Saturday, 13 July 2013

Michael Gove, we need to teach less competitiveness and more compassion

Eton has a practice known as "oiling", which as Anthony Seldon has approvingly noted, “is learning how to win friends and influence others, and how to clamber over them to get what you want. It's a mixture of ambition, self-confidence and bloody-mindedness.”  Seldon was writing in 2011 to celebrate the fact that Toby Young had set up the West London Free School - a flagship for Michael Gove’s educational reforms - and Young “wanted “oiling” to go viral throughout his school”.

The idea that young people must be prepared for a life of constant competition lies at the heart of Gove’s educational philosophy. This week, when introducing a new curriculum, Gove stressed that it would prepare pupils to compete both in the UK and in the global race.

However, if we want our children to grow up to be happy adults we need to teach less competitiveness and more qualities such as compassion. Education should prepare them for life - not just to take their place as workers and consumers in the market.

Gove often speaks admiringly of the Singapore model of education, which is highly competitive and pressurised. It has not led to a happy society. In a 2012 opinion poll, "kiasu" was named as the characteristic that Singaporeans most perceived as existing in their own society. Kiasu means literally “fear of losing” and is variously translated as “competitive”, “self-centred”, “grasping” and “selfish.”  Second, third and fourth characteristics in Singaporean society, identified in the poll, were “competitive”, “self-centred” and “material needs”. Fifth was kiasi – literally “fear of death” – an attitude of being overly timid and afraid, terrified of risk.

When the Singaporeans were asked what characteristics they would ideally like to see in Singapore, their first and third preferences related to healthcare. Their second, fourth and fifth choices were related to compassion - caring for the elderly, caring for the disadvantaged and compassion itself. 

Gove’s vision is likely to produce children who become adults imbued either with the obnoxious kiasu or the pitiful kiasi.  It is a deeply depressing thought that we are educating our children to become stressed, anxious and unhappy.

Gove could learn useful lessons from Finland which, like Singapore, is regularly near the top of world rankings. In Finland, formal education does not even start until children are seven - whereas Gove has announced proudly that five year olds in the UK will now be taught fractions as part of his application of “rigour” and “toughness”. For a significant number of children too much pressure too young will prove counter-productive and there is no particular benefit for the others in learning, often by rote, so young.

In Finland there are no private schools, no long school days like in Singapore and no exams until 18. A senior official from Finland’s education department has explained, making an explicit comparison with the emphasis on competition in the far inferior US schools system: - “The important thing (in Finland) is ensuring school is a place where students can discover who they are and what they can do… we are in education because we believe in cooperation and sharing. Cooperation is a core starting point for growth."

Our current political elite demonstrate the danger of an education based on competition and “oiling”. It is notable how David Cameron lacks the sense of noblesse oblige felt by former Tory leaders such as Harold Macmillan. He and his colleagues possess a striking lack of compassion for those in severe hardship in this country. This flows in great part from their self-serving belief – one pushed by Ayn Rand and then Margaret Thatcher – that competition in society means those on top deserve to be on top and those at the bottom deserve to be at the bottom. 

Of course, Cameron and the rest do not recognise that competition in our society is grossly rigged in their favour and against the poor. Their lack of compassion is not only immoral but also dangerous - it is creating a fractured and unhappy society.

At Eton and the West London Free School they are teaching the virtues of “oiling” to their pupils. It would be better to teach our children less competitiveness and more compassion.  We should also seek to instill a love of learning, an ability to think critically, self-respect and respect for others. We should teach our children to be decent people with proper values. We should not be teaching them to be successful rats in a rat race.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

When the royal baby is born will any politician dare to be a modern Keir Hardie?

Soon William and Kate will have a baby and there will then be a ritual outpouring from the political class united in its uncritical adulation for the institution of royalty. According to opinion polls, there has been for decades a fairly constant 20% of the population who would like to replace the monarchy with an elected Head of State but no mainstream politician speaks for those millions of Britons. 

Some prominent politicians may be closet republicans but stay quiet as they are fearful that they would pay too high a price if they ever challenged the prevailing consensus on royalty. This is so powerful that it suffocates debate and leads to an attitude of unthinking deference and self-censorship which smacks of attitudes to leaders in North Korea.

In recent weeks, for example, the Queen received a 5% pay rise and it was announced that £1million of public money had been spent to renovate William and Kate’s accommodation yet, even at this time of austerity and acute hardship, no mainstream politician breathed a word of criticism.

Back in 1894 a politician spoke up for those millions of Britons who are republicans.

On 23 June 1894, a future king was born. Keir Hardie, who had been elected as the first Independent Labour Member of Parliament, spoke in the Commons: -
“From his childhood onwards this boy will be surrounded by sycophants and flatterers by the score – [cries of “Oh!,oh!] – and will be taught to believe himself as of a superior creation [cries of “Oh,oh!]. A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over. …and the end of it all will be that the country will be called upon to pay the bill. [Cries of Divide!]”

Hardie spoke just over a century after the defining moment of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution.  The world had thrilled to the novel idea that all men are born equal. No institution stands so completely in opposition to that noble idea as does monarchy. The central principle of monarchy is that some people are superior to others as a result merely of their birth or marriage. Hardie’s words are as true in 2013 as they were in 1894.

The baby boy that Hardie was talking about grew up to be an unimpressive and irresponsible man with Nazi sympathies. In January 1936 he became Edward VIII. In December 1936 he abdicated, before his coronation, over his relationship with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. In 1937, notoriously, he visited Hitler.

Keir Hardie is today a respected figure in British history. Unlike the baby boy he spoke about in 1894. Who will dare to be a modern Keir Hardie?

Thursday, 4 July 2013

One thing in Egypt is sure - it will not be the secular liberals taking power

When President Mubarak was forced from power, after 30 years, in February 2011, many of the ecstatic and brave crowd of revolutionaries in Tahrir Square thought that the future of Egypt looked bright for the kind of Western secular liberal values that they championed. Many foreign observers thought so too.

However, the lack of broad electoral support for the views of those revolutionaries was very clearly demonstrated in the presidential election in 2012. Only the top two candidates from the 1st round in May went through to the 2nd round in June. No candidate who was attractive to secular liberal voters came close to making it to the 2nd round which was contested between Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik who was the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak and was closely identified with his regime. 

Given the influence of Islam, centuries of authoritarian rule and the conduct of Western foreign policy in the region it should be no surprise that Egyptian political culture is not particularly receptive to liberal views identified with the West.

It is not only their lack of electoral support that makes power a distant prospect for Egyptian liberals. It is also the part they have played in the events of recent days. They were the prime movers in the demonstrations which led to the army deposing the elected president Mohammed Morsi – an event they are celebrating enthusiastically. They have thereby undermined one of the fundamental tenets of their own professed beliefs. 

In democracies elected governments should not be changed by military coups. The fact that the liberals have supported this happening may prove disastrous for their credibility. In the New York Times, for example, there is an interview with Mohamed ElBaradei, who is described as “Egypt’s most prominent liberal”. ElBaradei defends the coup, the large scale arrests of leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the closing down of certain TV stations.
Of course, the argument is made that Morsi was somehow “not legitimate, not democratic”. It is undoubtedly true that serious criticisms can be made of Morsi. Democracy is about more than simply voting. It is not a clear-cut issue, all countries sit on a continuum – the Scandinavian countries are all more democratic than Italyor the USA, for example. However, to justify a military coup against a president properly elected only 12 months previously would need crystal clear and compelling grounds which have not been produced by Morsi’s opponents.

Many Egyptians and particularly those of the 51.7% who voted in 2012 for their first democratically elected leader in their country’s 5,000 year history, will see the removal of Morsi as revealing as a sham the democracy championed by liberals and the West.

The most likely scenario for Egypt now looks like a return to military or authoritarian civilian rule. It can hardly be expected that the millions who voted for Morsi and still supported him will simply accept his removal. The nightmare for Egypt is that it suffers the terrible bloodshed that befell Algeria when Civil Warbroke out after the army there carried out a coup to stop an election in 1991 that an Islamist movement was poised to win.