Tom Bennett

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Monthly Archives: November 2011

STRIKE! The farmers and the locusts.

Available from all good Waitroses

Strike day today. Perhaps you noticed? The Brothers and Sisters were knee deep in the entrails of stockbrokers today, as the workers of the world united and raged against the machine, and the machine stroked its white cat and wondered how it could manoeuvere forty thousand people onto a table so it could laser them into dog food.

Last night saw me jet off from parent’s evening to speak at a meeting of NUT comrades in Wembley Park, which I am sure earns me an in with Arthur Scargill if I ever meet him at a cocktail party, which is unlikely. Although I was running on fumes after a rewarding, but exhausting day telling people endlessly about their child’s undoubtedly unlimited potential, the welcome was warm and as ever, and it was an honour to speak and be listened to, talking about things I love to talk about: behaviour, behaviour behaviour. I even bumped into a few familiar faces.

‘I object to be compared to bankers.’

I striked/ struck today, not because I am particularly animated by gestures, or by the illusion that George Osborne will magically pull a string of endless magic beans out of his anal iris that can pay for adamantine pension pots (although that’s one circus I would QUEUE IN THE RAIN to see). It’s been a long time since a British strike reversed a policy so deep and indomitable. If you believe the financial wallahs (and I have to, although I am perfectly aware that their pronouncements are as solid as strawberry mousse on most things, given that the future is a foreign country, and no man knows the hour of his departure, or foreclosure) then we are very much a busted flush; that we have lived beyond our means for too long; that the guardians of our financial destiny have written cheques that posterity could not cash. The cupboard is bare.

And I didn’t strike because it was demanded; I am obstinately personal when it comes to morality, and I weep to think of anyone striking because they were afraid not to- and don’t let’s pretend that this isn’t the case. Every man and woman has the right to chart the course of their own conscience, and I often feel that if it wasn’t considered such an imperative to do so then many people would strike more easily. A picket line chills my heart- it is the opposite of what I believe freewill and ethics to be about; the good will, freely chosen and decided in a conscious, conscientious way. Forcing people to comply is what the bad guys do.

‘No, Mr Bennett, I expect you to DIE.’

So what did I strike for? Not because I believed it would change matters; but not as an exercise in futility either. I stepped out for a greater cause; because when people take to the streets, governments are reminded of a fact that remains tacit in the main; that they remain in place at our behest; that we are the final arbiters of their destinies, and therefore our own. The moment the people decide they have had enough, they can shrug their shoulders and all shackles melt away, as if they were never there. This is the power that people have, and it is the power that they forget. ‘No’ is the most powerful weapon in the world. ‘No.’

Of course, the Masters of the Universe have a million tactics to deter this power- and in some sense rightly so. The wisdom of the herd is often no closer to wisdom than that of a real herd; Plato derided Democracy as the will of the lowest common denominator, saddled with charismatic false prophets who can promise bread and circuses and lead the proles by the nose, as long as there is grape and grain to keep our mouths moving and our eyes shut. You know the rhetoric. Some of it is true.

But there is one last, doomsday weapon; the decision by people to refuse. It’s blunt, but then so is a nuclear bomb. Hobbes feared no government even worse than poor government, and perhaps he was right; civilisation rattles along on the rails of rule, and we forget the privations of nature at our peril. Revolt easily runs into ruin; the London riots give us a glimpse as to what can happen when manners and civility are set aside for egoism and the savage pursuit of happiness.

Even THE EMPIRE is in.

Which is why rulers should pay heed when people fill the streets. Because it indicates that the rule of law is being challenged, not by opportunists and empty-headed hoodies farting on their leather-effect sofas, but by the people who drive the trains that keep everyone going to work, the teachers who teach their children, and by the men who pick up litter and change hospital sheets. People.

Should we consider that the cupboard is now bare? Of course we should. That’s not why I was out. I was out because the farmers have been blamed for the prodigiousness and cavalier avarice of the locusts. Wealthy men have been allowed to play roulette with the savings and securities of helpless people who have been forced to entrust these people with their futures, only to find them used as a gambling chip on the baccarat tables of Wall Street and the City. There is an excellent- and unavoidable- case for contracting public expenditure. But I will watch my pension wither on the vine with a smile and a handshake the day that I see the same happen, proportionately to the Masters of the Universe. When the Lords and the CEOs and the Eloi agree to catch a tube, defer a bonus, or vote down an autopayrise…that’s when I’ll feel happy about the Big Society. That’s when I’ll believe that, to some extent, we’re in this together. Until then, it’s business as usual in the ghetto.

No exceptions.

I mean, I KNOW life isn’t fair. I know that shit rains down on us from birth to the moment we topple with exhaustion into holes we had to dig for ourselves. But that doesn’t mean I have to hold out a soup bowl, catch it, and wolf it down with a smile.


Why NOT kill a President? The Book of Gove.

‘And there was a mighty rush of unknown people…’

A Bible is, or will be on its way to every school. This, of course, has sent precisely half the chattering world into diabetic shock, and the other half into a righteous forced march. In 1858, the first transatlantic cable was sent from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan; it read; ‘Glory to God, and peace to his people on Earth.’ The cable had taken years to unwind across the uncertain plateaus and trenches of the Atlantic; every time it broke, they started again, usually from the beginning. Nowadays, people get upset when Bibles get sent to schools. I imagine if a new transatlantic message were to be composed today, it would be created by committee, and would be as exciting as a bowl of custard. Sic transit Gloria Mundi.

I’m an agnostic, and a militant one at that, not some woolly, uncertain gimp, but a soldier of agnosticism. My banner reads Uncertain in a polite but assertive way. I despair of fundamentalism on all points of the faith spectrum. I despair of the certainty that vilifies and demonises anyone who doesn’t agree with the sacred truth of anybody, from Abu Hamza to Philip Pullman.

But, Bible -Bashers, why so serious? I’ve been thinking a lot about the roots of ethical systems lately, usually while accidental catching a flicker of TOWIE or ‘I’m a celebrity‘ and wondering if these are the end times spoken of in the Revelation of John of Patmos. Where do we find value? Where does our idea of goodness come from? This kind of question genuinely disturbs my sleep; it’s fundamental to the human condition. Why do we do what we do? What is the point of my, or your life? What is the point of education? Why do we teach? What are schools actually for?  Everything is linked.

‘Blimey. Rule 34 ain’t wrong, is it?’

All ethical systems have to be rooted in something (in philosophy, we could call this cognitivism, the offspring of moral realism) otherwise they are adrift. There has to be some kind of universal, undeniable value system to which we attach ourselves, otherwise we are making it up as we go along. If you’re happy with the idea of moral relativism, that everyone gets to invent their own versions of right and wrong, then you’re jolly welcome to it, but be aware that you commit yourself to neutrality and self-imposed silence on matters such as slavery, female circumcision, suttee, the death penalty etc etc, on the grounds that ‘it’s all relative, isn’t it?’ If you commit to realtivism, then  nothing is intrinsically right or wrong, and no one can stand in judgement of any other. ‘Only God can judge me,’ as the vile narcissist that is P-Diddy once said. Well, Mr Combs, not even him.

Possible anchors include: self-interest; virtue; duty. But an anchor is needed. The problem with rationalism and the ascent of reason as the rule and the tool of human ambition, is that it can never provide us with aims; only means. We cannot reason the nature of goodness; rather we believe in it, and then reason its execution- we reason the means to that ambition, not the ambition itself.

So when I read reports that Michael Gove wants to send every school in the UK a Bible, I recoil in desperation from the response of some who say, ‘What a waste!’ and ‘Well, I hope The Descent of Man gets sent out too!’  Gove’s actions may imply prescriptivism, but it isn’t the prescriptivism that people are accusing him of. He isn’t alluding to Biblical orthodoxy as some kind of state sanctioned Jesuit imperative that all schools should follow. Rather, it is the prescriptivism of the claim that the King James Bible is a core text in our civilisation and culture, and make of that what you may, but its position stands. The Bible doesn’t need my shrill agnostic defence of cultural utilitarianism- I imagine it’ll be just fine whatever I say. The Origin of the Species is a transformative scientific text; the Bible is not. Fair or foul, it is one of the lynchpins of our schema. Talk about it, spit on its face, weep on your knees before it, but don’t ignore it.

Your argument is invalid.

What does need defending is the idea that there are some things that should be valued, and resistant to the claims of moral relativism. ‘God is dead,’ said Nietzsche, ‘We killed him. Now anything is possible.’ The syphilitic old rogue was implying that religion had been the anchor of morality for ages, and now that reason, the engine of the enlightenment, had blown out the votive candles, there was no need to be bound by the conventions of a society that only sought to enslave the strong. He was wrong about that- a secular age has birthed an enormous number of moral movements that have their roots in the human condition, Humanism being just one; the New Atheism being another. But what these movements all have in common is that they celebrate values, and hold them…I could almost say, hold them sacred.

Such movements aren’t immune to the absolutist moral philosophy of their religious counterparts; they need them, otherwise anything is possible. The British Humanist Association, so resplendent in its secular representation, says that it…

‘…is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. We promote Humanism, support and represent the non-religious, and promote a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.’

Which is gorgeous, and I march with you brother. But riddle me this- where did we get those values from? It certainly wasn’t reason; reason can’t provide us with a guarantee of justice or equality; reason can press a man to enslave another, on the grounds that his self-interest is served; reason can teach a child that dishonesty is often the best policy, if he wants to prosper in a community of the trusting.

No, reason alone cannot provide values; only a moral choice can do this; we choose, freely or otherwise, those things we hold to be dear. ‘We can do as we please,’ said Bertrand Russell, ‘But we cannot please as we please.’ That simple aphorism holds the key to the dilemma; our intellect cannot govern our desires; our desires govern out desires. The intellect rationalises those desires, breaks them down into taxonomies of possibility and expediency, and somewhere in the fathomless abyss of our consciousness, a decision is made. Whether that decision is its own first cause or not, or merely the end of a causal chain, no one- and I mean NO ONE- has any claim to certainty about it.

Another child lost to vice and mysticism

So don’t mock Gove for sending out a copy of the KJB to every school; mock him for many other things, perhaps. But let’s not forget that, whether you hold the Host to your bosom, or reject it like a vampire, schools- and people- have to confront issues of meaning and values in their own lives. Reason alone cannot produce a society of virtuous men, no matter what the Caliphs of Humanism say- it just can’t. Reason is sterile to kindness, or justice, or bravery; these are attitudes, and have an emotional content. Intellect sparkles with many prizes, but feeling isn’t one of them. Sending out a Bible to every school sends out a powerful and simple message: consider this; consider what you value. Let all schools proceed from that point. What DO they value? What do YOU value?

Then, apply your mighty brain to the tasks ahead of you, awake, and conscious and lucid. We have, possibly inevitably, entered- or inhabited- an age where reason has been in ascendency for some time. I celebrate this evolution from instinct and superstition. Now that we enjoy the fruits of the enlightenment, it’s time to press ahead to the next step of that enlightenment, and cast aside the New Gods and False Prophets that claim all will be well with science and jolly good discussion. They will not. Science is a neutral deity; a medicine or a poison. Reason cannot furnish us with purpose. Purpose is an arrow attached to our hearts; method alone stems from our science.

In the Clint Eastwood’s Western Swan-song masterpiece ‘Unforgiven’, English Bob, the hired assassin is mouthing off in a carriage full of shocked Americans about the relative impossibility of Regicide:

English Bob: [discussing the assassination of President Garfield] Well there’s a dignity to royalty. A majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. If you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shake as though palsied.
Barber: Oh I wouldn’t point no pistol at nobody sir.
English Bob: Well that’s a wise policy,  wise policy. But if you did. I can assure you, if you did, the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand… how shall I put it? In awe. Now, a president… well I mean…

‘Why not shoot a president?’

Gove, yesterday, with a book. The BASTARD.

Why not indeed? In his oafish way, Bob makes a point. If you want meaning to emerge from rationalisation, then grab a chair, you’ll be there for a while.

The problem is, of course, a political one; all politics can be broken down to a conflict of values, or the means of achieving those values. Once values are exposed, once the flesh of evidence and debate are stripped from their bones, then we can see politics for what it is: a competition of values. Sunlight bleaching those bones is the best cure I know for argumentation; once facts are established, honesty is possible. Would that we were so honest more often.

Why a Bible? Why NOT a Bible? Let people cast their anchors where they will, and hope that we can rub along together without destroying each other.

Children should ‘be good, not bad when they grow up’ claims man with degree.

‘I’ll be giving it all away in a minute.’

A leading Oxford academic has claimed that if children want to make a moral difference, they should ‘become bankers,’ despite increasing levels of evidence from banking, Planet Earth and everywhere else that this might not be the case.

‘It’s simple,’ claims Will Crunch, described as an ethicist. ‘If kids really want to make a difference, they should go into banking, make lots of money, and then do good things with it. See? Piece of piss. Much better than all that charity bullshit, hanging about on corners wailing about Pandas and cancer.’

Asked if the prospect of people going into banking with the sole intention of making, then giving money away, wasn’t approaching an overly-optimistic view of human nature, Mr Crunch was defiant. ‘Not at all. Next thing you’ll be saying that people who go into an industry with no other terminal goal than the accumulation of profit, are intrinsically evil. Nothing could be further from the truth. Philanthropy comes naturally to these people. Look at all that good work BP does with the environment- even their logo is a flower or something now.’

Leading figures from the banking industry were cautious about Mr Crunch’s findings. ‘Of course, we welcome recruitment from the child sector. Banking requires millions of souls to feed our ravenous appetite for cruelty, waste and injustice- sorry, the needs of a flexible, free market. Only next week we plan to invest in Playbunny pyjamas for five year olds, and missile development in the third world, then sell it all when something else looks profitable, like sorrow or despair. Can we invest in those?’

‘Is that my broker? Yeah, sell it all and give it to charity.’

‘This is terrific news,’ said Great Cthulhu, dark Lord of the realm of bleeding eyes. ‘And it shows once again how academics can make the leap between theory and the real world. Bankers. Giving money away. Brilliant,’ he said, laughing with five of his awful mouths.

The careers advisory service has yet to release a statement, although one spokeperson offered this comment: ‘Have you thought about working in an office?’ he said helpfully. Adam Smith, long regarded as one of the ideological forefathers of capitalism added his view that, ‘Where there is man, so there is one indomitable factor: competition.’ Then he added, ‘And then they usually give it all away, ’cause we’re like that.’

2011 Edublog awards

This was the first I’d heard of these awards, although I have no doubt that all over the world lonely men and women annually wet their Y-fronts at the prospect, as I do. Someone kindly nominated me this year, so I felt that it was kind of my education blogger duty to do the same, although I’m aware that the chances of me now participating in what might well be essentially an Albanian pyramid scam are probably high.

I write A LOT, and what with that and teaching, I actually don’t get much time to really sit on my thumbs and read too many other things on the net, although I try to hit things that are recommended to me. Some of the ones that I DO make time for regularly are:

Best individual blog:

Scenes from the Battleground

Old Andrew’s infrequent (and I do mean f*cking infrequent) blog still packs punch every time it drops. More value added than Mossborne bleedin’ Academy. More balls than Billy- Big-Balls.

Best New Blog

Mombasa Moods

Rebecca Gurnham’s touching and personal journey from English teacher in the UK, to a galaxy away, teaching in Africa. Fascinating, thoughtful and beautifully bridges the personal and the political with a light touch.

Best Teacher Blog

The Learning Spy

David Didau- always interesting to read; vocal, spiky and bristling with enthusiasm for teaching.

Best resource sharing blog

The Edudicator

A newer voice, absolutely dedicated to the well being of other teachers. Unstoppable.

Best educational use of a social network

Just Trying to be better than yesterday

Kenny Pieper’s increasingly well-written blog, tackling increasingly diverse educational topics. Better every week.

I’m sure there are many other worthies, but those are the ones that have tempted me into their perfumed boudoirs with their Henna stained index fingers beckoning me to enter their dark and musky narthexes.

Good luck, and don’t spend all the prize money at once. And if anyone feels like nominating me then I WOULD NOT OBJECT IN THE SLIGHTEST.

Inspection reflections

The call arrives! It’s what we’ve been waiting for!
Teachers are understandably worried they won’t meet the standards.
But with only two days to go, they quickly focus on the important issues.
Staff are given brief guidelines about best practise.
They arrive! Everyone laughs when they realise the inspectors are people, just like them.

If inspectors DO come into your room, just act normally.

Students need to be gently reminded that lessons might be slightly more elaborate.

Even towards the end of the inspection, staff must resist the temptation to relax.

Eventually, the inspection is over.
Success! Congratulations, your lessons were Outstanding!

I’m ready- ARE YOU?

Don’t Panic! Display on staff room notice board to calm civilian nerves.