Today’s Guardian has a classic piece of click-bait by the opinionated and ignorant AIDS-denialist Simon Jenkins, in which he claims that maths is a waste of time for school students, and government obssession with maths will make schools intolerable and authoritarian. His article is leavened in equal measure with sneering at any politician who tries to find a solution to any problem, haughty dismissal of any attempt to regularize or monitor teaching practice, and a sly dose of cheap stereotyping to boot. At time of writing it is completely buried on the Guardian website (at least this newspaper has some shame!) and has attracted 1594 comments, mostly disagreeing with his pathetic and stupid thesis.

The thing that really stands out for me is not the vacuity and shallowness of the arguments, but the existence of the article itself. Can anyone imagine a Japanese, Chinese or Korean newspaper bothering to publish an opinion piece arguing that maths is a waste of time? Can anyone imagine an ordinary Japanese, Chinese or Korean citizen being one-eyed enough (or worked up enough) to comment on such an article agreeing with it? The existence of such theories in East Asia is pretty questionable, I would say: there are lots of Japanese for whom maths is a waste of time, but the number of Japanese who think teaching maths is a waste of time would be pretty small, I think – certainly not sufficient to support an article on the topic in a major newspaper. If anyone wants to look at why Britain is failing in the (shudder) “global race,” articles like this by “public thinkers” give you a big hint as to the answer: an ex-editor of the Times actually believes that trying to improve maths teaching is a “race to the bottom” against China, and apparently believes schools shouldn’t teach things if they are a waste of time to the majority of their pupils.

I wonder what Jenkins thinks schools should be doing, if not teaching material that is a waste of time? Shakespeare is clearly out, as is most of history. Apparently philosophy is important because it helps one to understand formal logic (just putting aside the preponderance of mathematicians amongst the classical philosophers, for the sake of “argument”…) Jenkins is an AIDS denialist, so I guess he thinks sex education is a waste of time too. I imagine he thinks geography enormously relevant, but he would probably prefer it to focus on map reading and memorizing the names of capital cities – all that stuff about social geography and global warming is irrelevant, surely. And he wouldn’t want kids being able to calculate age-standardized mortality rates, because then they might notice that AIDS is a big issue in some parts of the world …

Most of all these articles – which appear fairly regularly in the British press – make me angry because of the toxic mix of contradictory stereotypes about maths (and by extension, mathematicians) that they promulgate. On the one hand maths teaching is a brutal exercise in crushing creativity, because maths is a fundamentally joyless and mechanical process that depends on rote learning and soul-destroying repetition; but only a few people are actually good at maths – presumably due to some kind of innate talent or special powers – so there’s no point in teaching the rest of us anything. Not only are these two ideas fundamentally incompatible, but they also suggest some kind of contrast with the humanities in which studying the humanities is always and everywhere liberating and enlightening, and hours of soulless repetition (or indeed the development of any kind of skills connected to such study) are unnecessary. Tell that to a good writer, or a ballerina … Jenkins’s view somehow manages to simultaneously belittle both mathematics and the disciplines he sets up in opposition to it.

He also manages to belittle the Chinese when he says

I once visited Chinese schools; they were like communist drill halls, factories of pressure, discipline and childhood misery

What’s that, Jenkins? You visited “Chinese schools”? All of them, was it? Maybe just 10% of them? Or did you mean to say “a Chinese school” and just couldn’t quite get yourself to spit it out? A solid grounding in mathematics might help you with that whole singular/plural distinction thing, and it might also help you to calculate what proportion of “Chinese schools” you visited, to help you understand how representative your experience was. But I can tell you this for free, Jenkins: I studied in British schools (probably, at a guess, more schools than you ever visited in China), and I can tell you now: they were like communist drill halls, factories of discipline and childhood misery. There’s even a famous British song about how terrible they are. At least Chinese kids leave their schools capable of doing basic mathematics. You might want to think about that before you make sweeping statements about a nation of a billion people, based on a couple of hours in a Shanghai school.

Many of the commenters on the article have said this, but I’d like to repeat it here: if you want to see the intellectual justification for Britain’s decline in the modern world, articles like this make it as clear as day. Here we have a senior public figure who was an editor of Britain’s most respected paper (the Times), writing from the nation that invented calculus about how teaching mathematics is a waste of time. That, right there, expresses Britain’s decline in a nutshell. Thank you, Jenkins, for making it clear. Now to the back of the class with you, until you have learnt your times tables.

Last weekend the Guardian had an interesting article about the New College for the Humanities, some dodgy knock-off rich-kids proto-university in the UK, land of inequality. Apparently it’s being run by someone left-wing, so we have to take it seriously even though it charges 18,000 pounds a year (twice the cost of Oxford) for a humanities education. For my reader(s) who is not familiar with this issue, the college was set up by A.C Grayling (apparently a lefty, apparently a philosopher). His college has a bunch of famous professors like Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson (who lectures precisely two classes a year) and offers the following quality of service:

Every week, [Jamie] goes to 14 hours of lectures and has one hour-long group tutorial, with three students and one tutor, and one hour-long individual tutorial. “We’re expected to do between three and four hours personal study a day. We write a minimum of an essay a week. It is a full-on education. We are being educated actively.”

Let me tell you something, “Jamie”: you’re being ripped off. I did a physics degree, and in first year I had 32 contact hours a week, and at least two assignments. Included in that is my first year English course, so I had to read a novel a week (sometimes Shakespeare) and attend a one hour-long group tutorial, with about 5 students and one tutor. I had three hours of laboratory a week, which (obviously) required special equipment. You can rest assured I didn’t pay 18k pounds a year – actually in 2012 pounds I paid about 1000. Are you sure, “Jamie,” that you’re getting value for money? Incidentally, I was lectured by Paul Davies, so I guess I got famous lecturers for my 1k. What do you think, “Jamie”? Are you doing better for having chosen the New College of the Humanities over some dodgy red-brick or an ex-teacher’s college?

Despite this, the article makes the environment sound fairly good, and certainly it seems like the lecturers and tutors are generally attentive. But the cost keeps being raised, and I can see why – not only is it a lot of money, but there are a lot of people in Britain (i.e. most British people) who really aren’t very wealthy, and for whom 54,000 is completely out of their range (especially since everyone is culturally expected to be up to their eyeballs in housing debt). Now, I’m sympathetic to the argument that poor people choose not to go into debt for education for cultural, rather than financial reasons – they’ll take on huge debt for a dodgy housing investment, that they wouldn’t take on for a reliable education investment, for example – but still, 18000 pounds is pretty damn steep. So I was interested to read AC Grayling’s response to the cost issue. And what did this famous left-wing philosopher say?

“The downside of being educated at someone else’s expense is that you may not value it,” he says. “You may regard it as an entitlement. Unless you are acutely aware of the opportunity that is being offered to you, you may be rather cavalier about it. [You] might not be quite so keen to suck the marrow from it.”

Statements like this leave me simultaneously angry, sick, disappointed and confused. First, let’s make one thing clear: no one in Grayling’s college is being educated at their own expense. No one at the age of 19 – people who have never worked – can afford 18k a year. They’re all being educated at someone else’s expense. Of course, in this case it’s their parents’ expense, but why should that matter? Certainly when I was at university I met a wide variety of people being educated at their parents’ expense, and I can assure you that they were “not quite so keen to suck the marrow from it.” But this was not what Grayling is thinking of when he said this – so much is clear from the context. He was clearly thinking of people being subsidized by the state.

And this is why his statement leaves me angry, sick, disappointed and confused: why is there a difference between the state paying and your own parents paying?

It makes me angry because there are a lot of people out there who are desperate for an education but can’t afford it, and if someone else paid they would snap up the chance. One of my players is from the Dominican Republic, and he finds it amazing that in Japan there are still people who don’t really care about the education they are receiving, because in the Dominican Republic an education is a difficult and precious thing to get and so many people who want it will never get it. Yet somehow Grayling – advanced philosopher that he is – thinks that all those people out there hungering for an education can’t really properly value it because if they did get it would be through someone else’s largesse, thus suddenly their desire is sapped.

It makes me sick because I am one of those people. Abandoned by my parents at 17, with no money and no prospects, I was funded through my education by the state. I appreciated every single fucking minute of it, thank you very much, and I shat all over my private-school educated, parent-funded friends. I fought my way into university, I studied hard, and I loved it. I still remember in first year my private-school-educated “colleagues” openly challenging my high school grades because they didn’t believe a pleb like me could have done so well. Fuck you, you rich fuckers. I beat you every step of the way. Not only was I better than you, but I understood the value of the benefits I was getting from the government. I knew exactly what my “free” education was worth. But here we have some famous, apparently left-wing philosopher recycling this crap about how because the state paid for my education, I didn’t value it? That makes me sick.

It disappoints me because it shows how far the understanding of welfarism and inequality has fallen in the UK – once a beacon of thought on these issues – if supposedly left wing philosophers are spouting this claptrap. What chance have we of addressing the serious inequality issues in the UK if serious educators seriously believe that anyone who is funded by the state to support their education is going to be inherently inferior in attitude to someone who is funded by their parents? What hope for redistributive justice in such an environment?

Finally, it confuses me because, as someone whose parents never helped him out, I can’t understand why receiving fat scads of cash from your parents is okay but getting the same cash from the government is poisonous for your character. I don’t deny the right of parents to pay for their kids’ education, or the fundamental rightness of people supporting their own children, flows of capital through families etc. That’s all fine. But the idea that a person’s character and attitude towards self-improvement (represented, in this instance, by education) should be somehow reduced by being supported by a soix-distant patron, rather than a family member, is just confusing. I mean, it’s all free moolah, right? How come one is character-endangering and one is not? I have never, ever been able to understand this, and I think I’ve never been able to understand it because it is bullshit.

An interesting aspect of our culture is that we make these cultural assertions about how weak and inferior rich kids who receive gifts from their parents really are, but we make policy that benefits those people and encourages that act. So we refer to rich kids as “spoilt princesses,” “trust fund babies,” etc.; but we make policy that is explicitly designed to benefit these people and we make philosophy (apparently) that values their personal achievements more highly, even when those personal achievements were bought not earnt. For example, in Australia everyone can take a university debt; but rich kids’ parents can pay up front, in which case they get a 15% discount. So rich people get exactly the same education as poor people, but pay 15% less for it. So on the one hand society is laughing at these kids for being supported by the mummy bank, but on the other hand society is guaranteeing that those kids and their rich parents pay less for the same product. And then those poor people are meant to thank their all-powerful masters for their beneficence? Or maybe we’re supposed to accept these crumbs of wisdom from people like Grayling, who tells me that even though I paid 20% more than my neighbour for exactly the same product, I value it less because the government, rather than my rich daddy, dropped the money in my lap.

What can I say to this logic? Fuck you, AC Grayling, and your “philosophy.” I didn’t go to your top quality university, but I think I can detect bullshit a lot more easily than you can. But I guess, sitting in your room labeled “Master” after a life of success, you don’t really care how much your bullshit smells to people like me, do you? Is there a word for a philosophy like that?


Today’s Guardian has some new notes on the ongoing scandal that is the British education system. This time it’s a new OECD report ranking countries by numeracy and literacy, and the United Kingdom has fallen near the bottom. Worse still, the study finds that on average 16-24 year old Britons perform worse on both numeracy and literacy than do 16-55 year olds – that is, educational achievement has gone backwards in recent times. The depth of failure is also astounding:

a quarter of adults in England have maths skills no better than a 10-year-old, a conclusion that also prompted a political row in which the Conservatives attacked Labour’s record in government.

That means an estimated 8.5 million adults are only able to manage one-step tasks in arithmetic, sorting numbers or reading graphs. The same body also concluded that one in six adults could only just decipher sentences and read a paragraph of text – the literacy level of a child in their final year of primary education.

This is a pretty disturbing indictment of the British education system. The rankings also show it is under-performing relative to other English-speaking nations, with Australia and Canada out-performing the UK on every measure and the US close behind the UK. South Korea is top in numeracy and Japan top in literacy, which finding is particularly staggering given that literacy in Japanese requires a huge commitment of time and effort just to learn the vocabulary in comparison with English. The UK government is trying to blame Labour, pointing out that a 24 year old tested by this report would have spent their entire education under Labour, but I think that’s a little simplistic – education systems are slow to shift, and education methods, infrastructure and workforce obviously have legacy affects that would strongly influence outcomes long after the government that set them has disappeared into the trash bin of history. The Guardian is taking a more nuanced approach, attempting to understand what it is about education policy in Japan that makes Japanese students so good. It makes the good and obviously alarming point about differences in attitude towards education between the countries:

Japanese senior high school teachers, and their pupils, are often incredulous when they learn that 16- to 18-year-olds in England can drop maths and literature and study just three A-level subjects of their choice.

Add me to the ranks of the incredulous. When I was finishing high school you had to do five subjects. What else would be reasonable? And to the best of my knowledge I could only drop maths in my final year, and had to do one science and one humanities amongst my five subjects. What do English students do with their time?

This article, however, also brings up the common criticism of Japan’s education system – in fact it brings it up twice – and presents this criticism as some kind of counter-balance to the system’s strong focus on rote learning and hard work. The article states:

Japan’s state education system is often criticised for quashing original thought among pupils in favour of rote learning, and for placing an emphasis on theory rather than practical skills …
The stress on memorising information and passing exams, which begins in primary school and continues through to senior high, has been blamed for stifling critical, independent thought

This is a personal bug bear of mine, and something I find really frustrating about western coverage of Japan in particular and of Asia generally, for two reasons: it exaggerates the extent to which western students learn “critical thought” and it valorizes western “critical thought” as something that somehow counter-balances ignorance, or has some kind of value separate from the basic knowledge and skills required to inform critical analysis.

In terms of exaggeration, I remember growing up in the Australian school system, entering university, and interacting with peers during that period, and I can’t say that between us we had a shred of critical thought. We all failed essays at university and had to be taught a whole bunch of things about analysis and critical thinking skills, and university tutors in the humanities will often talk about how the students they get in first year are just repeating rote what they learnt from parents and peers. So the idea that western schools are a haven of critical thinking strikes me as a little exaggerated. Yes, high school students in the west spend more time spouting their opinions in essays than Japanese students, but so what? I’m sure that lots of British students have spent time in the library photocopying their arsehole, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at art.

But more importantly – and the reason this annoys me – critical thinking is a complete waste of time, and can even be counter-productive, if it is alloyed with ignorance and an inability to read. Let’s review the facts about one in six adults in the UK, who could “only just read a paragraph of text.” Why don’t we slap down the IPCC summary for policy makers in front of one of these adults and ask them to critically analyse it. Are they going to produce an analysis with any critical value, no matter how well they learnt to spray their opinions at school? I don’t think so – especially if they have maths skills no better than a 10-year-old. Perhaps it might be better if these adults were first able to understand the IPCC summary, before they embarked on a critique. Indeed, it might be better if these adults refrained from criticizing things they can’t read, because if you don’t understand something it’s likely your critical thinking about it is going to be of little value. You cannot present “independent, critical thought” as a boon independent of the skills that underlie basic comprehension, because one depends on the other. This isn’t to say that both can’t be taught in school, but it’s clear that the UK and US are not doing that. If you teach “critical thought” without teaching the skills it depends on, what you are actually teaching is rhetoric: the ability to bend facts to support your pre-conceived ideological goals. That this is taught in UK schools is not a positive thing.

Critical, independent thinking is not actually a hallmark of western culture: spouting opinions is. If we are such good critical independent thinkers, how come we got lied into a war in Iraq, participated in the massive con that was the housing bubble and the GFC, still haven’t come up with a solution to global warming, and managed to wage the biggest and most disastrous war in human history (WW2). Is it possible that what we see is a virtue is actually a flaw? Or, more likely, we aren’t doing it at all? After all, the land of limited independent thought, Japan, has a low crime rate, high employment, little inequality, and has a strong opposition to engaging in any form of war. They have an economy much larger than their population would be expected to have, exert a significant positive influence in the world, and make all the stuff you use even though they have no resources to speak of. Perhaps an education system that doesn’t focus on “independent, critical thinking” is more beneficial to society than one that does? Or perhaps the West is so full of its own opinions that it mistakes ranting for thinking?

This article’s platitudes about critical thought might go down well with educated British readers, but to me they’re just another example of the standard rhetorical footwork employed by journalists about Japan: on the one hand, a weak and stereotypical assessment of Japanese as conformist; and on the other, a triumphalist reassurance that westerners are all free-thinking individuals. Both of these two steps in the movement are wrong, and the underlying assumptions about the value of critical thinking to a functioning society, as well as the facts about how prepared western school leavers are to engage in such thought processes are also deeply flawed. A little more nuance would be nice.

Also of passing interest in this debate that the UK will now have with itself over its education policies is the role of inequality, and the relative benefits of development compared to birthrates in preparing for the future. How can the education levels of young adults in the UK be going backwards at the same time as average GCSE scores are going up? One answer, readily deployed by conservatives, is “grade inflation.” The other answer is inequality: that if you looked into the background of that “one in six adults” you would find they were much more likely to be poor and from certain areas. Japan, of course, has very little inequality compared to the US and the UK, and Australia and Canada are much more equal than the US and the UK. Interesting how the rankings seem to reflect the inequality within these countries. Also, if one in six of your young adults lack basic literacy and one in four of your adults lack basic numeracy, I think it’s safe to say that you have a problem with your workforce, and no industrialized, developed nation can hope to maintain its economic and cultural development with this kind of lack of investment in its workforce. Although England has a higher birthrate than Japan or South Korea, which country has the larger number of suitable new entrants to its workforce? Who is better placed to maintain a high-skilled pool of workers? The UK with something like 20% of its workers incapable of even basic office duties, or Japan and South Korea? Maintaining birth rates is not the be-all and end-all of maintaining a sustainable social order, especially if a large minority of all those born are going to grow up to be completely unable to contribute to the economy. British policy-makers need to be looking at the long-term implications of their education and industrial strategies (such as they have any) if they want to maintain anything resembling the quality of life that modern industrialized economies have come to expect.

Perhaps they could start by reassessing what they consider to be educational priorities, and trying to look beyond party-political point-scoring. “It’s Labour’s fault” is hardly a sterling example of the “critical thought” that UK policy-makers supposedly learnt at school. But then, maybe it’s an alternative when you don’t have the skills to read the report …

… Because they are so much more Dudalicious. In honour of the David Gilmour (not the guitarist!) school of teaching, from now on I will only use statistical techniques designed by men. Sure, I could use Generalized Linear Latent and Mixed Models (GLLAMM), but just listen to the name of the damned thing. It’s like the Jane Austen of stats, and unsurprisingly it was developed by a woman (Sophia Rabe-Hasketh). Hardin and Hilbe just had a much more indefinably cool … manliness … about them, so I think for clustered binomial or count data I’ll just wing it with Generalized Estimating Equations. Luckily I don’t do much in the way of RCTs, because the classic text on experimental design by Cochran and Cox is half-authored by a woman – I can’t tell which bit she wrote so I’ll just have to dump the lot to be sure. This could be a bit tricky, because that stuff is pretty fundamental to how we think about efficiency in experimental design. No problem really, though, I’ll just make sure I apply for bigger grants and recruit more subjects. Typical of a woman to write a book about how to be thrifty with sample sizes really, isn’t it? Real men just recruit more subjects.

David Gilmour also doesn’t like Chinese authors, so if I’m going to follow his approach I’ll probably have to drop any adjustment for probability sampling, since a lot of the development work for those methods was conducted by Indians after independence. That shouldn’t be too bad because there are still some low-grade journals that let you publish without adjusting for your sampling process. Of course, to be sure I think I should develop a few stock phrases to deploy in explanation of why I’m avoiding certain methods:

Although region-level variables were available, they were not incorporated in this analysis because the methods required were developed by a woman


To avoid feminization of statistics, the clustering effects of school and classroom were not adjusted for in this analysis

and maybe

Probability weights were not incorporated into the analysis, because that method was developed by Indians

I’m sure the peer reviewers will appreciate that, but just to be sure I’ll be sure to specify in all submissions that I not be reviewed by women. That should cover it.

Now, some of you might suggest that I should just relax and use all the techniques available to me, or at least not go through the canon with a fine-toothed comb checking the gender of every contributor – I mean, couldn’t I just drop the techniques only if I find out that they were written by a woman, without active screening? A kind of passive case-finding approach, if you will (but can I employ case-finding – it may have been invented by a woman. I should check that!) But this is not how the David Gilmour school works. You have to assess your authors first and foremost on their cool manliness:

Chekhov was the coolest guy in literature. I really think so. There’s a few volumes of his there, what a great looking guy. He is the coolest guy in literature; everyone who ever met Chekhov somehow felt that they should jack their behaviour up to a higher degree.

And really, when you look at the kinds of canon that are taught in English at high schools and first year uni courses, it is quite often the case that they are all (or almost all) male. Every statistician knows that those kinds of imbalances in a sample don’t happen by accident – that’s a deliberate selection bias. If it’s good enough for dudely English teachers it’s good enough for me, so I think from now on I should screen out any beastly feminized stats. Sure, you can’t get into any half-decent journals if you can’t use GLLAMM and good experimental design, but I say hell to that. It’s time to fight back! Men-only stats for the win!

In case anyone thinks I’m being serious[1], there’s been something of a storm of controversy about this David Gilmour chap, and I think you can see how stupid his approach is if you imagine trying it in a technical field. Stats being part of maths, it has its fair share of chick lit, but it is still male dominated; nonetheless, if you screen out the main work done by women, you suddenly lose a huge range of tools and techniques that are essential to the modern statistician. Surely the same applies in English literature, but moreso given the huge role women played in the development of the novel. Check this Crooked Timber thread for more entertaining take-downs of this position (with some prime grade Troll Meat thrown in the mix). It really is outstanding on so many levels that a literature teacher would judge who to teach in such a juvenile Boys Own Manual way; that they would take their responsibilities so lightly as to think that their sole task was to teach students their own opinion rather than … something useful … and that they would not try to hide it behind some more mealy-mouthed apologia. I mean really, there are a lot of very good female writers in the last two centuries and yet people like this David Gilmour chap manage to construct a syllabus without a single woman in it. Usually their argument would be along the lines of “I judge on merit” but you do have to wonder, don’t you? And then along comes a naif like Gilmour and makes it completely clear how these canons are really constructed – the women are screened out from the get go.

fn1: I really hope not, but this is the internet.

The Grounds and the Kaiji School

The Grounds and the Kaichi School

Yesterday I visited Matsumoto with my friend from London, Dr. M. We were unburdened by annoying Germans, and able to enjoy the full glories of this small town nestled in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Matsumoto’s castle is a national treasure, as well as a deathtrap for elderly people, and like most castles in Japan more fun to view from the outside than from within. It gave some interesting insights into feudal life, including a wide selection of firearms and examples of the tribulations of daily life in Sengoku Japan. That was all fun, but Matsumoto’s real hidden gem is the Kaichi School, a museum about education in Japan that is located in the building of the old Kaichi Elementary school, next to the new Kaichi school. It seems strange to say that a museum about education and education policy can be fun (can you imagine anything more boring?) but it actually really was. I think for those of us who set our gaming worlds in the not-so-distant past, this kind of information is invaluable for creating a rich and believable fantasy setting, so I thought I’d describe a little of what I saw here. Plus, of course, we all went to school, so we can compare our own experiences with those of the children of two very different countries: the past, in Japan.

The Dragons and the Nameplate

The Dragons and the Nameplate

The Kaichi school is important in Japanese education policy because it was a leader in education policy at the time it was built, and it was one of the first schools built after the Meiji restoration. The Kaichi school was active in the Freedom and People’s Rights movement, and so important to that movement that the Emperor Meiji himself visited Matsumoto to try and calm the demands of that movement. He stayed in the school, which has a room dedicated to his memory. As a result of its role in education reform, the modern school museum is a repository of historical material on education reform in Japan. The school building is itself a very beautiful whitewashed building in a European style, with many Japanese touches – such as the dragons over the entrance and carved into doors in the interior. The old classrooms have been turned into exhibits, depicting education in Japan from the era of the samurai to the modern day.

A samurai child's schoolbook

A samurai child’s schoolbook

I was surprised to discover that education before the Meiji era was actually already quite universal, though not particularly good quality or equitable. Most education was carried out by temples, until the law in 1880 which made education mandatory for all children. Before then different children received different levels of education, with samurai receiving the most impressive while farmers simply learnt to count and write basic information. By 1880 about 90% of the population was in some kind of education and literacy rates were 45% for men and 15% for women. The museum had examples of the schoolbooks of the pre-Meiji era, and some woodcuts depicting children being educated; it also had photos from the late Meiji era, showing for example girls from poor families who were paid to work as baby-sitters, studying with their charges slung on their backs because their master was required to pay for their education. They learnt to write things like “Thank you master, it is due to your kindness that I am able to learn to read.” The museum had lots of photos of the school over time, and also woodcuts depicting education before that era. It also had a selection of documents from the opening of the school, showing what gifts were given. When the school was opened, they held a Shinto ceremony to sanctify it, and the local farmers and citizens donated rice, sake and fish (Bream) as gifts to the shrine and the school. The school opened in 1876 and universal education was mandated in 1880, so until then parents paid the teachers gifts of rice, fish and other farm products. Looking at these exhibits, one is reminded of how incredibly poor Japanese society was before 1873, and how incredibly rapidly it developed after the restoration.



Of course, Japan’s development in the modern era is bracketed by two extreme events, the Meiji restoration in 1873 and the Pacific War from 1931-1945. The museum spends a lot of time on the Meiji reforms but doesn’t shy away from the role of education in promoting and supporting war in the Pacific War. It has a room devoted to the Pacific war, in which it shows the activities of the school and its students during the war. The picture above is an example of what students learnt during that time. On the right of the lower picture are two caricatures of American and English soldiers (the American is smoking, and the Englishman looks suave); on the left of the (female?) soldier with the naginata the two kanji say gekimetsu, destruction. In the picture above this, a sad-looking man salutes under the caption “Young men going to the sky” (Japanese depictions of the war in the air often use this romantic language of the sky, rather than more technical language about “air war” or “aerial”, I don’t know why – maybe there’s a clue in the new Ghibli movie).

The second to last room of the exhibition is a room full of different textbooks over time. This includes textboooks from the war and the immediate post-war period; the picture above shows a textbook from the war era, while the picture below shows a textbook from immediately after the war that has been censored to within an inch of its life. The textbook is open to a page that says the following:

Mr Soldier, please look at the words and pictures I draw

Please also show them to the children of Korea

When you capture new lands, please wave the flag of Japan and yell “banzai.”

Mr Soldier, please work hard and happily.

We visit the shrine to pray for you on the first day of every month

I guess the Japanese were too poor and there was too much policy chaos after the war to write new textbooks, but they couldn’t exactly deploy the war-era textbooks untouched, since they would have been full of the worst imperialist and racist tripe, and the kind of disturbing language used in the textbook above. But I can’t help thinking that this kind of heavy-handed censorship would merely encourage children of that era to investigate the “truth” about the war. (Which they would have to do – the Japanese explanation below indicates that in some cases 30% of the text book was censored!)

How is this helping Yamato kun learn?

How is this helping Yamato kun learn?

Of course life after the war changed a lot, and the next set of textbooks shows this: they are luminous, beautifully-written affairs. As far as I can tell the same age of children would be expected to read the textbook shown in the picture above and in the picture below. The text on the picture above is all about asking soldiers of Japan to struggle in war – it is supplicative and futile. The text in the rightmost book below simply states that “the sky glowed, the sea glowed, the roofs glowed” – it describes a pastoral idyll. Which is it better for children to learn?

A sudden change for the better ...

A sudden change for the better …

These installations really show how text books can vary rapidly across time, and how closely education policy supports and reflects national policy at any time. I guess if the education system had been allowed to continue in its chaotic private form after 1880, it would have been a lot harder for the government to exert a common propaganda line – though the counterfactual would likely have been little better, since by 1940 all arms of society had been sucked into the war economy and it is unlikely that the private educators would have been able to escape this trend to the glorification of war (not to mention that the state was basically seized by the army, who probably would not have tolerated freedom in educational curricula after 1931). I guess one of the downsides of a standardized curriculum that enables a country to go from post-feudal rural basket case to world power in 50 years is that it is vulnerable to misuse as a propaganda tool…

After its “textbooks through the ages” exhibition, the single biggest room in the school was devoted to a “desks through the ages” installation, shown in the picture below. The desk furthest at the right is from before the Meiji era and is called a 天神机, heavenly desk. It doesn’t look heavenly. Some of these desks were quite ornately made, though they looked rather uncomfortable. I think most nerdy types have spent a lot of our childhood crouched over a desk learning what makes the world tick – it’s interesting to see how people in a completely different time and place were doing it. Mostly worse, by the looks of things.

A desk! A desk! My empire for a desk!

A desk! A desk! My empire for a desk!

This picture also gives a sense of how beautiful the inside of this school is. I really recommend this little museum for a visit if you are in Matsumoto. The castle is also interesting, and the town as a whole is a pretty little place full of old buildings – it is apparently one of the few cities in Japan that has maintained its old buildings, and so riding around in it is a really pleasant experience. For foreigners visiting Japan it is an excellent side trip. It is 2.5 hours from Shinjuku, it is close to skiing, monkey onsens and highland walks, the town itself is pretty and it has an excellent website. There are many old warehouses in the town that have been converted into shops or restaurants, and it is very easy to get around. If you are looking for somewhere to stay I recommend the Dormy Inn – the staff are excellent, the breakfast delicious, and the onsen relaxing. If you go, try to spend at least two nights here so you can explore the surrounding countryside, the castle and at least one of the museums or galleries. And head to the 女鳥川 (a river whose English translation I don’t know) because there is a cute set of streets lining it that have really old buildings and interesting restaurants, overlooking the river. It’s a really nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city, nestled equidistant between Tokyo and Osaka, with a lot of cultural information to keep you interested. And if you go there, visit the school!

[Updated late at night on 26th September to correct the spelling of Kaichi school (how dumb am I?) and to include the translation of a textbook page, which I checked with a friend].

Figure 1: Absenteeism by level of deprivation, UK, 2004

Figure 1: Absenteeism by level of deprivation, England, 2004

The Guardian today reports that Britain’s top 50 state-funded comprehensive schools and academies have become more unequal over recent years, and are not reflective of the social composition of their surrounding areas, or of the remainder of the schools in England. Those of us from more equal societies might think this is not a big deal but the research is quite stark in showing very large differences between the schools and their surrounding communities. Of course, inequality in educational outcomes in the UK is stark and scary compared to other OECD nations, and to help digest this I’ve provided two figures. Figure 1 above shows rates of authorized (i.e. with parental request) and total absenteeism (i.e. including truancy) for small areas in the UK, by the level of poverty of the area; the further left you go, the poorer the community becomes. Figure 2 below shows GCSE achievement on the same scale. In this case, “deprivation” is measured by the Index of Multiple Deprivation, which I think is the scale for measuring poverty that is favoured by the UK Office of National Statistics.

Figure 2: GCSE Scores by level of deprivation, England, 2004

Figure 2: GCSE Scores by level of deprivation, England, 2004

School outcomes in the UK are obviously heavily determined by wealth. The Guardian report suggests that amongst state-funded schools this effect is most obvious in the elite schools, the comprehensives and academies. This, it suggests, is due to increasing income inequality in the UK, and because of the power of house prices. Basically, middle class families in the UK are able to buy houses in the catchment areas of the best schools, ensuring their children can access those schools. This in turn has the effect of pushing up property prices in those areas, forcing out poorer people and preserving the schools for the wealthier incomers. It appears that some of these schools have a policy of guaranteeing access not just on the basis of catchment area but on distance from the school, which guarantees that people with better purchasing power can push out poorer people.

The statistics about differences between school socioeconomics and that of the surrounding communities are pretty stark. They report that

uptake of free school meals – which is most often linked to parents receiving low-income benefits – was lower than half the national average: 7.6% in the 500 leading schools compared with 16.5% in almost 3,000 state secondary schools in England.

Just putting aside the fact that this suggests 16.5% of British families are too poor to provide their children with lunch, we can see that the communities served by these schools are, on average, wealthier than the rest of the country. They are also wealthier than the communities they are embedded in. Measured in terms of whether the schools enrol equal or higher numbers of students on free school meals as are present in the local community, the report found

only 25 also exceeded their local average, and they were well outnumbered by the 106 schools that had fewer than 3% of their pupils eligible.

Most of these elite state-funded schools were somehow managing to recruit on income, even though they are ostensibly open for all. This isn’t inevitable, and some schools have shown that it is possible both to recruit above-average numbers of poorer children and to have good academic results. For example, Chesterton community sports college in Staffordshire:

Chesterton college in Newcastle-under-Lyme has 22% of its pupils on free school meals, compared with its local authority average of just 9.8%. In 2012, 72% of its pupils achieved five good grades at GCSE, well above the national and Staffordshire local authority average of 59%.

This shows that in a good school, poverty is neither a barrier to access nor to success. So what’s going on? This Guardian article is citing a report by the Sutton Trust, which recommends some interesting solutions to the problem, including the use of lotteries or banding (basically, stratified random sampling) to ensure equal access (or, at least, better access). These are interesting ideas for short term solutions, but they don’t address the basic problem: massive inequality in British society somehow ensures that even with free-to-access services (like health and education), those with the assets manage to seize the advantage. The report makes this clear through one simple stark claim: some proportion of this elitism in state-funded schools is only possible because some parents are willing and able to move houses to be in the catchment area (and to push others out of that catchment area). People are required and willing to move homes just to get these superior education services. Should a good high school education be worth that much? Why are people moving homes to secure education outcomes? And should they have to?

I think this problem is driven by two factors: 1) investment in the majority of British state-funded education is so poor that people are willing to move homes to ensure their kids don’t have to go to some schools; and 2) the middle class in Britain now see their situation as so precarious that they are willing to make major asset purchase decisions (home purchase) simply to guarantee their children continued membership of the class they grew up in.  It seems to me that neither of these things should be necessary, and that there are alternative ways to manage society that would prevent these two situations – in my opinion, in a way that benefits everyone.

Increase investment in the worst schools

Looking at the two charts above, and considering the success reported by some of these elite academies, it’s pretty obvious that there must be some terrible schools in the UK, and some schools in serious need of extra investment. This won’t work by itself, since a lot of these areas need major cultural and economic change of their own, but better schools, and better teachers in those schools, supported in their work and properly able to deal with challenging students, will make a difference to the outcomes at those schools. It won’t completely change the phenomenon of rich and middle class parents fleeing to the state-funded comprehensives, but it will reduce the incentive as parents realize that attending a completely ordinary local school won’t kill their child’s future. I’m willing to bet as well that part of the reason poor schools in poor areas do so badly is a lack of educational diversity – no high achieving children, no historic record of achievement to inspire subsequent generations of students, and no reward for teachers to encourage them. If all these teachers have to look forward to is another year full of future criminals and children whose parents make no effort, then they will soon give up. And parents with any desire for their children to achieve will see that and move on. I’m also suspicious that the worst schools in Britain aren’t just educationally tatty: their facilities are, I’m willing to bet, also terrible, and the entire community lack pride in them. That can be fixed.

Increase attention on negative outcomes

Figure 1 shows rates of absenteeism in the poorest schools, but unauthorized absenteeism is something that police and social services can intervene in. Why don’t they? Because they’re dealing with other pressing problems. I think a lot of people in politics in the UK don’t realize just how pressing those problems are, or how much they degrade poor communities and depress the people living in them. Better attention on those problems, and greater efforts to ensure that the community in which children live is supportive of the learning needs of children, will in time lead to reductions in inequalities in behavior related to childhood delinquency – less absenteeism, less casual violence, less malicious fires, less vandalism. But there is no easy way to achieve this except through more funding: more funding for social services, police, teachers, council beautification programs, and activities for children. I don’t think any political party in the UK sees these things as essential state services anymore, and instead of funding these services they’re squeezing them, at the same time as they squeeze the general education budget and the welfare budget. While that happens, sensible people will take their children out of poor areas, making those areas more intense areas of community dislocation, reducing the likelihood that the existing social services will be successful in fighting the problems, and creating a vicious circle of social exclusion. I don’t see this vicious circle being stopped without concerted community effort.

Reduce the social mobility hard scrabble

Why is an education in Britain so crucial that parents will buy a new house in a new area just to ensure it? I think it’s because the middle class in the UK and US has become precarious, and a lot of people in that class are aware that their children risk falling out of it. Securing a position in that class is becoming a desperate struggle, with increasing numbers of losers who are falling out the bottom end of the class and into the increasing pool of poor and socially excluded. This is Ed Milliband’s “squeezed middle,” the middle class who in America and the UK have increasingly turned to debt and the housing “ladder” ponzi scheme to stay ahead of the Joneses. This race has to end, and there is a very simple way to end it: shift from a society focused on social mobility to one focused on social sustainability. I’ve written about this on my blog before: social mobility is a false promise of wealth and advancement, and a better alternative is to find ways to ensure that all jobs are socially sustainable. That is, find ways to ensure that even people at the “bottom” of the ladder can raise a family and live a halfway decent life, rather than having to scrabble up. In such a society education is still important, but because there is less urgency to achieve a ticket to success – because all careers are sufficient to support a happy life – education is not commoditized. Such societies exist, in Northern Europe and Japan, and to a certain extent Australia and Canada; and in these societies, people do not have to fight their neighbours to push them out of a precious school place. And if they do, the people pushed out will still grow up to a functioning life. The UK needs to move away from its competitive, inequalitarian social model towards these models.

Engage corporate power

A society built on social sustainability can only be built in two ways[3]: through a powerful system of taxes and transfers, or through a system in which corporations agree to some kind of social contract. Of course, in reality most such societies see a little of both, but I think a lot of thinkers in the anglosphere see social sustainability as only possible through the former, and I think they see it this way because they think corporations will not give up their wealth for a greater good, but need to be coerced into it. This is, I think, fundamentally defeatist. An alternative to a punitive system of taxes and transfers is a Japanese style system of shared corporate responsibility, in which companies pay their lowest staff a living wage, and don’t pay their highest staff stellar wages. Just because corporations won’t do these things of their own volition doesn’t mean they have to be forced to at gunpoint, but I think the natural assumption in the UK is that no one will give up anything without being forced to. That needs to change. In this respect I think Britain could learn a huge amount from Japan, which has a very strong social contract based around individual and corporate responsibility – something which I think a lot of British people don’t believe is possible.

I think Britain’s inequality is heading into a very bad place, and it’s not going to be an option to ignore it for much longer. It’s cruel, counter-productive and embarrassing. The huge inequalities developing in education can’t be solved just by throwing money at the poorest schools, though this is an essential minimum: changes need to be made in the way that the government tackles social disunity in poor areas, and also in the way that British society views “upward mobility,” competition and social sustainability. But with proper attention on improving schools in the short term, and a shift in social and economic priorities in the long term, Britain can reverse its inexorable slide into a failed state. Can they do it? I’m not hopeful, but I think it can be done.

fn3: that I can see. I think a third option is colonialism and theft of other nations resources, but let’s put that side for now.

What cute little blue feet this boob has!

This week sees the simultaneous release of pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts, and the release of a Counterpunch article on how a feminist Assistant Professor should be allowed  to breastfeed in class. I think everyone is roughly aware of how the debate is proceeding vis a vis the Duchess’s breasts – they’re a private and sensitive part of her body and should not be revealed in public. A nice debate on the Assistant Professor’s breastfeeding can be found at Crooked Timber, and in my opinion shows the lengths people will go to defend people in their in-group, and I commented there a few times to make note of the nature of the Prof’s bullying of a younger woman, and how strange it is for a self-described “militant feminist” to be using the full powers of authority against a young woman.

There’s an interesting and entertaining element to the feminist response to these two topics, though, which I would like to explore here. The palace’s (and, presumably, Kate’s) uproar over the publication of the pictures is only partly based on the fact that she didn’t give permission for a photo to be taken (this happens to royals all the time); it’s specifically about her breasts. I presume there is a feminist response to this based in women’s control of their own bodies, which would observe that breasts are sexual and private parts of the body and to publish pictures of them without permission damages a woman’s agency; but at the same time quite a few commentators on the Crooked Timber thread are arguing that breasts should not be seen as anything special and no one should distinguish between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding in public. Quite a few of the commenters there, presumably feminists, criticize the student journalist and others for suggesting that there might be anything inappropriate about whipping a breast out in a lecture, and suggest that the students who might have been discomfited need to grow up.

But here’s the thing: if Kate Middleton is made uncomfortable by the thought that her breasts can be viewed publicly by strangers, presumably it is also reasonable for her to be discomfited by the sight of a stranger’s breast in public? She might not, but given she sees her own breasts as a private and sexual area of her body she must have some generally applicable boundaries as to when and how they can be displayed, and presumably at least on a personal level these boundaries would be generalizable to the behavior of others. So how do we reconcile her (and many other women’s) feeling that their breasts are special, with a feminist position on breast-feeding that says they aren’t?

I don’t think we can. Because breasts aren’t just bottles, and everyone – male and female – has feelings about them that are not the same as feelings about bottles. This is why feminists will be outraged by the publication of pictures of Kate’s breasts in a way they would not be by pictures of her elbows. So, if you’re going to argue for the right to breast-feed in public places, I don’t think an argument on the basis that “we all need to get over how special breasts are” is going to work unless we are willing to logically extend that to “there’s nothing wrong with publishing unauthorized pictures of the breasts of public figures.” Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Kate Middleton, Paris Hilton: it’s all the same, we can publish their breasts with the same ease with which we publish their elbows and knees.

Of course, you can paper over the issue by objecting to the publication of any unauthorized photos of public figures, but that horse has bolted. The issue now is strictly over what is acceptable. Upskirts? No, those parts are sexual. Breasts? No, those parts are private. Breast-feeding by a professor in class? Yes, because there’s nothing special about breasts. Doesn’t work does it? Similarly sneering at someone for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts in a breast-feeding role in class, but lauding them for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts on a newspaper … doesn’t work. And this latter contradiction applies even if the person in question is well capable of understanding the non-sexual context of breastfeeding.

I think there are lots of other ways to justify the Professor’s decision to breastfeed in class, and lots of other arguments for public breastfeeding. But I don’t think they should be leavened with “they’re just breasts.” It’s a lactivist meme that I think contains a lack of respect for the importance of sexuality, contains an unhealthy natalist view of what women become when they are mothers (i.e. non-sexual) and reduces an important part of human culture (the aesthetics of the body) to a mere triviality.

For the record: I am entirely in favour of women being allowed to breastfeed publicly, but I also think it’s good for women to consider whether they can find alternatives, and society should (as happens in Japan) provide proper rooms for this activity, so that women can breastfeed comfortably without worrying about being in public, and those members of the public who are uncomfortable with public breastation are not required to see it. Worse still, a society where it is expected that women can, should and will breastfeed in public is going to be hell for women who feel uncomfortable so doing: they will be unable to find spaces to do so, and will be made to feel like bad mothers for not behaving in accordance with accepted fashion. So more breast-feeding rooms are always good. Incidnetally, my view used to be more militantly lactivist, but the reserved nature of life in Japan has mellowed it slightly.


In today’s Guardian there is a very simple and cute opinion piece that summarizes very nicely the reasons that poor children don’t go to uni. Coming from a poor background myself, I feel I have some insight into the social and cultural factors that bear down on children from poor families to stop them from going to university, and I think I can strongly agree with this article. For example, the author (Peter Wilby) states:

What stops disadvantaged young people getting into Oxford – which still draws more than 40% of its students from fee-charging schools – is a combination of the high formal entry requirements, the need to display cultural capital and social poise during college interviews, and a sense that the university is an elite club that they can never belong to.

Speaking of the (admirable) philanthropic efforts of a hedge fund billionaire from a poor part of Wales, Wilby adds:

Most of the youth of Ely and Splott – and of all other poor areas in England and Wales – are barred from Oxford long before they reach 18 and, given what we now know about the effects of early poverty on educational achievement, from as early as the age of three.

and in these two very short and simple comments is the central explanation for poor childrens’ under-achievement at the end of high school, especially in the generations who matured in the ’80s and ’90s: university entrance is determined as much by culture as by simple financial barriers. I remember reading an opinion piece about poetry a while back now, in which the writer described his interview for admission to Cambridge: he was expected to recite poetry from memory and, being from a poor school, he had no education in such esoterica. The examiner didn’t even let him finish, but just laughed and kicked him out. I think a few years ago the entrance interviews for Oxford and Cambridge were abolished, and that’s exactly why: they’re exercises in proving cultural capital, not genuine assessment tools, especially in a country where accent identifies class. How does a 17 year old hide their class background in an interview with a professor where they have to recite Homer?

Where culture does not come into play, one’s family’s economic situation often does. Poor kids go to schools in poor areas, where teachers are bad and resources limited; by high school they are academically weak and in societies where class discrimination is an unspoken rule (like the UK), their teachers give up on their higher education prospects. I was lucky in this regard: I moved to Australia at 13, and even though at age 16 I didn’t know what university was, my career advisor recognized my maths talent and advised me to seek entrance. I think in many schools in the UK a similarly-placed advisor would simply assume that uni was for someone else, and not bother telling me about the world of academic endeavour. Again, this is culture – unless one is lucky enough to have teachers who believe that the little shits they deal with daily deserve to cross class boundaries, one will get a teacher who has been ground under by the anti-intellectual culture of working class Britain, and will be recommended only a limited range of career options. In Australia the situation was very different when I went to school, and so I discovered at age 16 that being a scientist was not just something that the idle rich did back in the 19th century.

With these cultural and economic barriers in mind, Wilby has some very entertaining suggestions to the aforementioned philanphropist as to how to achieve greater equality in education outcomes. The first is cute:

if Moritz wishes to remove barriers to improvement among the disadvantaged, he would do better to launch a fund for schools in Ely and Splott, the poorest localities of his native Cardiff, or, better still, take a helicopter and drop £75m in £10 notes over those areas

and the second is well beyond the tolerance of British society, I think:

Oxford could transform the composition of its student body simply by writing to every comprehensive in the country’s 100 most deprived areas and guaranteeing a place to the highest performing pupil, even if he or she manages only three B grades. Instead, it hides behind the convenient myth, for which there is no evidence whatever, that applicants are put off by “debt”.

This is a variant of what (I am told) China’s top university does: it reserves 50 places for each of China’s provinces, and assigns them to the top 50 students who apply. This doesn’t eliminate inequality, but it guarantees that the university takes the top talent from all areas of the country, even if the top talent from those areas is second rate compared to the centre. I’ve had the pleasure of supervising a Master’s student from one of those provinces, and I think I can safely say that the policy hasn’t harmed China’s academic achievements. Perhaps Oxford should try it …

Wilby finishes with a stirring defence of the attitudes of Britain’s poor:

True, poor families tend to be debt-averse, mainly because the credit available to them carries eye-watering interest rates. But they know, as well as anyone else, a gift horse when they see one. A university course does not involve debt as conventionally defined, merely an obligation to repay fees, in very easy instalments, if the graduate’s subsequent annual income rises above £21,000, which is roughly the current level of median earnings among the working population. It is a graduate tax in all but name. To suggest that the poor can’t understand that is not only wrong, but patronising.

This is a nice defence of the autonomy and agency of poor people, and to a great extent I think it’s probably true, but I would add one disagreement: it’s well established that a lot of poor people went into shocking debt to buy a home with dubious prospects during the housing boom. So it’s not the case that poor people are “debt-averse” in the modern world: they are happy to go into debt if they think it will profit them. I think the problem is that people from poor communities don’t in general (at least historically, when I was a kid) see a university education for the guaranteed income-raiser that it is, but see it as some kind of hobby for toffs who don’t need a guaranteed income. I think Wilby is right in observing that, if poor people understood the value of university education the same way that they understood the importance of the “property ladder” they would certainly assess low income student loans in the way that he says; and the evidence as presented by Wilby certainly suggests that the minority of people from poor families who do understand this are not deterred by Britain’s recent huge increase in fees.

What this means is that the best way to get equality in outcomes at the university level is not necessarily to target low fees, but to improve education in primary and secondary schools. Obviously everyone wants someone else to subsidize their education, but when push comes to shove any system that can defer the capital outlay should, in theory, get the poor kids coming to uni in droves. That years of deferred fees and student loans haven’t achieved such a thing suggests that there are significant economic and cultural barriers to education participation that kick in long before anyone from a poor background gets near signing up for a 9000 pound loan. And well-meaning folk who wish to reduce that inequality need to look at the long game: attack primary school and secondary school disadvantage, and cultural resistance to education, and provided there is some kind of fee deferment process, don’t worry so much about the charge for university itself.

In this video you can see a 16 year old schoolboy pile drive a kid who has been bullying him for years. The video was posted on facebook by one of the bully’s friends, and from there ended up on Australia’s national news services. Don’t be fooled by the relative sizes of the kids, according to the accompanying story the larger boy in this footage had been bullied for years at his school, and he finally snapped when the little shit in the video started punching him. This video has created quite a controversy in Australia, because the school suspended the bullied child (as well, I think, as the bully) and lots of “experts” have been paraded in front of the media to talk about how this response is the wrong way to handle a bully. Here, for example, we have an opinion piece in the Herald telling us that this sort of thing is terribly wrong. Commenters on every piece, and on the youtube video, seem to be universally positive, however, and cite an age-old adage, that bullies are fundamentally cowards who cave in when someone strikes back.

I was bullied a lot at school, and for me the sight of the little shit in this video staggering to his feet and swaying about, barely conscious, was profoundly pleasant. I laughed aloud, and wished the bigger boy had followed it up with a nice solid punch to the face. Having been in the same situation as that bullied child, I know that on that day he made the amazing discovery that actually, most people are weak cowards, and even the biggest and scariest people back down if you confront them. His whole world will have changed, and the confidence he will have gained from watching that little snotling wobbling in front of him will never be forgotten. When I was a child I was knocked unconscious by bullies twice, and had a kneecap dislocated once. I was subjected to all the taunts and behaviour described in the linked article, and I discovered at the age of about 12 – when I first kicked one of my antagonizers as hard as I could in the balls, and left him mewling in a little ball in the middle of the playground – that the only language bullies understand is the language they speak. Drag them down from their arrogant heights in front of their mates, make them cry and scream and they will never again command any power over you. But even if your tactic backfires – as so many experts quoted over this incident will claim – and your bully returns fire, you have already won. I never won a fight at school – even the kid I testiculized came back (after an hour rummaging around in his pants desperately checking if his shrivelled little balls were still intact, no doubt) and punched me in the face, several times, while the whole school watched and cheered him. But no one in that school ever said a word against me ever again. The same is true of every other bully I ever confronted. Of course, if you can win, all the better, but I was the smallest kid in school with no sports skill and no muscles, so I always lost. But it was always a strategic defeat for the bully, because his bubble of superiority was punctured, and all the kids who laughed along with him knew they couldn’t entertain themselves at my expense.

By the final year of school, of course, all those kids knew that the years they’d wasted on being cool at school were coming back to bite them on the arse – me and my uncool nerdy mates had an out, we were heading to university and the big city, and my bullies were being left behind in a fading smelting town, with no work prospects and no qualifications. Even the pretty girls eventually abandoned them to hook up with a rich, nerdy banker. The only legacy the fucknuts at school can leave you from their bullying is the loss of your own confidence, and it’s so easy to stop them from doing even that. You just have to stand up to them, and even if it hurts, afterwards it’s you who has the pride, you who have shown you’re the stronger person, and everyone around them knows it even if they never tell you. Plus, you’ll be taking an important lesson into your adult life: if you stand up to people, they give you what you want. This is a lesson the bullies never learn, and if you’re the person who stands up to them you get the chance to teach them just how worthless they really are. Hopefully that lesson will persist through their whole future, cursing their social interactions, their sex lives and their careers, as some small recompense for all the children whose confidence they broke with their pointless cruelty.

So I take my hat off to that kid, I toast his success, and all the experts can take their meaningless advice and shove it up their arses. In honour of that video and his efforts, I’d like to share with you all a story from my high school days, which I think is the best “revenge against a bully” story that happened in my school days. It doesn’t concern me, but the nastiest and most violent bully in the school, and a mild-mannered kid from my friendship group who had been taunted by him for years. Let’s refer to them repsectively as Mr. Fucknuckle[1], and Plucky Ginger.

My school in this dusty smelting town had a tradition amongst kids that when a pressing matter needed to be resolved, the disputants in question would go to the nearby churchyard and duel it out. The rest of the troglodytes at my school would toddle along and form a cheering circle, and thus would important debates about academic achievement be resolved in the time-honoured fashion. Now it so happened that Mr. Fucknuckle had a long-standing enmity with another kid, perhaps not so much bullying as a general character dispute[2]. So they agreed to meet at the churchyard and because both were pretty nasty, it attracted a larger than average crowd. Now, to his credit, Mr. Fucknuckle was a pretty savage fighter, and big, and scary, and he won the fight pretty quickly (I think it was to “first blood” in this instance).

However, amongst the crowd was Plucky Ginger, who had been enduring low-level taunts and the occasional violent instance from Mr. Fucknuckle for years. I don’t know what happened this particular day – maybe it was the stress of coming exams, maybe he’d seen a video on the internet[3] – but something inside him broke, some barrier against all the rage of the underdog, and out of the crowd he charged, while Mr. Fucknuckle was still basking in the glory of the moment. Before anyone could stop him he launched a surprise attack, bowled Mr. Fucknuckle over, and sprung atop him. From this position he launched a classic “ground ‘n pound” attack, punching him over and over in the face in a frenzied and insane manner. He did a lot of very nasty-looking superficial damage to Mr. Fucknuckle’s screwed-up, ugly little mug, and true to their characters, the troglodytes in the crowd cheered him on. Finally one of Mr. Fucknuckle’s sycophants ran over and dragged him off, but this wasn’t the reason Plucky Ginger stopped. It turns out he had punched so frenziedly and repeatedly that at some point in the attack he had broken his hand.

So, Plucky Ginger retreated from the field of battle and Mr. Fucknuckle slunk away, dripping blood and covered in bruises, his invincibility finally and convincingly disproved by the boy everyone knew he had been bullying for years. His aura was shattered, and Plucky Ginger made anew. The fact that he had broken his hand venting his rage earned him even greater respect, and from that time on he was never again subjected to a single bad word by any of the varied crew of trogs and sub-humans in our Shared Learning Space.

So if you’re reading this, kids, take my advice and the advice of generations of bullied kids everywhere: ignore the experts and do what the kid in the video did. Smash the bully, as hard as you can, without fear of the consequences. Even if he hits you back, he has already lost, and when you see the banking of the evil light in his eyes, the power that flows through you will keep your spirits aloft for years to come.

fn1: I never suffered under the tyranny of Mr. Fucknuckle because he tried me on early in my time at the school – year 11 – with a simple and age old antagonism. During touch football practice I touched him, and in front of the whole PE class he said to me (in his typically slovenly bully’s “language”) “Touch me again and I’ll bash ya, mate.” So in front of everyone, right there and then, I touched him. Challenged in such an upfront way, there was nothing he could do – bashing me would look trite and silly (and the PE teacher was there) and he’d gain nothing, since I clearly wasn’t scared of him. He uttered the typical “huh, you aren’t worth it” but never again ventured to do anything except exchange the odd uncivil grunt with me. If only he had been so sensible with Plucky Ginger…

fn2: Hard though it is to imagine that teenage boys, let alone Mr. Fucknuckle, have a character on which to base a dispute

fn3: Which actually hadn’t been invented yet[4], and of this fact I am eternally grateful. Bullying is much much nastier now that the immoral little fucksticks can bully you out of school hours without even being in your presence[5]

fn4: I know I know, strictly speaking it had been, just not disseminated…

fn5: Although let’s get this clear, verbal abuse is not worse than physical abuse. When people physically abuse you, they tend to also verbally abuse you. It’s not like they hit you silently.

On the weekend I spent an hour in a bathtub with a dyed-in-the-wool conservative[1], discussing the merits of various solutions to the world’s problems – not a very fruitful discussion, since we disagree on many things, but we are easily able to agree on the horrible situation the UK faces, and during the discussion I mentioned my plans for a blog post on the Tory education policy, so here it is. The particular question I’m interested in is “will the Tory education reforms reduce inequality?” I don’t want to address the wider question of whether they’re any good, because I don’t know much about the education sector in the UK. It seems prima facie the case that cutting funding to a largely government-maintained sector by 25% (or is it 20?) isn’t going to be good for that sector, at least in the short term, and my impression in the UK was that the sector is generally in pretty poor shape – but I don’t know enough about it to be sure, so I’ll leave my opinions out and focus on the question of inequality.

This post is a question rather than an answer. I’m phrasing my opinions from here on in as definite statements of fact (using words like “is” rather than “appears to be”) but I’m not sure I’m right or wrong on this topic (it’s out of my usual area of concern, that’s for sure!) so I welcome comments with more information or different views.

Also note that I’m writing this post on the assumption that both the previous Labour government and the Tory government care about inequality, and that all policies enacted aren’t window-dressing. Some people think that such a claim about Labour is pretty dubious (and I tend to agree); others think such a claim about the Tories is ridiculous. I actually believe that at least some Tories (i.e. the Bullingdon club) do care about inequality, but it’s my belief that in general their policies are going to be a disaster for this aspect of British society. However, ineffective policy and lack of policy commitment are different issues, so I’m not going to address claims that the Tories don’t care about inequality.

Graduate Tax Education Schemes

The Tory education reforms are, in essence, that they will widen the scope of universities to charge fees to undergraduate students – i.e. they’ll increase the cost of a university degree, basically – and in some cases they will allow universities to charge really shocking amounts, but in exchange they will put in place a bunch of additional measures to ensure access to university for poor students. The policy is really just an extension of the previous policy (detailed here), which was in turn a rip-off of the Australian policy, which has now been around for about 20 years, and which I studied under. The basic way such policies work is:

  • Universities charge all or a portion of the total cost of education to the students
  • Students take out a loan from the government for the cost
  • Students repay the loan after graduation
  • Typically loan repayments are through the tax system, and commence only above a certain wage
  • The loan is usually at lower interest than the market rate

Typically the loan only increases with inflation, rather than charging real interest. This type of policy can be characterized as free education with a graduate tax, which is applied for varying lengths of time depending on the course you undertook. When I went through university (in Australia) the price of the course was only a small portion of its real cost, and the government paid a basic wage equivalent in value to welfare, which was essentially a grant, to all students from poor backgrounds or above a certain age. Since then the fees have increased as a percentage of the cost of the degree, but the previous conservative government (under John Howard) loosened up the rules on that basic wage, so it was more accessible to students. In the UK it appears that students can take a loan for their living expenses[2], which they pay back in a similar fashion to the fees. I think this is the key problem with the system as it stood in the UK – coming from a poor background and having to take a loan for 4 years of education plus fees seems like a pretty big imposition, though I think concerns about the importance of this can be overrated, and don’t take into account the anti-intellectualism of the lower working class, which I’ll come back to at the end of this post.

The Tory Reforms

The Tory reforms are outlined on their website, and basically involved the following:

  • Double the current cap on fees the universities can charge students, from 3000 to 6000 pounds, and allow fees of 9000 pounds in exceptional circumstances
  • Where universities charge above 6000, require them to provide scholarships to poor students to access the university
  • The threshold for repayment of the loan will increase to 21000 (so you have to earn more than 21000 pounds before you need to repay the loan)
  • The loan will be written off after 30 years
  • The loan will be extended to part-time students
  • The government will increase the current living expenses grant for poor students and raise the threshold above which it cuts out
  • Loans for living expenses will be available regardless of income
  • The government will introduce a new 150 million pound scholarship system for low-income students
  • The government will “consult” on ways to prevent rich students from paying off their loan up front and getting out of the progressive repayment system

This policy seems to only contain one bad point – the massive increase in the cost of fees. If playstations were increased in price by 300% tomorrow the nerds would be rioting in the streets, so I can understand student anger at this. But it’s a loan, not an upfront cost, so it doesn’t really matter what the government charges – this is the attitude I took with my education, anyway, and it’s paid off in spades (we’ll get pack to this).

In fact, I think there are key points in this that reduce inequality in access to education significantly. These are (presented in no particular order):

  • Requiring scholarships from top universities: everyone knows it will be the top universities that charge the higher amounts, and requiring them to provide scholarships will mean that potentially more students from poor backgrounds can afford their fees. Access to the top universities in the UK is as close to a guarantee of a good job as you can get in this world, and along with removing the last vestiges of class barriers to entry to these universities (such as interviews) in recent times, these changes will force the universities to admit more poor students
  • Changing the repayment thresholds: Worries about how crippling the debt repayments will be are certainly important factors in the decision to go to university, and setting these repayment rates so they’re affordable but enable students to pay off their loans in a reasonable time is important. It’s also important that the debt doesn’t skyrocket before you can pay it off (as happens in New Zealand) and doesn’t kick in when you are earning too little to afford extra tax. These changes make the repayment rates more progressive
  • Getting rid of early payment benefits: The think that shits me most about the Australian system is that paying your fees upfront gets you a huge discount (currently 25%, I think). While I understand there are economic reasons for doing this (about reducing risk, etc.) it basically means that people with a cool 10000 pounds to spare get their education for 25% less than people with no capital. This is a classic case of “free to those who can afford it” and an example of one of the main ways by which poor people stay poor and rich people stay rich. When you don’t have the spare capital to invest in stuff, you end up paying more – reducing your ability to save up that same capital. It’s an evil poverty trap, and the benefits (guaranteed immediate income for the government) are not worth the inequality effects. Governments can afford to bear risk – that’s why we have governments! – and in this case the deferred income is more than made up for by the inequality avoided. If the Tories do find ways to get around this problem – they were even discussing an early payment penalty recently – then they’ve made significant inroads into killing a huge financial benefit provided to the already-rich.
  • Extending living expenses: For me, a poor student with no capital (I had $250 when I arrived in Adelaide to go to University, enough for the student union fees and nothing else ) and no job and no parental support (my parents contributed $0 to my education and living expenses from the age of 16), the single biggest deterrent for going to university was finding a way to finance my living expenses. I had a pretty burdensome degree (physics) and I didn’t want to work while I was studying, but even if I did, I would have been unable to earn much – or guarantee a job, in 90s Adelaide. Fortunately the Australian government provides a maintenance grant, which though not exactly sustainable in the long-term is sufficient to get you through university. Knowing this, decisions about going to university were easy – I decided to go, and if I couldn’t get a job I’d have the grant. This concern must be a real killer in the UK, where the cost of living is outrageous and the best universities are in rural towns with very little available work. For people from poor backgrounds like me who don’t care about the size of the loan but really worry about how we can pay for food and rent, a good maintenance grant is essential. The new Tory policy seems to provide this.

For me the extension of maintenance grants is the key to enabling access to poor students, especially for universities outside of London where part-time and casual work sufficient to support 4 years of study may be unavailable. I don’t think anyone I studied physics with held down a part-time job after 2nd year due to the enormous amounts of study time involved (we had 6 assignments a week, and Classical Field Theory assignments alone took 12 – 15 hours of our week!) I know that engineers and medicine students had even more work than I did, and couldn’t juggle it the way the humanities kids did, so they weren’t able to easily find work. In Australia this isn’t such an issue because students don’t move away from their home town to study – they mostly live with their parents – but in the UK it’s a significant problem. UK students can take a loan but taking a loan for living expenses and fees leaves you saddled with a huge debt that wealthier kids, or kids who could stay at home, didn’t need to incur. This is a major inequality problem.

Overall I think that the Tory policy contains the four key ingredients needed to make university access more equitable in a graduate tax scheme, and crucially it attacks the two key causes of inequality in education access – it extends maintenance grants and attacks the early payment benefits of previous systems. I suspect a side-effect of this will be more mobility for poorer students, enabling the most talented poor students to take up remote courses – either specialized courses or courses in better universities – that they might previously not have taken due to fears over the cost of living and the risk of taking a huge loan to cover living expenses. This will be good for the UK overall, since better talent accessing more suitable courses means a better workforce.

A side note on anti-intellectualism in the working and lower middle classes

A common complaint about graduate tax schemes is that they saddle poor kids with huge debts that they won’t want to bear, and that poor people are afraid of debt or, having a lower income to start with, see debt of a given size as more prohibitive than wealthier people do. I think this is, within reasonable limits, bullshit. England is going through a massive housing crisis, at least one small part of which is due to people taking out huge house loans they can’t afford, in the hopes of making short term gain on “the property ladder.” Though I don’t believe they were the cause of the crisis, poor people seem to have been just as willing to take these risks as their wealthier compatriots, for no more reason than the possibility of making a 10% profit in a few years. Poor people are quite happy to take a risk on a large loan – in fact, on a loan way larger than those for a uni degree, with much higher repayment rates – and while it could be argued that yes, these people (usually!) have jobs, they don’t get any deferred repayment options or reduced interest, so I think the size should be more rather than less relevant in their case.

Given that it is well established that the single best investment in future income that anyone can make is a university education, the idea that poor people will be discouraged from university by a total debt of a mere 12-24000 pounds is pretty shonky, unless poor people don’t realize that an education is the best future investment possible. If their parents were willing to take a 150,000 pound loan for a high-risk short-term profit opportunity, why should their children be perturbed by a 24000 pound, low-risk guaranteed medium term profit opportunity? The only possible explanation is that poor kids don’t realize that a university degree is the best guarantee of future earnings. And who, largely, is responsible for this misperception? Their parents. The lumpen proletariat, working and lower-middle classes in the UK are strongly anti-intellectual, and value economic risk for material gain over economic risk for intellectual gain. To a lesser extent this is true in Australia too, in my experience, but it’s more noticeable in the UK. If poor people want to help themselves they need to shake this attitude, and time and again you see the same phenomenon – poor kids who went to university return to their communities and find they are no longer understood or respected because they’ve become “posh.” While I think state schools have a role to play in countering this bias[3], ultimately parents and family are the key determinants of these things and poor communities just aren’t interested[4].

Given this, a graduate tax scheme shouldn’t in and of itself be seen as a barrier to poorer communities accessing university, though obviously saddling kids with a huge loan for living expenses – in the new scheme it will possibly total more than 35000 pounds – will be a genuine discouragement. But the basic loan sizes are far smaller than poor families were willing to risk in the housing market, with far more benefit. So a combination of maintenance grants, costs deferred through low-interest loans, and scholarships should not be considered a disincentive for poor people to attend uni, unless those loans are really really high.


I think the Tory education reforms are a significant improvement on the Labour policy, and go some way towards reducing inequality in access to education in the UK.

fn1: who claims he isn’t, so regardless of the worthlessness of terms like “conservative” and “right wing” in describing actual people, I aim to apply this word to him egregiously

fn2: which the administering body will cock up delivery of

fn3: For example, I discovered what University was at the age of 16 through my high school careers councillor – my parents were thoroughly uninterested in my actually using my obvious mathematical and language skills, so even though I’d been saying for years that I wanted to be a scientist they never actually even looked into how I could go about doing this. Science, they seemed to think, was for rich kids.

fn4: For this I also blame the unions, who in the last 10-20 years have retreated from their role as broad enablers of community achievement, instead focussing more and more narrowly on workplace issues[5]

fn5: Not to mention, of course, labour parties, who are the key force for cultural and political change in poor areas, and have given that responsibility away

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