I know lots of people have already remarked on this, but this Guardian blogpost about MPs’ expenses rules has my eyes literally burning with rage.

Not because of what the rules are, of course, but because of the unattributed comments from MPs about them.

We are being treated like benefit claimants. Why don’t they just put up a metal grille?

Implicit snobbery vis a vis benefits claimants, much? As Old Holborn has said, you are benefits claimants. The only difference between an MP’s pay and a benefit claimant’s handout is that the MP pretends to do work for it. Being an MP is obviously not a hardship in any way, despite some of the slogging they have to do (constituency work, natch). The non-monetary compensations are clearly huge, else there wouldn’t be nearly so many toes scrabbling their way up the greasy pole. MPs, don’t pretend your actions are self-sacrificing, or that you are in some way noble for doing the job. You’re not – you can quit at any time, and very likely go into some other job that pays much more. (At least, those MPs with actual talent and intelligence can). But you don’t, because there’s something about being an MP that gets you off, which other jobs wouldn’t do. You’re not serving the public; you’re serving yourself, and you’re doing it with our money. So get used to being treated like benefits claimants.

For Christ’s sake, what has happened if this bloody authority doesn’t believe me when I say my wife is my wife? A utility bill to prove co-habitation? Good God.

None of the bloody authorities believe the rest of us. You want special perks from the state because you’re married? Then you have to prove over and over again that you’re actually married, actually co-habiting – check out the list of documents Shane Greer had to hand over to the state when he wanted permission to marry a foreigner. And of course those all had to be originals. And I’m willing to bet the state kept them a hell of a lot longer than IPSA will be keeping MPs’ utility bills, marriage certificates, and birth certificates. Welcome to the world you helped create, MPs: if you have to hand over original documents to the state to prove every little thing, well, you’re only living the life you’ve imposed on the rest of us.

What happens on a January night in London? I suppose I will have to take the tube, then a bus and then a long walk home. That is not safe.

We just have to accept this because the public is not with us. It will take something really horrendous, such as a woman MP being stabbed on the streets of London because she is not entitled to take a taxi home late at night, before people wake up and realise how unfair this is.

You know what? FUCK YOU. How many winter nights in London have I had to take the tube, then a bus, then walk home? Not only that, I paid for it MYSELF. Let’s put into perspective what these fucking precious female MPs are whining about: before 11pm, they can only claim for travel on public transport. After 11pm, they can claim for taxis.

I’m a woman, I never get to claim for any of these ‘not safe’ journeys on the tube, bus, etc., let alone for the luxury of a fucking taxi, and nobody in parliament worries about me getting stabbed or raped or whatever as I pay my own costs on the ‘not safe’ way.

Ooh, of course, the public will wake up and realise how ‘unfair’ this all is when a woman MP is attacked. You know what? FUCK YOU AGAIN. Women all across London are attacked on a daily basis – it’s really unfair – and MPs refuse to wake up and give a shit about the astounding amount of criminality in Britain. If an exalted lady MP feels unsafe on the fucking BUS before 11pm, how does she think we proles feel about it?

What makes me angriest, however, is the fact that, actually, tube and bus etc. aren’t even that unsafe. I’m on them constantly at all hours – including January nights – and never once has anyone threatened me, harassed me, attacked me, or made me feel even remotely uncomfortable. And, unlike these lady MPs, I’m not going home to Islington, I’m going home to fucking Brixton. If I can walk from the bus stop to my flat in Brixton without a problem, I think these bitches can do the same, especially since they still won’t be paying for it themselves.

Assholes.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only way this brat could have received a polling card is if he deliberately falsified the electoral registration form that came to his parents’ house.

Whatever, his commentary is chilling:

Alfie went to his local polling station before school on Thursday, wearing a trench coat, glasses, jeans and smart shoes so officials would “think I was a Tory”.

“I knew they wouldn’t suspect an under-18 for voting Tory,” he said.

Alfie said he was “very serious” about politics and socialism, but decided to vote Liberal Democrat as a tactical option.

He said: “There’s not a socialist candidate in our area and unfortunately even if there was it would be a wasted vote. I’ve looked into it and the best option for a socialist is the Liberal Democrats.

“I did want to make a difference – unfortunately I didn’t.”

Police are investigating. Can we do 14-year-olds for electoral fraud? I do hope so. And for God’s sake, somebody give the kid’s mother a backbone:

Alfie’s mum, Nadine Wiseman, said she had asked him not to vote, after he received the polling card, but she “wasn’t surprised” when he did.

The captions below this little bastard’s photo says that Alfie is ‘very serious’ about politics. Too bad he’s not too fussed about, y’know, the law.

Including teenagers, it seems, though I’ve long suspected this so it comes as no surprise.

The Youth Parliament have more fiscal responsibility, common sense, and awareness than 99.9% of MPs:

Funmi Abari, a member of the Youth Parliament from London, opened the first debate – on scrapping university fees in England and Wales – with an appeal for financial rectitude and self-reliance of a passion rarely seen since Margaret Thatcher stood at the same despatch box, years before Miss Abari was born.

“There is no such thing, Mr Speaker, as a free lunch,” she thundered, arguing that free tuition would not widen access and that students should pay their way like everybody else, ending with a flourish: “Lowering fees to what they are actually worth? Hell yes, that’s fair.”

Of course, a university degree is so devalued these days that lowering fees to what it’s worth is practically the same thing as making it free.

Indeed, by the end of the morning session, quite a few MPs had slipped into the chamber to watch the next generation in action.

John Bercow introduced each one of them as they came in, not unlike a ringside announcer at a boxing match spotting celebrities in the crowd: “And here is the government chief whip, Nick Brown….”

Mr Brown gave an awkward little wave.

Perhaps he, like the other “grown-up” MPs in the chamber, was starting to feel more than little past his sell-by date.

And so he should. The wreckage of this country, and the West in general, can be laid entirely at the door of everybody over the age of 45. You fuckers wanted to be looked after, you voted for it, and you sold the liberty of your children and your grandchildren in return for…what? The right to pick each others’ pockets and the security of tagging everybody with a bar code? When the revolution comes, you’ll be lucky if you don’t get shot.

And pardon me whilst I’m cynical, but I can’t help feeling very little enthusiasm, in the end, for the members of the Youth Parliament. Presumably they want to be involved in politics someday. Unfortunately, it’s an unofficial law of physics that anybody who wants to be a politican re ipsa should never be allowed to be one. Alas.

Working class kids are dumb.

This seems to be the view of John David Blake, who lays into the Tories’ recent statements on education with particular zeal, in ‘The Terrifying Face of Tory Education’. (‘Terrifying’! Really!) He is, as he says, a history teacher, so he knows all kinds of shit about shit.

As it happens, I too was once a history teacher, so I too know all kinds of shit about shit.

Let’s see how his shit and my shit compare, shall we?

A quick low-down on personal backgrounds first, though, since that matters a great deal to Mr Blake. He used to teach at a grammar school! *gasp*

Now, first off, a confession – probably best to get this out of the way: I spent two years working in a grammar school. Gnash your teeth if you wish…

But don’t give him too hard a time, y’all. At least grammar schools are still funded by the state, so he was earning an honest living off the toil of the taxpayer, just as every honest man should. I, on the other hand, have always worked in private, fee-paying schools, taking no penny of my salary from the taxpayer, unless perhaps indirectly by teaching the children of government employees.

You might say, actually, that Mr Blake has combined the worst of both worlds: living off the sweat of others whilst teaching only the privileged, well-behaved and brightest of the country’s children. In his eyes, one of those is a sin. Three guesses which.

But backgrounds are important to Mr Blake; a sticking point for him is that Tory education policy was dreamed up and announced by some guys who were educated in selective, sometimes expensive schools and then went on to university at Oxford – thus disqualifying them from any credibility:

Baker, Gove and Willetts seemed inordinately fixated, for a group all of whom were educated at Oxford after (respectively) public, private and grammar school educations, on the notion of “real skills”. Since “real skills” clearly aren’t currently being taught in schools (otherwise why the need for the new technical colleges?) I can’t help but wonder what the phrase actually means. Did Baker pick up no “real skills” at St Paul’s? Did Gove’s have no “real skills” as President of the Oxford Union? (part 2)

Yeah, those guys have no idea what they’re talking about. ‘Cause nobody who has ever been involved in Labour’s education policy went to selective schools (*cough*VernonCoaker*cough*) or Oxford (*cough*EdBalls*cough*KevinBrennan*cough*) or was president of the Oxford Union (*cough*MichaelFoot*cough*) or all three (*triplecough*TonyBenn*cough*).

But the ad hominem strategy was never going to be a good way to prosecute an argument, so let’s move on to Mr Blake’s problems with the policies.

First, creating new grammar schools. Mr Blake deploys the common complaint that they take away bright kids from other schools, thus depriving the dim kids of the company of their intellectual (or perhaps just hoop-jumping) superiors:

Obviously, where grammars continue to exist they cause problems (especially, say, Kent, which has an appalling record of educational achievement and has been run by the Tories since the dawn of time) – they can drain the brightest kids away from other schools, they often gobble up resources unfairly… (part 1)

I could almost buy this, except for the fact that bright kids do not exist to help dim ones, nor should we be treating them as if they ought to. ‘Brightness’ is not catching; the only benefit bright kids have for dim ones is that their general attitude toward learning and work ethic might inspire. The hope that this might happen is not a particularly good reason to keep bright kids in classes with slower learners, or more disruptive pupils, than themselves, mostly because the influence tends to flow in the other direction: weak or difficult pupils inhibit the learning experience for the bright ones far more than the bright ones enable it for the weak and disruptive. I mean, should doctors force healthy people to hang around the wards in the hope that their positive attitudes might improve the attitudes of the sick? After all, healthiness is no more catching than brightness.

As I say, I could almost buy that, except Mr Blake then carries on to say this:

…[grammar schools] generally result in a divide between middle and working class children in education (which often mirrors a racial divide).

Now, anyone may correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of grammar schools was that they took in the bright kids irrespective of background. This was sort of the point of them: any kid bright enough, working class or no, could attend. Grammar schools divide the bright from the dim; apparently they also divide the middle class from the working class. By analogy, then, Mr Blake thinks the working class are dim. If they can’t get into grammar schools, and all you need to do to get into grammar schools is be bright, then working class kids must not be bright. Or ‘ethnic’ kids, for that matter, since grammar schools cause (?) highlight (?) a racial divide.

This attitude of Mr Blake’s is frankly insulting.

I do not think it remotely true that the working class, or the non-white, cannot benefit from grammar schools. All you have to do is be clever, and cleverness knows no class-based or racial boundaries. The problem at the moment, of course, is that there aren’t enough grammar schools to service all the bright kids. The other problem, one which is nothing to do with the education system per se, is that children from deprived backgrounds, of whatever race, tend not to be brought up in environments in which learning is prized. Either nobody bothers to tell them that education can improve their minds and lives, or they are actively discouraged by immediate peers and role models from pursuing it in the first place. Send grammar school representatives into these areas to recruit, and the class/racial divide such schools cause (?) highlight (?) will disappear. The ‘problem’ of separating the bright from the weak will persist, of course.

The only way grammar schools would become a massive issue in education again is if someone proposed building dozens of them in every local authority in England and Wales.

Which is effectively exactly what Kenneth Baker is proposing.

Hurrah for Kenneth Baker. One issue solved: there will be enough grammar schools to service the bright kids. Now just send them out to recruit.

And, incidentally, don’t include behavioural history as part of the selection process. My own experience as a teacher – and this is anecdotal of course – is that most of the behaviour problems in schools are caused by bright kids who are bored out of their fucking minds. Personalise their education, allow them to pursue their scholastic interests, and put them in small classes where they can get lots of attention from the teacher, and bingo. No more bad behaviour.

Then there are the proposed vocational diplomas:

Diplomas force children at 14 to choose between academic and vocational education – the decision to study GCSEs or Diplomas is the defining issue around which everything else is then shaped in their lives, because it determines how many other GCSEs they can do, which in turn affects what they can study at Sixth Form (can they do A-levels if they decide the diploma isn’t for them? Well, possibly, but not the “hard subjects”), which shapes what, if anything, they are able to do at university level.

This is just silly. Why the hell do we have FE colleges, if not to enable people to go back and do GCSEs and A-levels after they have done something else for a while? Education does not have to stop at age 16 or 18 if a person doesn’t want it to. What’s to stop somebody from doing a vocational diploma as a teenager, working for a while with it, then going back on their own time to do some GCSEs and ‘hard’ A-levels? Nothing.

But of course, this is not really about learning. This is about evil Tory LEAs stuffing all the ‘difficult’ kids into vocational schools where they don’t bring down the league table ranking:

[Baker] wants each local authority in the country (about 100 of them) to set up separate schools which will take children with an interest in vocational work – so popular will these schools be, said Baker, that soon local authorities will want more of them. And indeed, which local authority run (as most of them are today) by Tories wouldn’t want a school into which you can legitimately dump at 14 every difficult child in every other school in your area?

This strategy would apparently isolate kids from everybody who knows them and make sure they know their place forever:

Take them out of that environment and put them into a new school where no one knows them and everyone has an incentive to keep them just where they are for as long as possible and these children will be cut off from the higher levels of academic achievement throughout the rest of their school career at the age of 14 (and, let’s be honest, if that happens, very few of them are going to go back in their own time later in life). Worse, they will be earning qualifications which, the history of educational qualifications in Britain would suggest to us, are less likely to be highly regarded by universities or employers (the reason we have a GCSE today was because employers were only interested in the “academic” O-level not the “second-class” GCE). Students will be divided by outcome; and not the outcome of the same set or a similar of examinations, but at different qualifications entirely, within a system which is already set up to favour those who follow the traditional route.

Oh, I see: they won’t go back to school later in life, after being sequestered in the vocational schools to keep them out of the classrooms of the privileged middle class kids. They’ll, like, not go to university! Or get jobs!

Again: silly. They’ll get jobs. Maybe not hugely remunerative ones, but they’ll get them. They won’t go to university, but hey, lots of people don’t. It’s not for everybody. It helps if you want office jobs, or academic jobs, but not everybody wants those.

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, if employers insist on job candidates having GCSEs these days, it’s probably because that’s one of the few ways to confirm that an applicant is functionally literate and numerate (and even then you can’t be sure). If we had fewer problems at the pre-secondary level – if kids could definitely all read, write, and ‘rithmetic by the age of 11 – employers would likely have less of a box-ticking mentality about the GCSE.

The US model is a good one to look to: although vocational schools are few and far between, they offer the core curriculum alongside the vocational skills. Half the day is spent doing English, maths, history, and science, and the other half in the workshop. If that was done here, kids in vocational schools could get GCSEs easily. It might take them an extra year or two, but they’d have them by the age of 17 or 18.

This has nothing to do with improving education for the least well-off in society; this is about saving Home County parents from having to send their children to school where working class kids also go. That’s Kenneth Baker’s offer: build a new sink school, local authorities, and the rest of your schools will drained of the poor, the problematic and the needy. Wave goodbye to the black and the backwards, it is Grammar schools for everyone (who already votes Tory).

And your argument, Mr Blake, has nothing to do with children’s needs, despite your protestations about pastoral care and attention. It has everything to do with class warfare, in which the person who appears to hold the lowest opinion of the working class is not Kenneth Baker, but you.

Moving on, we get into the arena of ‘real skills’, which we’ve already seen Mr Blake doesn’t think well-educated Tories are fit to judge.

Leaving aside their rather optimistic faith that the only thing required to turn around our most disaffected youngsters is some time with power tools, or the fact that they were just making jobs up out of thin air (not everyone who leaves the new technical schools will be guaranteed a job unless the government starts interfering with the economy in a fashion that “David” and “George” are not going to be happy with), what we seem to be talking about here is a vision of education which relates solely to the things you can do practically at the end of it. I have real problems with this, largely because as a History teacher, I find that when people say “skills” they mean “things that will obviously make you money” rather than “things that will allow you to assess, understand and work to alter yours and other people’s place in the world”. (part 2)

So: the Tories want to fix education so that people can better themselves; Mr Blake thinks the purpose of educating a child is so that he can better other people. Who’s right?

A good education is not something that can be shared, in the sense that, once you’ve got one, you can’t siphon off a little bit to someone who hasn’t. In that respect, education is very much a selfish endeavour: you want the best possible one you can get, which will accrue to you the greatest possible benefit. But ‘benefit’ is a fairly subject value; some people feel benefited by ‘making money’, others by ‘assessing, understanding, and working to alter their and other people’s place in the world.’ But ultimately, it’s up to the individual to judge that. In fact you might say the purpose of education is to provide the individual with the critical skills necessary to make that judgment.

But the Tories just want to educate you so that you can ‘ make you money’, those evil bastards. This from the guy who was just whinging about people being ‘guaranteed a job’! Make up your mind, Mr Blake! Should they be guaranteed a job (and thus make money, how horrid), or should they assess, understand, etc? Or, perhaps, they should somehow be getting non-paying, world-altering jobs. I dunno. I’m confused. You complain that these kids won’t get jobs, but then you say education shouldn’t be focused on enabling them to make money. So somehow education should be focused on enabling them to get jobs that don’t make money. I don’t get it.

But this allows us to move into another of Mr Blake’s critiques, which is that the Tories aren’t promising jobs. Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity that anyone should be guaranteed a job (is this a new human right?), he says:

Unless someone gives building firms, engineering firms and others a great deal of money, there aren’t going to be any jobs for these young people to go to. The banks haven’t got any money, and David Cameron is ideologically opposed to government giving any money…

Excuse me, but the people who should be giving these firms ‘a great deal of money’ are their customers.

Finally, Mr Blake carries on to rail against fee discounts for university students who repay their student loans early:

…when our bright, articulate working class youngster gets to the dreaming spires, or the solid red brick, or the upcoming 1992 university, she will discover rich people will be getting their university places for cheaper than she is.

Willetts, a beaming smile on his face, guaranteed that 10,000 new university places would be provided by giving students who paid back their debts early a discount on their fees. (part 3)

I must admit, I don’t really know how this policy operates, given that the fees are paid at the set rate before the student begins to pay back his debts. Perhaps he will be given a discount on the repayment interest rate. But it was my understanding that all (English) students at all British universities pay exactly the same amount of money in tuition and fees. Getting a cheaper interest rate on your student loans hardly translates into ‘getting [your] university places for cheaper’.

Government-funded student loans represent a market failure anyway. The reason we have them is because banks don’t like to give out loans to people with no collateral who are likely to default. The government absorbs that risk via the taxpayer – but still attempts to obviate the risk by garnishing a person’s salary for repayments as soon as he ceases to be a student and gets a job.

Now, one could argue that since we want to encourage people to go to university, whether they are rich or poor, these are reasonable government policies. But surely it would be better for students to borrow from a private lender, with the state acting as guarantor, than for the state to lend the money and then garnish wages.

It was also my impression that student loans were means-tested, so this complaint is a little odd to me:

There are student now who manipulate the student loans system by taking out loans they are entitled to, sticking the money in a high interest savings account, and then getting through their university with handouts from mummy and daddy. Now, fantastically, they’ll actually get to keep not just the interest from that cash, but some of the money too. It’s like a lottery only rich people can win.

If there are ‘rich people’ getting student loans, maybe it’s time to change the way those means are tested. They do it in the US – it’s called the FAFSA. It’s pretty harsh. Even some people who are low on means indeed have trouble getting government aid. Of course, they take a different view of paying for university in the US; grants are swell, loans are tolerable, but if you expect to go to uni for fucking free you’d better get a scholarship. Most American university students I knew worked at least part-time throughout their course (including me). British university students appear to take their government money, pay their rent, and spend the rest on beer. There is no shame in tending bar or waiting tables whilst studying – and I’m sure many British uni students do – but give me a break. If the government is stupid enough to give you a loan you don’t need, and you stick it in the bank to collect interest, good for you. The fact that not everybody can do that is no reason to start bitching.

Meanwhile, those students who do have to pay something but really need the loans face the prospect of not claiming their discount. But, you cry, presumably they can go into high paid jobs? Then they can pay it back faster. Well, possibly … although one would think the Milk Round is going to be a little curdled for a while, and besides, why should the decision to enter teaching, or medicine, or nursing, not be a reason for a discount on your fees, whilst a decision to enter banking or corporate law saves you money? It is an absolutely naked piece of government welfare to the class from which all three of these men, and their leader and their shadow chancellor, are drawn.

The government has every reason to incentivise people to go into high-paying jobs. That lovely welfare Mr Blake and Don Paskini like so much doesn’t come cheap – it requires money. To put it bluntly, for every graduate who pays off his loans early by getting a high-paying job, the government expects to soak him for the maximum possible tax and National Insurance contributions. These people are the wealth creators (well, not from lawyers, obvi), and government can hardly hand out generous welfare without access to some, y’know, wealth. Doctors, nurses, and teachers are not wealth creators; they are at best wealth enablers, ensuring that people are healthy and knowledgeable enough to go out and create some; they are at worst wealth drainers, as some teachers especially are so bad at it that they simply suck up taxpayers’ money without even giving their kids some decent book-learnin’.

But as it happens, this is kind of something I agree with Mr Blake about. If the government is going to mandate the same tuition fees at East Buddhafuck Polytechnic as at Oxford (’cause to do otherwise would just be another example of the Tories fucking over the poor kids by making only crappy universities affordable to them), then the amount the students are made to pay back should be the same across the board, too.

On the other hand, the policy doesn’t really sound to me like aid for the Tory class. Mr Blake spends a bit of time pointing out that they don’t have any ‘real skills’ because they’ve worked in politics and its subsidiaries all their adult lives. From what I’ve heard, that career path doesn’t pay very well until you claw your way up the ladder. Conversely, lots of normal (read: non-toffs) people leave university to get productive jobs, found companies, etc. ‘Discounts’ for those who go into the paid professions, rather than the work-for-peanuts ass-kissing professions, seems to me like it might help working-class graduates rather than hurt them.

But as Mr Blake reminds us, this isn’t about class warfare, despite the fact that he thinks working-class kids are stupid, badly-behaved, and likely to go into low-wage jobs if they manage to get as far as university:

And what [Cameron's] men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate for power, uncaring of how they get it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people kept them out of power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people Labour never gave you.

Hmm. Change a couple of words, and that paragraph would read:

And what Brown’s men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate to cling onto power, uncaring of how they do it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people has been demonstrated whilst they’ve been in power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people the Conservatives would never give you.

This is obviously not about the substance of the Tories’ proposed educational reforms; it’s about the Tories themselves. And why should the voter give a good goddamn where the Tory leadership went to school thirty years ago? All a voter should care about is whether the policies will work. I don’t think they will; they’re so milquetoast that I doubt they’ll have any effect if enacted. Cameron’s men aren’t being radical enough.

This is about hatred for the Tories, in their incarnation of The Privileged, and finding every way possible to insinuate that they’ve got it in for people who aren’t like them. To what end, I ask you, would they do this? Is it really in the Tories’ interests to foster an ill-educated, poverty-stricken underclass who would (a) simply have to be supported on benefits anyway, and (b) never ever vote again for the party that robbed them of all chance at social mobility? Perhaps Mr Blake thinks this is just the beginning, and eventually the Tories will strip away the benefits too, so that everybody who’s ‘not like them’ will starve to death, thus ridding the country of an inconvenient burden?

I’m sure Mr Blake doesn’t actually think that. What he also doesn’t think is what has actually happened: that social mobility has worsened under Labour, educational achievement has worsened under Labour, and enough people realise this that they’re likely to vote for the very party that supposedly fucked everybody over back in the eighties.

Finally, Mr Blake is invoking the kind of political cant that was the standard 25 years ago. Is he appealing to new voters, young voters, the very people who would be most affected by some of these policies? No – a voter turning eighteen next spring will have been born in 1992. Too young to remember how evil the Tories were. Too young to know anything but thirteen years of Labour government. The only people these days for whom ‘toffs! class warfare!’ is going to work as an electoral rallying cry are the ones who were bitching and moaning around the place in 1984 and who think all Tories are exactly like Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact she’s been out of power for twenty years.

If you want people to take your criticisms seriously, Mr Blake, then make some serious criticisms. Don’t stand or fall on the ancient reputation of the Conservative party and a bunch condescending remarks about how haaaaard everything is for the, by your implication, stupid and unemployable working class.

Continuing with the recent philosophy that learning has to be justified by national utility, President Obama gave a televised speech this morning aimed at schoolchildren. Most classrooms in American schools have television sets (books? why are you asking about books? this is multi-media learning), and so I reckon, though I cannot be sure, that all state schools were required to show this broadcast, on what is for many children their first day of the school year.

As a teacher, I cannot over-emphasise what a massive pain in the backside I would have found it to spend even fifteen minutes of precious class time on frivolous speeches. The curriculum is too vast, and the school year too short in comparison, to give up even a moment of it. For purposes of comparison, consider that, four years ago when Pope John Paul II died, I was a Catholic teaching in a Catholic school and I still resented the single day the school closed for mourning.

But Obama’s speech was not simply frivolous; it was a collection of egotistical bromides couched in terms no child could fail to understand: if you don’t do well in school, you’ll never have a comfortable life, and the nation will be doomed. How do you mean, egotistical, I hear you ask?

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

‘I, I, I. I’m you, American schoolchildren. I’m Everyman.’

Except that, of course, if you’re a kid, you’re thinking hmm. The president is telling me he goofed off and got in trouble and wasted time, and yet he still became the president. So clearly there’s no penalty.

And Obama puts the weight of a huge responsibility on these children’s shoulders. They’re not to have an education so they can be open-minded, well-rounded, happy people, oh no. They’re to have it so they can be of economic and civic benefit to the country:

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

‘Your mind exists to serve others. Your talents exist to serve others. Your achievements will go toward serving others. Because the absolute height of existence, the pinnacle of morality, the one necessary and sufficient incentive any human has or should have, is to serve others.’

There is a lot of talk about not ‘quitting on yourself’ in this speech, but no definition, unless it’s that quitting on yourself means you won’t be able to make money (lawyer, architect) or devote yourself to other people’s welfare (doctor, nurse, police officer, scientist, teacher, soldier, job-creator). I’m not saying he’s wrong – it’d be difficult to do any of those things without an education – but there is no talk of the personal satisfaction of setting goals and achieving them; the rewarding of curiosity; the simple joy of learning a skill and putting it to use, whatever the skill, whatever the use; the opening of the mind to ways of finding pleasure in any activity or experience. There is no focus in this speech on how you can use what you learn to give your life meaning – there is only offered the prospect of future usefulness.

And Obama is a bit out of touch with the heroes of today’s youth:

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

As much as I might find Michael Jordan impressive, he is not even a hero of my youth, seeing as he had retired from basketball before I left high school. He also – let’s face it – is not really the poster child for education; he dropped out of university to play professional basketball and finished his BA in tiny chunks in the years thereafter, finally ending up with a degree in geography. Funnily enough, this little nugget about Jordan’s perseverance comes right after the part in the speech where Obama says:

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

Kids are not stupid. They will perceive the contradiction. On the one hand, Obama tells them they’re unlikely to succeed in those professions where an education is not necessary. On the other hand, he uses as an example of success and a role model one of the very people who did just that. Hmm.

That said, Obama does offer one piece of good sense:

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.

Unfortunately, he follows it with this:

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

Argh.

[From me, admittedly, on both counts.]

More comment-mining at Tim’s Guardian piece:

The lack of choice I refer to is, I believe, less due to employers than with female mate-choice. If a man wants to be a father, he first needs to attract a mate. If you’re not a good provider few women will consider you father material or worth settling down with. It’s a catch 22 – if you want to have a family you need to prioritise your career, which leaves you less time to spend with your family.

Do men really think this is generally the attitude of women? Sure, I can see that there will be those ladies who would turn down a lovely man because he had a crap income, but on the other hand, I have personally never encountered such a thing. There have been in my life recently the following:

(a) a professional female friend who desperately wanted to marry and spawn with her dirt-poor, student boyfriend;

(b) another professional female friend who is marrying a man who works on hourly pay as a shop clerk;

(c) my mother, who earned more than my father throughout her entire working life;

(d) and of course myself – I care nothing for what a potential ‘mate’ earns as long as he isn’t boring, and in fact I have never dated a man who has gone out of his way to set himself up as a ‘good provider.’

Anecdote, I know, but I can’t help feeling that amongst professional types, this person’s contention is pure nonsense, the kind of crap spouted by men who as people have trouble attracting women, but would rather blame their modest incomes and the meretricious monstrous regiment than admit it.

UPDATE:Oh! and here’s another one

Another fact that feminists cover up. Women marry “up”, not “down”. When a woman marries a man, she chooses a man earning MORE than her — even if she expects to go on working after marriage. A female banker may have an affair with her electrician, but she would NEVER marry him.

Really? Really really? Prove it. ‘Cause I would.

UPDATE 2: Argh:

Because, dear heart, when you are in your bath chair, doubly incontinent and in need of care and medical attention, it will be other people’s children who will be looking after you, wiping your bum, feeding you and making sure you get the care you need. Other people’s children’s taxes will be paying towards your pension when you retire, the costs of public services, producing the food you will eat, the tv programmes you will watch, mending the pavements you walk on and building and maintaining the house you live in.

I really object to this idea that future adults are a resource for current adults to expect to mine and utilise one day. I don’t have children so that one day they can wipe my co-worker’s ass, and neither does anybody else. And if people truly did think that way, it would be repugnant in the extreme: treating future adults as little service-tax-and-pension-generating engines rather than autonomous human individuals who may very well – pleasegodplease – get sick of being treated thusly, foment a revolution, and eliminate this hideous, fucked-up, socialist society that has held them in that sort of bondage since birth.

I want my own children to look after me when I’m old – not the children of others. I want my own children to love me enough to care for me. And if they don’t, or if I never have children, then I shall reap what I have sown, and go about with ass unwiped and frail and hungry, since the institutions that used to do that for unclaimed old folks – charities – have been co-opted by the state or, if they refused to add their biological and technological distinctiveness to the Borg, destroyed.

Via wh00ps, I find this story in the Times, about new curriculum guidelines for sex education. Oddly enough, the headline reads ‘Pupils aged 11 to learn about gay sex’ (a pathetic attempt to outrage and obfuscate if ever there was one), but the lead paragraph says:

Compulsory sex and relationships lessons for 11-year-old children are to include classroom discussions on gay unions and civil partnerships. Secondary pupils will learn about contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), while primary school children will learn about their bodies and friendships, a review of sex education has concluded.

So far, so good. Discussing contentious issues like same-sex relationships is something schools ought to do more of (although I have little hope that ‘discussions’ in this context means anything more than indoctrination and guilt-trips: 11-year-olds are particularly impressionable, and they will certainly absorb from authority figures simplistic ideas like ‘People who disapprove of homosexuality are eeeeeevil’) – and children should be taught about changing mores, because obviously learning about society is part of the process of maturation. Secondary pupils to be taught about STIs and contraception – fine, fine, get on with it: it’s about fucking time somebody threw contraception into the mix (see: the Fucking Stupid Initiative). And hey, why not teach little kids about friendships and bodies? It’d be pretty damned stupid to try to hide from them the fact that… they have friends and bodies.

But that first paragraph is about the sum total of sense in the whole article.

The review was ordered in October after ministers announced that sex and relationships education (SRE) lessons should be made compulsory to help primary and secondary pupils to “navigate the complexities of modern life” and to ensure that children learnt their sex education from the classroom, not the playground.

First of all, who is going to be teaching this stuff? Because if it’s people like me – and after all, I am a teacher – I could probably witter on about warm-fuzzy civil unions, the clap, and condoms as well as anybody else, but relationships? Not saying I’ve never had them, and not saying some of them haven’t been good. To use a simplistic example, however: that I have a foot (two of them, in fact) does not qualify me to teach podiatry students about feet. And believe me, a teenager is the equivalent of a podiatry student when it comes to relationships (so, at least, your average teenager will claim).

Anecdotal evidence: wildly off-topic in a class of 12-year-olds this afternoon, one pupil asked, ‘Men and women in relationships are always complaining about each other, so why don’t more of them go out with members of their own sex? It seems like it would solve a lot of problems.’

I was about to pontificate that same-sex couples do whinge about each other, all the time, when a different student butted in: ‘It’s not that men and women don’t get along. It’s that, when couples fail to compromise, they complain about each other. And because there are more heterosexual couples than not, their common complaints are more prominent.’

12-year-olds, people. They should be teaching me about relationships.

Second, whence comes this strange duality in the minds of policy-makers (and, apparently, Times reporters) that sex can be learned about from one of two places, the classroom or the playground? What in the name of bleeding Jesus do parents do in this country any more? They don’t educate their children about anything, so now the school must, in addition to taking on the fairly Herculean task of forcing academic information into the minds of youngsters, explain to the children how to be human beings, at the expense of the taxpayer. The state pays for the children’s upkeep in the form of child benefit, at the expense of the taxpayer. The state pays for and provides the child’s early learning, at the expense of the taxpayer (SureStart). Are there any parents out there reading this who would care to explain just what part of the upbringing process you did participate in?

Or perhaps this is the state’s usual practice of undermining the role of the parent in a youngster’s life. Contrary to what we might think, it is not the state that is the brainwasher of the youth, oh no, but the parents who, if left to their own devices, would raise a generation of racist, homophobic, fundamentalist-creationist-terrorist-fascist Nazi skinheads, the sheer chavvy-looniness of whom would quickly overrun the civilised world. Of course nobody learns about sex at home! All the parents are too busy urging Origen-style abstinence on the boys and showing the girls how to sew their vaginas closed because if they ever, ever, ever indulge in the natural human urge, let alone use contraception in the process, GOD WILL DESTROY THE EARTH! And then recreate it again in an instant so he can DESTROY IT A SECOND TIME! to punish humanity for its corrosive sexual immorality.

The changes to personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) classes mark the culmination of decades of campaigning by sexual health organisations, who believe that the patchy nature of sex education in schools is helping to fuel a record level of teenage pregnancy and STIs in England.

I can tell you right now that these PSHE lessons are utterly useless. The pupils at my school loathe them. They are taught by middle-aged types whose knowledge of economics in particular wouldn’t fill a thimble, and whose own obvious personal, social, and health circumstances do not always inspire confidence or imitation (in the same manner as, for example, a poor stockbroker or a bent cop). So nobody listens.

However, poor sex ed is not the ‘fuel’ for Britain’s levels of teen pregnancy and STIs. The ‘fuel’ is a culture in which parents do not have to look after their children (and, therefore, do not have to think long and hard about whether or not to produce one) and healthcare is ‘free.’ Eliminate child benefit and charge people for visits to the GP (but keep funding contraception and abortion), and that teen-pregnancy-cum-disease-of-Venus level will plummet like Gordon Brown’s approval ratings.

Sexual health charities warned that allowing parents to opt out, even if it involved only a small number, was an infringement of young people’s rights. Julie Bentley, chief executive of fpa, formerly the Family Planning Association, said that while religion and sex education were not incompatible, schools should not be allowed to interpret the report “to mean they can tell young people, for example, that contraception isn’t a matter of choice – it is simply wrong”.

She added: “We would like further assurances that when SRE becomes statutory, all schools will teach it responsibly, ethically and factually as a core subject.”

Ponder the irony of Julie, who insists unequivocally that contraception is a matter of ‘choice’, saying so in the same breath as a reminder that, soon, sex ed will become statutory, i.e. not a matter of choice.

Some dude called Simon is a bit less dogmatic:

Simon Blake, national director of the sexual health charity Brook, said: “Young people need to understand the law – that you can get contraception, that you can have an abortion – and understand the health benefits of practising safer sex. It would not be right for anyone to tell them that this is wrong, but it is OK for them to be told that some people believe it is wrong.”

Thanks, Simon. Glad to know it’s ‘OK’ to tell children that some people disagree with the social engineers.

The Catholics are on side with my gripe about parents v. the state, as I knew they would be:

The Catholic Education Service for England and Wales welcomed the opt-out. “This is a crucial right in a community where parents are the first educators of their children, because parents are responsible for bringing up their children, and not the State,” it said.

And yet, even for the Catholics, parents are only the ‘first educators of their children’ until they teach something out of line with Catholic dogma, e.g. the ability to prevent pregnancy humanely is the single most important development to enable women to progress along the path from property to personhood. (NB: dogma and doctrine are not the same thing.)

Finally:

Sir Alasdair [MacDonald] said that making PSHE compulsory would help the quality of teaching. “There is probably greater variability in teaching and learning in this subject than in most other subjects,” he said.

Wow. That has to be the first time anyone in the gravy train that passes for education administration has ever admitted that ‘greater variability in teaching and learning’ might actually ‘help the quality of teaching.’ Pity, then, that they continue to put would-be teachers through the automatonic, one-size-fits-all, routine torture of the PGCE. [UPDATE: No, just kidding. Clearly he is saying that making the subject compulsory will allow the government to standardise the teaching of it, thus decreasing that pesky 'variability.' Let this be a lesson to you all in reading the words of state mouthpieces optimistically. Cunts.]

Just proof that, apart from the bit contained in the decent lead paragraph, this whole ‘review’ (as well as the Times article) is a massive load of wasteful, nannying, pointless bollocks, dreamed up and lobbied for by fpa, formerly the Family Planning Association (clever re-branding there, no?) and Brook (fake charities, anyone?) to create make-work jobs advisory consultancies for their members and put a bunch of pushy lefty bastards right-on hipsters into cushy pensions teaching jobs that brainwash guide children in ‘navigating the bullshit complexities of a delusional socialist utopia modern life.’

[UPDATE 2: Brook is indeed a fake charity:

In fact, Brook has been doing rather well under New Labour. Its income from the government has doubled since 2004. Its 2008 accounts show a total income of £1,456,832, of which:

* Department of Health grant: £86,000
* 'Other government grants': £433,517
---
* Total £519,517 (35.6% of all income)

It also received £534,259 in 'other grants'. If, as is not unlikely, these grants emanated from local or central government, its total state funding would be at least 72%.

Ha!]

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, nor do I know whether it’s any sort of legitimate news article. But let’s assume for the moment that it is:

A North Carolina judge has ordered three children to attend public schools this fall because the homeschooling their mother has provided over the last four years needs to be “challenged.” The children, however, have tested above their grade levels – by as much as two years. The decision is raising eyebrows among homeschooling families, and one friend of the mother has launched a website to publicize the issue. The ruling was made by Judge Ned Mangum of Wake County, who was handling a divorce proceeding for Thomas and Venessa Mills.

Mangum said he made the determination on his guiding principle, “What’s in the best interest of the minor children,” and conceded it was putting his judgment in place of the mother’s.

On her website, family friend Robyn Williams said Mangum stated his decision was not ideologically or religiously motivated but that ordering the children into public schools would “challenge the ideas you’ve taught them.”

According to Williams’ website, the judge also ordered a mental health evaluation for the mother – but not the father – as part of the divorce proceedings, in what Williams described as an attack on the “mother’s conservative Christian beliefs.”

Here’s how I read this tale: mother takes children out of state education because state school is crap. Mother and father get divorced. Father wants children put back into state education. Judge handling divorce proceedings orders children to be put back into state education because ideas learned from mother (amongst them possibly conservative Christianity) need to be ‘challenged’.

This bothers me on multiple levels. On the one hand, I see the dangers inherent in filling children with dogma they’re discouraged from questioning. On the other hand, I see the dangers inherent in filling children with dogma they’re discouraged from questioning. The only difference between homeschooling and state schooling appears to be which dogma the poor creatures are forced to consume.

Not to mention that I thought North Carolina, a place very dear to my heart, was above this sort of stuff. Its judges, among whom I number one of my own family members, are not generally given to illiberal, heavy-handed pronouncements about how parents can and cannot educate their offspring. And this decision is a bit rich coming from this particular judge, whose daughter I used to teach – in a religious private school.

As the Devil would say, fucking hellski…

Teaching a lesson on bias today, I gave my pupils a copy of Philip Pullman’s article in Friday’s Times. I’d link to it, but…

They read it carefully, some with dawning expressions of horror, and afterward we discussed his point of view and what influence he might be trying to exert.

At the end of the lesson, I said, ‘And do you know what? I read that article on the Times website at lunchtime on Friday. By Friday evening, it had disappeared.’

Silence.

Then:

‘Dude,’ said one of them, with a kind of appalled admiration; ‘Pullman’s right!’

[Another money-quote from the lesson today: 'You'd think, if someone were going to be in government, they'd at least bother to have some brains.]

How is it that children barely out of nappies can understand the implications of this stuff, but the British people by and large cannot? What the hell?

It’s Tuesday again, and so I wander over to the Guardian to read Polly’s latest, this time a piece about teen pregnancy (can’t fault her for the relevance factor, what with this tiny-tot father all over the news) and the failure of New Labour.

The failure of New Labour, you may ask? Indeed, she has said this very thing, although as is her wont, not in the same way most of us might say it.

She begins from the unstated premise that teen pregnancy is not a good thing, although her reasoning is a bit skewed:

Britain’s teenage pregnancy rates are appalling, with only the US worse in the west. Why? Because teen pregnancy tracks inequality. That does not absolve Alfie, Chantelle and their parents of their personal responsibilities. But the most unequal nations have the greatest number of dysfunctional families, unless the cycle is broken by determined and expensive intervention in generation after generation.

Teenage parenthood is linked to higher crime rates, poverty, and disadvantage in the children of teen mothers, as well as a greater likelihood for those children to become teenaged parents themselves. However, contrary to what Polly implies, teenage parenthood is generally correlated as the cause of those things, not a result of them. Teen pregnancy doesn’t track inequality; it precedes it.

Never mind that, though. We all agree, though perhaps for different reasons, that there should be less teenage pregnancy. Why has New Labour failed to achieve this?

First, and most disastrous, David Blunkett, at education, point-blank refused to introduce compulsory top-quality sex education. (No, don’t even stop to think about that one.) Only now is Labour at last introducing it in an autumn bill – amid fears it might get fatally delayed or succumb to the Mail’s mad anti-sex education campaign.

Translation: the government was pressured, not by the electorate, but by the Daily Mail, into not imposing a forced centrally-planned educational decree on schools.

Why else did they fail?

…money was found to provide good contraceptive clinics, but it was given to local health services with neither ringfencing nor monitoring to see that it was actually spent on teenage clinics. Why not? Because the government has been politically intimidated into ordering “less top-down” and more “local”, with disastrous results for many key programmes.

Translation: the government gave local authorities tax moneys extorted from the nation at large, but failed to impose a forced centrally-planned spending decree on those authorities.

The teen pregnancy story is a good microcosm of the Labour years. To halve the rate was a colossal ambition. It was a far harder target than halving child poverty – no simple putting of money into tax credits can change the deep culture of sexual behaviour. Of all the things the state can and can’t do, making people have sex only with the right people at the right time is the least amenable to Whitehall action.

‘Least amenable,’ take note. Not, as the rest of sane humanity might say, ‘least possible or desirable.’

And so, Polly finishes up, the problem has not been Labour’s disastrous policies of rewarding teen parents with social housing and child benefit, thus creating an incentive for teenagers to procreate, nor the complete failure of a patriarchal society to get over its Puritanical hang-ups about sex. No, no! The problem is that Labour have not done enough to force top-down social planning, paid for by punitive taxation, on a society that does not match its ideal of equality and conformity for all:

Labour has tried, but most of Europe, under more decades of social democratic governments, has worked harder for longer. Too often Labour thought it could move mountains with teaspoons, making Swedish promises with neither Swedish taxes, nor the will to force social democratic policies on to local services. There will be plenty more Alfie, Shannon and Baby P stories – testaments not to a worsening “broken Britain” but to a low tax, weak social policy century that Labour has only started to improve.

Fucking hell, Polly: even when you get it right, you get it wrong.

The amazing Megan McArdle links to a fascinating post by a university professor about the expectations of men and women regarding childcare roles. It looks at the heteronormative divison of labour in families and examines whether this is a product of the socialisation of women as carers.

The post is very anecdotal and not in any way actual proof of anything, but it relates closely to my remarks about the constraint of women according to their biology.

And some of the comments are…thought-provoking.

I am famous amongst a small circle of adherents for neglecting to top up, refusing to answer, failing to charge, and forgetting to carry my mobile phone. It is one of those old-time jobbies with a green and black dot-matrix type screen, and does not possess any picture-taking, mp3-playing capabilities or other fancy gadgetry. I also do not have voice mail, nor do I answer text messages. That small circle of adherents knows that the best way to contact me is by sending an email, which, although I check ye olde inbox regularly, I will not necessarily respond to in a timely manner.

This is because I like being alone; I enjoy the pleasure of my own company; and I do not like being reachable at any moment of the day or night at someone else’s convenience. Selfish? Perhaps.

But I achieved my formative years in an era not long distant but certainly before the advent of such technologies as email, SMS, instant messaging, and the iPhone. I learned to amuse myself outwith the presence of other human beings and developed a keen enthusiasm for self-analysis and introspection.

Think about it: when was the last time you were on a train, plane, bus, or date and didn’t either (a) fiddle with your communication device of choice, or (b) witness someone else doing same?

And most of the people reading this blog will be adults, who know what life was like before wireless technology connected us all. Imagine being a teenager! They have no memory of such an existence. I witness this every day, usually when one of my students’ mobile phones blurps during a lesson. ‘Who could possibly be unaware that you’re in class right now?’ I enquire. ‘Oh, it’s just a text,’ they answer; ‘it’s for me to read later.’

This recent elimination of alone-time from the western lifestyle is the subject of an excellent essay in the Boston Globe, flagged up by the much-underrated West Virginia Rebel. The author argues, without any tiresome Luddite hatred of progress, that our capacity never to be alone does not necessarily eliminate loneliness.

I do not think it can be a good thing that there are entire generations of people being brought up without the ability to appreciate solitude or the joys of their own mind; much of the growth that brings about emotional maturity is achieved during those hours we spend alone with our own thoughts. By failing to acquire this skill, are the younger generations denying themselves the pleasure of contemplating the deeper mysteries of human existence?

[I say all this, of course, as a confirmed evader of unplanned communication, but there is one piece of modern technology I despise being without, and that is my iPod. A couple of weekends ago on a train journey to London, I realised I had forgotten to charge it, and the usually-pleasant hour-long journey became a hellish nightmare of undesired eavesdropping into other people's conversations. The mobile I could drop down a privy without a backward glance, but give up the iPod? Never.]

This morning, having returned from my aborted trek to work through the barren waste that is Britain under four inches of precipitation, I switched on BBC Breakfast just in time to hear some (male) official-looking interviewee claiming that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the developed world, and this is partly due to mothers who go out to work.

Just in time to save me from choking on my indignation, the female host of the program interjected, ‘But the survey still shows that more than three-quarters of British children say they are happy, doesn’t it?’

Cue relieved sigh.

Then, via Tim Worstall, I came across this melodramatic headline in the Telegraph: Female empowerment has caused family break-up, Church-backed report warns: ‘Female empowerment has contributed to the break-up of the traditional family, leaving a generation of children emotionally damaged, according to a controversial report on the state of British childhood.’

Oh, has it indeed? Let’s just see how, then, shall we? The article begins:

The study, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, criticises the parents of young children for spending long hours at work and relying on childminders.

It describes an increase in the number of mothers going back to work when their babies are less than a year old as a “massive” social change and cites the fact that women are now less dependent on their husbands as a cause of family break-up.

Pass over the fact that any study backed by the Ass-Hat is suspect for that very reason (the luxuriantly-be-eyebrowed hoon), and direct your attention instead to the suggestion that women’s attempt to escape from the slavery of their biological construction damages children. But, cannily, so far our intrepid reporter has not said anything objectionable; women going back to work after birthing is indeed a massive social change (or at least it was when it became commonplace about 35 years ago) and, indeed, women are now less dependent on their husbands (either because they have suddenly become humans with full personal agency, or because so many of them lack husbands that surviving without one became a necessary skill). How, though, is this a cause of family break-up?

“Compared with a century ago, two changes stand out: first, most women now work outside the home and have careers, as well as being mothers.

“Seventy per cent of mothers of nine-to-12-month-old babies now do some paid work, this compares with only 25 per cent 25 years ago – a massive change in the way of life.

“Meantime, the children are cared for by someone other than their parents.”

The comparison, then, is being made with conditions extant in roughly 1909 – an era when, indeed, women mostly remained in the home. However, if one is going to compare women’s lifestyle choices now to those prevalent in 1909, must not one also, for the sake of thoroughness if nothing else, compare the happiness-status of the children, too? I wonder how many of the shorties working twelve hours a day down the mines were free of ‘emotional damage.’

There is also the fact that (a) economic conditions, even before this recession began, have more or less necessitated a two-income household for most families, and (b) women’s entry into the workforce in the middle of the twentieth century was also a necessity, at least for those countries whose economies were trashed by the Second World War.

And whilst doing their duty for king and country, women discovered that they liked working; staying at home all day looking after brats who can’t walk or talk is pretty goddamned dull.

They also dared to realise that having an income of their own liberated them from the virtual serfdom under which they had lived in their marriages. For some, whose husbands were abusive/philandering/financially incontinent, the shiny new possibility of leaving without facing starvation or returning to their fathers in disgrace must have appeared as an oasis in the desert.

Life is, therefore, better for children and better for women. Superseding that is going to require some pretty damning evidence. Do we get some?

The article goes on:

“As a result of increased break-up, a third of 16-year-olds in Britain now live apart from their biological father.”

Oh really? A third of 16-year-olds living apart from their biological fathers is not due to the fact that their biological fathers are feckless twits? That their mothers are intellectual dullards (how difficult is it to lay hands on a condom in a nation where all contraception is free?) who have no business spawning in the first place? That custody laws in this country are heavily biased in favour of the mother?

Are these not more serious fucking problems than the fact that Mum is out working while the brat is in school so that she can ensure there’s enough money at home to keep him nourished, clothed, and entertained?

And then, bizarrely:

[The report] will draw on a Unicef study published in 2007 which showed that children in Scandinavian countries appeared happier than their British counterparts despite similar levels of family separation.

So… in other places, family breakdown does not cause childhood misery. Anybody know how Scandinavian countries compare to Britain in features like paternal absenteeism, teen pregnancy, and nakedly partial custody laws? Some statistics would be nice, but I’m prepared to bet a red dime that Scandinavian countries have less of all three.

Finally, as per journalistic convention, we get a bit of opposition at the end of the piece:

Sue Palmer, the educationalist and author of the book Toxic Childhood, said…

…”Women moved to the workplace on men’s terms,” women’s work that had traditionally been done in the home had never been valued because it was free.

“That is how everybody forgot that rearing children is a time consuming and important project.

“The point that we have got to take for the future isn’t that we take women back to the kitchen sink but that we must value what they brought to the social mix in the past.”

How relieved women around Britain must feel to have such an incisive mind working so assiduously on their behalf!

Fuck me if she doesn’t miss the point by a country mile: female empowerment is not a significant cause of ‘emotional damage’ in children (as this article shows, almost against its own will), but even if it were, women do not exist to make children happy. Women are human beings too; to fault them for the deterioration of British youthful contentment is to subordinate them, fully-grown individuals with personal agency, to children.

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