21 July, 2014

qualified success?

What is the purpose of a school? One should perhaps make a distinction between state-run and independent schools, but if considering the former you can award yourself a bonus point if you would have said that the principal function of a school is to facilitate the nationwide screening system that weeds out unsuitable candidates at strategic intervals. Education, if it takes place at all in a typical state school, is an incidental by-product.

Two years ago, then UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced plans to abolish the current General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), examinations for which are sat at the end of Year 11 (age 16) and which constitute the first of the sieves alluded to in the previous paragraph, and replace it with a ‘more rigorous’ General Certificate of Education (GCE) ordinary level (O level). It will not have escaped the notice of those who follow the English education system that O levels, which had been introduced in 1951, had been scrapped by a previous Conservative government, in the 1980s.

Part of Gove’s motivation was his desire to reintroduce a ‘world-class qualification’, which should stand as a reminder that politicians, who invariably think they know more about education than the professionals, can have a dangerously destabilizing influence on a country’s education system. Qualification? The BBC’s education correspondent used the same term, but passing an O-level exam is not any kind of qualification, although you will get a certificate that records your success.

Looking at Gove’s other initiatives, it is clear that he has no understanding of education as an organic process and is motivated almost entirely by ideology. His introduction of academies and free schools, which are beyond the control of local education authorities, have total control of their curricula and are allowed to employ unqualified teachers, is clear evidence of that, although these schools are subjected to scrutiny by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).

Unfortunately, the schools landscape has changed considerably in England during my lifetime, invariably at the behest of politicians and rarely for the better. The Eleven Plus examination, which was used to decide whether a child went to a grammar school or to a secondary modern school, was introduced following the 1944 Education Act. However, both the exam and the grammar schools it fed were seen by the political Left as divisive and elitist, and the exam was abolished in most areas between 1964 and 1979, and most grammar schools were either closed or converted to comprehensive schools, which as the name suggests were intended to provide for the educational needs of all children, although I’ve always suspected that the architects of this policy were more interested in pegging back the brightest children by a notch or two rather than in raising the level that could be achieved by the least able.

Secondary modern schools were a new concept for the postwar period, the idea being to provide a technical education that purported to meet the needs of those children who were not academically inclined. The reality is that many became mere dumping grounds for those who didn’t make the grade, they were starved of funds, and they were regarded as providing a second-class education, especially by those who did make the grade.

I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as a ‘qualification’—the world would be a dangerous place if teachers, doctors, lawyers and accountants were able to practise their professions without a long and rigorous training period beforehand—but the notion that an O-level pass in English literature is any kind of ‘qualification’ is risible in the extreme, although a good mark in the A-level (advanced-level) equivalent will entitle you to apply to study the subject at university.

Another area where some form of certification is desirable is in skilled manual work: no one would employ a cowboy builder, plumber or electrician, you would think, although I regularly see examples of shoddy workmanship by the jacks of all trades (and masters of none) who build village houses in Hong Kong. The photograph below is of a wall that I watched being built a few years ago and is entirely typical. As you might guess from the undulations in the lines of bricks, no spirit level was used, and the structure consists of a single thickness of bricks with no interlocking, so its structural soundness is doubtful. A qualified bricklayer, in practice someone who has served a lengthy apprenticeship, could have been relied on to do a far better job, although his services would probably have been considered too expensive.

You will have noted that in the last example I suggested that experience is an adequate replacement for a piece of paper stating that you’re ‘qualified’. I can reinforce this point from my own experience: a few years ago, I learned about a course that one could enroll on to become a ‘qualified’ proofreader. I believe that it isn’t possible to teach someone to be a competent proofreader unless they already have some natural aptitude. But what’s so difficult about proofreading? Surely one only needs to be good at spotting mistakes.

However, the hardest part of proofreading lies not in spotting errors but in deciding whether or not the errors you have spotted should be flagged up. This will probably sound strange to anyone who has never tried proofreading, but if a mistake is the fault of the copy editor, then the publisher will have to pay for it to be corrected. Mistakes are rectified free of charge only if they were the typesetter’s fault, so the proofreader has to decide who to blame, and if it was the editor, whether the error is sufficiently trivial that it can be ignored.

But here’s the rub: although I’ve proofread hundreds of books, I’m totally unqualified for the task, if by ‘unqualified’ I mean that I don’t have a certificate of competence. On the other hand, given the way publishing is organized, a freelancer can get more work only if they can be relied upon to do a good job, and I was never short of work, so I take this as evidence that experience is a better indicator of ability than a piece of paper.

Since I started this essay, Michael Gove has been replaced as education secretary. Although it is too early to assess whether this change will have a significant impact on the education sector, it is reasonable to assume that we will hear more railing against that traditional right-wing bête noir, ‘trendy teaching methods’, using the now familiar buzzwords ‘rigour’ and ‘standards’, and a perpetuation of the myth that it is possible to learn more about a person’s intellectual capabilities from their answer to a question in a three-hour, sit-down exam than from their answer to the same question if given a week to write 5,000 words on the subject drawing on whatever documentary sources they deem necessary to construct their argument.

It is more important, and a more valuable skill, to be able to construct a rational argument than it is to memorize the information that supports that argument. However, helping pupils to develop such a skill really would be education, and both the present Conservative government and the last Labour administration have been more interested in a rubber-stamping process of training. And training is not education.

14 July, 2014

the philosophy department

When I started working as a freelance editor for Longman and Routledge in the early 1990s, I put my name down to edit science books. This made sense, given that I have a science degree and a good understanding of science in general. However, I also put my name forward to edit philosophy titles, which made a lot less sense, my only previous encounter with the subject being a one-year course in formal logic that I attended as an undergraduate. My only ‘qualification’ for the role was that I was interested in the subject.

Some of the books I edited turned out to be very rewarding, while others were absolute horror stories. In the first category, I include Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge by Robert Audi, which I edited in 1998 and which I found to be the most intellectually challenging book I ever worked on, mainly because it discusses, from first principles, how we know what we think we know, what justifies us in believing what we believe, and what standards of evidence we should use to reach our conclusions. It was admirably well written, but you can’t edit something that you don’t understand, if you can’t follow the argument, so I had to be careful to ensure that any changes I made did not affect the intended meaning.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Professor Audi had apparently had a bad experience with the editing of his previous book and had asked to see the edited typescript before it went for typesetting. I must have understood the book, because the author asked for my name to be added to the acknowledgements at the front of the book.

Another book that I found interesting was Rules, Magic, and Instrumental Reason by Israeli philosopher Berel Dov Lerner. The passage that has stuck in my memory from this book describes how we use rules that govern common activities such as hammering a nail into a piece of wood, even though those rules are not formally codified. I recall this passage because I spotted that the rules that the author had proposed for hammering a nail wouldn’t work. Not only did Professor Lerner ask for my name to be added to the acknowledgements, he also wanted it noted that I’d ‘saved him from his own stupidity’ by spotting his mistake.

And now for something completely dreadful. The worst book I ever edited was entitled From Hegel to Derrida and was what is known in the trade as a contributed volume. This means that each chapter is by a different author, with an ‘editor’ whose name will appear on the cover of the book and to whom any queries need to be addressed. And I had a lot of queries. Example: why is the title of this chapter enclosed in parentheses? Answer: I’m not sure I understand the parentheses around the title either. But then this guy is known for strange titles. I’d hate to disappoint his fans….

Some of the writing was appalling, especially in the chapter by Jean-Luc Nancy (“I really went cross-eyed with this essay”—the editor). When editing, I had a general rule that if I needed to read a sentence more than once in order to apprehend its meaning, then that sentence should be rewritten. Imagine my horror upon encountering a sentence that ran to fourteen typewritten lines and included eight dashes and three lengthy strings of text within parentheses. I wish I’d kept a copy as an example of how not to write English.

The editor concluded his reply to my queries with the following paragraph:
Thanks for all the work you’ve done on this. I’m sure it was not pleasant. I can imagine that, to a sensibly minded speaker of English, this book would be like trying to copyedit Finnegan’s Wake. Just how do you tell when it’s wrong? As my wife says—why can’t they just write English? Ah! But then we wouldn’t impress each other.
I still have the fax, which I’ve quoted verbatim.

06 July, 2014

bbc american

It is a well-known cliché that the United States of America and Great Britain are ‘two countries divided by a common language’, but I am beginning to wonder for how much longer this will continue to be true. When I started editing academic books in the early 1990s, I couldn’t help but notice that almost all the British authors whose work I edited wrote in American English, but over the past couple of years, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has also started to use American English, both online and on air. I wonder why.

I am not suggesting that British English is somehow superior to American English, or vice versa, but I do find this trend troubling, mainly because I foresee a time when the British way of saying or writing something will be labelled ‘incorrect’. This is unlikely to perturb younger readers, but for someone like me, who learned almost all I know about the syntax and vocabulary of my native language sixty years ago, it is hard to accept.

The most obvious difference between the two strains of English is in spelling, which is the one change the BBC has yet to make, perhaps because neither system is logically consistent. I have no problems with center and theater, although I will continue to write centre and theatre, but I would have thought it useful to distinguish between timbre and timber, which American English doesn’t do. Another limitation of American English is a failure to distinguish between enquiry and inquiry, which have separate meanings in British English.

On the other hand, while rejecting the French gramme and kilogramme, the British still write programme, even though the word derives from the same root as anagram and diagram and should therefore be spelled program. The Americans are also on firmer ground with the –ize suffix, which derives from ancient Greek, through Latin, while the same suffix arrived in Britain through French as –ise, and we British have allowed far too much French influence over our language, particularly as regards pronunciation (cf. ballet, debris, debut, etc.). Incidentally, I’ve heard it argued that the best justification for using –ise is that it avoids the difficulty of remembering those words where –ise is the mandatory spelling (televise, advertise, chastise, compromise, etc.), but this is a fatuous line of reasoning that ignores the different origins of the suffix in these cases.

One area where American spelling definitely has the advantage is in words that formerly contained either an æ or an œ ligature (mediæval, encyclopædia, fœtid, etc.), which are much simplified by replacing that ligature with a simple ‘e’. The British appear to have followed this lead. However, during my time as an editor, I became aware that American philosophers tended to prefer æsthetic to esthetic, possibly for aesthetic reasons.

There are other comparisons that I could make with regard to spelling, but as noted the BBC has not yet adopted American spelling, so I will move on to an aspect of American English that grates on my ears every time I hear it: the conversion of words like appeal, graduate and protest from intransitive to pseudo-transitive verbs. My view is that ‘to appeal a verdict’ should be ‘to appeal against a verdict’; ‘to graduate college’ should be ‘to graduate from college’; and ‘to protest a decision’ should be ‘to protest against a decision’. However, how prepositions are used is one of the main differences between American and British English, which explains why, while railing against the omission of necessary prepositions, I regard the prepositions in ‘to meet with’, ‘to visit with’ and ‘to beat up on’ as superfluous.

Another bone of contention with me can be seen in a sentence like ‘the case has not been proven’, which has gained traction in Britain over the past decade. This is a grammatical blunder, because proven is not the past participle of prove but the past participle of the archaic verb preve (cf. weave, woven; cleave, cloven), so the sentence should read ‘the case has not been proved’.

American English scores over its British equivalent in its inventiveness and flexibility. More new words have been coined by American than by British writers, but my feeling is that American English is less precise. In support of this claim, I would cite the distinction between compare with and compare to, which is usually observed by British writers. Although my copy of the Associated Press stylebook explains the difference, in my experience American writers tend to use ‘compare to’ in both cases.

However, perhaps the most egregious change that the BBC has made is to refer to the two major conflagrations of the twentieth century as ‘World War I’ and ‘World War II’, which always reminds me of Rambo III, Star Trek V and Superbowl XLIX and suggests a connection with the entertainment industry, not to mention the expectation that there will be a World War III, eventually. Leaving aside my tendency to refer to the First World War as the Great War—I grew up with a set of encyclopaedias on my bookshelf that had been published in 1926—I can’t help but wonder how a country that missed three-quarters of the first conflict and a third of the second has managed to acquire the naming rights to both.

While I decry the Americanization of the BBC—the first ‘B’ stands for ‘British’, after all—there is a silver lining: I’ve always found that Americans are more likely to observe the distinction between defining and non-defining relative clauses, and I’ve not seen any horrors on the BBC News website recently like the one quoted in Relatively Incorrect. On the other hand, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before I hear references to the Thames River and the Tyne River on Radio 4’s Today program. Where will it all end?

01 July, 2014

photographic abstraction #11

When selecting the images for this series, I have a few favourite sources that reappear regularly. For example, Slipstream in the present collection is a small oil slick, the first new image of this type that I’ve been able to capture in more than two years. All other photographs of oil slicks in this series were taken during a short period when someone with a car that must have been leaking serious quantities of oil left these marks around my village.

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and The Blob are recognizably concrete images, but I would be very surprised if anyone can identify what Through the Microscope was originally (I’ve given it this name because it looks like a thin section of an igneous rock seen through a polarizing microscope). Islands in the Stream is another difficult one to identify: the original image was so unusual that I’d never seen anything like it before.

Of course, what these images were originally is irrelevant to what they are now, but if you like solving puzzles, you might like to try to determine where I got Through the Microscope and Islands in the Stream.

through the microscope

islands in the stream

set the controls for the heart of the sun


the blob

other posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction
Photographic Abstraction #2
Photographic Abstraction #3
Photographic Abstraction #4
Photographic Abstraction #5
Photographic Abstraction #6
Photographic Abstraction #7
Photographic Abstraction #8
Photographic Abstraction #9
Photographic Abstraction #10