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.