Saturday 22 December 2007

Solstice reflections

It is that curious time of year when London is open for frantic business, and then firmly closed for a day. Having particular days in the year when life is, however trivially, different gives a certain structure. To some extent, that structure is enforced in law with restrictions on the opening of shops on 25 December, or enforced in practice on many people by the withdrawal of public transport and the closure of public museums and art galleries. But the structure will not suit everyone. There are those who would rather there was no great build-up followed by national closure, either because they feel lonely or because they would rather not suffer clogged roads and airports. Christmas is not the only example, of course. Public holidays have similar, but lesser, effects.

So is it right that these things should be imposed, or should all laws setting out public holidays and special rules associated with them be abolished? I think the latter, on grounds of individual liberty, but there is a case to be made for the other side.

The case is that those who want the structure and the special days can only have them if most people join in. If there were no laws, many people would not join in. Traditions are not strong enough to do the same job. I remember that in the 1960s, all of the public holidays had a noticeable impact on daily life. Now, most of them do not apart from the large numbers of people travelling. So do we owe it to each other to continue to impose on ourselves the traditional restrictions, and to do so by law and by the withdrawal of public facilities given that this is the only effective method of imposition? I say no, but those who say yes do have a case.

Friday 23 November 2007

Mad micro-management in further education

Many lecturers in further education are now having to work their way through a new scheme of qualifications. The content is mostly sensible, although grossly over-specified, but the way in which these qualifications are being run is simply appalling.

Take the basic qualification, the PTLLS. Page 16 of this document

prescribes 60 hours of learning, of which at least 30 must be guided (ie, in class). This prevents lecturers from completing the course more efficiently if they can. The content is very straightforward, and it would be easy to fit the whole course, including completion of the assignments, into ten hours of reading and writing, with no class time apart from observation of the lecturer in action.

The people behind this nonsense have gone far beyond those who argue that ends can justify means. They have decided to prescribe the means to achieve the end (a certain level of knowledge and skill), regardless of whether there are better means. Charitably, this reflects a culture of wasteful and controlling perfectionism that has long flourished in enterprises subsidised by the taxpayer.

Another example of the same culture can be found in the new professional standards:

This worthy 20-page document achieves little more than would be achieved by a postcard to lecturers which said:

Know your subject
Teach it well
Respect your students

But I think we knew that much already.

The digital republic of letters

Blogging for the first time, I feel impelled to reflect on what blogging is doing to the world of learning - and plenty of academics are blogging now. It creates a worldwide agora, in which we can all flit from one corner to another to join in whichever conversations take our fancy. The new agora is not a democracy in one sense. There are too many voices for all to get a hearing. But it is an (imperfect) democracy in another sense. At least some of the voices most worth listening to can be identified from blog statistics, although some of the less worthy voices attract large followings too.

What this exhilerating babble does not yet give us is a reliable mechanism for building up a canon of learning. Voices come and go, in stark contrast to libraries building up collections of respected and reliable books and journals. But we do not have to abandon that mechanism, and in any case it is not completely reliable - some bad work gets published and some good work does not.

We are trying out Socrates' lifestyle, conversing with everyone and not caring whether our words are preserved for posterity. When thinkers spend more time blogging than writing more traditional publications, the blog will really have arrived and philosophy will have gone back to its roots.