Saturday, 13 August 2011

Suffering a poverty of means, morality, and aspiration. A manifesto for a divided Britain

Following the worst nights of civil disorder seen in my lifetime I expected some big questions to be asked during the recall of Parliament. Something is clearly beyond damaged in our national psyche when chaos descends, not because of any one cause or factor, but the simple collective realisation that you can get away with it. Destroying your community for personal gain has, and always will be, morally bankrupt. Big questions on the state of the means, morality and aspiration and the lack thereof in Britain's young working class I thought would be the central theme of the debate in Parliament on Thursday.

Unfortunately what I heard was almost the complete denial of any problem. They were labelled 'opportunistic' 'Greedy' and 'mindless'. This sort of language is simply used to vindicate the political classes of any responsibility. These individuals may have been all of the above but these are learned behaviours from a society that successive governments have helped to create. It's time they owned up and it's time they took real and lasting action on social stagnation.

We live in a divided Britain. While I think we do a good job in providing great access to the means of social mobility, we keep the classes so vehemently separate it's no wonder they begin to demonise each other. I have always believed that it's a working class pragmatism and humility mixed with an upper class education, motivation and ambition that produces the kind of people that change our world. Yet we're all so scared of each other this paradigm is almost impossible to achieve in our society.

I say this needs to end now.

So in the spirit of blue-sky thinking that such endemic social problems demand, here are some of the ideas the government needs to issue to end the plague of seperateness, the denial of access to centres of excellence and the realisation our ideas of a punitive justice system does not recognise the value, and indeed the need for, the inclusion of the community it affects.

Private Schools: Centres for the rich and famous to keep their children away from the working classes. They provide a wonderful service to the tax payer by having parents who essentially 'pay twice' for their childrens education. They also enjoy tax-free status due to the special value they give to the community. I say they keep this- but only if each and every school that claims charitable status accepts 20% of their students to those with entitlement to free schools meals at no cost. Schools either become businesses and contribute in tax to the education of others, or become charities that make a difference and cease to exist in the current state where they do neither.

Bring back EMA but reform it: No free money for kids but give them everything they need to have a meaningful college experience. Free School meals, Free travel to college and book vouchers to cover the cost of any materials they need for their courses. Those who can pay do, those who can't get support they need. It means not a tax payer cent is ever spent on cigarettes, but college no longer becomes a financial burden on those who cannot afford it. Education should be for the capable- not the rich or the financially needy and policy should finally reflect this.

Restorative justice: One of the most depressing things to emerge post riot is the first e-petition to make it to the 100,000 mark was to revoke the benefits of the rioters. I won't go into the legal nightmare of a mum being made homeless because her thirteen year old son bricked a Dixons but what I will say is that our justice system needs to A) involve the community it affects and B) Rehabilitate those who believe their community is so worthless that it is worthy of destruction. You destroy a shop? You help rebuild it. You steal its stock? You help make it profitable again. You threaten them with violence? You become an assistant to a police officer and help prevent violence in the future. Justice has to be more than punitive- it has to show how everyone benefits from a society of tolerance, freedom and order. It also needs to show how people working together create a meaningful direction for the whole of the community. Inevitably people outside of this are the very people who turn on it in times of crisis.

National Citizen scheme: National service lite essentially. Potentially a great scheme for social mixing but A) it's only 6 weeks long and B) it's not compulsory. Many peoples first 'defining experience' is that of being away from home. Combine that with something that educates someone in the value of community service, gives them skills they can use, and bonds them with people of all backgrounds you create a platform that unifies people and gives all classes a degree of common experience. This would be at least be a nine month scheme that ends the endemic social separateness that affects people of all classes.

Role Models: Unfortunately there is no one policy that can fix this. We need a greater celebration among the wider world of those figureheads that foster peace, tolerance, innovation and imagination. I went through history class without ever being taught about Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa. People like Richard Branson, Alan Sugar or Mark Zuckerberg never have their story told about how their one idea changed the world in business studies. Education should be about helping people to have a degree of self-actualisation that helps them realise that success doesn't come from an accident of birth but an understanding that as long as you're passionate about something you can lead by example and become the kind of person people talk about for decades.

This is not about wealth. It is about values, it is about creativity and a non-linear view of what success is. Part of the problem is too many people view wealth as a statement of success- People need to view social value in new and more complex ways and providing more role models in our education system is a great way to encourage people to think differently on the idea of what 'success' is.

You may argue that these ideas won't work, you may even argue that these ideas are crazy. You may believe that there is more that we the people, and the government can do. If so 'share' this article and contribute to the debate- Because the silence of our politicians is nothing short of jarring.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Why you must kill critics, attempt to fail and paint the world.

If there’s one thing that confuses me it’s how standardised the world has become. If this blog has any personal value it’s myself trying vainly to produce something that makes me distinctive. Graduates have to produce a thesis- a piece of work that is entirely theirs. It’s a right of passage, you’ve gone from being a consumer to producer. It’s seems like an apt finishing note that education has changed how you approach learning.

How we learn is probably the most important facet of being human. Learning made us the most powerful species on the planet because we do it best. Bizarrely in a world of increasing non-linearity how we learn has remained remarkably uniform. Sure we have the internet now, libraries are everywhere but everyone will read books, do exams and pass or fail.

Learning for me comes in two forms- understanding and experiencing. Universities do well on the understanding ‘didactic’ style learning but really fail on the experiential side, which really undermines the idea of being ‘learned’. Instructional or observational learning is only part of the story and for this humanities tend to have the greatest missed opportunities in experiential learning. John Dewey an American philospher and education reformer suggested the uniformity in education weeded out the originality and the individual nature of intellectual development it was suppose to create.

“Imposing an alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional. "

Say for instance, you observe a relationship between two people through a one-way looking glass. You might understand how a relationship operates; you may even begin to work out behaviours that foster good or bad relationships. You will never understand the emotional value of pursuing that relationship precisely because it’s not something you learn as an observer it’s something you feel as a participant. Experiencing is a fascinating aspect of knowledge because it is teaching you the unteachable, it filters through a personal and unique biological and psychological system to create an indefinable essence of knowing not just how but why, when and if through the prism of individual expectation and involvement.

This car crash realisation happened to me just over a year ago. I had just started work in a laboratory on my graduate thesis. I had known what science had involved before then but one thing that had never occurred to me is how lonely that job makes you. I had lots friends, a girlfriend, an active hobby in debating but from 9-5 I was occupying an otherwise empty space. Maths, measuring and materials became my only friends for the majority of my time. The sterility of my environment had become a metaphor for my working life.

By the end of the three months I had nearly lost my mind. I had every expectation of what science would involve but not how it would affect me.

Now I realise that science is not one of the careers that hardly markets itself for the socially marvellous, but one thing I learned is that I’m not mentally wired for a job that requires a lot of isolation. This was a psychological filibuster that effectively ended my career in science before it even begun. The kick in the teeth was that it took my entire university career before I could experience this.

Now I look at my CV and see that my degree takes up less space than my address and that alone suggests to me that education in this country isn’t working. Most of the people who talk of the formative experiences of education simply don’t talk about essays, tutorials or deadlines. They talk about time they wrote for the newspaper, went travelling with the debater or ran for student president. They were experiences that I created, chose and most importantly participated in.

It's easy to sideline experential learning when the environment becomes all about grades. Those who decide to do little but study at university probably degrade their employability and intellectual development for two core reasons- they become risk averse and lack initiative. Risk adverse behaviour is exactly what you would expect in an environment where you are forced into an observational role in education. The observer is set apart from those that create knowledge.

I've known many English literature graduates during my student travels all of which that can recite some of the most beautiful poetry I have ever known. Few, if in fact any, have even attempted to write poetry of their own. Whilst continually forced to be an observer and asked to critique the work of others over time it pushes them further and further away from participating in the very work they are celebrating. A builder can only be called a builder if he builds things. The first attempt might be somewhat crude but at least he can call himself a builder. At university everybody becomes what any builder hates. They become critics.

Being in an environment full of critics can kill the artist within many people. This is because critics, especially inexperienced ones, will almost always judge their peers (or in many cases their competition) very harshly. The first mistake the inexperienced critic makes is judging people by impossibly high standards, the second is attempting to make themselves feel good about doing so. The third mistake is assuming that people want to here about their tastes rather than their opinions. The final and most maddening of all is oft-committed crime of attempting to prove how knowledgeable they are instead of helping the reader or the artist appreciate or develop the piece. Thus we must kill the critic without trial. Creative genocide is the ugliest crime of them all.

Luckily for the critic there is a cure for this sickness- attempting to fail. The experience of attempting to produce any work of merit weather it be a poem, a book or an article teaches us something that didactic learning never could- that originality is hard, motivation is inconsistent and that writing about yourself makes you vulnerable and scared. Most critics never come from this point of view precisely because they are armchair generals in this regard. Viewing the tactical moves without the human reality of the experiences involved, and therefore ill-informed to make judgements on that which they do not know.

It seems that, at least formally, we are only taught one type of learning our entire lives. I think experiential learning needs to become a bigger facet of all our lives, precisely because requires us to be participant in what we love observing and that transition teaches us things we could never otherwise know about our discipline and our very personal relationship with it.

I say get out of the armchair and head for the front line and start experiencing what you learn, appreciate and love. Don’t be educated to be a critic, be educated about yourself. Maybe then you’ll paint the world. Maybe then I won’t kill you.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Getting lost in the violence

I recently read an interesting article written by a friend of mine titled 'Don't ignore the violence it's all we have left' supporting the recent protests against austerity cuts. It argued that the violence that ensued shouldn't be written off as the actions of a few renegade students trying to grab the headlines, but as a group willing to resort to violence to stand up against perceived injustices.

While much of the debate around the fairness of the fees increase or the recent finance settlement for local government is a road well travelled in the media, I think a simpler question could be asked- Should political activism include violence?

There is a part of me that thinks violence should be a tool we can use to defend that which we value, although at the time I felt it wasn't doing a very good job of defending anything. Defacing the cenotaph maybe a great way to get on the front of the Daily Mail but it's hardly a way to endear the electorate to your cause- even if that cause involved protecting the Care-Bears from Mumm-ra's Doomsday cannon.

I think understanding what constitutes an effective symbolic gesture is something the left lacks, and if they are to succeed they must understand that media attention and media sympathy exist in very different ballparks. I think if everyone in receipt of the EMA spent one pound and sent a letter to the treasury saying “How much does your independence cost?” I think the 2 million letters arriving at the treasury would hardly slide past the 24 hour media. It would show a unified voice of protest without tainting it with violence.

Along with making effective symbolic gestures, it also pays to realise what your political objectives are. They are not destroying Conservative HQ and not burning effigies of Nick Clegg, It's to get the current government out and make Labour look like a reasonable alternative.

Shooting the government down now is incredibly easy- Osbornomics is a widely perceived economic gamble, which is ironic because reckless fiscal gambling contributed to the mess we're in. Not to mention the axing of the arts council and regional development funds which actually raised government revenue not depleted it. Doesn't being a good Conservative involve knowing what to Conserve?

The list could go on- Cameron's aides involved in illegal journalism, Lord Young saying 'we've never had it so good' Grayling's defence of homophobic motel owners (rewarded with a ministerial post no less). When Brown made similar mistakes the media barked on for months over lost gold reserves, bottling elections and 'that bigoted woman'.

The fact remains if you want the current government out you don't shotgun the libdems, you target the Cons and the amount of ammunition they've provided over the last nine months far outweighs that of Clegg's reneged pledge. It's also worth spelling out that many of the Lib-dem seats that will be lost at the next election will probably move into conservative hands.

This lack of vision in hijacking the media against Liberals only undermines the lefts political agenda, and yet they blithely go along with it. Understanding that activism involves picking effective political targets and not making crass ideological statements is another lesson that needs to be learned by Britain's austerity left.

Finally the political statement made by flying the red flags, placards with Iron Fists and attacking the royal family suggests the modern-day left idolises the revolution embodied by political violence. This can only bring associations of the current and past regimes of Communism, which I think uncontroversially can be called the 20th century's biggest failed social experiment. Millions left to rot in Gulags, Freedoms trampled worldwide, Continents enslaved whilst protecting an immovable oligarchy of complete moral bankruptcy is hardly a historical legacy worth holding onto.

Remove your association with Communism immediately- it's unnecessary, extreme, immature and associates your movement with one of the darkest chapters in modern political history. The good news is that Social Democracy is a far nobler ideology encompassing a respect for individuals, a faith in democracy and defined role for the government dictated by and for the people.

Idealising the roots from which a movement came might sound nice but ask your media team if it's good idea to associate your product with Communism and I think they'll politely ask you to check into the local re-education centre.

The lessons for the left must firstly be violence grabs headlines but not sympathy, violence only creates fear and disaffection with those who don't understand your message. Effective symbolic messages require thoughtfulness and media accessibility -do something different- don't just resort to violence and do something they don't expect, remember Gandhi brought down a government by not fighting back.

Secondly the Conservatives record in government has involved the usual fuck-ups and reversal of positions of any parliament and concentrating fire on the Lib-Dems will help you lose the next election not win it. If you want to attack the Cons now is the time to do it- Cameron’s lost a powerful media ally and his spin team is currently without leadership. Give him all the mercy they Gave Brown- None.

Lastly remember kids, put the Lenin T-shirts and motorcycle diaries aside- Communism isn't cool.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Lets stop asking questions and start telling stories.

One reason I think I'll remember this Christmas for a long time, is that this year I learnt that everyone has a story to tell. In a room of people aged between 20-78 I simply asked someone tell me a story, and people were falling over themselves to tell me their story. Polish, Jewish, Irish, English gathered to tell me tales across four continents. My world became bigger and better with every one.

Perhaps one of my biggest post-graduation problems is escaping mundanity. Life is just so full of bus rides, tube journeys, queueing and stock-question, stock-answer scenarios. Lots of sterile conversation, lack of eye contact and faux sincerity. Can be quite maddening when you notice it everywhere.

My lack of updates has been in part to my new job, I too have aspired to the dizzying height of unpaid desk drone complete with personalised email version 2.0. Unfortunately the most terrible and repetitive conversation many of you will have post-graduation is 'What do you do?' I seem to remember when social status came from a delicate distillation of guesswork of intellectual capacity, relative confidence and interests. Personally I'd prefer 'Shaughan, just tell me a story'

It almost feels like people can't even be bothered any more, I expect the American approach to be next- 'Sorry buster, too busy to ascertain your relative personal wealth could you just write down your numerical value on a piece of paper please?' . Perhaps the deeper tragedy is when they find my actual market net worth currently resides at £0 PA. The come hither eyes rarely work after that bombshell.

It was nice to see Christine recently, we both banned the topic of 'career development' an as such talked about the correct use of punctuation. I hadn't laughed about grammar in a long time, and to many of you probably sounds like the conversational version of hell, but for me the hyphens of hope spelled an end to mundane, samey conversation I'd gotten used to. It was different, unique and a conversation I'd probably never have with someone else.

It held value because it was both personal and rare, a celebration of our nerdy interest in language and formed a connection between us in a marvellously comic framework. It struck me at that moment she is very good at telling stories. Has anyone ever told you story about a hyphen that made you laugh? All about how you tell it. Told you she was good.

This experience reminded me of the value of telling stories, since then I've been a small mission of mine to start telling a few stock tales. It's a pleasant reminder for me that life isn't always mundane. Sit me down and ask me and I can recall the time I was almost killed by the Bulgarian Mafia, my interesting experience at my first and last Students Association dinner and the time I accidentally looted a listed building. Those are just the ones that made it's past Dolansphere's PR team.

The best part is these are self-contained little epics is that each one contains elements of comedy, tragedy and the overcoming of the absurd and extraordinary. I've found them great with connecting with people, because it ends our association to the familiar. Because it presents something about us both funny and vulnerable. Gives an insight into often bizarre events that have shaped me.

Now being a 21st century male a sizable amount of my life is to do about escapism. Books, Movies, TV, Radio, the internet, Video games and alcohol keep me suitably removed from the world around me for most of my spare time. Probably because these media are all very good at telling stories, maybe we feel we don't have to any more.

In an age overloaded with information we need to hang onto that which is personal, and our stories are little pieces of our identity. If we forget them we forget part of ourselves.

Lets stop asking questions and start telling stories. Maybe then we'll get some meaningful answers.