Saturday, 20 November 2010

Education Island

The education system in the UK is pretty messed up. No matter where you sit politically, this seems to be a common opinion. We all know that education is of exceptional importance at any time but even more so now that investing in education may be the best way to beat recession. The contentious point is what needs changed and who is to blame. If you read the Daily Mail or the Express, you no doubt blame a spontaneous rise in “poor teachers”. These poor teachers who sometimes infect whole schools have seemingly come into teaching simply for the pensions and the term time holidays and do not care about teaching. Building straw men has been the prerogative of these bourgeois rags for years and passing the blame to people who are far far too busy looking after the future of the future generation to properly oppose these allegations is not surprising at all.

The real issue here is that of control.  The control that individuals feel they have over their own learning, the control that teachers have over what they teach and how they teach it and the control the individual school or education institution has over who they hire and fire and how they spend the money they have available to them.  Teachers with more control over their own teaching can adapt to the rapidly changing cultural environment children and teenagers grow up in.  What limits this control is the introduction of competition between schools which supports learning by rote and teaching to the test.  This in turn results in the creativity of teachers being limited as well as limiting the achievement of students. Encouraging competition between schools as if they are individually accountable business entities is only suitable if they are indeed individually accountable business entities. This is the direction both the previous New Labour government and the Con/Dem coalition government are moving education.

The main reason this will not work with the education system is that it will create an even wider achievement gap between the social classes. For the education system to be competitive, there will have to be individual controls over fees and multiple sponsorship or funding revenues. This would create islands of education, where attractive locations receive the majority of funding and unattractive locations receive much less.  Therefore, state funding for education should increase, rather than be cut. Relying on finding private funding streams puts disadvantaged schools at even more of a disadvantage. This is unfair because the reason these schools are disadvantaged in the first place is because they have been tested in a way that they can't possibly succeed, with emphasis on testing for number of high grades rather than emphasis on testing for difference between expected and actual grades.  This however assumes that we want a fair system. 

Of course, a "riot" is better news and easier to understand, even if the understanding promoted goes against contemporary understandings of crowd behaviour.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Modern Lurgy

Even today, a lot of what we know in medicine, psychology, philosophy and literature is influenced by the Ancient Greeks. Some ideas however, have fallen by the wayside. The Ancient Greek understanding of depression is one such idea. This held that depression was an imbalance in humors, bodily fluids which dictate an individual's personality and health. An imbalance signified some sort of illness or ailment. While discredited, it gives the first scientific attempt at understanding depression. This was classed as melancholia, after the Greek word for black bile which was thought to be the cause of depression. Melancholia was later used as a catch all term for any depressive thoughts of behaviours.

Nowadays, melancholy has fallen by the wayside in favour of the catch-all term of depression. It's a good bet that most people have complained of feeling depressed at some point in their lives. The difference here is that while melancholy was used as a term for all low mood, depression is a clinical term for a serious mental illness which can ruin the life of an individual. Not ruin as in "having a bad day", ruin as in "suicide". However, just as people use lurgy as a catch-all term for any combination of symptoms from influenza or a cold, people use depression as a way to express their mood. And if you want to talk etymology, that may just well be valid.

It isn't just depression however, a large number of mental illnesses are used in such a liquid fashion.When things get busy and Jones is rushing around like a lunatic, you may say he is manic. Debbie likes to keep her desk clean because she's a bit OCD. You can never tell which face the boss will show today, he's such a schizo. That boy that got a bit lairy in the pub at the weekend? Turns out he stabbed a boy and got put in the cells, he's a psycho!

On one hand, this can be understood in post modern terms. Language is liquid, and to ignore that is to be branded a Luddite (although I've always had sympathy with the machine breakers). Words are appropriated to suit new meanings as and when people want. That's the beauty of language and always has been, see Shakespeare for example. On the other hand, these words are medical definitions of, in many cases serious mental illnesses. There are three problems with this. Firstly, to call your friend a schizo is to use the word in the most crass and tabloid way you can. Secondly, to use it as an insult is to create a negative connotation of a mental illness. While this has been covered previously with swearing and with homosexual slang, the third point is that in doing this, you are trivialising schizophrenia. It fails to become a significant problem because of the alternative definition. It makes schizophrenia harder to understand, and it isn't the easiest of mental illnesses to categorise or define in the first place.

This trend has caused psychologists, psychiatrists and all medical research to potentially over-classify mental illness. The DSM is a tome of a publication used by clinicians to diagnose mental illnesses. The most recent update is due in 2013 but there is already growing debate as to whether all minor mood shifts and behavioural abnormalities are being classified as mental illness. Some have even called it a "medicalisation of normality". A section called "Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders" is also creating a large rift. The biggest issue is whether the whole system needs to be scrapped and the idea of mental disorder be revised completely.

There's no witty buzz line here, no catchphrase. This is a serious issue that can be understood through the theory of liquid modernity. The medicalisation of normality can be seen as linked through the casual use of medical terms in everyday parlance. In an effort to escape from this, more and more conditions have been created until almost everyone fits under one umbrella and can be classified as mentally ill in one way or another. This detracts from the seriousness of a condition which, as Rollo May puts it, leaves the individual with “...the inability to construct a future”, as in the case of depression.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Little Things

I wanted to make this into a 500 word essay but I don't think I could without sounding preachy. So here is a verse I wrote:

We're told it's the little things in life we should feel blessed for,
all the small things we never think about, that we ignore.
Look closer to home in times of existential crisis
cos no doubt it's the world out there that's made you like this
or so we're told.

I'm not gonna stand for that, justice ain't no little thing,
instead of holding out olive branches, it's the fire you bring,
it's the songs you sing, the trampled freedoms you choose to ignore.
In order to feel better about yourself, you've locked the door,
completely disregarding the twenty three millionaires
who represent us normal people from way up there.

What chance do I have of feeling better about myself
if my whole purpose in life is to be put on a shelf
into a big book of history and statistics,
a victory over laziness, or so it's twisted.

If I'm just here to prop up your political career
to be broken down and built again under a middle class veneer
I'd offer: maybe society is broken, but just to make it clear,
I'm not the problem, it's the little things in life that make people disappear.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Suck a cock, you mother fucker!

Two nations divided by a common language.
Oscar Wilde

When we talk of swearing, we all know what that means. Swearing by it's very nature consists of uttering words which represent taboos in our society, thus swear words change to suit the context. What doesn't change are the taboos. Genitalia, sex, the anus, excrement, discharge. These are the common areas which are twisted into insults such as fuck, cunt, shite, arse, prick, tit etc. Another area of swearing however, is that which insults personally. I mean, we all have some form of genitals, be it a cock or (my personal favourite for cringe factor) a minge. But not all of us are homos or bastards, or motherfuckers or bitches, for example. It's these I want to examine more.

Using a word to insult someone often takes a predictable course. Inventive swearing and insults are rare and often funny – think Monty Python & the Holy Grail's “I fart in your general direction” scene. The swear words which we use, that are most common, indicate something about our society because of the fact they are taboo. We know what it is to call someone an arse and we don't need to study etymology to work out the meaning in a particular case. Arse = behind you, at the back or bottom = you're backwards. To call someone a fag though, is completely different.

As has been drummed into public conscience, to insult someone by calling them a fag implies by connotation that to be a fag is a bad thing, hence insulting to be called one if you are not. We live in a time where gay rights are being adopted as standard, and rightly so. That being called gay is still an insult says a lot about how successful this strategy has been. Of course, if you say to a homosexual “you're so gay!” it may be a compliment but again that depends on the context in which that word is used. One idea which is overlooked by those who are easily offended is that people using derogatory homosexual terms don't often mean that the target of the insult is actually attracted to people of the same sex. Rather, they refer to the perceived negative aspects such as men being effeminate or women being manly, or even a woman being particularly feminine. Stereotypes, in short.

The word bastard on the other hand, is exceptionally old fashioned in that it is an insult derived from being conceived illegitimately. Those who see children out of wedlock are now seen as old fashioned and in the minority. Since there are an estimated 3 million children born to single parents in the UK as of 2009 surely “bastard” can't be an insult? As we know, someone will still be insulted if you call them a bastard, although it may now be used in more abstract terms - “that toaster is such a bastard”. Ironically, a google search for bastard toaster reveals a band by the same name! Nice. So how come, without the taboo, bastard is still considered insulting? Turns out I've created a straw man. Middle England (middle Britain even?) still sees being a single parent as a negative thing. This is represented in the media, with the Daily Mail springing instantly to mind and thus is perpetuated. The solution? Creative swearing. Associating a swear word with everything clouds the etymology and the true meaning. Since language is liquid, fag can now mean “loud and obnoxious Harley bikers”, and bastard can mean anything you want.

Motherfucker by the way, doesn't refer to incestuous behaviour but rather a term coined by slaves to describe slavers who fucked mothers. So there. Swear free.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Seven Days with Silly Goons

A large hole has been left in Channel 4’s broadcast schedule since the demise of Big Brother.  To replace this, or rather to keep the Big brother audience Channel 4 have opted for the fairly obvious replacement of another interactive, reality based show.  This new show, “Seven Days”, is in most ways the complete opposite of the ideas which made up Big Brother.  Where BB was held completely in a purpose built house, Seven Days is filmed entirely in the “real world”; Instead of Big Brother style evictions, the cast of 7D are in it for the long haul, potentially forever, as Channel 4 ominously put it.  The show’s characters are still handpicked but instead of casting entirely on causing conflict as they were in BB, 7D’s cast seem to have been selected for their almost painstaking normality and therein lies one of the main problems.

            The premise of the show is that a number of people are filmed over the course of seven days and on the seventh the show is edited and broadcast.  The interactive element comes from viewers sharing their feelings via Channel 4’s “chat-nav” website (hopefully they also chat-navved the person who created this term right out the door by means of a toe up their arse), through twitter, facebook and all other associated cool social media outlets.  This means that the people on the show can see how much everyone hates them as the show airs, and cameras will be there to catch their reactions for the next episode.

            Channel 4 are obviously working on the assumption that underneath the general public’s celebrity obsessed veneer, people are just straight up nosy and love nothing more than voyeurism.  Big Brother showed that we don’t care whether someone is a celebrity or not, only that we can heap scorn upon and deride complete strangers from the comfort of our own sofa.  With this knowledge, Channel 4 have decided to give us a window into the dull lives of middle class Londoners living and working in Notting Hill, hoping that we find this entertaining because it gives us someone to fixate our all consuming hate on anonymously.

            People will always want what they can’t or don’t have under the illusion that the grass is greener.  It’s our nature and what drives us forward.  Thanks to Seven Days though, those who earn less than £20,000 and/or don’t live in London can see how much duller their lives are compared to our own.  This show is hate-gossip for the 21st century slob who can’t even be bothered to meet real people to moan about.  Or if you prefer not to be as cynical as me, it gives world weary gossipers who have grown tired of using their noses to poke in the affairs of their workmates and neighbours a brand new opportunity to be nosy about “real” people with whom they would have had no chance of meeting before.  Fantastic!

            Thanks to Seven Days, not only do we get to see spoilt middle class girls moan about having to work as models, hopefully we can also see these same girls break down – almost live – thanks to the interactivity and immediacy of the social media element of the show.  The self absorbed 26 year old whose only concern in life is that mummy is leaving her in charge of an interior design business will most likely be seen in the next episode having a temper tantrum and snorting cocaine in mummy’s bathroom, tears streaming down her expensive cheeks if the bile on twitter under the hastag #sevendays is anything to go by.  Go on, stop reading this and read how much twitter almost unanimously hates this show and its cast already.  Seven Days is going to be a roaring success.

(If you got the Jamiroquai reference in the title, award yourself 10 points)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Don't Fight, Meditate

If you are one of the many who meditate daily looking for the base of your spirituality, you truly have a momentous task. To shed the day to day drudgery that modern life consists of is something most people prefer to do with copious amounts of drink and drugs at the weekends. To rid yourself of the repressed emotions hidden inside almost every one of us or even try to ignore the pull upon our actions caused by emotions and free yourself from all ties with the physical world is a daunting but wholly understandable goal. Whether you subscribe to yoga, zen, buddhist or other types of meditation such as self hypnosis it is accepted that clearing out the debris is hard work and you may only get a mere glimpse of what is underneath in your whole life. Trandescending the physical world and being so focused that you access a different reality is what people who practice meditation work towards.

It's hard to blast the hard work that people put into meditation because it is a fantastic stress reliever and most certainly helps a lot of people. The problem with meditation is that it is a solitary path to enlightenment and you certainly can't meet your mates in nirvana. This problem can be easily solved, but only if you are so inclined. And so to boxing. Well, any martial art or combat sport which includes sparring as part of its regular class really. Boxing, kick boxing, Thai boxing, wrestling, judo etc are all forms of combat sports which are built around actually striking or opposing your will upon another person as opposed to theorising the issue. What's the link? Pure being.

When you get punched in the face, you aren't thinking about work or what shopping you need to get. In fact, if you are thinking about anything like this then you are really only saying "please, hit me in the face again". No, you cannot actively think of anything. Your instincts kick in and you work from reflex. In a split second, a choice is made to either fight or fight back the tears. In seconds, you can throw back the many layers of conscious thought and feel something that those who meditate will work towards for many years. In one uncomfortable moment, you both feel nothing at all and the overwhelming experience of feeling your undiluted pure being.

Finding enlightenment in being repeatedly struck in hand to hand combat is not for everyone however. Your granny will most probably show as much interest in participating in the fistic arts as she would in wrestling bears. However, in a post Fight Club world where people ask "What Would Tyler Do?", we are more likely to accept violence into our lives if it is purported to have esoteric or artistic merit. Just as Albert Markovski and Tommy Corn found at the end of I Heart Huckabees, a sharp strike to the face produces a trandecendal experience which is hard to access without hallucinogenics, not to mention the sense of camraderie you will feel with the many other people training with you, giving and taking along side you. If you feel meditation is too lonely or it simply isn't having the benefits you hoped it would, volunteer for a punch in the chops.

Moral Legroom

Another bus journey, this time in horrible weather. The falling rain leaving criss-crossing veins on the glass. Miserable faces, obscured by condensation pass me by outside as I try to decide where to get off. They say rain is cleansing and this may be true for the many homeless people who line these streets, hidden in plain view. Their suffering is offensive, so we ignore it; block it out. I do not think that the rain can wash away some of the obscene things I've seen in this city however. Still, revolt of the flesh is absurd, so Camus tells me, for what we despise about other humans is the same as what it is to be human and it is absurd to hate yourself simply because you are human, or to hate the nature of things you cannot change.

Still it rains. Spit shine your black clouds they say: make the most of what you've got. I decide to stay on the bus for as long as I can. I will always have legs to walk, however the warmth of this bus is finite. I must leave it at some point. Spit shine your black clouds indeed.

I was forced to do just that last week when my bourgeois expectations of life, of what is normal were proven to be false. I was confronted by two individual instances of geriatric collapse. In the second instance the man's head bounced off the pavement like a grotesque bowling ball, thud included. The first made no sound. He just slumped against the bus shelter as if he was embarrassed, or lazing. From my own retrospective observations, it was as if this silent collapse was a practice run.

I was inside the well populated bus shelter, at the rear of the long queue whereas the man collapsed at the front. My location allowed me to view the whole incident but gave me enough moral legroom to do nothing aside from spectate. An ambulance was called by someone closer than I, so no action was required. While waiting on the paramedics arriving a number of the queue drifted away and I made my way to the front of the queue. By now, the bus had arrived and in a bizarre scene, people did not know whether to get on the bus or continue waiting in the queue. To get on the bus would entail almost stepping right over the man who had collapsed, which would be rude, at the very least. At the same time, with around twenty people queuing not everybody could hope to be of assistance. People were clearly struggling with the decision but it was made for them when the bus driver cut the engine and left his vehicle in order to check on the man, who must have been a regular passenger as the driver knew him by name.

As I mentioned, I had made my way to the front of the queue, partly from curiosity and partly in order to ascertain if I could be of any assistance. An unexpected potential NHS angel descended upon the man and began relieving him of his tie and collar as well as freeing the woman who he had collapsed upon en route to the pavement, the shock of which had shocked the woman so much that she instantly declared that he had died. Now we had a nursing student who was happy to help and use her small bank of knowledge. Happy to help because the good deed had not yet been clouded by academic or experiential cynicism. Thus, I did not need do anything but observe until the paramedics arrived and the bus driver was happy that the man was in safe hands.

In the second instance of an old man collapsing in front of me, everything was more instant; more grotesque; more demanding of my attention and assistance. I alighted from the bus a few stops early in order to walk through the city as it arose from its semi-dormant state. Had I been on that day of my present mindset, this incident would only have been a momentary spectacle viewed through the rear window of the bus. I suspect this would have made it somehow less real to me. I was two people behind the elderly collapsee and felt his skull bounce against the pavement through the reverberations in my feet.

While this had happened only once before in my experience, these incidents followed each other in day. The silent collapsee was only the previous day, thus it was fresh in my mind and had already been replayed in my mind many times. I instantly called an ambulance while the prone and bleeding man was attended to by another ex passenger. My location was handily placed on the bus stop sign so my mental geography capacities were saved the embarrassment of admitting they could not compute. The ex-passenger tending to the now partially conscious man explained to me that he was a retired but sill voluntary fireman and had plenty of experience in dealing with partly conscious individuals. Again, chance had saved me. It had also gradually given me more experience in an emergency situation. The situation seemed scaled to my ability and I can't help but view these instances as twins; as an existential coincidence. My lack of ability in an emergency situation was highlighted and needs now be addressed, thus a positive spin is automatically put on these men collapsing in front of me. Spit shine your black clouds...

This brings me back to my thoughts in the present, on my warm bus travelling through the city in the rain. We ignore suffering that seems to be excessive, as if it is too much of a caricature to be real; too Hollywood to be happening in the here-and-now. How many people were present to witness those two old men collapse butt refused to help or even acknowledge that help was needed. In the second case there were many more than five who got off at the same stop as I but five is all that remained to ensure he got the proper care deserving of any person, anonymous or not. This wilful ignorance is one thing I cannot help but despise in humans, myself included. However as I have already stated, I believe this type of self-loathing to be absurd. Aside from the contributions from obscure philosophical arguments , this type of ignorance is a part of human nature that can be observed in every city and town in the world, where people believe there is enough moral legroom between them and the incident for them to ignore it and keep walking.

Moral legroom – as if morals are as flexible as legs and must carry you about life in the same manner. It may be provided by physical distance as in the case of third world debt or by perceived social distance as in the case of homeless people who may or may not be homeless through their own doing. In my case, moral legroom was provided in the first instance by the number of people in front of me who were already taking action and was not provided at all in the second. As I approach my stop, an analogy springs to mind. The aggregate heat from passengers has formed a heavy condensation on the windows of the bus which separates us from the bitterly cold weather outside. It also obscures our vision and view of the outside world, just as the concept of moral legroom separates us from responsibilities we do not wish to assume.