What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Impediments 3: Education

Like other aspects of our society, education currently presents a strong obstacle to change.

This is in contrast to the progressive view of education (or ‘left-wing/green brain-washing’ if you’re on the political right) which sees education as nurturing children into an informed and socially-responsible mindset.

My view is that despite 150 years of compulsory education and 50 years of progressive education, we still have a population that is not well-informed and not particularly literate or numerate. The most important index of whether society is educated or not, in my view, is whether the knowledge that global society is in ecological deficit, and has been since the 1980s, is widespread. And it is not. (It would also be useful if the knowledge that all of the commonly-presented solutions to the problem of our global ecological deficit are not going to solve it were equally widespread, but if anything this piece of information is even more esoteric).

In this piece I’m not going to be prescriptive as I was with my posts on PR, because I don’t have firm views on how education can be reformed. All I can do is point out some of the problems with contemporary education and indicate how I think these stand in the way of useful change.

My first observation of education is that under our system children are taken away from their parents and sequestered in schools from the age of 5 to 16 or later, and I can’t for the life of me think what is done to them there and why it takes so long, because the end-result isn’t very impressive. (People who opt for higher education have to spend another 5 or 6 years on top of this, and many children now are in child-care from a very young age).

I remember what I did at school, which was just endure the boredom, and try to grasp opportunities to learn something between lessons, in the school library, for example (but then I was a nerd). (Osbert Sitwell, in his Who’s Who entry wrote ‘Education: At home, during the vacations from Eton’).

This is all in contrast to traditional society, where children spend most of their time with their parents and if extra tuition is required, this is carried out in special classes which do not fill the entire day. Modern education with its 9-3 mentality mirrors the absurdity of contemporary expectations of work (that it should fill the entire time of the modern citizen). In traditional societies children observe their parents and help them, and get a quick start in following their parents’ trade or occupation, or can experiment with others. This has a civilising effect on both children and adults. The liveliness of the children in this system is not suppressed and their manual dexterity (at its height in youth) is not neglected. The idea of locking children up in the classroom setting (or equally restrictive setting of ‘school sports’) for so much of their time is cruel, and progressive education with all its colouring in and self-expression is equally cruel.

The education we have stunts the intelligence and aptitude of children just when it should be encouraged and the academic format of lessons (only suitable for higher education) is absurdly ill-suited to young minds.

In multicultural Australia children whose parents have a language other than English often want their children to be taught in that language too, so children of parents of Chinese descent, for example, are sent to Chinese school a few days a week in the evenings, or on the weekend. If Chinese children can learn 3000-4000 Chinese graphs in evening or weekend classes over a few years and perfect their spoken language, surely ‘literacy and numeracy’ can be taught to children much more efficiently than they currently are?

At this point I would mention what I’d call ideological schooling, such as that under the National Curriculum-type arrangements, where Australian History = The ANZACS, and so forth. However, I don’t need make much of it, because it is so self-evidently absurd. If children are taught at school that Australia is the land of the fair-go, only to observe, when they enter adulthood, that it isn’t, then what was the good of the schooling? On the other hand if they are taught that Australia is the land of the fair-go, and find, when they enter adulthood, that it is, by and large, then why bother to teach them that? Ideology is formed from lived experience, not teaching.

Language-teaching can provide a good example of failings of our education system. In the ACT the Education Department provides an Intensive English Program, mainly for the children of international diplomats. These children enter the program at age 5 and are totally immersed in English. By 8 or 9 they are fluent in English. The ACT Education Department fails to provide this program for anyone else and instead has the model where children begin to a learn a language at aged 12 (where it’s too late), and learn it by the classroom method, not by immersion. Needless to say, few people ever do learn a language this way. Of course to provide such a program would initially be very expensive (until it had been going a generation and bilinguality was common in society), but then why waste any time and money on a system of language education that just doesn’t work?

My final observation is that contemporary teachers don’t seem very good. This in itself isn’t an indictment and isn’t surprising, because they have to cope with a system of education that pits them, against nature, against a bored and resentful school population. It is also not an indictment and not surprising as I believe that a good teacher is almost as rare as a good poet or a good novelist. It is a remarkable gift and one that would not be appreciated or tolerated in contemporary teacher training or education, where NAPLAN Tests and aspirations towards the National Curriculum are the twin gods. Only in a society of the sort I am looking towards, one of increasing ecological sustainability through a declining population, I believe could good teachers emerge and use their talents, because only in this sort of society could we be relaxed enough to countenance changes to a more flexible education system of shorter hours and more effective methods.

At present I believe, as will be apparent from these blogs, that or society is fearful one, desperately clinging to certain myths and patterns of thought because it can’t face the truth of its ecological deficit. If this begins to change then change will cascade through our society. Education will be one of those areas that changes, however at present it is one of those aspects of society that most stand in the way of change. This is because, in taking children away from their families and incarcerating them to such an extent, it makes children lose sight of what people instinctively know is important: their relationship to the biosphere through human society.

I haven’t touched on the public/private distinction in education in Australia at the moment, because I don’t believe that it is particularly important (though I don’t believe so much federal government money should be spent on the private education sector). It seems to me that both the public and private at the moment are pretty much the same systems with pretty much the same methods and goals. One is better resourced than the other. The ‘alternative’ education system (Steiner Schools &c) are also in parallel with the carceral system of education.

I also don’t advocate home schooling, despite my desire to see children spend more time with their parents. The idea of children being formally schooled by their parents, in my view, would even more disturbing for children then being schooled by strangers.]

Next week: Government versus Private Sector

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Impediments 2: The Arts

I’m now starting a series of posts on impediments in our society which prevent us from facing up to the problems I outlined at the beginning of the series.

This post is entitled ‘the Arts’, however, it’s mainly going to be about literature. I don’t know much about the visual arts and won’t say anything about them, and I’m going to have a future post about music.

The main idea I want to discuss now is the delusion we have that if we have literature, creative writing, the arts generally, then whatever the doings of our society in other spheres, we can say that our society produces artistic works on a higher level and is therefore, redeemed of its other actions.

This is a little like the delusion that because we have nature conservation and nature reserves, then somehow we don’t have to worry about the ecological deficits our society accumulates. In response to this I would use analogy: that of a man who lives in a house and in order to pay his bills has to remove ten bricks from the walls and ten slates from the roof every year and sell them. Each year his house becomes more and more dilapidated, however he consoles himself with the thought that he has been virtuous, for every ten bricks and every ten tiles sold he reserves a small sum to add to the Building Restoration Fund, so there is nothing to worry about.

With literature the story would go that this man has set up the Dilapidated Ruin Council, to reward writers with small sums for producing literature which exemplifies the dilapidated and cause people to become more aware of themselves and their potential.

In truth of course most literature merely describes, or embodies, contemporary society and its values and does nothing to change it.

As a morose friend of mine, a poet, is fond of saying: ‘the only thing that would make Australian poetry any better would be to declare it illegal’.

However, in reality we shouldn’t expect literature to be transformative. In any society it is far more likely that the bulk of the literature produced will conform to social mores and be illustrative of society. In modernity, the vast bulk of literary production (as with vast bulk of production of everything else) means it is even less likely that works which could transform people’s ideas will gain any recognition, as they are drowned in a flood of inferior productions.

In any case the notion of literature has become seriously weakened in the C20 and C21. Dr Johnson, in the C18, thought of literature as acquaintance with learned writing, mainly history and theology. He would certainly not have thought of novels as literature, indeed his definition of ‘novel’ in his Dictionary was: ‘A small tale, generally of love.’ Nowadays most types of literature have fallen away, poetry is hardly read, and literature means mainly novels or short stories.

But even the novel is becoming moribund. In Australia certainly I have noticed over the past 20 years a diminution in the amount of attention that novels and novelists receive. I remember back in the 1990s award-winning novelists would get a headline on at least page 2 of the national press, this barely happens nowadays.

And yet we still have this idea that, well, we’re not doing so well on the [insert name of crisis that modernity has caused] front, but at least our novelists, poets and playwrights are still producing deathless work.

Literature has become the unread, but spiritual heart of modernity, much as, in the C19, religion functioned (and was satirized by Samuel Butler in Erewhon, in the Musical Banks chapter).

Ironically literature now really is literature in the sense that Dr Johnson would have understood it, a buying into the whole contemporary mythos: modernity, liberal humanism and the rest. When modernity has come to its sorry end people will look back and say that this or that work showed the way to the future, but this is with hindsight only, in the same that we say that, for example, the French Renaissance essayist Montaigne reads in a very modern way compared to other writers of the time. Yet the last thing that Montaigne wanted to do was to be revolutionary, he merely wished to embody the wisdom of the classical age, and that of traditional French society and have people live up to those ideals. Montaigne was, if you like, a proper conservative.

Looking around I can’t see any body of literary work at present that really challenges the tenets of liberal humanism, and yet clearly liberal humanism has done its dash. It never going to produce the more egalitarian society it promised because the holders of capital and power were never going to give up sufficient of their power and resources to do away with hierarchies. (To point out the obvious, to have ‘social mobility’, you still need hierarchies). And the methods by which the holders of power fobbed off any discontent (indiscriminate and highly-charged economic growth), was bound in the end to come up against ecological constraints.

And while all this charade was playing out, all our writers could do was, like the sermon-writers of Dr Johnson’s time, exhort people to be good people.

Next Week: Impediments 3, Education

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Impediments 1: Work

In the first few posts in this blog series I described the problems that face us on a global scale, and them I segued on to how our systems of government and social organisation could be changed to make us better able to respond to these, and other, crises.

The next series of posts are going to be descriptions of impediments to us dealing with the problems that face us and which prevent us reforming our government and society to better deal with the problems. The first of these is work.

At first sight nothing seems more fundamental to social organisation than work, obviously, it seems, people have to work in order to secure food, shelter and clothing and other necessities.

However, it is to be queried exactly how much work is necessary in our society. Back in the 1930s Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled ‘In Praise of Idleness’, where he disputed that work should form the centre of everyone’s life. He reckoned then that only 4 hours a day would be necessary on the part of each person to keep society going. (And remember the work of every explorer and ethnologist from the C19 noted the idleness of the natives… as a sign of their degeneracy).

At around the same time John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay entitled ‘The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’ in which he lamented the necessity for everyone working most of their time and foresaw that after another two generations of traditional toil enough economic progress would have been made in order for people to work less and lead less material lives. Of course, the required length of economic progress he predicted was necessary had elapsed by the 1970s, but that decade saw no change of mind generally on the necessity for work—quite the contrary, it saw a retreat back to traditional notions of work and society after the (rather modest) questioning of these that had occurred in the 1960s.

And again from the 1930s to the 1970s futuristic or science fiction works routinely depicted a society of leisure in the future, where work would be done by machines, and people would not have to put in the hours.

All these predictions ring rather hollow now, at a time when working hours, having been declining for some decades are now increasing again, and increasing in the context of a society where dual income households have become the norm rather than the exception.

In my view (and experience) Russell was probably not far wrong when he wrote that 4 hours a day should be enough to keep the wheels turning, anything else is just keeping people chained to their desks, or other work situations, for no good reason.

You don’t have to be a fan of the Dilbert cartoon series to realise that almost every aspect of working life is needlessly elaborated and regulated in order to create a work hierarchy to provide status for managers, and something to aspire to for the drones. I saw a graffito recently that amused me with its truth ‘I don’t mind coming in to work every day, it’s eight hour wait to go home that’s bullshit’. The quaint idea that someone who sits at a desk for 8 hours a day does better quality work than someone who is allowed to set their own hours and work pace is the tragedy of modern life.

(How often, for example, have you read that a scientist, author or philosopher, came up with an idea whilst on a walk, or was somewhere other than at their desk. Certainly any good ideas I ever get about my job happen outside the workplace and never at my desk, or in meetings or brainstorming sessions).

The spectre that haunts most workplaces in our time is the uselessness of most current business activity. Whole sectors of the economy are simply a waste of time. For example, the whole of the advertising industry could simply not exist and everyone’s lives would be so much better. Much the same could be said for the media. And, as these blogs continue to underline, currently the economic activity of the world exceeds the ecological capacity of the planet—it is an even deeper indictment of humanity that so much of the activity that is causing the ecological deficit is simply pointless on any level.

The other spectre that haunts the workplace is the fact that most workers are completely fungible. That is, they can be replaced at short notice by almost anyone else, or not replaced at all. In an age when most of the workforce is very heavily indebted this must be a constant concern.

If we were talking about real work we would note that:
  • People are more inventive, creative, committed and hard-working when they set their own priorities and work-schedule. If people ‘bludge’ then this could be indication of their moral worthlessness, but it might also be a symptom of the pointless or oppressive nature of the work they are required to carry out.
  • People who are harassed, time-poor and in fear of losing their income will produce poor-quality work.
  • People who are tied to particular career throughout their lives will become jaded and uninterested quickly. As most people have general skills, rather than highly specialised ones, there should be a greater facility for people to change jobs and careers.
  • People who have office jobs don’t do enough physical work for their mental health and physical well-being; people who only do manual work are deprived of the mental stimulation that non-manual work can provide. People need a mixture of both for their wellbeing.
  • People who perform menial or routine jobs are usually underpaid, and people who sit at desks are usually overpaid.
  • People need to expand their outlook with more participation in public decision-making (as suggested in last week’s post).
  • All the teamwork training, business management courses and corporate education can’t substitute for a workforce that is not stressed and is fresh-minded.
And we would take steps to address these aspects of work so as to have a more contented populace.

But, as noted above we aren’t talking about real work, we are talking about economic activity in a globally dysfunctional system where the pathology of work culture and its bad effects on the workforce simply reinforce consumerism, production for the sake of production and activity for the sake of hierarchies.

Next week: the Arts

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Government 3; Citizens’ Panels

In my last post, on proportional representation, I suggested that instead of candidates being preselected by political parties as currently happens, a more democratic way would be to have randomly chosen citizens’ panels determine these by rating candidates’ applications.

(An advantage of PR that I forgot to add would be that in place of the current bipolar two-party system we have in Australia and elsewhere, this political setup would allow people to consider more rationally the future they wish to see. For example, at present (May 2011) we have a poorly-performing government in Australia and consequently the Opposition’s stocks are high, quite undeservedly. Under the four-colour system I discussed last week, this would not happen (partly because there wouldn’t be an official Opposition)).

I believe that the principle of randomly chosen citizens serving on panels could be extended widely across society, and would have the function of democratising the institutions of society.

The precedent for this is the institution of the jury in trials. The use of juries goes back a long way in history and the institution has wide popular support. Although it has been attacked, mainly by lawyers’ groups, as complicating the judicial process and sometimes letting guilty parties go free, nevertheless there have been no serious attempts to abolish the institution in any of the countries in the English common law tradition, and some cases where the institution has extended into countries with different legal traditions, for example Italy and Norway.

The idea for the involvement in juries in judicial system is that a trial, although it is mainly conducted by legal professionals, is also an event in society where a breach of peace of some sort is investigated and someone may be punished for this. The jury is required to deliberate on the charges facing the defendant and it is the jury which decides on the question of guilt or innocence. Thus representatives of a wider society are allowed into the process and are formally part of the proceedings by making the most important decision.

This idea could be extended to any organisations and institutions that operate in the public sphere. This would mean that wherever a committee, tribunal or board currently operates, under this scheme such bodies would have citizen representatives chosen at random sitting on them. Nor would the private sector be exempt, after all, the private sector operates in the public sphere. There is no reason why company boards, for example, should not have citizen representatives sitting on them too.

Of course this would be a fundamental change in society and one that would have to introduced carefully at first. But in time I would like to see citizens representatives making up the majority on committees, boards &c, and then most of society would be under the direction of representatives of the citizenry instead of, as at present, under the control of businesspeople, professionals and experts, who usually have their own interests at heart, instead of the wider good.

The advantage of this idea is that it puts people back into the centre of society from which they have been excluded. Over time people’s knowledge of how institutions operates increases, and they are increasingly able to make changes to those institutions with wisdom. Over the generations we get a citizenry that feels it has a stake in society, instead of merely feeling angry and excluded (as per the US Tea Party). In time reforms to social institutions are developed and pushed from the inside, as it were.

In time people would, instead of defining themselves by their work as at present, define themselves as citizens first, and this identification would help them find a meaning to their lives beyond those currently put forward by the makers of consumerist dreams—in next week’s piece I will be arguing that our obsession with work is one of the main reasons we can’t see past our immediate concerns to the wider ecological crisis. This crisis is one of the most important issues that citizens beginning to operate on committees and boards could begin to tackle.

Another advantage of this idea is that it involves people serving the community in a way they have not selected beforehand, not putting themselves forward into a particular role. This is in contrast to other means by which it has been suggested that people might become more involved in society, these often involve pushy, loud-mouthed people, control-freaks and other types that it would be better not to have involved. (There is, sadly, a tendency amongst people to assess people’s intelligence and worth on the basis of their self-promotion and their aggressive sociability, the truth is that real intelligence is often in inverse relation to these traits). This proposal involves everyone, of all personality types and social and educational levels. Thus is brings ‘real’ people into the public sphere from which they have largely been excluded by politicians and would-be politicians.

This proposal is open to objection that people generally can’t deal with complex information and complex decision-making. This argument, of course, won’t hold much water with anyone who has sat on a committee, or observed one in operation, and seen the level at which they actually operate. Moreover, juries are allowed to be selected and to operate without people’s perceived abilities being allowed to affect this.

However, the obvious answer to that objection is that here is process which will effect an ongoing education in people, so that, as I noted before, over the years and over the generations, people do gain more knowledge and more expertise, and information about institutions and society’s operations becomes common knowledge and of common interest. This then leads to higher levels of savoir faire generally. It would also, you would hope, be part of a move to a ‘flatter’ society, with lower disparities of wealth and status than at present.

A final, and perhaps unexpected advantage, would be that people’s health would improve. The work of Michael Marmot, summarised in his book The Status Syndrome, has demonstrated that the more control that people feel they have over their lives, and more they feel they are part of, and contribute to, social process, the better their health and the longer they live.

Next week: Work