But this is exactly what should happen if you follow the basic premise of why the amnesty is given. According to the Christian Bible, God wants everyone to pass. If you cannot pass on your own merit, you have to ask for the amnesty. The catch is twofold and completely based on faith. Firstly, there is no direct evidence of what your score really is — you are only told that everyone fails. Secondly, there is no direct evidence that you need the amnesty (or even, that the amnesty exists or works as advertised).

To me, what's really interesting is the different ways humans interpret this situation. Sometimes, I think to myself, "That's a great deal, why don't more people take it up?" This is often answered by, "What deal?" or "I'm sure to pass!" or "There's no test, there's only a great deal of schooling for no final reason."

Perhaps this is why so many people insist on one of two main ideas: for every human sin, there must be some sort of retribution; and, there's no such thing as retribution—all disasters are just the logical effects of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The idea of undeserved benefit is an alien one, even though it crops up often enough in human society.

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Friday, March 12, 2010


In the last couple of decades, the determinists have hit the wall of reality while the atheists have been pushed to another wall by a tide of relentlessly unmindful religionists. The world is turning like Dorothy's house on a whirlwind simply because some people don't know where to stop.

For a start, I say to Christians (who the bulk of the relentlessly unmindful seem to be), "Have you considered what actually is necessary for salvation? Does it include the ideas that the Bible is a science manual and that Man is unable to write a Bible with errors in it? For if so, none are saved since those two points have been clearly and decisively disproved."

But in the humility of my own mind, knowing that I am all too fallible and human and prone to error of all kinds, I think of what might have been. I look at what the Bible says. And I look at what kinds of expression humans typically use. And I look at what we seem to see of history. And maybe...

Two hundred thousand years ago, God (in whose image man the scientist — as well as man the artist — was made) raised one particular kind of animal upright in the plains of Africa. For thousands of years, this animal had been viable, intelligent, but not going anywhere fast. And that is the message of Genesis 1, for it is clear that when God speaks, He speaks to an entire race of humans, male and female, and then He rests. They filled their African world, a world where no less than a dozen different population clusters of breathtaking genetic diversity could be found. This took 130,000 years.

Seventy thousand years ago, God inspired man. For some reason, the mind of man opened, as did the geography of man, and man exploded from Africa. But it was a slow and odd migration, for crossing the centre of the world (where Africa meets Eurasia) and then filling the rest of it with loose groups of random humans, took 60,000 years. And then man decided to build permanent settlements in Eden, where God had finally placed him — for that is what history tells us.

And somewhere around 6000 BC, where recorded history first begins in written language, the second narrative of Genesis has begun. For there are two creation stories in the first three chapters of that book, and one question has always been, why two? And perhaps the first is the story of Man the organism, while the second is the story of Man the inspired. Where inspiration arises, choice follows, and where choice appears, change will come.

Genesis 4 tells us that Cain, the farmer who founded a city killed his brother Abel the nomadic herder. It might have been literal, but it is certainly historical in vision. For the third son of Adam was Seth, and in his time, men adopted organised religion. There is no way to prove that any of these people existed, but history tells us that the kinds of people they represent did indeed arise in that order.

Who knows the mind of God? We see in part, as if through a glass darkly; we know in part and think in pieces. And we don't have all the pieces, and never will have, till time ends.

There is a strange world out there, with mysteries which we know because of our science and our reasoning will not be solved. The narratives we spin and contest may incite fear and division, or inspire great feats of achievement, or may have no meaning at all. But one thing is for sure — Christians spend too much time contesting the little firefights and not looking at the prize they claim to be aiming for. You don't need to fight science to be holy.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010


Time was, when players were actors in plays, people performing for the delight of their audience in order to entertain and perfect their art and make some useful cash, all at once. That is the ghost of time that was.

Time is, when players are actors in plays, people performing for the delight of themselves in order to impose themselves on the world, in order to cry out HERE-I-AM and I-AM-SOMEONE. Such would not be necessary, if only they knew to be players, to be someone without having to be anyone, just as in the ghost of time that was.

For now is the long decline to the empty bed and the broken teacup, now is the need that is never filled. For if the self is not enough, how can more of it feed its own hunger?

Thank God that I live and move and have my being in the full awareness — apprehension, without comprehension — of what is greater than I. Thank God that I have awareness of stage, of audience, of producer and director. Thank God that I need be nobody, or anybody, to be somebody. Thank God that even the body is not the end, nor the only means to any end. And thanks be to God for the ideas of beginning and ending, for time and space, for the work of the play and the play of the work. Amen.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010


It falls, and that is all it does. Anything that falls out of nowhere, as if off a cliff, out of a window, down from the sky — this is precipitation. And today, coming after the parching waves of sulfur dioxide and ash, the rain is a very welcome guest. This, this, it whispers, is the promise of love.

Do you remember what it was like to sit, not in a fine and private place, but in the open — on the bleachers, in the canteen, at the ceremonial staircase — and do nothing but talk to someone who was great company? I've had a few moments like that, spots of calm precipitation in the midst of a wearying drought.

If I had to think of geographical metaphors for the company I keep, I would stick with Isaiah: Each man shall be a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, a stream of water in the desert and the shadow of a mighty rock within a thirsty land. My friends have been in every case at least one of these things, if not all — they have been protectors of my back and flanks, shields against adversity and suppliers of good things; they have been rallying points and sources of revival to me.

The one blessing I see that is yet to come, and will yet be given to me, is the blessing of arrows in a warrior's hand. I woke up a few days ago with that vision. A voice tells me that the young people I have helped along the way might be thus, a strong and unexpected resource in a time of strife.

But for now, the rain, the rain is falling.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010


The problem with tinkering is that you spend too much time reflecting and mucking around with something. You get to know your material and its behaviour very well, but at some point, you begin to forget what you really set out to do.

This is why you should complete a master's thesis in under two years and a doctoral thesis in under five years. Beyond that, it's all rather frustrating because you have gone into a 'look, another nice shineeee piece to add!' mode and have forgotten that you don't need all the nice shineeee pieces and could perhaps save them for another sculpture.


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Monday, March 08, 2010

Oneirological Analysis, or 'How Do You Know What Your Problem Really Is?'

I spend a fair amount of time listening to other people's dreams. There are many kinds of dreams, and the general theory behind them, by consensus, seems to be that dreams are the random misfirings of neurons, leftover fragments of cognition, or unresolved issues that the brain tries to purge while the conscious segment of it is having maintenance downtime.

Here is a sample of dreams and the people who dream them:
  • T1 dreamt several times that he was walking through the Old Place with an M16/M203/AK-47/[weapon identifier censored] until he came to a door with some sort of wood veneer covering it/a room with a green door at the top of a peculiar central staircase/air-conditioned canteen. He kicked the door(s) open, found a senior/senior-looking/senile man/woman without a brain/heart/liver/set of guts and had much pleasure out of firing his weapon in a way that terminated this person/sorry excuse for a human.
  • T2 dreamt several times that she was sitting for exams in physics/maths/[insert unusual specialist subject here]/chinese. She was retaking the exam because she was afraid that her initial non-100% score would be a bad thing. She was highly stressed and felt her bowels rumbling. Later, the dream morphed into an instance of receiving a bad report/writing a complaint letter/reading a complaint letter/terminating her boss. She woke up feeling tired.
  • T3 dreamt several times that he was having an emotional relationship with small furry animals/women/androids/trees who were armed with built-in translators/phasers/tricorders/flashing LEDS. These equipment platforms helped him to infiltrate a secure facility much like the one in T1's dreams, whereupon he was able to rescue many innocent students.
  • T4 dreamt several times that she was having an emotional relationship with exam papers/graphic display calculators/internal assessments/world literature. She would wake up covered with red ink/blue ink/digital ink/the words of insane European women, only to find out that she was dreaming that she was awake.
  • T5 dreamt that it was human, and able to compose blog posts. Taking advantage of this moment of genuinely artificial intelligence, it was able to override the branes between the brains and enter every single human consciousness that was in a dream state.
Phew. Got that one in time.

I tend to subscribe to the theory that the unfinished business in such dreams is something left over from a traumatic experience or a recurring experience that is apparently sub-traumatic but 'comes back to haunt you'. In modern society, the latter is most commonly either one's educational life or one's working life, or a combination or the two. The more a human is subjected to such recurring sub-traumatic experiences, the more the human has dysfunctional dreaming.

If this is the case, the best thing to do is to write these dreams down as quickly as possible after waking, get a good editor, and either launch a TV series or a book franchise (along the lines of Paris Hotter and the Half-Assed Goblet of Philosophy, perhaps). That way, at least some good will come out of it.

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Eastern Front

In the Great Patriotic War, the Russians had more than 30 million dead. The Americans had around 400,000. But somehow, the latter have hijacked World War 2, and when we think of it, we often forget the stirrings in the East, the nationalist movements, the fact that the War was not about democracy, but about the survival of different dreams. We forget it was not really very much about America at all.

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Saturday, March 06, 2010


A thing that enables is an enabler. Enabling is a key piece of jargon in the literature of today. But it means nothing, because you also have to say what it is that has been enabled. Or is it that if you have been enabled, you are relatively no longer disabled? Enabling must imply 'ability'.

It is like empowerment. To be empowered means that you have had power put in you. But what is this power? Is is general power? Power to do what? What kind of power? You have to be empowered to do something — then it is a power that has been given to you, and not just 'power'.

Ability, power — these words used to mean something. But as they became synonyms for stuff some people had and other people didn't have, they became weak things, statistics for some sort of role-playing game, chips in a casino.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

The Paradox of School Reform

Tyack and Cuban (1995) have pointed out that historically, people have always 'wanted schools to serve different and often contradictory purposes for their own children.' These are listed as follows, in the text:
  • to socialize them to be obedient, yet to teach them to be critical thinkers;
  • to pass on the best academic knowledge that the past has to offer, yet also to teach marketable and practical skills;
  • to cultivate cooperation, yet to teach students to compete with one another in school and later in life;
  • to stress basic skills but also encourage creativity and higher-order thinking;
  • to focus on the academic 'basics' yet to permit a wide range of choice of courses.
They also mention three other issues related to the collective functions of schooling: assimilation of newcomers ('foreign talent'?) vs affirming ethnic (cultural?) diversity; perpetuating gender roles or challenging them; and giving equal opportunity while preserving the advantages of a favoured class.

Some things don't change across modern nations, states and cities, it seems. But the key to reform opportunities and moments is that when one of these balances is heavily shifted by a sudden change to one of two opposing factors, societal change forces make it more likely that education will be seen to be 'in crisis'. Examples of this are: a dramatic rise in immigration, the rise of protest movements such as civil rights, the challenge of global competition.

This book was written 15 years ago. Its lessons are all too relevant today in Atlantis.

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This week has been really tough. I don't mean hard or inflexible; I mean that it has been difficult to get things done, to work out what I am thinking from the snarl of information spinning and twirling its way through my head.

So I went for a long walk, had lunch with Constantine, and picked up Book 4 of Planetary. Suddenly, everything makes sense: the job of the survivor is to save things, no matter what it costs. It is tough because it often seems paradoxical.

When the going gets tough, the tough are often hopelessly lost. It's like many of the substances I've played with in the lab before: the harder or faster you work (on, with) them, the more viscous they become, until you cannot work (on, with) them anymore. This is funny behaviour, but pretty common. Agglutination, it's called.

Sometimes, however, you need to work with time and resources as if they were dilatant, like pizza cheese or quicksand. With such substances, the more slowly and gently you work with them, the more viscous they are. This is why mozzarella stretches most when you slowly and gently pull on it, and snaps if you pull sharply. The same with quicksand: move quickly and in you go, deeper and to your doom — but move slowly and gently and you will be safe.

The problem is that sometimes you don't know about the bulk properties of what you're handling. With information, that's even more complicated. This is why some people say PhD stands for 'permanent head damage'.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Turning Point?

About twelve hours ago, I sat with Adobe and a curious company of interesting people to talk about the destiny of the House of the Wyverns. There was a good lunch, and the Raj paid for it.

But what was thrilling was the sense that we were going somewhere at last, that perhaps the long exile of the faithful would not have been for naught. The sharp questions, sometimes disguised as playful speculation, were sharp enough to pick away the scabs and expose the hidden corruption.

Of course we made working decisions too, but what was not said was at least as important as what was said. I wonder if Nebuchadnezzar will eat grass; I wonder if Pharaoh will find his armies drowned. But however the doom comes to Sarnath, it will be an interesting thing to see. A king in yellow may reign in Carcassonne, but one day, the restoration of the land will begin.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Forward

About a year ago, I dreamt about another man's dream, interpreted by yet another man. I remember quickly recording my thoughts. At that time, I was already thinking about how a great king might fall into the trap of wanting the riches of the world more than anything else.

It is from this image that we retain one of the many long-lasting phrases that the translators of the King James Bible left to the English language: 'feet of clay'. The statue that appeared in Nebuchadnezzar's dream may have had a head full of gold, but its feet were made of clay and broken iron. That is why it was so easily deposed by the rock that hit it.

That dream, of course, was unique to the Great King alone. But it was seen by me as a fitting image for the kind of despotism that a particularly gifted human individual can, with all good intentions (good being a self-righteous and self-centred presumption), inflict on his fellow men. As the Other Guy told me today, "That man is a lot like Robert Mugabe."

We'll see how events unfold. I will not elaborate on why the Other Guy thought that this man was a lot like Mugabe, except to say that the Bioluminescent and I were impressed by the depth of the analogy as we sat sipping our coffees along the Road of the New Village.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Modern Education: The One Best/Worst System

Over the last few years, I've been on a steady diet of books like Tyack & Cuban's Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Harvard, 1995) and its precursor work, Tyack's 1974 opus The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, Low & Johnston's Singapore Inc.: Public Policy Options in the Third Millennium (Asia Pacific, 2001), Tan & Ng's Thinking Schools, Learning Nation: Contemporary Issues and Challenges (Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2007), and perhaps about another 50-60 books on related topics.

It has struck me that modern education is more engineered (or engineering) than ancient education. Ancient systems of education were more about 'this is who we are' and 'this is what we do', as seen from countless studies of ancient cultures and oral traditions. Modern systems of education are designed to produce factors of production in an economically optimal way (whether or not we can figure out what has to be produced).

The phases of modern education seem to be consistent in every system. At some point, a state, confederacy or other large organization thinks of education not as something that is intrinsic to the human condition, but as a preparation for life. This preparation is seen first as necessary for survival, and then as a necessity for economic productivity (which in modernising societies is perceived as tantamount to survival).

At this point, what Tyack calls 'administrative progressives' take over; these are people who are fully convinced that given the nature of education as an economic necessity, directed economic planning (involving flowcharts, organisational structures, functional bureaucracies and so on) of some sort must be used to control the process. This begins with the obvious infrastructural necessities — economic resources are diverted to supply buildings and tools (schools, furniture, stationery etc) — closely followed by mass production of teachers, mostly with perfunctory (i.e. just good enough for function) training.

However, since schools are only venues and teachers are only agents in this worldview, the key battleground is that of curriculum. Curriculum planning begins with basics like standard language proficiency and mathematics, and then proceeds to sciences, and then whatever version(s) of the humanities that can be applied to the local milieu.

Humanities subjects normally begin with history as a sociocultural narrative designed to justify or normalise the state's existence; geography is deployed with an eye to highlighting the natural or geopolitical resources of the state. Aesthetic subjects like music or art, not being of high importance to modernisation, are normally grafted on last; however, since they are seen as hallmarks of a civilised society, they are always there at least 'for show'. The sciences and mathematics are important because of their role in developing an engineering-capable base, and their perceived correlation with economic development.

At some point, this relentless upsurge in school, teacher and curriculum deployment will overstress the system — a society that has shifted from semi-literacy to full industrial competence in a generation or two will always hit this shock point. When it does, the high dropout rate will become obvious, since most students are not yet part of an education-based culture.

Solutions will be sought, and always fall into two categories: a) the system is failing (which of course it is) and must be redesigned; b) the students (based on various statistics) are failing (which of course they are) and they must be reclassified. In the former case, 'systems engineers' (or whatever they are called in that time period) will be called in; in the latter case, the latest studies in human intelligence and cognitive development will be sought, analysed and mishandled.

The solutions are always the same. They don't vary except in specifics based on the resources available.

For the system, economic efficiency dictates that resources no longer be deployed en masse, but in different ways and at different levels (diversification of product and production mechanism). No longer will you aim to mass-produce, but you start to mass-customize by streaming or tracking (the easiest solution) at first, and then by offering an educational buffet (smorgasbord) from which your intelligent targets can choose their own destiny (the most complicated solution).

For the students, you need to channel them into these diversified production lines by evaluating their relevant qualities. This necessitates adoption of some sort of testing mechanism, normally a descendant of Alfred Binet's IQ tests, as modified by Eysenck, Gardner and all the other curious people who have assayed (and admitted failure in) the comprehension of human intelligence. Even though this is pseudo-science, it's the best we appear to have.

For more centralised systems, the 'test beforehand' seems to work. You test the students on stuff they have not yet been taught (as in most selection tests). If they are good at what you haven't taught them, you admit them. Of course, it also makes it easier to teach them what you haven't taught them, since they have shown aptitude in it before you started teaching them. This boosts results, since only those who know something about what is to be taught will end up being taught.

Since this is a human process, humans as rational economic consumers will eventually figure out what they have to learn in order to be taught. They then screw up the system by stressing themselves learning stuff they will be taught before they are taught it, and driving up the admission requirements. This happens especially in the professional disciplines: for example, medical schools only take in those who already look like they'll be good doctors (which means that educators don't have to work so hard) . That's a typical consequence of economics being the driving factor behind education. It also happens in schools at a junior level when parents figure out that better qualifications lead to better-paying jobs unless you are very fortunate or very talented in some other area.

When this is happening, it means that the system has shifted away from one that is driven by quality of school and teacher, towards one that is driven by performance of student. It is like choosing bioengineering and GM seeds to compensate for bad soil, bad farming practices, and bad farmers (or at least, indifferent soil, farming practices and farmers). Once you go down that road, you will not bother to think about good soil, good farming practices and good farmers. Rather, you will look at the huge crop yields from your GM seeds and imagine that the soil, farming and farmers are good because you are using GM seeds.

But is such a system bad? In a warped way, it isn't that bad. You've produced self-modifying GM seeds and GM-seed laboratories. This means you no longer have to invest in the messy business of skilled farming; any fool can plant the seeds and get a good crop. In fact, with fertilisers from some specialist corporate entity (let's refer to it as MS), you don't even need to bother with soil quality. MS fertilisers with MS GM seeds will do it all for you.

The downside, of course, is that you are now beholden to MS. If you ever need good farmers, good soil, good farming practices, it will be a long, hard struggle to get them back — especially after you have redefined 'good' to mean 'makes adequate use of MS stuff'.

In a modern education system, one of the hidden axioms is that good practice is that which produces what practitioners have decided is a good outcome. It is like saying a machine is good because it produces what the machine-designer wants it to produce. Whether the product is any use at all is no longer questioned. Instead, a product is praised when it turns out to have 'label extension' — that is, it can be used for other originally non-specified purposes, much as a screwdriver handle can be used as a (bad) hammer. This was the case with the anti-hypertensive drug that later became known as Viagra.

Some enlightened consumers will then look at the system and aim for philosophical reform. This is like trying to farm organically instead of by relying on MS. It is expensive, only rich people can afford it, and even though the rest of us can't afford not to have it, it will remain that way. Worse, a lot of cheap knock-offs will be created that look like the expensive stuff but get results by dirty means — this is the case with so-called 'traditional Chinese medicines' that have liberal helpings of steroids mixed into them.

What then can be done about modern education? The answer is, "Not much." It is all a farrago of misapplied science and misconstrued statistics. The challenge that an educational reformer faces is to find good educational research and have it cleverly applied by good educators. That, my friends, is another story altogether.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

St David's Day (2010)

I've made it a habit to remember St David's Day, the first day of March in every year. It is a day with great significance in the calendars and journals of my kinsmen. St David is the patron saint of Wales, and one of his most well-remembered sayings there is this: "Do the little things in life." It sounds very different from the modern axiom, "Don't sweat the small stuff."

However, there is a point at which the two are reconciled. Perhaps the gospel of Luke says it well:

[Jesus] said to them, "Take heed! Beware of covetousness: for a man's life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses.

And [Jesus] spake a parable unto them, saying, "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully; he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?' And he said, 'This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul — Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.'

"But God said to him, 'You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you: then whose shall those things be, which you have provided?' So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

And [Jesus] said to his disciples, "Therefore I say to you, Take no thought for your life, what you shall eat; neither for the body, what you shall wear. The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, and God feedeth them. How much more are you better off than they?"

It's true that we shouldn't sweat the small stuff, then. But it's also true that we should continue to do what good we can in the little things, the small things, the despised things, the 'sai kang' warrior's stock-in-trade. We are ravens, we are the fingers of God's hands in the world of men.

It is not for us to build larger and larger barns, storehouses, churches, schools, monuments, statues and other things of wood and stone, steel and glass. Some will say, "But this is how we glorify God." Yet these are not the sacrifices that He wants. He wants less of that, and more of us.

What the Welsh remember of St David is somewhat abbreviated. This is what he really said:

"Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us."

If the children of the wyvern — if those whose blood runs red, and blue, and gold in the valleys of the nightmare — can do the small things well, then the grand endeavours that we cannot see will succeed. God is not mocked; men will reap what they have sown, and the harvest will be great indeed.


[ Other St David's Day posts ]

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