Patriot games

I wasn’t in the country for the jubilee weekend.  I wasn’t trying to make a point, it’s just that’s when half-term landed.

I didn’t really have any opinion at all on the jubilee, either on a superficial weekend party level or on a more fundamental monarchistic level.  We have a monarchy; it’s a bit archaic; most people don’t think about it from day to day; it’s one of Britain’s USPs; the arguments are well rehearsed and well known.  But I did feel like the odd one out, albeit from a distance.  TV, Facebook and Twitter seemed to unearth no end of people with very strong opinions on the jubilee.  It was impossible to be in the middle, or as I felt I was – far away watching the whole thing from a distance.  ‘So proud to be British’ seemed to be one recurring statement, whilst those on the other side of the fence screamed ‘tax dodging scum’ at the Queen through a variety of mocked-up Facebook photos.  Two bubbles had been set up, but this was no Venn diagram and the bubbles had no point of intersection.

So let’s take the first set of people, the ‘patriots’ for want of a better word.  A patriot is defined as one who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion.  Was that what the people who lined the Mall were doing?  Of course not, but they had turned up in the rain to wish happy birthday to the Queen, which at least falls under the heading of supporting one’s country, even if one isn’t tied into defending it or even necessarily loving it.  I wonder how many of the Queen’s favourite singers appeared?  I know the Queen mother had a penchant for George Formby, but she’s dead and in 2012 we were treated to a slightly odd selection.  They’d clearly gone for longevity over popularity, with Paul McCartney, Cliff, Madness and Rolf Harris benefitting simply from existing for over three decades in the nation’s consciousness.  Quite how people were able to feel proud to be British watching Kylie, Rolf and Stevie Wonder was uncertain, though maybe it had something to do with the fact that the NHS has managed to keep Rolf alive past the age of 100.  I don’t know anyone who listens to Paul McCartney post-1970, Cliff or Rolf Harris ever (and certainly not for pleasure) and I don’t know anyone that finds Lenny Henry funny.  It didn’t stop the patriots though.  Even though it probably wasn’t what the Queen wanted, or what they wanted and mostly wasn’t British, the tweets about how proud they kept being sent out, before dissolving slowly into the twitt-ether to be replaced by other similar messages.  None of it felt like a celebration of British-ness, British history, British music or British culture.  We’re far too worried about accusations of jingoism, racism, empirism and many other isms beside.  So it ended up being a play-it-safe, MOR rock concert with inoffensive acts plucked randomly from the last 50 years of show-business.  If this is what makes you proud to be British, great.  

It was nice to see thousands of people line the Mall on Monday night, though it was inevitable that it would be business as usual on Tuesday.  And so it seemed; much of the jubilee spirit seemed to have evaporated as the main new story moved from how ‘humbled’ the Queen felt to how some jubilee workers were forced to sleep rough under a bridge.  Seems like we’re fine when listening to Sir Paul, but when the music stops, we’re a little less proud to be British.

It was nice to see that the effort and conviction visible in the anarchism of those that opposed the jubilee was just as MOR as the music at the jubilee itself.  The re-release of the Sex Pistols ‘God save the Queen’ proved that things really do get less shocking with age (35 years in this case) and it seemed to have an effect more akin to basic nostalgia than to stir the nation’s disaffected youth.  The inevitable FB campaign to get the song to number 1 seems like a very tired idea now and even butter-advertiser extraordinaire Jonny Rotten thought the idea was feeble.  Sharing the odd photo on FB of the Queen as a tax-dodger felt like a rather timid way of railing against the monarchy.  It’s one thing to adopt a lazy air of resignation when Lenny Henry is on stage, but it’s even more pathetic to do so when you think you’re being anti-establishment.

Familiarity and contempt

I’ve used the Stephen Fry expression to describe friendship before. The Nation’s favourite Wildean uncle claimed that he ‘likes to taste his friends, not eat them’. Aside from the obvious innuendo, it’s a sentiment with which I agree. Some of my favourite people are those that I don’t see for a couple of years, and when we do meet up, it’s like we’ve never been apart. I’ve just spent a week in the states with a friend I hadn’t seen for 3 years (we keep up only through twitter) and it led to some of the most enjoyable, entertaining and easiest conversation you could imagine. Some people like to surround themselves with a small group of close friends, and these people act like a kind of social comfort blanket. Friendship lines are drawn, everyone knows which topics are there to be debated and which are off-limits, opinions are generally well-known, and conversation can be dominated with everyday chit-chat.

I’m certainly not saying that the better I know people, the less I like them, or even the less interesting I find them; I do consider however that the friendship of those people that I rarely converse with and meet up with even less often can be just as valuable. It’s like music and books. Some books you are happy to read and re-read, and there’s some music that you never tire of listening to. There are other books that you loved first time around, but you have no desire to read again, at least not in the immediate future. Some music is like this too; I love it, and then I love re-discovering it, but only at a much later date.

As I’m on holiday at the moment, I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading. I’ve been reading a couple of authors that I thought I liked a lot: Malcolm Gladwell and Jay McInerney. The more I’ve read of them, the less I like them. Maybe that’s a little strong, but the less interest I have in them; their freshness is notable by its absence. In McInerney’s case, I’ve read him pretty much chronologically, starting with the fantastic ‘Bright lights, Big City’. His later novels (less so the short stories) resemble less good versions of his earlier work. The themes are similar, the humour more forced, the material less fresh. People say that you write about what you know, but he seems to have written about all that he knows in the first couple of books, and has spent much time re-hashing old material after that. Gladwell is more odd, because I read Outliers (2008), then What the dog saw (2009) then his breakthrough novel The Tipping Point (2000). Gladwell certainly has a brilliant easy-reading style, and it has been said of him that he ‘makes you feel as though you are the genuis’. It’s a very leading style though, and many of the conclusions that he comes to, which appear watertight at first, do not stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny. His standard technique is to take a one-off event, re-tell it as an incredibly entertaining story, and then to draw far reaching conclusions from this single event that usually challenge general thinking on the subject. Thought and discussion-provoking certainly, but hard evidence? almost certainly not. The more I read, the more I feel that I’m being worked on, albeit very gently, into believing the genius of Gladwell, and I find that irritating, and just a little bit subversive.

This isn’t the case with all authors. If one reads Orwell chronologically, things culminate with 1984, and all of his other writing and experiences feel like a build-up to this. It helped that he died young, and knew that he was dying, and maybe that’s the key: to die before one’s output starts to tail off. Morrison, Dean, Fitzgerald have nothing duff in their back catalogue; they simply didn’t have time. Conversely, the longer that Jagger or McCartney hang on, the more hapless the material they produce has become. This is similar with Dave Grohl, who sounds more like un-edgy bad Nirvana with each album. I used to think that Dali was a genius, until you realise that you’ve seen all the good stuff in the first 10% of his output, and the rest of his career was a re-hash of former ideas.

Perhaps there’s a limit to creativity, and it’s best to stop when you feel genuine creation is harder to come by. Bowie and Picasso manage to stay creative forever by continual re-invention. They are the genuine outliers; these are people with whom one can be fully familiar, and feel nothing but admiration for their genius.

The Element

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Element’ by Ken Robinson, in which he argues that a successful future (either individual or collective) is dependent on us finding our passion in life. I think that most people would argue that discovering one’s passion, and subsequent immersion in said passion is a good thing, and that many people have yet to discover that which is their raison d’etre.

The book is tricky to pin down, however, and for the most part uses examples of famous and talented people that did not discover their passion until they left School, or (in the worst cases) were actively discouraged from following their chosen path by those who guided them through School. I’m always sceptical of anectodal highly-specific and personalised evidence used to lend weight to a theory, especially when no counter-argument is put forward.

Robinson’s general point is that we should all be given ample opportunity to find one’s own ‘Element’, and this is more likely to occur if we were to lose the hierarchy of subjects in Schools, and to place more emphasis on the Arts, and creativity in general. We also need to ensure a high quality of teachers (or mentors (I like this word)) in our Schools, to make it more likely that pupils will be inspired to find their ‘Element’.

It’s hard to argue against either of these points, and when he writes about the need to blur the boundaries between subject disciplines, he’s particularly persuasive; I’ve always been passionate about cross-curricular teaching. I find his jokey style irritating, like the person at a party who’s unable to enter any serious conversation in case people find him boring, and I find his analogy of the standardised ‘fast-food’ curriculum that we have now versus the ‘michelin-starred’ curriculum that we should embrace to be flawed, but it’s well worth a read for anyone interested in the difference between Schooling and education. Just try not to cringe when he describes Paul McCartney as a rock God.

One thing it did do was make me think. I often feel that I’m far too flexible about education, and that my views on how it should be best achieved (at least at School) vary with the seasons. I think that this is actually no bad thing, given our inability to predict what will happen in even the near future. Things move at such a pace (technology, population expansion, global climate change) that it would be foolish to present an education model fit for even the next 5-10 years.

But here’s some ideas:

1. Do away with the current system of Sixth Form examinations (A-levels etc). Universities set their own entrance exams, which ensure that the gap between School Sixth Form and university learning is bridged. This encourages liaison betweeen Schools and universities, and ensures that Schools look forward to higher education and the job market rather than backward to past papers.

2. Exams should be relevant to the subject(s) that the pupil wishes to study, but should be less about rote learnign of facts and more about complex problem solving within that subject. Trundling through mounds of past paper questions is not education; it’s teaching people how to pass an exam.

3. Do away with ‘subjects’ at School, and instead teach ‘classes’, similar to the US college system. This encourages the pupils to think about education not as clasified and categorised into specific subject areas. How many times have I head pupils say ‘but isn’t that Physics?’ when discussing the structure of the atom. Being educated isn’t about learning what’s on the syllabus for 3 subjects in the Sixth Form. I teach chemistry, but why shouldn’t I teach classes about scientific literature, the history and philosophy of science?

4. Prioritise the education that occurs outside School. We focus so much on the education that our pupils get within the School’s 4 walls, and ignore what happens outside. It’s so easy to communicate with anyone at any time, and yet we don’t make best use of this in an educational sense. Education means much more than taught classes, and people can become more educated every time they read a book, or a newspaper, or watch a film, or listen to music, or debate a political point. If the pupils are inspired in the classroom, they’ll be adept at educating themselves outside the classroom.

There you go – heavy stuff for a Tuesday morning, or does that make me sound too much like Ken?