Aren’t other people just stupid? Not you, though.
I went to see Stephen Fry in what I was hoping was going to be conversation with the stricken muse of articulacy, Christopher Hitchens, at the Royal Festival Hall this week. Alas, the Hitch had selfishly developed pneumonia and begged out of the occasion, which meant that the evening, however charming, would be in deficit of a dialogue by a factor of one, which is often seen as fatal to the enterprise. But like the androgynous protagonists of Battle of the Planets, when Hitch unravels he is replaced by a fighting force of allies and confidantes: in stepped the Archbishops and Cardinals of atheism and reason, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Richard Dawkins, along with satellite contributions from Sean Penn (how odd), Lewis Lapham, Chris Buckley and others.
The loss was transformational; not that the night was a waste- it is never a waste to see such lions of loquacity prowling and strutting, and talking about themselves to a captive crowd- but that it became a homage, almost a video obituary taking place as the dying Socrates drank his carcinocidal cocktail in New York, and I could almost imagine the whole piece finishing with the operatic dénouement of Le Morte d’ Hitchens. To witness your own valediction must be a peculiar experience.
Fry was, of course, value-added; replete with anecdotes and morsels of amusement and intelligence so easily expedited from memory to mouth that I imagined they were simply stuck between his teeth from the last time he ate a copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with truffle oil and the tears of a hippogriff. Amis was the headline act, so commandingly confident about the process of putting one word in front of another that Fry almost looked mute by comparison. He alluded nicely to he and Hitchen’s unconsummated buddy love, and we were introduced to a peculiar tour of the private snaps of the world’s most hirsute columnist since Robin Williams wrote Dear Deirdre. Rushdie beamed down on the audience from the enormous satellite link screen like a latter-day deity, which must have disappointed any jihadists with long memories who fancied a punt, owned a tyre-iron and could read Twitter.
|Dawkins’ first ad campaign.|
Penn impressed an audience of apparently easily impressed people by lighting a cigarette on screen; Fry commented that he couldn’t have shocked people more if he’d dropped his pants instead. Penn, looking bleary and autonomously wealthy, worried me for a minute when I thought he might do just that. A fortunate interruption of the signal spared us all.
Dawkins seemed somewhat underused; but everyone agreed that it was nice he was there; otherwise the whole thing would seem like a very odd documentary of beloved intellectuals punctuated by Fry’s sybaritic bon mots. It was a very enjoyable evening; a tribute rather than a conversation, and no matter that no matter was discussed more seriously than the average exchange on the Parkinson show, but it was what it was. Heaven forbid we should criticise something for what it is not: rather, criticise it for what it is. Negatives and non-existents are such frightfully slippery fish to catch, let alone cook.
|This, my friends, is all you need.|
What concerned me was the mood and fervour of some of the audience members; I noticed this before the show as I prepped my rusty brain with a Rusty Nail, and it was brought into sharp relief by at least one of the vox populi questions at the end. There was a hushed, awed tone of admiration and awe for the participants that was entirely understandable; great men are easy to admire, and men of great intelligence are great men. But the reverence afforded to them was what worried me.
As a teacher of philosophy and religion, I am immersed in the task of driving what I can loosely call structured thinking: the presentation of ideas and opinions as a process of facilitated justification, where mere advocacy and prejudice can be replaced by rhetorical syllogisms that can endure contest. I am also, as you can imagine, immersed in a lot of stupid. For every substantiated opinion, I hear ten knee-jerk outbursts. That’s fine: that’s what I’m there for- to challenge cant and bullshit, maybe even to have mine challenged once in a while by the rare outlier.
Children and adults both are sensitive to the vice of certainty. It is a weakness peculiar to humanity, that we are convinced intuitively of the following two premises:
P1: There is an objective moral truth
P2: I am the only one truly capable of perceiving it.
|Letters to the usual address|
Conclusion? Well, there are many. These two contestable, controversial contentions lead many to succumb to the weaknesses of tribalism, bigotry, and other synonyms for the parochial mind. Having an illiberal mentality is similar to public flatulence- it’s always someone else, never you. I can say this with the certainty of the chastened because I have had, on several occasions throughout my life, my personal dogma detonated irretrievably. As Descartes, the Patron Saint of even-handedness once opined, ‘Many of my previous, dearly held convictions, have proven to be false.’ His attempt to find a foundational, unassailable truth led him to destroy the entire edifice of his beliefs, before finding that when the smoke had cleared, only the Cogito was left in the rubble. Some destruction required, contents may alter from description.
Which isn’t to say that my own views and values are now somehow inoculated from assumption and self-deceit: merely that I am aware that such deceit exists in profundity. The epistemological Holy Grail of a fact known beyond doubt is such an eternal pilgrimage, that I appreciate how very uncertain most of our certainties are. In school, I feel it somewhat of a holy mission for me to challenge the beliefs of my students: not for the project of cynical assimilation, as if I were trying to sculpt every mind in the image of me, but rather as an attempt to put pressure on their beliefs to see if they buckle, bend or repel. What survives the fire is inevitably stronger; scar tissue may not please our aesthetic, but it is thicker than the untempered tissue from which it develops. And sometime, their ideas push back.
And that’s what makes me uneasy whenever I go to one of these Cultish rallies: the assumed righteousness of some of the acolytes, who are more interested in having their certainties stroked and oiled by the Greek Gods of secular humanism, or fundamental Romanism, or any one of a million shades of conviction. In a dialogue between Hitchens and Fry, one could hardly expect gladiatorial discussion; I was more looking forward to an evening of easy, well-expressed companionable wit, like port with a friend by the light of a fireplace. It became, as I say, a tribute, as if the Hitch’s Super Friends had joined to lay wreaths before his prehumous tomb.
|‘Here we are- the next generation!’|
But the evening was soured by an unbearable ponce of a man who exemplified everything that was wrong with the Cult of Anyone: he bounded up to the microphone in manner that suggested a foppish mime running on the spot, and did something guaranteed to make me want to jump off something high: instead of asking a question, he launched into a monologue about…well, himself mostly, although he camouflaged it with cringing flattery for the demigods before which he crawled. And, in response to an earlier query, ‘Where are the Hitches of the next generation?’ he replied, arms akimbo, ‘Here I am! We are the next generation, rational and ready for the …..’ blah blah. If I paraphrase, I care not a jot. He was lucky I didn’t spanner him with my handy spanner I keep for such occasions. If he was possessed of one vertebrae less than a full complement, I do believe he would have happily sucked himself off.
Certainty revolts me; self-congratulatory, infinite self-belief makes my entrails heave. The biggest danger for the New Atheist movement- and I applaud many of its intended aims- is that it becomes a new orthodoxy; that it disguises itself in the beard-and-glasses combo of open-mindedness, and by doing so, convinces itself that the battle for intellectual supremacy had been won. One’s own axioms need to be tested constantly; imagine how embarrassed you would feel if you discovered you were wrong, and it was too late to do anything about it?
|Cogito ergo Zod.|
No ideology or demographic has the copyright on truth; no one is immune to the human vices of self-flattery, egoism, narcissism and the desire to be right. I love reading the Hitch; I am happy to doff my cap and acknowledge a man of superior discrimination and intellectual perspicacity. Such admissions are the natural tribute demanded when one recognises a height greater by far than one’s own. But we should always be careful to assume that we are the keepers of the sacred flame; that our way is the only right way; that we and only we possess the revealed wisdom of the ancients. It is a flaw in most faiths, and increasingly it is a flaw in the non-faithful. And that is because it is a human flaw. We-I mean all of us- must be on constant guard against the villainy of congratulating ourselves. Aren’t we clever? Aren’t we intelligent?
People in every century have thought themselves more enlightened than their predecessors. Who is to say that we have acheived the Omega Brain State? What does their certainty say about ours?
|‘What the F*CK did you just say?’|
The best place for a scared cow is on a plate with a little butter.
|‘LEWIS! I meant Lewis should stay!’|
Quote of the night from Zara: ‘You know what they say: there’s no ‘I’ in team.’
|Rich Mix embracing this week’s theme of ‘Canary Wharf Classic House’|
|‘Let’s make it out of cheap shite.’|
Mind you, Harry H and James went for the Pitch Fail silver medal when, in response to the manager’s pursed-lip insistence that the arrangements be small, chic and delicate, presented the Heliconia, an enormous triffid that could sit in the centre of the Wembley Arena and look comfortable. ‘We need a small, chic display.’ There you go mate, have a fucking six foot aspidistra. Job done!
In the end, Lizzie’s team trumped Atomic by the kind of loose change you sometimes find in an old pair of trousers, and she and her crew were treated to what I can only describe as posh tuck in Fortnum and Masons, every course a chocolate bonanza of delicacy. The ladies, because they are girls of taste, styled themselves up for the occasion marvellously. Slippery Jim, in a manner true to his business philosophy, threw any old shit on, presumably scraping the leftover chocolate-coated ants brains into his top pocket while no one was looking so that he could sell them to homeless people later on.
The boardroom musical chairs were a predictable blood bath. Hannah showed guts, and I was sorry to see her go, but then she made the mistake of bringing back two Big Beasts into the ring: Harry H (a contender for the final) and Zara, the Amazonian woman-child. You can tell that those two have staying potential because of their power dressing. Despite Hannah’s efforts, the Taxi of Fail (which interestingly enough takes them home in the daylight for the junior apprentices; no doubt a sop to child safety) tolled for her. She was, I am delighted to say, mature and noble in defeat, suggesting that she has winning potential after all; fail; fail better next time. I often think that the one valuable life skill we usually neglect to teach our kids is the ability to lose; the skill of handling the inevitable losses and defeats that we will face as we flourish. Hannah had class and grace, and the competition was poorer for her absence.
|‘I am immortal!’|
Next week: ‘She’s sleek, she’s sophisticated, and she comes from Barcelona!’ I have NO IDEA what this means, but it’s a Saga task for the tweeny apprentices, which promises a late-Summer special of third-age inappropriacy of Olympian levels as our plucky kids try and sell something to people over the age of twenty-five. Coffins, knowing them.
young apprentice coming soon……
|Sponsors of Educating Essex|
Stop all the lesson bells. I thought this blog would last forever. I was wrong. Educating Essex, sponsored by Honda, has been retired to the great Academy Elysium.
This is difficult entry, because EE has given me so, so much material that I feel like Wile E Coyote, a comic heartbeat after he realises he’s run three steps over the edge of the canyon edge. *Looks down* *gulps* *looks to camera* *vanishes*
What on EARTH will I write about? Ach, but I felt this way when Jamie’s Fantasy Game Show run out of juice; as you get older you realise that your heart will heal in time. There’ll be other telly schools. They just grow up, leave you and break your heart *sniff*.
So what have we learned?
Apart from the fact that diameter is circumference divided by pi?
This week the documentarians at twofour gave us their all, in one mighty gasp of hole-in-one casting: Vinni (rap spelling and all) was brought back from the substitute bench, and we were introduced to their secret weapon of charm and awkward, vulnerable sincerity: Ryan, a boy so direct, so honest and so impeccably golden-hearted that the coldest, coldest heart would have thawed before him. If Liz Jones met him, she would renounce egotism and narcissistic cruelty.*
* Alas, not even he could do that.
|A teacher, yesterday.|
Ryan had been at Passmores for two years, and he, along with all the other students, were approaching their turning-out ceremonies fast. It provided the seven-story arc with a natural narrative terminus, like a slightly grittier production of Grease, albeit with less memorable tunes (unless you count Mr Drew’s remix of Teenage Dirtbag or Ryan’s humble, mumbled hippity-hop cover of Rockwell’s ‘Somebody’s watchin’ me’). It’s a meme that every school drama can access, from Waterloo Road to American Pie: the coming-of-age lifequake when the child passes into adulthood, and it becomes time to put away childish things. As teachers, we live this moment in perpetuity, like the concierge of Miliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. We’re doomed/ cursed/ blessed to act as midwives to the process of academic crowning, every year, over and over. (You’d think that we’d be asked out opinions a little more frequently, wouldn’t you? Alas not. Teacher Voice has yet to be granted the same status as its moronic student sibling, which enjoys a perpetual renaissance.)
Vic, our grizzled Head of Paediatrics has seen it all; as he admits at the end, he lives and breathes the well-being of his community, but when they go, he has another cohort that needs and deserves the whole school’s focus every bit as much as the last lot. It’s a generational story. Like nurses and doctors, we need to conserve our compassion for those directly in our care: to do otherwise would be to attempt to stretch our hearts to shattering point, regardless of how oaken they are. When they go, we still care, we can even miss them, but we’re needed elsewhere. The world has to take care of them by that point.
‘X and Y are two Geometrically similar solid shapes.’
Mr Thomas, the Maths
|‘Nice tie, boss.’|
At first glance there wasn’t much in common with this week’s X and Y, Vinni and Ryan: one was an incredibly bright young man with problems, and the other was…oh. I see what they did there. Vinni, as we have already seen, was struggling with a fractious home life, and his own inability to refrain from pressing the self-destruct button. We see this all the time; so much talent, so much potential, so much waste. Obviously not being present at the numerous blow-ups designed to make teachers go insane with agitation, it’s easy to see him as a cuddly project for someone with a kind heart. Only teachers know the kind of stress and damage that KLVs can cause to classrooms when the cameras aren’t rolling; it’s far easier to sympathise with a main characters when they are presented as tragic heroes, rather than villains with a streak of good. But I’ll stick my neck out and say I can see exactly why Mr Goddard busted his nuts eternally for Vinni, because he was exactly the kind of kid you want to help. Something about KLVs bring out the mother/ father in you; you can see the alternate futures opening up in front of him, and most of them aren’t pretty. Some of them are inspiring. If only someone could intervene….
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. As Ms Bird, the take-no-shit English Head of Department who got him through a remedial immersion course in English said, ‘That’s the pay-back,’ when her young padawan squeezed a C in English- and who can blame her? We pay for our ambitions, like Fame, in sweat, and a win is a win, and we too deserve our moments. See, that;s the odd thing about our profession; when we win, others win. When they win, we win. To borrow from Aristotle, a virtuous man can only flourish in a virtuous community, and the community flourishes by the same process.
|‘It’s an imbroglio of epiphenomenalism, innit?’|
The Leaver’s Prom was EXACTLY as you would have designed it, if you had been asked, six months previously, to sketch out a teenager’s fantasy of a posh do: white Hummer stretch limos that Arnie would have looked at and went, ‘No, zis is too vulgah, even for me, aargh,’ and half the girls looking as if they had been sprayed with glue, and kicked through a Disney dress-up box in the Playboy Mansion; all stripper heels and My Gypsy Wedding dresses. I feel desperately sad for a world where teenage girls feel they have to dress up as video hos to fit in, and boys are allowed a gray suit and a buzz cut (no tram lines, mind), maybe a bit of Lynx if the ladies play their cards right. On the other hand I suspect the preening and the exaggerated, cartoon caricature of glamour is a custom as old as Noah. Plus ca bleedin’ change.
Poor Vinni couldn’t come to the party- instead of the Golden Ticket that Willy Goddard had promised him for trying, he Did Not Pass Go, and had to settle for hovering outside on his bike looking wistful. He deserved it, of course. And it was still sad. Vinni himself, because he’s not stupid, spoke with grace and no little dignity to Vic, and the moment where he could see all his peers disappearing inside was heart wrenching. But not as much as the moment when Goddard’s reserve cracked and he fell into an abyss of regret for the way things turned out with Vinni. ‘It’s a no-fail organisation,’ he said with tears, as a million viewers knew what he meant. It’s not often telly does this to you, but I think we were all feeling it at that point.
We were spared the brutal spectacle of teachers dancing. That’s one thing Vinni can be grateful for.
|‘Pi so serious?’|
But the emotional crescendo of this week, if not the whole series, was Ryan. Like a modern Galahad, he seemed too pure, too good for this world. He spoke with starry-eyed honesty about his situation, his asperger’s, his life ahead, and his clumsy, beautiful thoughts about the future. If I say that the EE website describes him as ‘He enjoys his own space and the company of Asterix books and fantasy novels,’ then you know exactly where he’s coming from. I used to program Commodore 64s and draw comic strips. I’m with you, brother.
We knew, as soon as he spoke, that he wasn’t like other people/
‘I’m not like other people,’ he said (see?) and I thought, Jesus, it’s Michael Jackson in Thriller (John Landis’s pointless, brilliant prologue to the King of Rohypnol‘s’ Hallowe’en-conquering masterpiece).
‘I don’t mean super powered,’ he added, in case we asked him to melt steel with his eyes or something. ‘Different.’
|‘What IS pi?’|
If he was different, I could wish for a little more difference in the world. His conversation with Mr Drew was like watching Muhammed Ali talking to Marilyn Monroe; two Titans of EE meeting briefly on screen: Drew asked him what animals he had seen on his visit to the Petting Zoo; Ryan replied, ‘A very small frog.’ I don’t know why that was so funny, but I could have watched half an hour of it.
Ryan was nominated for a Jack Petchy award. Surrounded by five adults all gushing with praise for his character, including Vic himself, he looked a stunned. ‘Very nice,’ he said, as if he was doing them a favour. At that moment I was reminded: Kids Like Ryan are what we come to work for. Our job is to care for, to protect, to nurture and nourish KLRs as best as we can, and then set them free, into the world as carefully as we can, knowing full well that there’s nothing more we can do; they’ve flown the nest. They may fall, or they may flourish, but from that moment on, they’re in their own hands, or someone else’s. Perhaps they always were, of course, but now we can no longer catch them when they fall. No wonder this job can break your heart- as we saw from Vic’s reaction to Vinni’s tumble.
Vic was in pieces as he confessed, ‘If they fail, we fail.’ His heart is so clearly in the right place, that I only cross him with caution, but I can only partly agree. When we have done everything we can, and when we have done even more than that, then we can only, we MUST be able to say that we have done our best. No man is responsible for things beyond his control, in the same way that I cannot be held to account for the actions of my ancestors.
Yet the quality of Vic’s regret, and the sincerity of his guilt over the matter of the Fall of Vinni shows him to be a paragon amongst educators. His sentiments, while unrepresentative of his real responsibility, contain an emotional, maybe a spiritual truth. Who would you rather taught your children- someone who saw it as a holy mission to help them to flourish, or A N Other? I suspect I could give you my answer so quickly it would shame a mongoose auditioning for Kipling.
|‘What IS pi?’|
Goddard and his Essex posse have received an enormous amount of praise, certainly in the cyber circles which I occupy. To my mind, this show has been a huge success, not merely for next year’s application figures to Passmores (although, My God, there’ll be a queue round the block back to Hackney this year; if you’re sharp, you can set up junk stalls selling ‘Mr Drew says…‘ T-shirts. And pies.), but also as a decent insight into the profession for non-specialists and non-teachers (or ‘Government advisers’ as they’re sometimes called) alike. It’s been criticised by the hard of thinking for bringing the profession into disrepute, which is a bit like saying that nurses are doing a bad job because watching them wiping arses is unpleasant.
In a society where automatic deference to authority has melted away in the race to support autonomy and child rights, the way we restore order and the hierarchy of age and experience is by structure, boundaries and loving care. We are expected to be so much more than the job description implies, and it’s no wonder that so many people find the job hard these days. Society expects us to both fix and prevent its problems.
|‘What IS pie?’|
Parents sometimes expect us to teach their children discipline, oblivious to their own intrinsic role in this process. Government expects us to imbue them with civic duty and societal values, while simultaneously asking us to deliver mathematically precise models of academic excellence, predicated on models of infinitely expanding outcomes and based on dwindling resources. The papers look to us when riots flare up, and I wonder where in my curriculum I somehow taught them to fire-bomb chip shops.
Visit any school with even intermittently challenging students, and you will see the challenges that teachers face. Only some of the problems come from the students. In fact, the problems brought to us by the students, we can deal with: I have a Black Belt in dealing with stroppy kids and soap dodgers. The biggest problems we now face come from without, as education is marketised and riddled with bureaucracy like Swiss cheese, shoehorned into shapes by well-intentioned, but essentially quite stupid people.
|The mystery is solved at last. HERE it is.|
Teachers Like Vic (TLVs) and Mr Drew, and Stan, and all the others, have been an honourable representation of the other side of the Daily Mail headlines; they are the buggers with their sleeves rolled up (and in Vic’s case this week, a natty polo-shirt and tie combo. It’s a look) getting in early and getting home late because they want kids to be nourished by a society they never chose to inhabit. There is no greater duty that adults can adhere to, than the axiomatic principle that we care for our children: a roof, food, water, and education. Until the IT revolution promised by the edu-prophets comes to pass, and all children learn personally from cerebral implants and virtual simulators, we educate most of our kids in schools.
Personally, I hope they all get a chance to go to a school like Passmores. Gentlemen; ladies: I salute you, and all my colleagues in schools across Britain.
Clear off, scumbags. Until next lesson.
|‘Have you heard of the Odyssey?’ ‘Is it a ship?’|
- I’m not saying the adverts that punctuated our favourite telly school were designed by Momus the Muse of irony, but the decision by Rimmel to flog their latest eye-spider gloop, seconds before Carrie ‘What is Pi?’ graced our screens was the most cunning piece of subliminal juxtaposition since Gilette started hawking razors during TOWIE. I’m just saying.
- Oh yeah, and another advert was for the DVD release of Bad Teacher.
- ‘Sponsored by Honda’ is a phrase you will be aware of, even if only at some crepuscular, lizard brain cave of your psyche. The last image we saw was of a courier hammering down some lonely tunnel, carrying precious cargo that bore the blazon: ‘Human Blood: fragile.’ It certainly is.
- Ryan’s Oscar winning speech, where he picked himself up and Kanye Wested himself into Vic’s emotional goodbye speech. ‘Sorry Vic, Imma let you finish: but the last two years have been the best years EVER.’ Rivers of molten mascara flowed down the central aisle of the assembly hall, and through the living rooms of Britain. I might have had a man-tear myself. A manly one, mind.
- Vinni’s quick-as-a-flash assistance to his mate in Mr Drew’s Panopticon, when asked what a rhetorical question was. He didn’t even have to think before he described it with an example, and I thought to myself, that kid is smart. Hopefully in a few years he’ll pick himself up and get it together, because there’s brains in that young man’s head.
- Bex Conway’s valiant, brilliant pastoral efforts, as ever. Followed by some wry but possibly very wise advice from Mr King about KLVs: ‘It’s very ambitious to plan for a win; sometimes the most you can expect is a score draw.’
- twofour’s website reports that Twitter saw over 100,000 tweets about the series. Sorry about that.
- The last episode accrued 7.4% of the available audience. What on EARTH was everyone else watching?
- ‘School is a series of bruises.’- Vic. Amen to that.
|‘We’ll clear off, then.’|
If you want to know how the kids have gotten on after the show, go here to the Channel 4 website to get the skinny. Or if you can bear the Daily Mail, they’ve done a piece here.
Mr Drew is interviewed here.
Thank you for reading this far, masochist.