Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

The banality of racism and privilege

Let’s start with a quiz:

  • When you want to join a prestigious social club, do you wonder if your ‘race’ will make it difficult for you to join?
  • When you show feelings, do you wonder if you will be classed as someone with no emotional control or is too sensitive, both of which form a persistent and negative stereotype of your ‘race’?
  • When you go shopping alone at a nice store, do you worry that you will be followed or harassed?
  • When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another ‘race’?
  • Do you worry that your children will not have books and school materials that are about people of their own ‘race’?
  • When you apply for a bank loan, do you worry that, because of your ‘race’, you might be seen as financially unreliable?
  • If you swear, or dress shabbily, do you think that people might say this is because of the bad morals or the poverty or the illiteracy of your ‘race’?
  • If you do well in a situation, do you expect to be called a credit to your ‘race’? Or to be described as ‘different’ from the majority of your ‘race’?
  • If you criticise the government, do you worry that you might be seen as a cultural outsider?
  • When asked where you come from, after giving an answer, are you then pushed for a further response by the statement, ‘no, where do you really come from?’ Or, ‘Where does your family come from?’ Or that you might be asked to ‘go back to X,’ X being somewhere not in Britain?
  • If you take a job/speaking engagement with an employer/organisation with a very clear statement on diversity, do you worry that your co-workers/conference attendees will think you are unqualified and were hired only because of your ‘race’?
  • If you want to move to a nice neighbourhood, do you worry that you might not be welcome because of the colour of your skin?
  • When you use the ‘nude’ or colour of underwear and Band-Aids, do you already know that it will not match your skin?”

The above questions, adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah, and originally written by Peggy McIntosh, serve to highlight how privilege works in relation to ‘race’.  The purpose of using them is not get people to ‘check their privilege’, which can be an unhelpful phrase, but to comprehend something more profound; tackling social inequality demands a recognition of lived experience and empirical evidence. Without it, we will continue to talk past each other and demean what we want to profess about ourselves and the common thread that drives our work as educators; our common humanity.

If you didn’t have to say yes to the majority of the questions above, you already know privilege.  It is the privilege, for example, of never having to answer what I’ve now come to call ‘the BBQ question’. When meeting friends of friends at a BBQ, I always get asked where I am from. My answer of Hackney does not seem to cut it, and always leads to the inevitable ‘but where originally?’ (or the variation, ‘where are your family from?’) . It is the privilege of never having your daughter turned away from the same hair salon as her mother because they do not do ‘ethnic hair’. It is the privilege of never being followed in a local bookshop and having the till closely monitored in case you planned to go for the contents (my blonde wife, strangely enough, did not receive the same treatment when she went to pay for her books a minute later). It is the privilege of never being told that you are ‘playing the race card’ if you choose to raise an issue. It is the privilege of never being mistaken for the cleaner/waiter/intruder at your holiday resort/restaurant/conference.  Misunderstandings, gaffes, and incidents relating to the colour of my skin may have provided me with a number of funny after-dinner anecdotes, but they also highlight something far bigger. That the world is unequal and it provides certain benefits to those who possess certain physical characteristics which translate into social, economic and status privilege.

Recognising that there is inequality is one thing, but increasing our understanding of the terms that helps us comprehend the inequality is another. The common sense understanding and use of the term racism is that of a binary: you’re either racist or you’re not. Despite our fondness for binaries in debates about education (‘traditional’ v ‘progressive’, anyone?!), social relations are a little more complex. You can love your partner and still be negative about their inability to clear up. You can value the company that you work for and still loathe aspects of it at the same time. You can make it clear that you support equality for women but don’t change your pay system. You can be avowedly anti-racist and still use the reasoning of racism.

We like to believe that on the whole, racism exists somewhere else. It exists in men marching in parks and shouting slogans whilst carrying torches. This is an obvious sign of racism and it is one that makes the news, but it is not the only form. Technology is (in my view, often mistakenly) seen as great leveller, but it reveals that although overt displays of racism are rare, the thinking of ‘race’ and associated ideas of superiority and inferiority are surprisingly commonplace. One study found that the mere glimpse of a ‘black’ hand in the picture of the product to be sold, had the following effect:

Black sellers do worse than white sellers on a variety of market outcome measures: they receive 13% fewer responses and 17% fewer offers. These effects are strongest in the Northeast, and are similar in magnitude to those associated with the display of a wrist tattoo. Conditional on receiving at least one offer, black sellers also receive 2–4% lower offers, despite the self- selected—and presumably less biased—pool of buyers. In addition, buyers corresponding with black sellers exhibit lower trust: they are 17% less likely to include their name in e-mails, 44% less likely to accept delivery by mail, and 56% more likely to express concern about making a long-distance payment.

Another example can be found in the job application process. Even when qualifications and experience are equal, it is easier to get an interview if your name is Adam instead of Mohamed or Mariam. We have good, and replicated, research on this phenomenon but very few employers, and even fewer schools, use ‘blind’ applications. Yet when the figures on the teaching workforce are released and we have the recurring media articles about the lack of diversity in school leadership teams and staff rooms, no-one mentions this. If names are taken as proxy for ‘race’, people are denied the opportunity of even being in the room.

This is not the racism of the neo-nazis in the USA, with their overt displays of force and derogatory language. This is the very modern banal racism, cloaked in the forms of bureaucracy, technology, politeness and in the grind of everyday; dating, renting accommodation or applying for jobs. This form of racism works in a subtle way, imperceptible on the surface, and is only verified after it has done its work. Racism, therefore, is not just a state of being or not being a racist. This problem — and this complexity — must be grasped and understood if we are to move from an uneasy social order to one that has justice as a guiding light.

As I was reflecting on the tweets, blog posts and accusations of witch hunts/smear campaigns, I was reminded of the incident between the footballers Patrice Evra of Manchester United and Luis Suarez of Liverpool. In October 2011, Evra and Suarez had clashed during the game and Evra stated that Suarez had used a certain word. Suarez denied this and stated via Facebook:

I’m upset by the accusations of racism. I can only say that I have always respected and respect everybody. We are all the same. I go to the field with the maximum illusion of a little child who enjoys what he does, not to create conflicts.

Liverpool rallied around Suarez and said they would back him through the upcoming investigation. The outcome of the investigation led to Suarez being fined £40,000 and suspended for eight matches. Liverpool disagreed with the outcome and sought to undermine Evra as someone who was wiling to ‘play the ‘race’ card’ and in the game after the initial judgment was reached, the Liverpool team warmed up wearing t-shirts bearing Suarez’s name and picture to show solidarity. Suarez was now the victim and the origin of the whole incident was ignored. Unfortunately, when published, the report was clear that Suarez had used a racist term, but he was not ‘a racist’.   The matter seemed to be closed until the next meeting between the clubs. As Evra lined up for the normal exchange of handshakes with the opposing team, Suarez refused the offer. This was because he was upset and had his feelings hurt by the whole process. As an Arsenal fan, I have no love for Evra. But in that moment, I was gobsmacked; Evra was painted as the bully because he had identified an injustice in the first place.

The parallels between this incident and what has happened over the last week have been striking. Denials, discussions about hurt feelings and widespread accusations of reducing free thought, closing down intellectual discussion and deliberate silence from some of my fellow educators (pleasingly, no one had any t-shirts printed…that I know of). This is what happens when you question poorly researched ideas and highlight the existence of racism. There is still an opportunity to move beyond the reductive reasoning and posturing, but only if there is a commitment to understanding.


Further/additional reading

Backlash over BBC’s low-paid minority ethnic staff

The Visible Hand: Race and Online Market Outcomes

It is easier to get a job if you’re Adam or Mohamed?

Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment

A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practice in British cities, Department for Work and Pensions, 2009

Airbnb hosts discriminate against black guests based on names, study suggests

Study says black Airbnb hosts earn less than their white counterparts

Anonymous recruitment aims to stamp out bias, but can it prevent discrimination?

White privilege – unpacking the invisible knapsack 


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Are we really having this conversation?

I really do not know where to start this post and it seems strange to have to write it. There are too many issues to go into in one blog so I will keep this one focussed on what I see to be a highly problematic statement from an influential educator.

David seems to have become an expert on genetics of late and a few of his blog posts have sought to bring this knowledge directly to bear on his views on education. In a recent post, David suggested that parenting has little effect on adult behaviour. He was asked the following question and responded to it in the comments section.


The key thing here is what the comment does not say. The statement does not mention why there is a difference in observed IQ scores and as a result, it transmits a view, intended or not, that ‘race’, with all the negative and historical associations with the term, is the key determinant of IQ.

There was one other issue and it was the use of ‘racial difference’. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Genetically, ‘race’ has no basis. The observed characteristics, the phenotype, that seem to signify ‘race’ are selective. We usually associate skin colour with this but it could easily be on the size of feet or the length of the nose. However, a phenotype is an expression of the genetic code (genotype) and environment. To give you one example of how fluid the notion of ‘race’ is, since adulthood I have been allocated to a variety of groups based on my physical appearance (and funnily enough, my geographic location at the time):

  • Egyptian/North African
  • Maori
  • Brazilian
  • Puerto Rican
  • Indian
  • Spanish
  • Turkish
  • Black/African-American
  • Mixed
  • A Moor

If you want more historical examples of the fluidity of ‘race’ (before the advent of genetics), please see some of the suggested reading below.  The point is that the term ‘race’ is a social construction (which does not mean that there is no social power to the term). What about the genetic code or genotype? This passage explains it better than I can:

Accumulating evidence since the sequencing of the human genome in 2003 suggests that genetically determined race differences in IQ are a priori unlikely, rather than likely. We now know that there are approximately three billion nucleotide base pairs in the haploid human genome, and direct assessment of genetic variation has revealed that the average proportion of these bases that differ between a human being and a chimpanzee is less than 2%; that the difference between a randomly chosen pair of human beings is approximately 0.1%; and that only 10% of that 0.1%, hence 0.01% of human DNA, differs between European, African, and Asian populations—far less than had previously been assumed. Race differences in IQ: Hans Eysenck’s contribution to the debate in the light of subsequent research, 2016.

The paper is also interesting in that it covers other research which contrasts the view of ‘race’= IQ (see the reference below).

The statement made by David organised people into ‘races’, making those categories seem real and associating particular social/intellectual/genetic characteristics to groups. That is why I said it was scientific racism; a pseudoscientific belief that evidence exists to classify groups into races and denote superior/inferior performance based on the classification.  How does this translate into a classroom? Well, at its worst, it reinforces and creates stereotypes which can limit children. Watching older family members being pushed into sports rather than being encouraged to focus on academic courses due to the colour of their skin has left a lasting impression. And ultimately, it is precisely this sort of worst case scenario that this sort of thinking can lead to.

Is David a racist? I don’t know and I was deliberate in saying that the comment was an example of scientific racism. What I do know is that the reply smacks of arrogance and laziness. It is lazy because David has not simply done the work on the subject. If he had, I like to believe that he would have not written the statement and would have couched it much more carefully. It is arrogant because David appears to be an expert on ‘race’, IQ and the history behind it, which he is clearly not. David’s ‘expertise’ seems to change on a monthly basis. I worry what September will bring.

I’m not interested in punishing David or removing him from positions; that is not my style at all. What I would ask anyone interested in this issue is to read as much as you can, question as much as you can and support the young people in front of you as much as you can. Knowledge is a liberator but you have to seek it out.

Some reading to get you started.

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I contain multitudes

Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

I’ve be reading and thinking a lot about of Rousseau of late and pondering the ongoing representation of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education. My original intention in reading Rousseau was to help me think about the definition of ‘traditional’ education and to suggest that the use of the term refers to a variety of different things and involves presentism. In other words, the term ‘traditionalism’ anachronistically applies current modern concepts and ideas to historical ideas, writings and events.

After wrestling with a series of blog/article drafts, I found this to be an unfulfilling use of time as it was becoming an exercise in negativity.

What really began to excite me was to think about what ‘progressivism’ meant and from my initial research, it became clear that women educators were often neglected in the debate about education (the Brontës and Hannah More for example). I found their stories and writing fascinating and not only because it counters the characterisation of the ‘romantic’ period often used in recent texts about education in England. The plan is that over the next few months I will be looking at these ‘progressive’ writers in a series of blog posts with the first in the series examining Rousseau’s work and legacy. Rather than just focusing on Émile, I will attempt to contextualise the often cited (but I’d wager little-read) text with Rousseau’s other work in The Social Contract and Considerations on the Government of Poland.  My main argument is that we have been subject to a very limiting appreciation of Rousseau’s ideas and we are all the poorer for it.

After dinner yesterday, I discussed with my wife the ideas for the blog post and the debate between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education. After I had finished, she said that it was strange that teachers would adopt such extreme positions when thinking about the training they receive.  Experiential learning, often portrayed as the preserve of ‘progressive’ education, plays an important part in teacher training as we apply ideas from tutors/research/CPD sessions to our work in schools. However, experiential learning is not sufficient as there needs to be subject/professional knowledge too if we hope to be successful trainees/teachers.

Her words neatly captured my growing unease but also reminded me of the problems involved in positioning and in that moment, Walt Whitman’s words from his poem, Song of Myself, crashed into my thoughts:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

We may want to declare that we are one position or the other because it gives us assurance. However, in doing so we seem to forget the formative experience of training and the work we do in improving ourselves through CPD/utilising research and writing. Maybe it is time to remember.


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Designing an Oxbridge programme

I recently took a group of students (mostly from my Form) to Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford so they could learn more about the application process and speak to current staff and students. It was a fantastic day and I have to thank Victoria Condie and current undergrads Alex and Holly for their warm welcome. The students really enjoyed the day and as we made our way back to Hertford, I began to think about an Oxbridge programme that  was effective, did not take up too much staff time and enabled the students to be prepared.

Part of the proposed programme below is based on my experience of working in the independent sector and the work that is done to support students in their application. It also draws on the work done by Lucy Helmsley and her research on Oxbridge preparation classes for history students (I highly recommend you read her research on the Oxford University Research Archive).

It is true that fewer students from non-selective state schools study at Oxbridge than independent/selective state school peers. The suggested programme is designed specifically to support students from non-selective state schools. It is also true that A-Level courses by themselves do not provide adequate preparation for Oxbridge applications; imagination, flexibility and independent thought are not necessarily rewarded. The programme tries to build this in and and also support for students and parents. This is one feature that is normally undervalued when it should be of equal importance. As a parent, my child is the most precious thing to me in the world. A school that understands this and provides support to me and my child is invaluable. After all, it takes a village to raise a child and prepare them for the challenges they face.

Ideally, there should be two societies for prospective Oxbridge candidates in Year 12. One  should be a departmental society and the other a school-wide academic society. Both societies should be coordinated by staff (session titles, timings) but actually led by the students who every week or every two weeks, give presentations on topics and invite comments/challenge from their peers. If students have no experience of giving presentations, taking them to events such as the Battle of Ideas, debating competitions and even watching TED talks will provide pointers on preparation. The student presentations should be on issues that they are passionate about in their subject or wider studies.

Running the programme after Christmas in Year 12 gives students time to settle in and allows staff to help Year 13 students prepare for the interview process and the entrance tests.

Alongside the societies, in the Summer term of Year 12 and the start of Autumn term in Year 13, HoDs or nominated teachers should plan a series of seminars that cover the ‘big’ ideas in the subject and that are not necessarily covered in the syllabus at A-Level/IB/Pre-U.  These sessions are not lessons but tutorials where students are asked engage with set material through discussion. This will help them understand that a different type of learning and teaching is expected and that it is intellectual in character with no set answers/grades.  Additional reading/viewing material should be provided and ideally link to the following sessions. Lucy Helmsley’s research above provides an outline for a historical based seminar series but it could be adopted for any other subject.

Working with Parents and students in Year 12.

As mentioned above, this is important. Students and parents should be made aware of the programme, the commitment required from the students, what can be expected from the School and managing expectations from the outset regarding possible disappointment.  Ideally, parents and interested students should be invited to a meeting in January of Year 12 where the above is explained. There are two reasons for doing this as early as possible. The first is that it outlines to everyone the communal work and support needed to provide a competitive application. The second reason is that breaks down the challenge into manageable pieces for all involved and that review points/discussions can be agreed over the course over the coming months. During the meeting parents/students are encouraged to visit the colleges and details of an admissions visit organised by the School should be shared (should be rotated between Oxford and Cambridge).

The other suggestion I would make for the end of Year 12 is that personal statements should be in before the end of term. Doing so allows the teachers and students to make tweaks over the school holidays and at the beginning of Year 13. The October deadline for submission should not be taken as a brief to work on the statement until then. Teacher references and checks have to be completed well in advance. In schools where students have left their personal statements until the last minute, the process becomes fraught and the possibility of everyone doing their best work is diminished.

Before students leave in July, they should also be given a number of past papers for the entrance tests to work through. I strongly believe that the break should be used for recharging the batteries. It should also be used for steady preparation too. Leaving it all until September causes unnecessary pressure for students and can harm their prep for the interview.

Year 13

Once the application is submitted, preparation should focus on the completion of the seminar programme and working through as many test papers as possible (which may form part of the seminar programme). It should be used to discuss with a teacher the type of written work that should be submitted (if required). Discussion about the piece means that the demands are clearly understood (alternatively, a piece of work from an EPQ or Extended Project can be submitted). Finally, time should be spent on preparing for interview. I would suggest an internal interview for candidates to be organised in late September/early October to give them a sense of the task. Once students have been shortlisted by the colleges, I suggest arranging an interview exchange with another school (set up in the academic year when the students are in Year 12) with experience of the Oxbridge process. This is incredibly useful as the students are placed in an unfamiliar context and asked questions by someone they do not know. Feedback should be provided and any areas for development should be tested again just before students attend the final interview. This may appear to be too much but in my experience interview rehearsal, feedback and additional performances allow students to feel relaxed and ready for the real thing. It also mirrors what happens in the independent sector and the figures of independent school acceptance to Oxbridge should provide enough justification. One non-selective state school that I worked in only gave students an interview the week before the actual interview which made them feel slightly nervous and unprepared as they did not have the chance to correct any errors. The purpose of the interview preparation is not to hot-house students by giving them the ‘right’ answer (this will fail because the admissions tutors will see through this if stock answers are  Rather, it is suggested as the best way to provide the opportunity for students to show what they can do in a setting they feel comfortable in

Once students return from interview, ask them to note down the interview questions they have been asked and anything else they experienced. All of this should be noted and fed into the process for the following year/build up institutional knowledge. It is important to reiterate to them that regardless of the outcome, they have demonstrated the commitment and dedication to do well wherever they end up.

When applicants are informed in January, I would recommend that schools ask for feedback on the unsuccessful applications. This information will help to refine the support for the students in Y12 and provide any further support to unsuccessful students and their parents.

If you feel that anything is missing, please let me know. Feedback is very welcome!

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Is Rousseau a traditional educator?

As an undergrad student, I was not that impressed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The phrase, ‘man is born free but everywhere else he is in chains’ seemed too simple a rationalisation for thinking about society. I became less impressed when I learned about his notion of the ‘state of nature’ where humans were uncorrupted and this construction was a  way to think about  how political states should interact in international politics.  I did not enjoy reading his work yet I recognised that he was a complex thinker. Years later (and I completed my teacher training in a university and did not come across his name), Rousseau appears again as a mover in E.D. Hirsch’s thought about what is wrong about education in the USA and as a example of ‘progressive’ educational thought. Rousseau’s work Émile, or On Education, is identified as a key driver in creating a poor intellectual climate for thinking about education, especially in relation to the importance of factual knowledge. Rousseau writes:

No, if nature has given the child this plasticity of brain which fits him to receive every kind of impression, it was not that you should imprint on it the names and dates of kings, the jargon of heraldry, the globe and geography, all those words without present meaning or future use for the child, which flood of words overwhelms his sad and barren childhood.

It seems pretty conclusive that facts (especially the kind I am interested in as a history teacher) are not meaningful to Rousseau. However, accepting this view means ignoring Rousseau’s work that was produced ten years later and published after his death. Considerations on the Government of Poland was Rousseau’s opportunity to put into action his thought as he was asked to provide suggestions as how Poland should be governed. Regarding education, Rousseau had this to say:

I wish that, when he learns to read, he should read about his own land; that at the age of ten he should be familiar with all its products, at twelve with all its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen he should know its whole history, at sixteen all its laws; that in all Poland there should be no great action or famous man of which his heart and memory are not full, and of which he cannot give an account at a moment’s notice. From this you can see that it is not studies of the usual sort, directed by foreigners and priests, that I would like to have children pursue. The law ought to regulate the content, the order and the form of their studies. My emphasis added.

Dates, names, and facts, it seems, are important.

The above highlights the problem with using  Rousseau to represent contemporary ‘progressive’ educational thought because he could also been seen as an advocate of contemporary ‘traditional’ educational thought.

Categorisations that seem clear and coherent in the present are complex and can fall apart when we add history to them.

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Battles, Babies and Boxes

The calm before the storm...

Battle of Ideas. The calm before the storm… with Dr Dana Mills (left of the picture), Dr Tiffany Jenkins, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Professor Selwyn Cudjoe.

If you have never been to the Battle of Ideas before, I highly recommend it. A weekend filled with conversation, debate and interesting people discussing a range of issues from Brexit to clowns in towns. I took part in two panels. The first was titled ‘History Wars‘ and was based on Margaret MacMillan’s book ‘Uses and Abuses of History’ and was more like an enlightening conversation than a debate. What was clear is that history teaching still has much to do in terms of its image with the general public in relation to the topics taught or how it is taught. I recommended Teaching History to the audience if they wanted to see the rigour in the classroom but I am not sure there will be many takers! The second panel, ‘Decolonising Education‘ touched on the ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ debate and the protests around the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford. The discussion was heated and the audience were certainly engaged! I intend to pick up some of the themes in the discussion over the next few months but it did make me think carefully about why I normally discuss Carr and Elton in relation to UCAS personal statements rather than Ibn Khaldun.

I look forward to returning to the Battle of Ideas next year and making a shorter trip home, as we are part way through the move back to the South East of England. My wife became pregnant with our first child earlier this year (hurrah!),  but she has been quite unwell – to the point that she is currently unable to do the job she loves (boo!). With no family and support network around us in the Midlands and with a baby on the way, it was logical to move back ‘home’ to the South East. We’re in the process of packing – or rather I am while she ‘supervises’ – so watch this space for a longer blog post once we’ve made the move! Needless to say, we’re both very excited about new beginnings.


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Multi-Academy Trusts and Independent Schools

Independent schools come under periodic attack for being ‘separate’ from the state school system despite the fact that many of these schools already sponsor academies and maintain a growing network of links (see the Schools Together website for detailed examples).

The proposal that all schools in England should become academies creates a unique opportunity for independent schools. The fall in actual budgets available to state schools has propelled the movement towards new ways of organising schools to tap into the advantages economies of scale can bring.  By forming multi-academy trusts, independent schools can help by centralising a host of the services needed by schools (HR, finance, catering, cleaning) and help formalise the CPD, sporting and governance links that already exist. There would be no barrier between the sectors and it offers the tantalising prospect that there really could be ‘educational excellence everywhere’ by merging the best aspects from the schools involved.


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Beyond the modern obsession of ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ education

One puzzling aspect of the debate surrounding education on Social Media is starting with the ‘Romantic’ period and blaming Rousseau and his work Emile for the problems in our modern age. The creation of binary opposites from this ‘Romantic’ point has fuelled a wide range of discussions about teachers belonging to one group or another.

I would like to present an anterior history that helps us see beyond the limits imposed by the terms used in the debate by briefly exploring the work of Quintilian. Writing around 95 CE,  Quintilian in the Institutio Oratoria suggested that an effective education should pay attention to the needs of the child:

Yet I am not so unacquainted with differences of age as to think that we should urge those of tender years severely or exact a full complement of work from them. For it will be necessary, above all things, to take care lest the child should conceive a dislike to the application which he cannot yet love, and continue to dread the bitterness which he has once tasted, even beyond the years of infancy. Let his instruction be an amusement to him; let him be questioned and praised; let him never feel pleased that he does not know a thing; and sometimes, if he is unwilling to learn, let another be taught before him, of whom he may be envious. Let him strive for victory now and then, and generally suppose that he gains it; and let his powers be called forth by rewards such as that age prizes.

Institutio Oratoria, Book 1, Chapter 1, 20

In other words, learning should be made pleasurable to the student and that rewards should be given to entice interest. However, this does not mean that there is a lack of rigour:

Some have thought memory to be a mere gift of nature, and to nature, doubtless, it is chiefly owing. But it is strengthened, like all our other faculties, by exercise, and all the study of the orator of which we have been speaking is ineffectual unless the other departments of it be held together by memory as by an animating principle. All knowledge depends on memory, and we shall be taught to no purpose if whatever we hear escapes from us. It is the power of memory that brings before us those multitudes of precedents, laws, judgments, sayings, and facts of which an orator should always have an abundance and which he should always be ready to produce. Accordingly, memory is called, not without reason, the treasury of eloquence.

Institutio Oratoria, Book 11, Chapter 2, 1

The training of memory and the ability to retain facts (through devices such as a ‘Memory Palace’) is an essential part of a good education.

For Quintilian, it was not a case of choice between being child-centred or retaining information through training. Both were needed to provide a good education.

It seems strange that we consistently forget or ignore this fluid thinking about education because of the allure of Enlightenment binaries and the certainty they apparently supply.

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How not to ‘whitewash’

The #RhodesMustFall campaign has been interesting because the main goal to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, imperialist and benefactor, has failed. Equally interesting has been the opposition, which has centred around the seemingly simple argument that one should not ‘whitewash’ history (an interesting choice of words considering the reasoning behind the campaign).

This argument in particular assumes that the history behind monuments and buildings is apparent to everyone. It is not. I have no doubt that many people had no idea who Cecil Rhodes was and what he did when they walked past Oriel College. Without context, the statue presented a limited narrative. The campaigners have called for Oxford to ‘acknowledge and confront its role in the ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire’, and there is a simple way to do this.

Making the complex history of statues/monuments/street names available to all can be done through the technology of iBeacons or QR codes that direct the public to a mobile website/app that offers two interpretations in audio or text format. These can be written by professional historians or by using the network of history teachers across the country. After engaging in the content, listeners/readers can then offer their own interpretation as oral testimony. Rather than ‘whitewashing’ history, it allows people to interact with the past and add their own voices.

Imagine what places like Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Liverpool and London would be like where the history of buildings, streets, monuments and public art speak to you as you walk around. What horrors of the Slave Trade would be revealed? What celebrated achievements would they boast of? What tales of fundamental British values would they make complex? The overlapping and intertwining stories would, for the first time, be available to all as they stood in the physical space. Education, something we seem to agree on as a progressive force in society, would be available to all and at the point of interest.

The costs of such a project would be minimal and it could be done quickly. The public benefit would be enormous and it would allow our society to confront, in a very real way, our history. So rather than threatening to withdraw donations, belittling the students for raising questions and prioritising a single story, let us be open to the voices/spectres of the past and confront the issues. If we don’t, we will simply create a safe space for dissatisfaction and anger.

Interested in the above proposal or think it is unworkable? Get in touch (especially if you are in the heritage sector or Oriel College).

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Why I did not go to the Sunday Times Festival of Education last year

I did not go to the Sunday Times Festival of Education last year. Colleagues and friends attended and I even encouraged other people to go to experience the educational substance and froth alike. I was invited to speak but I turned the invitation down.

Why? The main reason was The Times nominating Nigel Farage as ‘Briton of the Year’.

It should be pretty clear that I don’t agree with his politics on race/identity and I thought it pretty insensitive (if I am being generous) for him to be given the title on that basis. At the time, I tried to find the criteria used for selection but I could not find a published rationale (I would be very interested in it if it does exist). It may be that the title ‘Briton of the Year’ is awarded based on notoriety or impact, but as any teacher knows, highlighting the impact of someone’s poor behaviour usually confers legitimacy and creates a social norm where it is acceptable to act in the way identified. There is even some research on this problematic effect in society. See this from the ‘Nudge’ unit on page 31.

But what does the The Times have to do with the conference? Well, The Times is not The Sunday Times but there is a little more to it:

  • The registered offices are the same address in London;
  • They are owned/published by the same company (News Corp & News UK)
  • You pay one subscription for access to both papers (I pay the student cost as I like to read very different views to my own. I knew my university card would come in handy).

If an organisation (News Corp/News UK) wants to support such views through one of its publications, no problem.  However, I did not feel it was appropriate to attend/speak at an educational conference (focussed on inclusion and human betterment) when it was sponsored by another publication of the same company that unthinkingly (being generous again) supports such divisive politics. The reasoning is simple. If one department in a company had acted inappropriately, would the department be the focus of concern or the company itself? Out of respect for the organisers on the ground, I decided not to publish my withdrawal.

I only mention not attending/speaking now because I referred to it on social media over the weekend when commenting on equality and diversity (see my last post) and was challenged about it. I apparently ‘glommed’ the two publications together (despite the fact that they are owned by the same company etc).

The conference has a new sponsor this year and I might actually attend so I can listen to a few select people talk about the great work they are doing in schools. Of course, it does depend on whether the Telegraph writes something incredibly daft.





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