Physics at A Level

Civilisation is built on Physics (alas), not on Business Studies You remember being at school, and looking at the timetable with a lurching horror. You've just been doing something cushy, like playing football or snoozing through a movie about global warming in Double Geography. Or perhaps, if you have been really cunning with your options, you have been making biscuits with lovely Mrs Sindall in Double Cookery. And then you look at your schedule to see how your teachers propose to divert you for the last two periods of the day; and a shadow passes before your face and your hair stands on end, as though you had been plugged into a van der Graaf generator. Omigosh, you say, it's Double Physics, and there's no way out. It's an hour and a half of struggling to understand what's watt, and who's an amp when he's at ohm, and frankly you'd do almost anything to skive. You'd rather be dipped in liquid helium and hit with a rubber mallet; you'd rather be locked in a cyclotron and humanely dispatched with subatomic bullets; you'd rather give a personal demonstration of the properties of potassium cyanide, because the only thing you can remember about Physics (or is it Chemistry?) is a poem to the effect that "Sir Humphrey Davey /Abominated Gravy;/ He lived in the odium/ Of having discovered sodium" - an odium you believe to be richly deserved. And as the Physics keenies take out their lavishly illustrated homework, with swotty little drawings of electric circuits, you have only three options. advertisement You can throw a sickie and bunk off to the local chip shop. You can sit there in a coasting daydream, looking forward to the next Double Cookery, occasionally making discreet grunts of assent and endeavouring not to catch the teacher's eye. Or else you can try. You can really try. You can wait for the moment, perhaps five minutes into the class, when you cease to understand what the teacher is saying; you can wait for the clouds to descend, as they will - even on the cleverest - with all the inevitability of an English August, and then, instead of giving up, you can battle on. You can strain all your faculties until your brain feels as though it is about to give birth. You can take out your panga and hack hack hack through the dense undergrowth of your stupidity until - kazam! - you get it; for one brief, shining instant, you stumble into a clearing. The clouds part and you can see straight up to the heavens and the fundamental facts of the universe, and, in that instant, you will look on your Physics teacher with new eyes and, instead of a torturing old pedant, you will see a prophet and a man blessed, like the first great atomist, because he was able to understand the Causes of Things. Of course, if you are anything like me, you will find that your Physics weather forecast is still cloudy-bright, and that the fog soon envelops you again. But you would surely agree that, in that delirious moment of understanding, you have had more intellectual pleasure than in all the long, happy hours of doing the softer subjects. In your heart, you know that grasping one hard point in Physics beats all the cake-baking and Religious Studies and making up stories for Media Studies (an excellent preparation for the real thing, by the way) and pretending to be a baked bean in Drama. The trouble is that, in your heart, you also know that Physics means pain. It means moments of palpitating panic when you may be asked to explain something you don't get, and above all you know that, in Physics, it is much harder to get an A at A-level. Worse still, your teachers know that, and partly because we live in a mad world of school league tables, where an A in Drama is apparently as valuable as an A in Greek and an A in Mathematics is as good as an A in Business Studies, there has been a huge incentive to steer children away from the crunchy subjects, and towards the softer options, so that, every year, a bigger crop of A grades can be presented to the ludicrous tithe barn of the Department of Education, and every year ministers can make absurd speeches of congratulation, redolent of the 1950s Soviet Union hailing the record production of grade A* tractors in the factories of Minsk. No one really believes in this equivalence of A-levels. Children don't believe it; we all know that the guy who comes top in maths is smart; the guy who comes top in English is smart; and the girl who comes top in both is out of sight. We don't have the same respect for Business Studies, nor does British business, and nor do top universities. So thank heavens for Cambridge, which yesterday had the guts to inform applicants that they would need A-levels in at least two crunchy subjects, and that an application based on History, Business Studies and Media Studies would not do. We must stop this flight from the crunchy subjects, not just because it is slowly denuding the country of scientists - it is hardly surprising that 30 per cent of university Physics departments have closed in the past eight years, when the number of Physics candidates at A-level has slumped from 46,606 in 1985 to 28,119 in 2005. We must stop this disaster because we are cutting the roots of our civilisation: when I think what has happened to Latin and Greek and modern languages in the maintained sector, I alternate between rage and black depression. We must encourage the uptake of crunchy subjects with an equitable system of financial incentives not just for those who teach them but also - why not? - for the students who excel in them; and we must do it as a simple matter of social justice. Cambridge has revealed which subjects it really values. The tragedy is that the A grades in the sciences, advanced maths and languages are increasingly ghettoised in the grammar schools and the independent sector, and when the Blair Government is brought to the bar of history, it will be one of the single heaviest charges that, by failing to tackle the crunchy subjects in state schools, a Labour government presided over a shocking decline in social mobility.

104 thoughts on “Physics at A Level”

  1. ‘and when the Blair Government is brought to the bar of history, it will be one of the single heaviest charges that, by failing to tackle the crunchy subjects in state schools, a Labour government presided over a shocking decline in social mobility’

    Of course they have, they don’t want to share their new rich friends with the rest of us earthlings.

  2. You’re correct about civilisation being built upon Physics, Boris, but I don’t understand why Business Studies is considered to be an ‘easy’ option at A-level. I chose Business Studies at A-level, not because I thought that it was the easy option (quite the opposite), but because I felt that it related directly to gaining knowledge of business, the workplace and workplace practices.

    Half the problem with Sciences is that the teachers are often so miserable and bitter. They don’t enthuse about their subjects, nor do they have ways to make them relevant and interesting. I had a good teacher of Chemistry, but he was hopelessly hampered by a complete lack of discipline in the classroom. Such is life, eh, Boris?

  3. “you have only three options.
    advertisement”

    This really was just cut and pasted wasn’t it.

    Blog? Not really; hand-me-down, second-hand spin-off perhaps.

    What about something from the heart Mr. Johnson or are these poor fans beneath your dignity?

  4. Oh dear, you’re all going to hate me, I loved Physics, just loved it, always have. I once persuaded the entire school science department that energy didn’t exist by simply disproving their every argument that it did exist. They didn’t like me very much, don’t know why, I thought enthusiasm for a subject was a good thing. Not in a 1970’s comprehensive obviously. I was just trying to understand.

    And I loved English, just loved it. I read the classics at home for pleasure and understood them. Which the teacher seemed to dislike intensly. ‘Have you all read to page 22?’, ‘Yes Sir’, ‘Have you? YOU!?’, ‘Yes Sir, I read the book Sir’ (think Prof Snape sneering) ‘Oh really, you can tell us all the story then can’t you’ so I enthusiastically start on the story and he cuts me short! ‘That’ll be quite enough from you!!’ So why tell me to…??? Barmy. And nasty with it. I couldn’t do a thing right for that bloke, he just hated me and failed everything I ever did. I swiftly gave up (what’s the point??). When I passed an A level after not attending for a large part of the course it didn’t go down well all round. I have no idea why – I’ve always loved literature and just wanted to learn but was convinced early on that I’m just rubbish. Couldn’t write an advert in a Newsagents.

    But in my school you EITHER had to take science OR humanities (english, RE, art etc). It was universally assumed at the time that if you could draw and wanted to take art you couldn’t do science. And what did girls want to do science for anyway? So glad that’s all changed. Otherwise, later on, I couldn’t have… Well, that’s another story.

    And Boris, I agree with; “We must encourage the uptake of crunchy subjects with an equitable system of financial incentives”. So how’s about encouraging the government to create industry in this country so all our well trained graduates don’t have to work abroad? The creation of more public sector jobs isn’t the same. That’s just moving around the money you have, not making more of it. Wealth creation means manufacturing something. You get something, preferably something you already have or can grow like wool or fish, or is easy to import like iron ore or steel, and add value to it and then sell it.

    Can you persuade ‘New Labour’ to take this simple concept on board, and make sure there are jobs for these ‘crunchy’ graduates. We need them.

  5. Apart from the advertisement thing that deary old Toxy pointed out, the Davy reference was a clerihew. It was still a poem, but I prefer attention to detail. Also, please do not encourage children to make biscuits with Mrs Sindall. Use flour, water and flavourings of your choice, but not those extracted from members of staff. It is true, that in the kind of civilisation that you are supporting, where the so-called laws of physics hold sway over emotional considerations, that most schoolteachers deserve to be chopped up and used in snacks, but, call me old-fashioned, I believe in a caring and tolerant approach to our psychopaths.
    I have to declare a prejudice against the laws of physics. In short, I neither accept nor obey them. They are nonsense. The propaganda of class room Goebbels. (If you want to read more please go over to my web pages to read about this. Advertisement.) This clouds my judgement of the thrust of your argument, which seems to be that some subjects taught in schools are of more use than others. It may well be the case, but I do not have the inclination to put forward my arguments about the fallacies upon which our current theories of education are built. So instead of that, I will embark upon a happy bank holiday skip down the lanes of North East Hampshire, singing merrily and smiling at the rabbits and proposing that the most valuable subjects at A level in these times are Love Studies, Peace Studies and the music of Janis Joplin.

  6. PS. More attention to prep, Johnson (clerihews, advertisements, cookery ingredients), and less time spent staring out of the window dreaming of David Cameron would better prepare you for life in the real world.
    C-.
    See me.

  7. I haven’t read this post, and have no intention of commenting on it. If Boris hasn’t got the courage to get in here and respond when he gets OVER FOUR HUNDRED comments in reply to his post on the Lebanon war, then there’s absolutely no point joining in the debate.

    I’m disappointed. Unlike Vicus, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Not any more: he’s just another politician. For which read: egotistical, lazy, and self-serving.

  8. Hey B

    It’s quite simple – reduce uni fees on science subjects to zero and watch the free market zip into life.

  9. Oh dear, you’re all going to hate me, I loved Physics, just loved it..

    I loved it too, Jaq, so am entirely unable to hate you. Or rather, I loved the bits I could understand, and which always struck me as being majestically simple. Like heat, and light, and the simpler varieties of electricity. But I could never quite get my head around surface tension, somehow.

    Much the same was true of mathematics. And I too could do art just as well, although I opted for science when required to make the absurd choice between arts and sciences.

    I think that the problem with the sciences is that they are abstract from everyday life in ways that English and History and Art are not. We are surrounded by the latter, but not the former. The value of the latter is immediately clear to any student. But I still vividly remember being taught long division, and wondering, as I toiled over the endless numbers, what use or merit the procedure could possibly ever have. When was I ever going to need or want to divide 6759 by 261, I asked my 8-year-old self, and found no answer.

    I disagree about industry, however. We have quite enough of it. I was recently reading a scientific paper whose author looked forward to the industrialisation of the Moon. The thought of that serene orb being covered in factories, all belching smoke to the point where the lunar surface disappeared beneath a brown haze, filled me with simple grief.

    And I found Boris’ latest essay frankly depressing. It read as a non-scientist (perhaps even an anti-scientist) screwing up the gall to assert what he clearly didn’t believe – that science matters -, much like Casanova preaching the virtues of chastity.

  10. I hated physics. But loved chemistry and biology. But physics made my brains melt and ooze out of my earlobes. However, I still ploughed trhough it because I needed it.

    I went back to college two years ago for a career change. There were no exams – just coursework. Even though the work set did test you, deadlines were constantly moved and coursework could be re-written several times. It’s no wonder that the grades are getting higher but the understanding isn’t.

  11. Idlex!! So pleased to see ‘you’ (we are our opinions, our faces are frauds). “the absurd choice between arts and sciences”? Absolutely. I have never understood why I was criticised (or was it patronised) by one particular pundit who alleged that I “introduce emotion and expel reason”. Once again this pundits education was in the humanities yet they seemed wholly reluctant to consider an issue in anything but an abstract way. I think it well to recognise that a persons behaviour is often tailored by their emotions. As for “surface tension”, I’m sure our exchange would demonstrate but I’d rather not go there. However I have to defend Boris, at least he admits his limitations in a way that is believable. For example, he knows that engineers are important because without them he would not be able to drive his Porche. However, I only know that government is important in a rather abstract way at the moment. I’ve lost sight of Labour being a political party and regard Bliar as more of a political verruca.

    I suppose my opinion on industry is coloured by a local shopping mall being built on a steelworks, by farming friends going out of business, by visiting communities in Wales devastated by the loss of the coal industry, by the ship building industry also devastated and by the fishing industry struggling against a storm of regulation. Oh and by my friends all having to work abroad to get better jobs. I liked your simile though: “like Casanova preaching the virtues of chastity” – reminds me of the pundit.

    PS: I’m strongly in favour of Latin being available in schools. Perhaps you would disagree with that also but I think it makes learning all other European languages a doddle.

  12. Physics was ok, Chemistry was much more fun though, get you to play with cool chemicals and burn stuff. Physics is just practical maths – well sort of.

  13. “Apart from the advertisement thing that deary old Toxy pointed out, the Davy reference was a clerihew.” Bigus Dickus

    Incomprehensible

    F

  14. PS: I’m strongly in favour of Latin being available in schools. Perhaps you would disagree

    I don’t. Latin was for several years my favourite subject.

    And I’ve just come back from Spain, whose language, when I first started studying it, struck me as being remarkably close to Latin. The conjugations of the verbs (e.g. Hablo, Hablas, Habla, Hablamos, Hablais, Hablan ) are just like Latin, except with all the t’s dropped. Which had me wondering if sibillant Spanish is pure Latin, only spoken by a people who, at some time in their history, were devoid of the teeth needed to make the sound of ‘t’.

  15. Idlex, been to Spain? Have you been taking my advice regarding cross border shopping and the smoking ban? Good on you!

  16. Hey Johnson,
    I hear your mate Guppy just beat up the Princess Di’s brother in Cape Town.

    Did he call you for some help this time?

  17. Yes, I’ve been doing a bit of cross-border ‘shopping’, Steven.

    And I’m glad to report that despite the Spanish smoking ban (not as vindictive as the impending UK total ban) that came in earlier this year, I saw precious little evidence of it. Virtually all the bars I visited in the Spanish countryside permitted smoking. I was told that things were rather stricter in the cities, where the police are more active, but that even there the bans were relaxing.

  18. That Marek is a smart boy; drop the fees for physics and math and watch enrollment go up. I dare any university to put that into effect.

    Sciences and math aren’t that difficult, but they do tend to be taught by people who wanted to be rocket scientists and bitterly resent every one of their students. I’m sure we’ve all got horror stories.

    I was in a science degree program, but when I realized if I failed to get into medical school I’d be stuck as a biologist for the rest of my life, I switched to English. Certainly the courses weren’t any easier, although the classes always had a reliable bottom-third consisting of science majors looking for a Mickey Mouse course. They tended to drop out after failing the first round of mid-terms. Nobody missed them.

    I did take Business Studies once; easiest 98% I ever earned. And if you saw my bank balance you’d know just how much good it did me.

    If you do see my bank balance, tell it to call home once in awhile, would you?

  19. I take it back. I found an idle moment. Against my better judgement, I came back and read Boris’s latest post.

    I’m as disappointed as ever. It’s not ‘crunchy’ subjects and ‘easy’ subjects, you plonker: it’s subjects that are well taught and subjects that are badly taught.

    If I was 16 years old now, and preparing for life, I’d want to pick myself subjects that appeared relevant to life in Britain in 2006. Media Studies gets a cracking start there, for good or ill, because we live in the light of the media. Business Studies might also appear pretty promising, seeing as we live in a free-market economy and you better be good at business, bub, or you’re gonna be a wage-drone for life. English and the other Humanities continue to thrive, because any sixteen- year old can see that they’re about how people live, and people are ever interesting.

    Mathematics, on the other hand (which is really where we ought to be teaching people to fill out a VAT return) remains almost entirely abstract and theoretical – and so does Physics.

    Neither Maths nor Physics nor Latin are actually irrelevant to 21st century life, as you rightly suggest. The point is that they APPEAR so; and if the kids aren’t rushing to them in droves it’s not because they’re not working hard – it’s because the teaching of these subjects hasn’t captured their imaginations.

    As always, in Saloon Bar England, Boris and other commenters on this blog have used the A Level results as a portent that we’re all getting dumber and lazier, that we’re in deep moral and intellectual decline, and that schooling just ain’t what it was like in our day, when teachers were free to abuse the hell out of children, and exams did little more than test the short-term memory, and if we came away from the hell of A Levels with a couple of C grades we ought to count ourselves lucky.

    We can’t bear it, can we? That our kids might actually do better with this exam thing than us? That perhaps we’ve succeeded in constructing a system of education that encourages kids to succeed instead of penalising them for failure? That e might actually be doing SOMETHING right, and the real problem is that we haven’t managed to drag some subjects out of their ivory towers and make them appear as relevant as they actually are?

    Of course Cambridge (like every university) needs to figure out a way of refining the admissions process – but focusing on certain so-called ‘brainy’ subjects is just a way of perpetuating the ivory-tower elitism that’s hampered perceptions of education in this country since the first redbrick university was founded: that if you don’t get into Oxford or Cambridge you’re second-rate, and you better get used to a second-rate career, bub, because real high fliers shine from birth and are born to greatness in the land.

    I’m not even going to get started on Cambridge’s apparent attitude to History, which has always been and will remain every bit as relevant to life in this country as Physics.

    Well, Boris?

  20. Hey Mark! You nearly drew me into a serious discussion with that post. But I resist the urge, and am glorying in watching the butterflies and making daisy chains. Later I will consider a large endowment to open the “Timothy Leary school of Tuning In” at North East Hampshire University (not red brick, but recycled juice cartons)

  21. markgamon – so glad you popped back to read Boris’s post and though you wanted Boris’s response, allow me to agree with you, particularly “it’s because the teaching of these subjects hasn’t captured their imaginations.” – so true.

    Whilst my own experience shows teaching wasn’t always good in the 70’s, the impression I get from my teacher friends is that they are hamstrung by government to ‘standardise’ course content and delivery. Which means doing exactly what the State tells you and filling in a lot of REALLY pointless paperwork, so you have less time for the kids. Are there any teachers/lecturers out there that can confirm this? Jack Ramsey??

    I saw part of Boris’s point as highlighting the fact that it is in the hands of central government to “stop this flight from the crunchy subjects”. Which for me begs the question: what has New Labour been doing in schools all this time? As you rightly point out Mark, it’s not the kids fault.

  22. I’ll give you the real Tory response, which for once I’m in perfect agreement with; the reason these subjects are not getting the applicants is that the applicants are being diverted by market forces.

    Of course, a REAL Tory would think that’s a good thing. Anyone who’s taken a business studies or media studies course (and who is being honest) would have to admit that it is not.

    As long as corporations reward these frankly meaningless fields of study over fields of serious scholarship, what you’ll get are a lot of credentialled dopes.

    That’s what the market wants. And the market always gets what it wants.

  23. Ah, and just because I’m in a cranky mood I will spell it out.

    Why does the market want to force people to study meaningless subjects for three very expensive years before employing them?

    To develop a workforce already trained to follow orders regardless of their meaninglessness, and to regard this as perfectly normal.

  24. Mark,

    Stangely enough all the people I grew up with who stuck with maths and science through their A levels and at university (some of them in ‘red brick’ establishments) are now making good money and have good interesting jobs.

    In the world of work a media studies or business studies degree doesn’t prove you can do anything the next person can’t do. A degree in aeronautical engineering or mathermatics on the other hand does prove you have skills that the next person doesn’t have.

    In the world of business some employers want ‘clean sheets’ (i.e. someone who have never studied business studies in their life) because they don’t want some smart arse who’s head is full of pointless theories. They want smart young people they can teach to sell their products or to manage teams of people selling their products.

    I think the main issue is that students are mis-sold education by those in education. They are bamboozled with statistics about how you will never be able to afford anything if you don’t go to university, which is rubbish. They are encouraged that ‘any degree is better than no degree’ which in todays labour market is simply not true. A confident individual can get a job in a call centre at 18 and by the time the business studies and media studies graduates are joining you 3 or 4 years later the 18 year old will be 21 or 22, maybe have some cash saved in the bank, possibly even own their own home and perhaps have moved a rung or two up the career ladder.

    Basically the point I am making is that neither 16/18 year olds or teachers seem to have a clue about the realities of the labour market.

  25. Steven, the reality of the market is that you have a degree and three job offers and I don’t have any of those things.

    Believe me, the ones I went to school with who stuck it out, no matter how mindless they found it, are making a great deal more money than I am, and I have been told point-blank by recruiters that I should lie on my resume, claiming credentials I do not have, since I could actually do the jobs better.

    The market, largely because it goes through HR departments, is blindly credentialist. Very few HR people have what it takes to tell one good rocket scientist from another, so they will pass over the one with fewer credentials regardless of that person’s ability to do the job, in favour of someone whose resume ticks all the boxes.

    Studies have repeatedly shown (and I mean consistently, for thirty years) that when hiring goes through HR departments the number of hirees with degrees increases and the average quality decreases, according to their bosses.

  26. I have one job offer and one meeting about a possible job offer. The job offer is something I’m qualified for the meeting is just following up another meeting with some rich guy I met on a train (he knows Boris and his tory mates strangely enough, small world).

    Maybe you should travel by train more, the guy never even asked me for a ‘resume’.

  27. Obviously that is exactly what I should do. And everybody knows Boris.

    Define “qualified”. That’s exactly the point of the thread, unless my bitter musings over late night double guava juices have led me astray.

    I see these meaningless (and I don’t use the word lightly; I’ve taken a business studies course) qualifications as nothing more than certification that you can take orders, no matter how mind-numbing. Organizations like to hire people like that because they need a lot of people to carry out orders. The last thing a hierarchical organization wants is someone who questions things and who cannot be predicted, because people like that threaten the stability of the structure.

    Which is why Boris is not Prime Minister, agreed?

  28. To develop a workforce already trained to follow orders regardless of their meaninglessness, and to regard this as perfectly normal. (raincoaster)

    I’ve always thought that this was the principal purpose of schools anyway. Schools mirror working life. With their timetables and rules, they get kids used to a life of meaningless and unpaid work. Which makes subsequent employment look highly appealing, because it’s paid meaningless work. If the kids actually learn anything at school, it’s just a bonus.

    Looked at this way, schools have two largely contradictory purposes. The first is to condition kids for a future life of work. The second is to enthuse and educate them in knowledge of every kind, and produce bright, articulate, and informed adults. The two purposes are incompatible with each other, and so the latter purpose largely goes by the board, unless the kids are Jaqs who can remain self-motivated enough to enjoy their studies despite everything that gets thrown at them.

    One of the reasons that I loved Latin was that my mother taught me it at home – because I needed to know some to get into a particular school. But because she didn’t actually know any Latin, we worked out how to do it together, discussing it as we went along, which made learning Latin an extraordinary adventure. It also meant that, when I got to that school, I was way better at Latin than any other pupil. It took, years later, a school Latin teacher who insisted that ‘v’ should be pronounced as ‘w’ to finally destroy my interest in Latin.

  29. Raincoaster,

    In 2002 I enrolled in a degree course in one of our ‘new’ universities (former polytechnic colleges) that was aimed at qualifying students to do one specific public sector job to do with law enforcement. There was a skills shortage in this area and a constant barrage of new law to enforce coming from the EU so it looked like a good idea. Getting the degree gives me exemptions in professional exams I need to take if I am going to start a career doing that job (i.e. if I take the job offer).

    It has nothing to do with showing I can take orders, I find this theory of yours quite perverse. Education, and higher education especially, is about teaching the student to think for themselves, about developing independant critical thought and analytical ability.

    Idlex,

    You are a very cynical man. School is not about brainwashing kids and creating an army of clones to go out and work. It is a basic human desire to feel useful and to have something constructive or creative (or both) to do with your time on Earth. School gives kids the intellectual tools they need to become constructive and/or creative adults and be happy, leading a fulfilling and rewarding life.

    Now both of you, you miserable children,

    The pair of you have got this wrong. In some countries they brainwash their kids (I’ll not mention any names in the interests of keeping the debate away from foreign policy) in the UK we educate our kids and teach them to think for themselves.

    Write 100 lines the pair of you!

    ‘School was not about boring me into submission, it was about teaching me to think for myself so that I can lead a happy rewarding life’.

    When you have both finished writing your lines report to the careers advisor’s office!

  30. idlex – at the risk of sounding sucky (thanks btw), oh so true! Teachers really CAN and DO destroy enthusiasm for learning. I was touching on this point earlier – that emotion and reason are not incompatible. And if someone can enthuse you (read happy and interested) then you will WANT to learn, even if learning involves some challenge, hardship or sustained effort. Even if you enthuse yourself and someone along the way, like your Latin teacher, puts you off (read association – Latin comes to mean enduring something you don’t like) then your behaviour follows your emotion and you won’t want to do Latin.

    Not rocket science is it? But it seems to escape the most learned amongst us. Or are you correct and most teachers aim for factory farming without incident?

    raincoaster – I see your point but I would add to it please. Some courses are not meaningless, like my own, and are a minimum requirement for the job. There’s just no getting away from it. But I would add that whatever the qualifications, HR departments still put you through stupid meaningless psychometric testing. And a bigger bunch of waffle I’ve yet to see. The answers I would give (as I have some intelligence – who writes these things??) are never in the list of possibles and it becomes second guessing the questionmaster. The only possible conclusion anyone could come to from reading my results is that I have more imagination and integrity than the questionmaster but less money.

    And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber stamps. -Henry Louis Mencken

  31. Idlex – your experience with Latin pretty much nails it for me. Like you, I had to slog for Latin because I needed it for some other reason. Ended up taking the exam three times, with a rather surprised teacher who taught it the traditional way – ie by rote, and with no instinct whatsoever for how Latin might fit in with the rest of the modern world. I passed, just, and promptly forgot everything I’d been taught. Which I regret.

    It’s not what you’re taught, it’s the way you’re taught it.

  32. My point is meant to apply only to those courses and degrees which pad the resume while doing nothing meaningful to the student’s skill set or intellectual reach. So most technical degrees are not what I’m talking about here.

    idlex, you have nailed it. Here is a lovely post from The Memory Hole entitled “The Educational System Was Designed to Keep Us Uneducated and Docile”

    And they know, because the founders of the public school system documented it. Allow me to paste it here:

    It’s no secret that the US educational system doesn’t do a very good job. Like clockwork, studies show that America’s schoolkids lag behind their peers in pretty much every industrialized nation. We hear shocking statistics about the percentage of high-school seniors who can’t find the US on an unmarked map of the world or who don’t know who Abraham Lincoln was.
    Fingers are pointed at various aspects of the schooling system–overcrowded classrooms, lack of funding, teachers who can’t pass competency exams in their fields, etc. But these are just secondary problems. Even if they were cleared up, schools would still suck. Why? Because they were designed to.

    How can I make such a bold statement? How do I know why America’s public school system was designed the way it was (age-segregated, six to eight 50-minute classes in a row announced by Pavlovian bells, emphasis on rote memorization, lorded over by unquestionable authority figures, etc.)? Because the men who designed, funded, and implemented America’s formal educational system in the late 1800s and early 1900s wrote about what they were doing.

    Almost all of these books, articles, and reports are out of print and hard to obtain. Luckily for us, John Taylor Gatto tracked them down. Gatto was voted the New York City Teacher of the Year three times and the New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. But he became disillusioned with schools–the way they enforce conformity, the way they kill the natural creativity, inquisitiveness, and love of learning that every little child has at the beginning. So he began to dig into terra incognita, the roots of America’s educational system.

    In 1888, the Senate Committee on Education was getting jittery about the localized, non-standardized, non-mandatory form of education that was actually teaching children to read at advanced levels, to comprehend history, and, egads, to think for themselves. The committee’s report stated, “We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes.”

    By the turn of the century, America’s new educrats were pushing a new form of schooling with a new mission (and it wasn’t to teach). The famous philosopher and educator John Dewey wrote in 1897:

    Every teacher should realize he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of the proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

    In his 1905 dissertation for Columbia Teachers College, Elwood Cubberly–the future Dean of Education at Stanford–wrote that schools should be factories “in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products…manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry.”

    The next year, the Rockefeller Education Board–which funded the creation of numerous public schools–issued a statement which read in part:

    In our dreams…people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple…we will organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.

    At the same time, William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, wrote:

    Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.

    In that same book, The Philosophy of Education, Harris also revealed:

    The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.

    Several years later, President Woodrow Wilson would echo these sentiments in a speech to businessmen:

    We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

    Writes Gatto: “Another major architect of standardized testing, H.H. Goddard, said in his book Human Efficiency (1920) that government schooling was about ‘the perfect organization of the hive.'”

    While President of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, James Bryant Conant wrote that the change to a forced, rigid, potential-destroying educational system had been demanded by “certain industrialists and the innovative who were altering the nature of the industrial process.”

    In other words, the captains of industry and government explicitly wanted an educational system that would maintain social order by teaching us just enough to get by but not enough so that we could think for ourselves, question the sociopolitical order, or communicate articulately. We were to become good worker-drones, with a razor-thin slice of the population–mainly the children of the captains of industry and government–to rise to the level where they could continue running things.

    This was the openly admitted blueprint for the public schooling system, a blueprint which remains unchanged to this day. Although the true reasons behind it aren’t often publicly expressed, they’re apparently still known within education circles. Clinical psychologist Bruce E. Levine wrote in 2001:

    I once consulted with a teacher of an extremely bright eight-year-old boy labeled with oppositional defiant disorder. I suggested that perhaps the boy didn’t have a disease, but was just bored. His teacher, a pleasant woman, agreed with me. However, she added, “They told us at the state conference that our job is to get them ready for the work world…that the children have to get used to not being stimulated all the time or they will lose their jobs in the real world.”

  33. raincoaster – that was just brilliant stuff. I’m reading CHRISTOPHER Hitchens at the moment (distinction needed in the UK as people assume baby bro) and at the end of this book he writes;

    Shun the “trancendent” and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself…Picture all experts as if they were mammals.

    Which of course they are. He also quotes George Konrad, the Hungarian dissident:

    Have a life lived instead of a career… Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses.

    Living well really is the best revenge, but when they don’t even let you in the door without the required ‘ticket’ it can be a bit of a sod. Can’t you do a degree now? Come here and be an asylum seeker, we’ll pay, we pay for everybody!

  34. Jaq,

    Re: Psychometric tests

    Having done literally dozens of these at various recruitment agencies I think I’ve got them cracked.

    There is always a ‘middle’ answer that would be the equivelent of ‘don’t know/don’t care’

    Tick the middle answer on all the questions except the ones where you want the computer to say something positive about you.

    i.e. You are applying for a sales job so you want it to say you are a positive person.

    1) Which of the following statements best describes you:

    a) I make a lot of effort to keep up to date with current affairs
    b) I like to watch news on TV
    c) I’m not really interested in politics
    d) I change the channel when the news comes on
    e) If someone I’m eating with mentions politics I try my best to change the subject

    You tick answer ‘c’ because thats the middle answer and you dont want the computer to say you are an opinionated person for a sales job, nor do you want it to say you live in the dark.

    2) Which of the following statements best reflects your outlook on life?

    a) I always see the best in those around me and love meeting new people
    b) I like to socialise and consider myself outgoing
    c) I try to give others the benefit of the doubt
    d) I only like to socialise with friends that I trust
    e) I am naturally cynical of what people tell me

    Here you answer ‘a’ because for a sales job they don’t want you to realise how crap the product / service you are selling actually is – they want the computer to say you are a ‘positive’ person

    You are aiming to answer 90% of the questions in the ‘don’t know/don’t care’ category and pick the 10% that you want the computer to say about you for the most extreme answers.

    This way when they press print the computer can only say what you want it to say – it can’t print out anything about the other 90% of questions because you’ve marked the neutral answer.

    Hey Presto – the computer prints out exactly what your new employer wants to read about you – and your new employer wants to believe in this garbage because they are paying the recruitment agency / software company through their nose for this garbage!

    Simple!

  35. ‘We hear shocking statistics about the percentage of high-school seniors who can’t find the US on an unmarked map of the world’ (from that thing raincoaster put up)

    I met a 19 year old Ivy League student from Texas in London who was doing a couple of weeks at Cambridge as an exchange thing.

    He asked me where I was from, I replied ‘Newcastle’, he asked ‘where’s that’, luckily there was a map of the world on the wall at the youth hostel so I pointed it out for him. At this point he pointed to Kent and asked ‘Is England over there too?’

    But what gets me about these Texans is when I ask them where they are from they get all sheepish before eyeing up the ground and saying ‘Texas, but hey I don’t like George Bush’. When I say ‘Why not? I do.’ They still think I’m taking the mickey out of them for some reason.

  36. As a Chemistry teacher, I found it advisable to ignore the syllabus and facilitate the synthesis of hallucinogenic substances in my classes.
    This made science very popular indeed.

  37. Thanks Steven – I even bought a book: ‘Succeed at Psychometric Testing’ (does what it says on the tin I thought). Unfortunately I fell asleep just before I lost the will to live.

    Example: Rain is to ice cube as sheep is to

    a. grass
    b. follower
    c. suit
    d. water

    The answer is of course ‘follower’ in reality. Rain can become an ice cube simply by changing it’s state which requires only energy. Changing the state of sheep, even with the input of energy, will not make it grass, suit or water. It will, however, make it a ‘follower’. The state changed is a static sheep to a moving sheep.

    I don’t think that’s the answer they wanted, they wanted ‘grass’. They want you to identify the nature of relationships but reading the book they rely on language as the foundation of reasoning. (It gives answers) So rain becomes ice cubes as grass becomes sheep. Which of course it doesn’t, grass is one of the components that sustains sheep, you cannot actually make sheep out of grass, you need other sheep. Even then you could question the meaning of the word ‘sheep’ as a follower can be termed a ‘sheep’. So it’s all woolly nonsense. I’ll follow your advice in future.

    I loved Texas and cannot line dance to save my life. And no I didn’t ride the bull 🙂

    At a childrens playground a week or two ago, I asked for 5 drinks at 30p each. ‘£2.90’ said the girl serving me. ‘No, £1.50’ I replied. ‘The till says £2.90 and the till’s not wrong’ she retorted.’ so I went through the adding up slowly and still she couldn’t understand and had to ring up 30p five times. It came to £1.50.

  38. Great post, raincoaster. I think it pretty much disposed of the necessity of writing 100 lines for Steven.

    One quote that stood out for me:

      Several years later, President Woodrow Wilson would echo these sentiments in a speech to businessmen:

      We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

    If I am right, Woodrow Wilson was US President about 100 years ago. In the subsequent increasingly automated age (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashing machines, etc, etc.) the requirement for skilled manual labour has fallen greatly, and continues to fall. 100 years ago, in Britain as in America, we had mines and factories and offices filled with skilled manual workers. But no more. I haven’t even seen an office typist for decades.

    Of course, in part it’s because we have exported these jobs to China and India and the like. Or else turned them over to immigrants. But, either way, it renders redundant an educational system which is designed to “fit [pupils] to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

    If anything, we should be considering giving what Wilson called a ‘liberal education’ to practically everyone, because increasingly (it seems to me) we really need bright, savvy, imaginative, and self-motivated people rather than compliant office or factory or cannon fodder.

    Perhaps this is where the crisis of modern education is rooted. And why America has Columbine school massacres.

  39. Jaq,

    In London I’ve had to explain what black coffee was to a coffee waitress and what lemonade was to a barman. I went for a hair cut once and asked for ‘number one back and sits, cut short on top’ and just stopped the girl in the nick of time before she shaved all my hair off. At this point she began arguing that I had asked for a ‘number one’.

    I think what they were getting at is that rain melts the ice cube (thus eroding it) and the sheep eats the grass (thus eroding the grass).

    Kaz, I found that a significant proportion of my science teachers were of that era whereby they had an interest in hallucinogenic substances. I’ll never forget our biology teacher in year 10, she drove a VW camper van to school and wore funny clothes. In the lesson on photosynthesis she held her hands up to the ceiling and said:

    ‘and when you walk into the woods and look up at the beautiful mosaic pattern the leaves for against the sky’

    I replied: ‘Go on Miss, I bet you used to take LSD in the sixties’. She just grinned back at me cheekily as if to say ‘fun isn’t it’. I had never been keen on my biology teacher but at that moment we bonded in a way I’ve never bonded with any teacher. The rest of top-set biology just sat there in blissful ignorance.

  40. Example: Rain is to ice cube as sheep is to

    a. grass
    b. follower
    c. suit
    d. water

    The answer is of course ‘follower’ in reality.
    (Jaq)

    Hmmm. My answer was ‘suit’.

    After all, sheep’s wool is converted into, among other things, wool worsted suits.
    And mutton gets converted into the suiting filling material.

  41. idlex, I disagree; the redundant, meaningless tasks are no less redundant, soul-killing, or meaningless. They are simply less physical.

    The division is between work which occupies the whole capable self and that which occupies a fraction of it. Think about how many of each kind of job there are. Have you done inventory? Would you like to do it for a living? Process insurance applications? Work in a call centre?

    You see my drift.

  42. Or it could be water, think about it.

    The rain rains on the ice cube and the ice cube melts they mix together and you can’t tell the difference.

    The sheep drinks the water and the water is absorbed into the sheeps cells and you can’t see the water, just the sheep.

    Raincoaster,

    Never work in a call centre, it’ll drive you completely insane.

  43. On the radio the other day a spokeman suggested we need to make more changes to our educational system. I forget who it was, but the essential point he made was that we are too one-dimensional. Foe example, a student who is excellent at sports and geography, still is regarded as an under-achiever is educational terms. Why can’t they be at the top of the tree of a non-academic stream?

  44. Love you, Boris, but this is the sort of ill conceived nonsense I expect those self twitting fools Clarke & Rammell to come out with.

    Even you would say you’re off your trolley on this.

    “My instinct would be not to go round terminating Mickey Mouse courses,” the new Conservative higher education spokesman told The Guardian newspaper.
    He said more graduates in courses of any kind were good for society…Sometimes in our thinking about higher education, we’re too narrowly confined to a utilitarian calculus about what it’s doing to the bottom line of UK plc’

    Remember the Pythagoreans, who topped themselves en masse when they discovered there is no square root of 2? And Bertrand Russell, who took to his bed with a nervous breakdown when he discovered his precious set theory was fatally flawed? Yet uncritical set theory still lies at the heart of maths.

    The claim that maths, English, physics are the smarter subjects is about as dim-witted as my former maths tutors. When my group of philosphy students asked one of them to discuss the major methodological flaws which undermine causality and so many other vital maths/scientific concepts, he walked to the light switch, flicked it, sending us all into darkness, and said, ‘Seems alright to me. End of subject!’

    The development of critical thought, that’s surely the essential stuff of, not just all education in whatever subject, but of civilisation and freedom? Which is why NuLab attempt to stifle academic freedom along with all other freedoms and substitute it with Politically Correct brainwashing.

  45. Critical thought in civilisation and freedom tends to pale a bit when it’s cold and you have to walk in the rain. Technology needs maths and physics. Food production, transport, laundry, food storage etc etc would all be more labour intensive if it were not for technology, which needs maths and physics and chemistry et al.

    Even CHRISTOPHER Hitchens would cease his critical thought long enough to grumble about an empty stomach – he’s a man. His woman would no doubt be quick to employ practical thought and not argue for arguments sake, she’d just cook something – but perhaps not mention where she got the rabbit casserole to the children.

    Mummy where’s the rabbit? Oh he’s gone to visit his relatives darling and is having a nice long holiday.

  46. Honestly, I do not find that Business Studies courses really assist one in developing critical thinking.

    If you’re asking why rhetoric and philosophy should not be included in the “crunchy subjects” we are as of one mind. But let us not mistake the ability to generate a marketing report for the ability to think originally or well.

    Steven, I don’t need you to pimp my blog; it just so happens that I have the perfect example of what I’m talking about right here.

  47. The development of critical thought, that’s surely the essential stuff of, not just all education in whatever subject, but of civilisation and freedom?

    Maybe, Flo, but if I may criticize your critique of Boris’ ideas, does it really help to start out by calling them “ill conceived nonsense” that you’d expect from “self twitting fools”, with the added extra that that Boris is “off his trolley”?

    And while it was interesting to learn of those Pythagorean suicides, and Russell’s breakdown, I for one failed to see the relevance of either. Nor, for that matter, the passing derisive reference to “dim-witted” maths tutors.

    In short, I failed to detect any critical reasoning at all in your post. But perhaps a hail of abuse is what passes for ‘critical thought’ these days?

  48. Example: Rain is to ice cube as sheep is to
    a. grass
    b. follower
    c. suit
    d. water

    Last week I had an eye-watering gohst vindaloo in the curry house. A glass of iced water provided some merciful relief. So the answer is WATER. All the others are wrong. Yes, plain WRONG. No marks. Null points. Fail.

  49. Jaq,

    Does your psychometric test book say anything about the people who answer that question with ‘follower’, ‘suit’, or ‘water’?

  50. jaq said:
    August 28, 2006 10:31 AM | permalink

    ‘Critical thought in civilisation and freedom tends to pale a bit when it’s cold and you have to walk in the rain. Technology needs maths and physics. Food production, transport, laundry, food storage etc etc would all be more labour intensive if it were not for technology, which needs maths and physics and chemistry et al’

    Jaq, the technology for steam power existed countless centuries before it was used to kick start the industrial revolution. Tibetan monks developed it – without physics or maths – to drive their prayer wheels. So why didn’t the monks use it for practical purposes? Because they didn’t have the philosophical mind set.

    It wasn’t until those critical thinking, Protestant Non Conformists, the nascent Bourgeoisie, came along that things began to hum with power and humanity set off down the road towards making your vital convenience meals. Their mind set was quite fascinating. Deferred gratification (walking in the rain) was their great thing and their philosophy, much like that of the French Revolution but without the violence, was Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. Freedom, you’ll note, came first.

  51. ‘Maybe, Flo, but if I may criticize your critique of Boris’ ideas, does it really help to start out by calling them “ill conceived nonsense” that you’d expect from “self twitting fools”, with the added extra that that Boris is “off his trolley”?’

    Idlex, I’m one of Boris’s biggest fans, I think he’d make a brilliant PM. However, he aint God and I feel this piece fails by the standard Boris himself set on this issue. That’s why I quoted a section of his Guardian interview and said that Boris himself would say he’s off his trolley with this. The relevance of the Pythagorus and Russell references was to support my case that physics and maths really aren’t superior to other forms of knowledge – such as philosophy. The whole history of human knowledge has been one of making mistakes and trying to correct these. Physics and maths are no more immune to mistakes – and massive paradigm shifts – than any other form of knowledge. I do accept though that I may have gone over the top with my criticism, however to call it a hail of abuse is plain daft.

  52. to support my case that physics and maths really aren’t superior to other forms of knowledge – such as philosophy. (Auntie Flo’)

    While I agree that physics and mathematics are incomplete, make mistakes, and undergo paradigm shifts, the net result over several hundred years has been an expanding and largely internally consistent body of knowledge, to which individual scientists largely anonymously add.

    Can the same be said of philosophy? I think not. There are as about as many philosophies as there are philosophers. Each of them may well make some valid point, but the net result hasn’t been the growth of an edifice of philosophical knowledge to which philosophers incrementally add a brick or two.

    In fact, I’d even say that there is no such thing as ‘philosophical knowledge’, but instead a disorderly heap of largely incommensurable views and systems. I’ll cheerfully agree that many of them are fascinating and thought-provoking – but really only in the same way as different works of art by different artists demonstrate different ways of seeing.

  53. If this is going to turn into “Objective Science vs Philosophy” can we please go back to arguing about Israel and Hezbollah?

    It is not an either/or question, nor is it the question Boris was examining. He was saying that studying science is superior to studying some of these tailored-to-market bullshit programs which do nothing but keep you busy three years, train you in mindless tasks, and hand you a piece of paper and some initials upon graduation.

    I think it can often be said that Boris is inconsistent, but in this particular case I don’t think it can be said that he is actually wrong.

  54. Having not read Boris’s latest missive until this morning, it may be that there’s lots of appropriate comments that I’ve missed.
    I’m glad I did physics all those years ago ’cause it ensured that I’ve had an interesting (and moderately well paid) job as an electronics hardware designer for the past 30 years. But is it surprising that many physics teachers are unenthusiastic and somewhat bitter? Instead of getting employed in industry they chose to put their skills to use in education, and now find themselves having to teach to classes where maybe 80% of the kids have no real interest in learning. Why is it that kids have a real interest in the products of technology, but can’t be bothered to understand what goes on in their gadgets behind the shiny facade? Perhaps the fact that we real engineers get confused all to often with the guy who comes round to service your gas boiler or the oik in the garage who services your car using only a hammer and a diagnostic look-up table doesn’t help.
    Why (in the UK) do teachers all have to be on the same pay scales? To encourage technically-minded people to chose the education sector for their employment rather than industry, cannot there be a free market for skilled teachers, with those needed to teach Maths, Physics or whatever getting paid higher salaries than those teaching Media Studies (just for an example)?

  55. I’m originally Canadian (now British) with one degree in Computer Science and three in Business. I would like to draw on this experience in my comment on this article.

    To begin with, I would note that in Canada we don’t really have this issue. Our science teachers are neither better nor worse than other teachers, neither more nor less inspiring, and they do not pitch their subject to be harder or easier. Consequently, within school and university, science is not seen as more boring/difficult than other subjects. The description in the original post of it as being a particularly difficult and uninteresting subject, which one tackles out of moral fortitude, is simply not accurate within the Canadian school system. If this is an accurate desription of the British school system, they I can only say this is very sad and it is no wonder people turn away from science to the humanities.

    I would also note that in Canada the employment possibilities for science students are generally better (more availability and better pay) than for the humanities. These facts are shared with students as part of career guidance in the latter years of high school (the point where subject selection starts to become important). I’ve never know a student to be actively discouraged from the humanities, but at the same time the schools make sure that they are aware the impact of course selection on future employment options. Consequently, students tend to choose humanities only if they have a particular interest or gift for these subjects. All else being equal, they go for sciences.

    Having worked in Britan for many years, somewhat the opposite situation seems to be present. Employers tend to give more emphasis on the importance of humanities. When hiring someone where both type of skills are required (e.g. a technical marketing manager), they seem to prefer someone that is highly articulate than someone who is technically skilled.

    This approach is visible in many ways and at many levels of British society. For example, in Canada an “engineer” is someone who has a university degree in Engineering. A “Professional Engineeer” must have completed a qualifying exam to join the society and have relevant work experience and training, on top of the degree. These titles are highly respected and anyone using them with meeting these criteria can go to jail. In Britan, almost anyone can call themselves an engineer and the title has virtually no status.

    The above is of course only some aspects of the problem. However, I want to illustrate that there are base and fundamental issues in the educational system, the employment/promotion opportunities and in social perception which work together to discourage the selection of science as a career. I suggest that it is these fundamental issues that need to be solved.

    I really believe that quick measures such as tax breaks or reduced tuition fees for science subjects will be ineffective and in fact counter-productive. I hate the idea that someone would take up a science or engineering degree just because the university tuition is cheaper (see the suggestion in earlier post above). This is absolutely the wrong reason and will encourage people unsuitable for this type of education. Instead we should allow people to choose freely, without financial constraints, but show those who have the aptitude for science the benefits of this type of career.

  56. In Britain, almost anyone can call themselves an engineer and the title has virtually no status – Dr Stewart.

    Equally, almost anyone can call themselves a professional. The chimney sweep who came round recently to shove a brush up our boiler flue presented himself as a “professional” sweep. Nice chap, job well done, but isn’t “professional” egging it a bit? This trend of glamorising every job, where a “nail consultant” ranks herself alongside someone who has undergone years of hard academic study, is all part of a dumbing down process which rates a degree in sports management as equal to a degree in physics. Worse, the sports manager is likely to make pots more money than the physicist. Our priorities have gone askew and Boris is right to question them.

    Going back to Raincoaster’s riveting post, it is of course despressingly true that schools turn out drones. But can anyone suggest a practical alternative in an industrialised world? The writer rails against conformity but I fear we are lurching into Pink Floyd territory (teacher, leave those kids alone). Who honestly believes that every school could be run on regimentation-free principles? Those devoted to alternative methods, like Rudolph Steiner schools, undoubtedly produce some brilliant people (using a large number of highly motivated and expert staff) but also turn out their share of weirdo’s unsuited to the modern world. I know a few.

    I’m sorry, but in any place other than utopia kids do need structure, authority figures and the disciplines required to maintain order in a seething pool of teenage hormones. Which is not to say the system hasn’t gone way too far in turning out league table fodder.

  57. ‘I hate the idea that someone would take up a science or engineering degree just because the university tuition is cheaper (see the suggestion in earlier post above). This is absolutely the wrong reason and will encourage people unsuitable for this type of education.’ (Dr Stewart)

    In the real world people choose jobs and professions based on what pay they can expect to receive. Do you think we are turning out hundreds of barristers every year because these people care about justice? Besides choosing a career you care about can be a bad move; you might be disappointed when it turns out everyone else is just in it for the money.

    Now we have created a ‘market’ in higher education surely it is the business of government to manipulate the forces of supply and demand within that market. When universities are closing science departments, employers cannot find the graduates they need and the UK does not have the skills it needs then what is wrong with tweaking the market once in a while? It is still the individual that makes the decision to study.

  58. I, too, went through the Canadian school system, and at the time I went through it, all the guidance counsellors recommended to ANYONE with a B or better in math that they become an engineer. Industry wanted engineers, you see, so the government obligingly shovelled people into that field.

    I myself was actively discouraged from pursuing a career as a writer, and I wish to God I had laughed in the man’s face, because I would have saved many years and made a good bit more money if I’d gone into writing right from the word go.

    What happened to all those kids who went through engineering programs? They all graduated at the same time, flooding the market and drastically lowering the value of their highly-skilled labour. I know a man who had a very good degree in civil engineering, and he was a gardener for seven years before he found a job in his field.

    All to say that government “guidance” serves the market better than the populace.

    While students do tend to choose things that have been recommended to them as high-paying, that doesn’t really relate to what Boris is saying here, which is that a society is better served by people who’ve spent their school years studying difficult subjects than simply whatever the market is looking for. My engineer friend, who would really rather have been a physicist, would agree.

  59. ‘While students do tend to choose things that have been recommended to them as high-paying, that doesn’t really relate to what Boris is saying here, which is that a society is better served by people who’ve spent their school years studying difficult subjects than simply whatever the market is looking for.’ (Raincoaster)

    Ok, good point, so what is a difficult subject? I flew maths and science at GCSE with A grades without revising, I found maths and phsyics easy, they were logical.

    Shakespeare on the other hand was like a foreign language to me. I was bad at french and for the year I spent doing Latin I can’t remember a thing, it just didn’t sink in like maths, physics and chemistry did.

    Some people I went to school with could understand Shakespeare like it was everyday banter you would hear down the pub, some people could speak good french by the time they were 16.

    There was one lad I remember actually understood electronics. At the age of 13 he sucessfully hacked into the school IT network. The rest of us were still struggling with MS Excel! I never understood electronics or technology. I could do the physics side of electricity but not the technology side of electronics. I understand forces and atoms and things but this laptop I’m typing on might as well be magic to me. The lad in question who hacked the IT network struggled to get a C at GSCE maths though.

    So out of the traditional subjects, which ones are ‘crunchy’ and which ones aren’t?

    My ‘crunchy’ subjects were french, english literature and most of all technology/electronics.

  60. Never mind engineering degrees. Would someone like to suggest a cure for what happened this very morning in my local supermarket?

    I wanted two packets of Parma ham on special offer – two for £5. Somehow a packet of Grand Reserve ham had found its way into the Parma pile; I unintentionally picked up one Parma and one Grand Reserve. These went through the till as two Grand Reserve, a more expensive product which was not on special offer either (presumably the girl had swiped the “wrong” packet twice).

    At the customer service desk, I explained the mix-up to a girl of about 20, who agreed to replace the Grand Reserve with Parma and charge me the advertised £5. The receipt showed I had been billed £6.58 for the erroneous pair.

    So, to sum up: The first lot of ham came to £6.58; I exchanged it for ham priced £5. You’re a clever bunch. How much refund was due? £1.58. Well done. Full marks.

    “So you are owed £1.04” she says.

    “Eh? No I’m not. You owe me £1.58”.

    “But that’s not what the till says”.

    I then spent several minutes patiently trying to explain this simple calculation from every possible angle but it was wasted on her. She stood her ground. “Sorry, I don’t follow. The till says £1.04 so that’s all I can give you.”

    Only when she grudgingly agreed to call the supervisor was the matter sorted out.

    This worries me more than engineering degrees because it’s everywhere. So what is the answer?

  61. physics is hard, and that’s a good thing

    While I was away in France, the annual fracas over improved A level results broke out. Now, I know where I stand on this; I know people who work and teach in Higher Education and they’re seeing a decline in the educational quality of freshers, not an …

  62. PaulD,

    The answer is to laugh about it. ‘Computer says no’.

    The problem Paul is accountants. Accountants were all well and good when they stuck to doing their sums, but now they have ‘branched out’ they think they have some god given right to be management consultants as well as accountants – ‘accountants know best’ syndrome.

    I’ve had it lots of times working in call centres, here is an example:

    The computer gives you 20 seconds after the customer hangs up before the next person comes through to you. This allows you to make sure the correct notes are on the account and get ready for the next call. The accountants add up all these seconds and then divide the number of seconds by 3,600 and multiply the result by the cost per hour of employing you. Then they decide to remove the 20 seconds so they can say ‘By doing this we have saved your company £x per year’. This of course doesn’t dave anyone anything because the correct notes are no longer left on the customers accounts which means it takes a minute or so longer to get to the bottom of it the next time they call back.

    In the supermarket the EPOS systems give information directly to the accountants which enables them not to have to do any work. The EPOS system tells them when to restock, how much money is in each till and how much money they have taken that week. The accountants do not want the shop staff to do anything that does not involves the EPOS system because then they have to do work

    (i.e. making ammendments based on little signed chitties in the customer services till)

    I’ve had it before at the supermarket where there were some chicken tikka pancake thingys that I wanted to buy, they were there, they had a price on but I couldn’t buy them because they were not yet on the EPOS system. I asked if they could just use the thing they use to reduce prices to stick a bar code on or simply write the price on a sticker – no, I could only buy them tomorrow when they were on the EPOS system.

    The accountants are to blame Paul, believe me on this one.

  63. idlex said:

    While I agree that physics and mathematics are incomplete, make mistakes, and undergo paradigm shifts, the net result over several hundred years has been an expanding and largely internally consistent body of knowledge, to which individual scientists largely anonymously add…Can the same be said of philosophy? I think not.

    I don’t think Steven Hawking would agree with you.

    ‘..we have made progress by finding partial theories that describe a limited range of happenings and by neglecting other effects or approximating them by certain numbers. Ultimately, however, one would hope to find a complete, consistent, unified theory that would include all these partial theories as approximations, and that did not need to be adjusted to fit the facts…’ Hawking (BHT)

    Partial theories, neglected effects, inconsistencies and approximations – adjusted to fit the facts. Come on, idlex, it sounds more like Blair than a beacon of truth for our students. Yes, philosophy’s much the same, I agree, a relatively empty vessel – until science comes along and fills it. But science so needs that bottle. That’s why, as Einstein said, its so vital to put them together, because only philosophy and science together can really transform the world.

    What comprises a good education? This is Einstein’s view:

    ‘So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of this generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.’ (Einstein to Thornton, 1944, EA 61-574)

  64. Raincoaster,

    Link’s to your website don’t deserve the title ‘spam’, they are more a ‘buy one get one free’ coupon to the value brand corned beef of the blogosphere.

  65. Yes, philosophy’s much the same, I agree, a relatively empty vessel – until science comes along and fills it. But science so needs that bottle. That’s why, as Einstein said, its so vital to put them together, because only philosophy and science together can really transform the world. (Auntie Flo’)

    I entirely agree with that, although I’d still maintain – even in the face of Steven Hawking – that, for all its multiple defects, science remains the best knowledge we have.

    The depressing thing, in many ways, is that all concerned continue to plough their own separate fields, over and over again. Philosophers do their philosophy, and physicists do their physics, and economists do their economics, and so we have this patchwork quilt of disciplines, each speaking their own private language, each with their own founding fathers and heroes, each jealously bent on their own self-perpetuation, and largely oblivious of everyone else. It’s a bit like, well, …Europe. Things will only really start happening when they start putting their heads together, to form some sort of EU (Extended University?) of knowledge, with open borders, and a free exchange of ideas.

    But that requires ‘bottle’ of quite another sort, and a kind of ‘bottle’ that is seemingly largely absent from science these days.

  66. Well,
    we’ve had the purely spiritual view of the universe, i.e. God/Allah/Yahweh created it and don’t try to understand the rules ’cause they’re God’s and you’re only human.

    We’re currently going through the ‘science will conquer it all’ phase i.e. even though we don’t understand how gravity works and have lots of little theories that explain fragments of physical behaviour (like the Wien curve pre-Max Planck) but no all encompassing model of the universe.

    What about the physical/spiritual phase where physics explains some aspects of the universe but only in conjunction with the mind observing it? i.e. the tree in the forest DOES fall over AND makes a sound but only if no one cares about it staying up.

    It’s got to come.

  67. ‘all its multiple defects, science remains the best knowledge we have’ (Idlex)

    When we look up to the stars and ask ourselves ‘why?’ science can only go do far to answering the fundamental questions we will never know the answer to; some knowledge must surely be beyond the capabilities of the human mind.

    What if instead of their being a universe there was nothing, no time, no space, no matter and no energy? It is impossible in our minds to imagine ‘nothing’.

    How can time, space, matter and energy have been created? If it was created who created the creator?

    How is it possible for time, space, matter and energy to have existed forever?

    ‘Forever’ is a concept that is also impossible to imagine. How can the the universe go onto infinity and how can it stop, if it stops what is there after the ‘end’?

    This is why we have a basic human need for philosophy and for religion.

    The more we look to science for answers to all of the little questions, the more we find the answers we seek. The less we look to religion for the answers the less faith we find in ancient beliefs, folklaw and established religion.

    ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.’ (Matthew 7:7)

  68. “Ask you you will be told a lie; seek and you will find spin; knock and the door will be slammed shut and a ‘no-entry’ sign hastily put in place” (Labour Manifesto 9:11)

  69. Ahh, but through philosophy can we not see through the lies of ‘new labour’ Scoplin?

    Here is an example from the dossier ‘Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction The Assessment of the British Government’ (link to original document below)

    ‘As a result of the intelligence we judge that Iraq has:
    ● continued to produce chemical and biological agents;
    ● military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, including against its own Shia population. Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them;’

    and

    ‘Iraq’s military forces are able to use chemical and biological weapons, with command, control and logistical arrangements in place. The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so’

    and

    ‘intelligence indicates that as part of Iraq’s military planning Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons, including against his own Shia population. Intelligence indicates that the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so.’

    From: http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Politics/documents/2002/09/24/dossier.pdf

    Now let’s be philisophical for a moment.

    1) We know Saddam only had short range rocket technology.
    2) The government says that Saddam has weapons of ‘mass destruction’ that could wipe out entire regiments of the British Army and could be launched within 45 minutes
    3) The government decide the solution is to park a large proportion of our military in Kuwait and the Persian Gulf within range of such ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ with a view to invading Iraq to get rid of them.

    Anyone who can think slightly out of the box can see that this is a stupid idea, that the only possible reason we are parking our military within range of the supposed ‘WMD’ is that they do not exist. The USA and her allies had spent over 10 years carefully disarming Saddam through a combination of war, sanctions and largely unreported sorties and Iraq was now in such a weak position we could just march in and take Baghdad in a few weeks with less than a thousand casulaties.

  70. Scoplin said:

    What about the physical/spiritual phase where physics explains some aspects of the universe but only in conjunction with the mind observing it? i.e. the tree in the forest DOES fall over AND makes a sound but only if no one cares about it staying up.

    There was a young man who said “God
    Must find it exceedingly odd
    To note that this tree
    Just ceases to be
    When there’s no-one around in the quad.”

    “Dear Sir, Your query is odd.
    I am always about in the quad,
    And therefore this tree
    Will continue to be,
    Since it’s observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

  71. But that requires ‘bottle’ of quite another sort, and a kind of ‘bottle’ that is seemingly largely absent from science these days.

    Idlex, you exceeded even yourself in that last post.

    So many irritations of modern life exist only because a certain technology is possible, not because it is desirable, and there is money to be made from it. Wheelclamping, microchips in dustbins, fingerprinting of six-year-olds, universal smoking bans, they were all born of someone’s self-interest with little regard for the wider effects. In far too many cases the “inishative” came from someone desperate to impress his superiors and keep his job, which was created by someone desperate to impress his superiors and keep his job, which was created by someone…

  72. …universal smoking bans (PaulD)

    We have become, us smokers (who include our sweet Steven), slowly at war with a medical profession which has very succssfully demonized our innocuous custom.

    But yesterday, when by chance I saw my doctor, I thought she looked rather old and unwell. One always thinks of one’s own doctor as being the very embodiment of good health. It’s part of the medical mythos that the doctors are never themselves unwell. And yet this is a proposition that does not bear a single moment of scrutiny. Our medical doctors are just as unwell as we are.

    And so, I think that henceforth my introductory remarks to my next docor will be along the lines of:

    “Hello, Doc. You’re looking a bit pale/red/tired/bloated to me. Rest a bit. Don’t do what you you usually do and ask me how many ciggies/booze/illegal hard drugs I do each day. I only tell you lies anyway. Take a break. Breathe deeply, and try to think absolutely nothing. And this injection really won’t hurt at all. You’ll have forgotten about it all tomorrow.”

  73. Actually, although doctors are only human (and in contact with a great many diseases per day) they live longer than the average, in part because less than 10% of them are smokers.

  74. Actually, although doctors are only human (and in contact with a great many diseases per day) they live longer than the average, in part because less than 10% of them are smokers. (Raincoaster)

    Doctors’ middle class social position, generally healthier life styles – except for boozing – and knowledge of health care are all surely additonal factors in their greater longetivity. However, the supreme factor is surely the preferential treatment given them in the NHS. Wouldn’t all citizens live longer if their pals gave them access to the best practioners and best treatments?

  75. Woops! I apologise to raincoster, idlex and everyone for messing up my 31 Aug 06. 2.28 pm reply. It wasn’t raincoaster but idlex who posted the section I quoted. I plead temporary insanity after reading Boris’s article about our iniquitous Government’s destruction of the English NHS. MY blood’s still boiling over that.

  76. That’s okay; it’s easy to get us confused, except on the smoking issue.

    Smoking kills 50% of its practitioners, an average of more than five years earlier than the general population (rates vary by country). There’s no question that an upper-middle class lifestyle is healthier than a lower-class one, but smoking is one of the lower-class archetypes. In Canada, the only people who can be chain smokers are the independantly rich and the chronically unemployed, and it has become a class marker.

    Let the flaming begin!

  77. Woops! I apologise to raincoster, idlex and everyone for messing up my 31 Aug 06. 2.28 pm reply. It wasn’t raincoaster but idlex who posted the section I quoted. I plead temporary insanity… (Auntie Flo’)

    The insanity appears not to have been temporary, Flo. It was indeed raincoaster, not me, who, on August 31, 2006 09:20 am, posted the section you quoted. Unfortunately, raincoaster, by accepting your needless apology, has herself descended into the same delusional world.

    In Canada, the only people who can be chain smokers are the independantly rich and the chronically unemployed, and it has become a class marker. Let the flaming begin! (raincoaster)

    Was that really meant to be ‘independantly’? Must one not only be rich, but have no dependants, in order to smoke in Canada?

    And I was informed this afternoon, in an online chat with a friend, that one should never precede an ‘and’ with a comma. This was news to me, and I headed off to my local pub in search of the conventional wisdom of the smoking room, armed with a copy of Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

    And there I was promptly told that one should indeed never precede an ‘and’ with a comma, because ‘and’ signified a continuation, and (There! I’ve done it myself!) so did a comma, and (Again!) therefore it was an unnecessary addition.

    Reeling from this news, I retreated to a table with a pint, lit up a ciggie to calm my jangled nerves (and shorten my life by yet another ten years), and began to read Truss on Commas. Within seconds I found this in her writing:

      More than any other mark, the comma draws our attention to the mixed origins of modern punctuation, and its consequent mingling of two quite distinct functions:

    There! She did it too! But no doubt research will show that 50% of people who put a comma before an ‘and’ die 5 years earlier those who wisely abstain from the filthy practice.

  78. Thee pub was, incidentally, full of cars when I arrived. I asked what was going on.

    “Funeral”, somebody said.

    “What, in the car park?!” I replied.

    I suppose it’s as good a place as any. It would be rather nice to be laid to rest in a pub car park, a pint in one hand, a pipe in the other. It would at least allow future archaeologists to rapidly ascertain the cause of death.

  79. Idlex,

    My English teachers told me never to start sentences with ‘And’, and never to precede ‘and’ or ‘but’ with a comma, but everyone does is, and the Bible is full of such poor examples of English composition, but perhaps because it was written in Hebrew.

    The one that gets me is the bad example set my Boris, and his journalist friends, of using ‘-‘ instead of brackets, commas or better sentence structure.

    If I had handed in an essay that was punctuated with ‘-‘s’ it would have been thrown back at me covered in red ink. Journalist’s I can understand using ‘licence’, but Boris should surely set some sort of example as Shadow Minister for Higher Education.

    Maybe it’s normal practice now, and maybe schools allow their use, but who the hell started using ‘-‘s’?

  80. Idlex/Steven. The comma, like all punctuation marks, exists only to improve the sense. The ultimate test is reading it out loud.

    This afternoon I enjoyed an outing with Peter and David, and jolly good it was too. Try that with no comma.

    As for doctors, the GP says to a patient: “Hello, I haven’t seen you for a while”. Patient: “No, I haven’t been well.”

  81. Steven, that is quite clearly an n-dash you’re using, and that quite incorrrectly; it is an m-dash to which you refer, and only properly authorized personnel like Boris and I are allowed to use it. Just think what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands!

    Steven, what if the terrorists got ahold of it?

    Loose clicks sink ships, boy!

  82. The insanity appears not to have been temporary, Flo. It was indeed raincoaster, not me, who, on August 31, 2006 09:20 am, posted the section you quoted. Unfortunately, raincoaster, by accepting your needless apology, has herself descended into the same delusional world.

    ‘perhaps a hail of abuse is what passes for ‘critical thought’ these days?’ (Idlex)

    Pot to kettle, idlex.

  83. Auntie Flo’,

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again in defence of Idlex, my fellow smoker:

    Raincoaster is delusional; she is a delusional anarchal communist who is trying to take over the internet.

    Be warned

  84. Pot to kettle, idlex.

    You were pleading “temporary insanity”, Flo. Your words, not mine.

    I was merely pointing out that you hadn’t actually quite recovered it, and was attempting to lead you gently back towards the sunny uplands and sweet-scented forests of sweet reason.

  85. Raincoaster is delusional; she is a delusional anarchal communist who is trying to take over the internet.

    Steven is, finally, right about something. All except the delusional part; the delusion would be to think I can’t do it. (#2 blog on WordPress, out of 331,000)

  86. Just think, if you’d have invested a bit of time learning HTML and a bit of cash in your own site you could sell adverts and afford a passport!

  87. Steven – “Does your psychometric test book say anything about the people who answer that question with ‘follower’, ‘suit’, or ‘water’?” – no it didn’t.

    Flo – thank God for the “critical thinking, Protestant Non Conformists, the nascent Bourgeoisie” ’cause I know who does the laundry in my house and it aint a bloke!

    There’s only one thing better than appliances folks, and believe me I just lurve my dishwasher, mwa!, but I’ve just experienced the only thing that’s better – staff!!

    raincoaster – actually Steven’s got a point there, you could make money but would you descriminate with advertising or just sell to anyone? Would you host a Boris for PM advert? A porn site ad? A gambling site ad? A BNP ad?

  88. Oi, Rainwhatsit… my friend didn’t know I was advertising their insight into this subject. So hold your horses, Mr. Spammer and personally I think you owe Pepperpot an appology.

  89. Why do we need A levels at all?

    I personally study 2 sciences (physics and chemistry), 2 humanities (English and History), and the Classics (real classics – Latin and Greek – not the watered down “CLass Civ”).

    I don’t want to be forced to choose any subjects at all – however crunchy they may be.

    Why can’t we operate a more loose education system, where pupils have the option to attend a smaller number of lessons in a much wider range of subjects, in such a way as to allow each to work to his own level.

    Universities could easily set entrance exams, which would (free from the clutches of our ridiculous government Education department) genuinely challenge pupils without wasting huge amoutns of time being “taught for exams”.

    This would aid the idea of social mobility through education: people would be driven by their personal ambitions and motivations, rather than the desire of their school to move up the league tables.

    Ok – perhaps this is wishful thinking!

  90. All right. I’ve been to pepperpot’s site (because she linked to me and I’m a sucker for googlejuice) and I agree she wasn’t spamming. But you’ve got to keep it to ONE thread, not two or more. Three identical links in two threads is two too many for comfort.

    So I apologize to pepperpot, but not to the overenthusiastic pepperpotters who have been peppering the site with her links.

    Such as myself.

  91. Would I make money from ads on my blog? Well, I have actually got this choice, because I could migrate my blog to my own host and have as many ads as I like.

    But I don’t.

    WordPress decided to put ads on my most popular post (a Lucy Gao entry) and I immediately sent in an outraged Dear Support People I Am Coming For You email. The ads are now gone. I chose WordPress in part because it didn’t have ads. Some of my friends have said I could make a living off ads there, particularly as I don’t live large, but it just doesn’t sit right. I guess I’ve swallowed whole the “Chinese Wall” model of writing/publishing.

    And so I remain poor but proud. Although I note the rich ones don’t fall short in the pride department either…hmmmmmmm.

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