Prelude to higher standards ?

It is a pity that the debate about raising educational standards – an effort that no sensible person can be against – becomes fogged with dreamy thoughts about making things the way they were (or how journalists and politicians imagine they were).  The latest example of this is to be found in the latest Sunday Times, which advocates making children learn poetry by rote, and included a list of poems that should be learnt.  The list included Wordsworth’s autobiographical work “The Prelude”, a book I know something of having been put to it for ‘A’ level.  I am not an expert on this, having got a very moderate English grade after spending a couple of terms in hospital: I do know, however, that it is very, very long.  The good old internet (invented after the standards had slipped so woefully) confirms that the “The Prelude” is 7882 lines long.  The problem could be that the Sunday Times’ experts had never read the book, or never met a child, but it has to be one or the other. The only institutions that value such heroic feats of memory are Islamic madrassas – it’s how you become a hafiz – and we know of their contribution to the modern world.

To repeat.  I am in favour of rising standards in education, and (another debate, I know) I do think that general knowledge is a part of high standards.  I am often shocked by the brainless replies of radio & TV quiz contestants.  Have we really got to a stage where (after conferring) a team agrees that the Mona Lisa was painted by Picasso ?  Indeed we have.  But I recall a recent edition of University Challenge where teams of four could not name the Prime Minister at the time of the 1929 Great Crash, thought Delft was in Northern Ireland and believed Herschel worked in the twentieth century.  Oh, perhaps I need to add that this was a celebrity edition, with teams of (yep) middle aged journalists and politicos representing their former institutions.  There are many ways to approach raising educational levels, but nostalgia isn’t one of them.

On The Border

Twitter is a wonderful thing, but it can lead you to some very odd places.  A few months ago I made a remark to the effect that recent events seem to have suggested that Hayek was wrong to suggest social democracy was the enemy of freedom – for it is in social democratic countries that the greatest freedom of thought, speech and lifestyle is to be found. Well, now !  It turns out that the redoubtable Dr Hayek, though dead for years, still has faithful acolytes to carry his torch.  I found myself, at the age of 69, acquiring trolls – not only demanding proof that Hayek was unsympathetic to progressive taxation and the welfare state, but replying with aggressive rudeness when I did so.  A lesson learned.

Recently I found myself in another weird universe.  The start was pretty normal – someone providing a link to a speech by the former head of Israel’s intelligence service Mossad, who apparently suggested Israel needed new leadership with a more conciliatory tone .  In itself, not an exceptional view, you may feel, though perhaps a surprising proponent of them.  However, the comments made beneath the tweet led you into an extraordinary world, populated by people who either think Israel should not exist, or that it should be greatly expanded.  Both sides leant on the idea of looking back at history to a time – often a very, very long time ago -when the borders of nations in the area were different from now.  It did not prove much of an effort to find a time when Jews had much more than the present, or much less; or when it was all Arab lands.

Break for thought. I’ve recently been shown a marvellous dynamic map of Europe’s borders since about 1000. In 1066, France owned England.  In 1200, England owned France (and kept a claim on it for another 600 years).  You’ll notice, as you run the timeline, Poland is either a European super-power, or doesn’t exist at all; and at the end of the Second World War, it shifted leftwards by 200 miles or so.  Hungary booms and busts, and maintains its resentment at losing Transylvania to Romania.  German was once made up of scores of minor princedoms.  Alsace and Lorraine switch between France and Germany.  Yugoslavia lives and dies.  And, let’s be fair to Shakespeare, there appears to be a time when Bohemia had a coast.   This isn’t just a European experience, of course.  Paraguay kept picking wars with its neighbours which would end in losing vast swathes of territory (and horrific numbers of lives).  Indian partition, and he creation of  Bangladesh provide another example.

What’s my point ?  It is that an argument based on historic borders is usually unhelpful and often idiotic.  We start from where we are, in a world where most boundaries have changed, and we try to find a way forward where conflict is avoided, exaggerated claims are discounted, gainers outnumber losers, and those who lose most are compensated.