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The morality of not teaching your child English

Some decisions made for an infant are not easily undone. Circumcision, for instance. Hence the controversy on this blog. Or the decision of what language the child will hear first, and whether and when a second one is taught. This topic seems to generate similar anger for similar reasons.

My long post, a sequel to this one on how those who wish to preserve minority languages are self-destructively fixated on the use of force as the only possible means of doing so, is stalled. A line about how Welsh-speaking parents should be free to delay teaching their children English if they wish grew until it took over the post. I have cut off that part as one cuts off the end of a… worm. Let’s see if it can live independently and wriggle off into some new direction of its own.

We are libertarians, right? We defend fee-paying schools, religious schools, selective schools, single-sex schools, schools where the children do not have to attend lessons, “unschooling” and homeschooling. We do not wimp out from defending all these just because they may not be where we would choose to send our own children. Yes, I meant Islam. Islamic schools must be free to exist on the same grounds that Islamic speech must be free to exist. Compared to many of the controversial types of school above, the average Welsh, Maori, Irish Gaelic or Navajo medium school is beloved by all. I must say, I would prefer that no school were funded by force, i.e. by taxation, but that happy state is at present no more than a dream.

As for schools, so for languages. We defend everyone’s right to his or her own language and culture, this time joined by practically the entire developed world. It was not always so here in the UK, nor in the rest of the English speaking world, and even now there are many countries where minority languages are still suppressed covertly and overtly. In modern rich countries the boot is very slightly on the other foot, but by the standards of world oppression it’s not a big deal.

As for languages, so for passing on your language to your children. The idea that being bilingual confers a cognitive advantage is not utterly universal, but it is very widespread, and, for what it’s worth, intuitively makes sense to me. I have never met a bilingual who wished they were not one; I have met several people who lament that they could have been raised bilingually but were not. Fine for the kids, then… but maybe not so fine for the minority language. Bilingualism does not seem to be stable. “Half the world is bilingual,” say the enthusiasts. Yes, and half the world’s languages are in danger of dying out. Welsh, the minority language I know most about, is comparatively healthy with its half million plus speakers, but its trendline gently noses downwards. Every Welsh speaker also speaks English. That’s the trouble. There is this myth that when an English person comes into a pub all the locals start speaking Welsh. They don’t. On the contrary. I have lost the link for this*, but when I saw it I believed it instantly from personal observation: there is research to show that when a single person who only speaks English joins a Welsh-speaking social group every other person in the network switches to English, out of politeness. And then comes the internet, and pop music, and the TV, and the adverts, and the whole great wave of English… increasingly, Welsh-schooled or not, young people in Wales seem to be jumping in and enjoying the surf. Often they are sad later that they have let their Welsh go, but gone it has. The same pattern of decline applies to young speakers of other languages spoken in proximity to English.

Some might calculate that only way to ensure the survival of these languages is to increase the exit costs.

→ Continue reading: The morality of not teaching your child English

Such love as we allow

Via Tim Blair and David Thompson, I came across this thoughtful philosophical discussion compèred by Joe Gelonesi of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?

The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment.

Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.

‘I got interested in this question because I was interested in equality of opportunity,’ he says.

‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’

Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.

So, what to do?

According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.

‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’

and

It seems that from both the child’s and adult’s point of view there is something to be said about living in a family way. This doesn’t exactly parry the criticism that families exacerbate social inequality. For this, Swift and Brighouse needed to sort out those activities that contribute to unnecessary inequality from those that don’t.

‘What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children’.

I hesitate to add anything to David Thompson’s takedown. I would almost call it an exorcism. Thompson writes:

Conceivably, there are quite a few parents and children who would like to escape a state education similar to my own, where those deemed overly studious ran the risk of being bullied, tormented or whipped across the face with bootlaces, thanks to the attention of the school’s dozen or so budding sociopaths, who amused themselves, in corridors and in class, with apparent impunity. A state school, a comprehensive, where objects of discernible value were routine targets of vandalism and theft, and where the teaching of basic grammar was thought inegalitarian and therefore superfluous. A conceit embraced by other ‘progressive’ educational establishments.

But it’s not all Thou Shalt Not:

“In contrast, reading stories at bedtime, argues Swift, gives rise to acceptable familial relationship goods, even though this also bestows advantage.”

Ah, this “we” would allow.

“Swift makes it clear that although both elite schooling and bedtime stories might skew the family game, restricting the former would not interfere with the creation of the special loving bond that families give rise to. Taking the books away is another story.”

No, “we” won’t take your books away. So there’s that.

The one thing I feel compelled to add is that the philosopher (I think it is Swift rather than Brighouse who is being quoted) does concede that abolishing the family would be “a really bad idea”. He goes to some lengths to explain exactly why private schools should be abolished but reading bedtime stories should be permitted. No doubt all three, Gelonesi, Swift and Brighouse, feel genuine frustration that the rubes in the audience have got themselves so worked up. Why, the whole point of the theory of “familial relationship goods” is to show that reading to your children and other forms of passing on privilege within the domestic sphere can be justified!

Gelonesi is quite clear that Swift and Brighouse are defenders of the family:

Although it’s controversial, it seems that Swift and Brighouse are philosophically inching their way to a novel accommodation for a weathered institution ever more in need of a rationale for existing.

And there is the metacontext: the family is in need of a rationale for existing. From philosophers.

Philosophically, Swift and Brighouse’s argument that parental care is an acceptable deviation from the straight road to equality seems weak to me. If equality is the destination, the supreme principle, then familial love should be abolished.

Samizdata quote of the day

Just today I learned (via Hans Bader) that Oberlin, supposedly one of the great liberal arts colleges in the world, has been in a tizzy because of a speech by the rather mainstream conservative feminist Christina Hoff Summers, which supposedly made students feel “unsafe” well in advance. And so on. In no examples that I have seen has there been any actual threat or prospect of violence against the students complaining that they feel “unsafe.”

This is a huge threat to the future of free speech nevertheless. Today’s college students are going to be tomorrow’s judges, and if they truly believe that “safety” means “never having to deal with opinions that disagree with one’s cherished beliefs,” then censorship has a good chance of gaining the upper hand over freedom of speech. After all, public safety can be a justification for suppressing speech, as with the “fighting words” doctrine.

David Bernstein

Yet another superb argument for home schooling

When I read this:

Head teachers in Cheshire have warned parents they will report them to the authorities if they allow their children to play computer games rated for over-18s.

“We are trying to help parents to keep their children as safe as possible in this digital era.”

… I concluded the best way to keep your children safe is to home school them so that they stay as far away as possible, not from GTA, but from power obsessed busybodies like these people.

What do the Maori and Welsh languages have in common?

Intrigued by the possibility of some hitherto unknown Polynesian/Celtic linguistic cross-fertilisation, I clicked on this YouTube video clip.

Watching it saddened me. Intrepid sailors though they were, the ancestors of the Maori people never made it to Wales. The Welsh did reach New Zealand, but in steamships rather than coracles. Bidding farewell to a pair of outré alt-hist scenarios was not the reason for my sadness, however. What depressed me about this video was that, like almost every other discussion of preserving minority languages that I have ever seen, it was fixated on compulsion.

According to the video, an excerpt from a New Zealand TV programme, what Maori and Welsh have in common is that they are only kept going by forcing people to speak them and ain’t that wonderful. One minute into the clip, the commentary says,

“Four New Zealand teachers on a British Council “Linking Minds” scholarship were given a chance to see how compulsion is helping to save the Welsh language, Cymraeg, from extinction.”

Just after that one of the teachers, Nichola McCall, says to camera,

“The Welsh people have used law to support the use of the language, used it to build its status, used it to change public opinion. I think the law has really encouraged or helped education to do what it’s doing with the language, to help with its revival, to help bring it equal status with the English language here.”

Later on Ann Keane, Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales says at 3:24,

“If you live in Wales then you are entitled to learn something about its culture, its history and to learn something of its language.”

Who could object to that? I could, because she is using the word “entitled” in an Orwellian sense that I first noticed being used among educational opinion-formers when I was a teacher a quarter of a century ago. In Educratese “you are entitled to do this” means “you are not entitled not to do this”. Ms Keane continues:

“The time was right in Wales to bring Welsh in as a compulsory, as a mandatory, part of the National Curriculum in 1990.”

The use of locutions such as “the time was right” or “the situation demanded” to describe how a law came to be passed is another trick of speech I have long hated. It makes it sound as if, rather than one more-powerful bunch of humans forcing another less-powerful bunch to do their bidding, it all happened by the irresistible pressure of some force of nature.

Just to reinforce that “entitled” is being used in this particular and deceptive sense, the commentator purrs approvingly:

“Ann believes all peoples living in Wales and New Zealand are entitled as citizens to learn the language of the land”.

This is immediately followed at 3:59 by Professor Mac Giolla Chriost of Cardiff University, who says that he thinks:

“the arguments for compulsion are much more powerful and convincing than the arguments against compulsion.”

We never get to learn what the arguments against compulsion are, so this claim is difficult to judge. The professor continues:

“There are very good arguments for making sure that all young people in New Zealand are allowed access to Maori as a part of their national identity . . . the only way of doing that, then, is compulsion.”

“Allowed access to Maori,” is another variant of “entitled to learn Maori” or “have the right to learn Maori”. All of them mean “will be forced to learn Maori”. It just sounds prettier if a pose is maintained that someone – probably an Englishman in imperialist headgear – is trying to stop eager pupils from learning Maori or Welsh, and the “right” or “entitlement” or “demand for access” is being asserted against such oppression. I do not know about New Zealand but that picture of Anglophone oppression was certainly true of Wales at one time, although most accounts of cruel practices such as the Welsh Not skirt around the fact that its use was supported by Welsh-speaking parents who saw English as the route to prosperity for their children. My late mother-in-law, for whom Welsh was the much-loved “language of the hearth”, confirmed to me that it was common in her childhood for Welsh-speaking parents to discourage the Welsh speech of their children. Few would have wished to punish Welsh in the home by means of the hairbrush or the belt, but plenty were happy to have the teacher do it in school, where they did not have to see their child cry. No doubt many African parents nowadays make the same calculation.

→ Continue reading: What do the Maori and Welsh languages have in common?

“More than 400,000 schoolchildren being taught by unqualified teachers”

…does not appear to make the British state education system noticeably worse. Perhaps, you know, it’s not really a problem. Private schools are full of unqualified teachers and do fine. Despite Chris Husbands, the director of the Institute of Education, being quoted as saying that the dropping of the requirement for teachers to gain qualified teacher status in state-funded schools “flies in the face of evidence nationally and internationally”, no evidence is provided that teachers without a teaching qualification do any worse than their equivalents with one.

The Guardian commenters, waving their PGCE certificates in front of them as if to fend off vampires, come out with the usual “I would have soon had my children taught by an unqualified teacher as treated by an unqualified doctor.” I get so tired of that one. Commenter “latenightreader” replies:

I think you are being a bit melodramatic here. If your doctor is unqualified you can be dead within half an hour. If your mechanic has no idea what he is doing and you drive out of your garage and the brakes fail your whole family could be dead (plus pedestrians on the street, other drivers etc). If your teacher doesn’t have a formal qualification… well then your child might not end up as well-informed on a topic. Or they might as thousands of people leave private school yearly having got 3 As at A-level taught by unqualified teachers (that is why Gove borrowed the practice), and thousands more are homeschooled by parents who manage.

A commenter called “epidavros” also makes a good point:

They [compulsory teaching qualifications] also deter many from entering the profession who would be excellent. You are asking already qualified people, often with industry skills, to take a year with zero pay and added debt to change career.

El Sistema in Venezuela probably is not that much harsher than most musical education

The moon is blue, so I shall defend a socialist prestige cultural project. East Germany had its shotputters, the USSR its grand masters of chess, Venezuela has “El Sistema” – a much lauded system of musical education. Now, however, there is a discordant note:

Author exposes ‘tyranny’ behind musical miracle for poor children

Over 40 years, El Sistema, Venezuela’s music education system, has given a million children the opportunity to play in an orchestra, enriching, they say, the lives of youngsters from the barrios.

Its methods have been emulated in 60 countries, notably Scotland, where a Sistema-style operation was pioneered on a tough housing estate in Stirling with support from the classical violinist Nicola Benedetti.

The mood music has changed, however, with the publication of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, by Geoffrey Baker.
Aghast at the book’s claims of corruption, mismanagement and nepotism within Venezuela, a Conservative politician has questioned whether El Sistema should extend its reach any further. Yesterday, Alex Johnstone, MSP for North East Scotland, said that plans for a Sistema orchestra in Dundee must be halted while the claims are investigated.

“This book gives the impression that the system is much more authoritarian and intolerant than some were letting on,” said Mr Johnstone. “Not so much a new idea, as back to the Victorian habits of teaching piano by rapping them across the knuckles.”

Corruption, mismanagement and nepotism in a socialist show project would astound me only by their absence. But authoritarianism is the norm when teaching children to play musical instruments the world over, and has been since forever. The exception is the namby-pamby modern Western middle classes, and not all of them. The common opinion of that portion of mankind that gives music lessons or pays for them is that you won’t be going anywhere until you have done your quota of scales, sweetums, and if your name is Wei or Xiuying, these days that quota is likely to be big.

Do not misunderstand me. I like namby pamby. I’ve been uncomfortable with compulsion in education for decades now, and if not convinced that it can be dispensed with altogether for the very youngest children, am certainly convinced that it can be phased out at a far younger age than most people think. In most contexts I am convinced that education without force is immeasurably better education.

But how do you get them to practise – or don’t you? Given that it takes unfailing hours of daily practice to make a great player, and that for most instruments the great players invariably start young, would the price of freeing children from the slavery of music practice be no more great classical musicians? If so, would it be worth it?

An open(ed) letter to Professor Stephen L. Carter

Funny. I read the SQOTD from today, and suddenly recalled a long-forgotten e-mail I sent in the wee hours of the morning six or so months ago. The fact I had sent the e-mail in the first place was unusual for me, as I was moved to compose and send it to Bloomberg columnist and Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter after reading the good professor’s column, and I cannot recall another occasion when I have got in touch with a journalist over something of theirs that I’d read. Professor Carter’s article must have made a big impact on me.

It did. Here it is, if you would like to have a read for yourself. Basically, the professor is making the same perfectly valid point as Brendan O’Neill regarding the hive mind mentality of a significant number of today’s university students, and chucking in a good intergenerational sneer for luck. It is the latter that particularly shat me off when I read Carter’s column, and prompted me to send the following to Professor Carter six months ago and late at night when I should have been working on something else:

Dear Professor Carter

I agree with your observations regarding the (in)abilities of the current crop of graduates, but seeing as though you decided to target that generation so explicitly, I thought maybe you might consider how the conditions that characterised your own generation’s formative years came to be.

When recounting “your day”, you wrote of an intellectual culture which “celebrated a diversity of ideas”; where “pure argument” trumped all, and a contrarian point of view was celebrated and even utilised to orient one’s own perspectives. This is the academic process at its very best, and you were most fortunate to benefit from it.Unfortunately, to channel your President, you didn’t build that. You didn’t build that. And not only did you not build it – you subsequently tore it down. And you replaced it with the appparatus that has created the mindless, chanting drones you decried in your Bloomberg piece.

Am I being unfair to target you? Well, about as unfair as you were being to the current crop of graduates. Your generation unquestionably ripped apart that which you claim to revere, and the Class of 2014 is simply a manifestation of the values your generation cherishes. So why are you training your guns on those kids when the true vandals are at still at large – and are in fact running the show?

I don’t mind catty articles – I really don’t. They’re often the most entertaining. However, I don’t understand why you’re thrashing a bunch of 20 year olds who are the product of an education system that your generation dominates – and that system has equipped them so poorly to deal with rational discourse that you could probably expect little more than an effete ‘whatever’ in response to your criticisms of them. Surely you know this. Attacking them smacks of cowardice to me. You’re aiming at the easiest targets.

If you really want to castigate a group of people for allowing academia to degenerate from what it was in your undergraduate years to what we see today, go and seek out faculty and policymakers who look about your age.

Yours faithfully
James Waterton

I received no response. Not that this surprised me.

I agree with Carter in that much of the student body – and most of those who consider themselves “activists” – are intellectually incurious ideologues primarily concerned with feeling that they are Good People, and indicating this to other Good People. But who moulded them? The answer is implicit in Carter’s article, when he reflects on how things were different back when he was at university. It is a pity he lacked the even-handedness to consider what changed between then and now, and decided to instead chastise those responsible for the mindlessness of the modern student activist. I’m talking about the Boomers, of course, and the muses that inspired them. They really did screw up an awful lot, and like Professor Carter in this instance, I suspect they will never admit to what they have destroyed.

“I helped shut down an abortion debate between two men because my uterus isn’t up for their discussion”

So Oxford student Niamh McIntyre writes in the Independent. She says,

The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups. Debating abortion as if its a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O’Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women . . . In organizing against this event, I did not stifle free speech. As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university; as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body.

Oxford Students For Life (OSFL) originally planned to hold the debate in Christ Church college. The Oxford magazine Cherwell quotes the Christ Church JCR Treasurer, Will Neaverson, as saying:

“I’m relieved the Censors* have made this decision. It clearly makes the most sense for the safety – both physical and mental – of the students who live and work in Christ Church.

A blog post by OSFL (see link above) indicates that Niamh McIntyre’s pleasure and Tim Neaverson’s relief that debate had been shut down were not spoilt by anyone finding an alternative venue. You can, however, read what Tim Stanley had planned to say had the debate taken place in an article in the Telegraph.

Hat tip: Instapundit and Eugene Volokh.

*The two Christ Church Censors are the equivalent of college deans and only occasionally censors in the other sense.

The dubious pleasures of US college campus life

Wildly overblown claims about an epidemic of sexual assaults on American campuses are obscuring the true danger to young women, too often distracted by cellphones or iPods in public places: the ancient sex crime of abduction and murder. Despite hysterical propaganda about our “rape culture,” the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides. Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.

Camille Paglia (h/t Glenn Reynolds).

Universities these days are not just toxic because of what Reynolds has referred to as the higher education bubble (a problem to some extent mirrored here in the UK, though smaller in relative terms). This sort of issue that Paglia writes about is creating a breeding ground for paranoia and fear among the sexes. And who benefits from this?

The kindness of strangers

“Boarding schools: Is it wise to send your young child away from home?” asks the Observer, as the Sunday version of the Guardian is still quaintly calling itself. The answer, it says, is no.

An astonishing number of British parents still send pre-teen children away to boarding school – about 4,000 of them are 10 years old or younger. Numbers have not declined in 15 years. Even if we do get the necessary safeguards of mandatory reporting and a new law on emotional abuse, parents should be questioning the need to risk their child’s happy development by sending them away. If they are unhappy, are you sure you would know? As a reader commented: “When you give your child to a stranger who does not love them, you take a gamble. If your child is miserable, then you are neglecting them. Can you live with that?”

No pressure or anything! Seriously, I have no personal experiences as either parent or child to recount and no general opinion on whether boarding schools are in general good or bad. I have known both those who hated and those who loved their time as boarders. The question that leapt to my mind on reading that paragraph was something a little different:

How come giving your ten year old child to “a stranger who does not love them” is to place their happiness and your very soul as a parent at hazard but giving your three month old child to a stranger who does not love them is practically obligatory on grounds of gender equity?

I have only slightly more of a personal stake in this one. I never went to any sort of nursery or playgroup as a child; my own children had paid pre-school childcare some of the time and have turned out no loopier than their parents. Once again, I have known others with both good and bad experiences. It is the discrepancy between the Guardian-reading classes’ opinions about subcontracting your childcare for a baby and for an older child that interests me. The usual feminist opinion is that anyone who makes the suggestion that mothers ought to so much as look back over their shoulders as they stride out from the nursery gate on their way to the 9am meeting can only be motivated by a desire to keep women chained to the sink. Taking an example at random, “At last, working mothers can ditch the guilt – their children do not suffer,” writes the regular columnist Polly Toynbee. Maybe she is right and they do not suffer. The playgroup leaders always said they stopped crying once I was out of sight. But is the parent’s confidence in that merciful amnesia for a baby or toddler dependent on adults for its survival hour by hour really so much more justified than it is for a child entering boarding school years later?

UPDATE: A very good point, made in the comments below and also in discussion over at Tim Worstall’s blog, is that boarding school is 24/7 whereas daycare is not. However I think that makes less difference than it seems at first sight, because for a child of 0 – 4 years to be in daycare long enough for the mother to do a full time job five days a week with, say, an hour’s commute from nursery to workplace, does in practice mean that for the child almost every waking hour from Monday to Friday will be spent in daycare simply because babies and toddlers need much more sleep than older children.

What was child labour like?

The Times 11 April 1914 p4

The Times 11 April 1914 p4

It would appear that the busy-bodies of a hundred years ago have it in for child labour (or “half-time” working, as it was then known). Luckily, there are some willing to defend the practice:

I worked for nearly 20 years in the same factory. Contrary to the opinions expressed by some people, my health never suffered as a result of the half-time system, and I was never at home for more than a few days during the whole of my factory life. Again, I never had any trouble to pass the required “standard” at school, and I certainly cannot remember to have fallen asleep over my lessons, or even to have felt inclined to do so.

Love the scare quotes.

So, why do we have child labour?

To speak generally, the half-time children belong to parents of the unskilled labour class, where every shilling earned makes a difference at the week-end…

Unfortunately, our correspondent then makes a serious error:

In my estimation the half-timers employed in the factories are far better off than the unfortunate children who work in barbers’ shops, hawk newspapers in the streets, run about mornings and evenings on milk rounds, card hooks and eyes or make match-boxes.

Don’t give them ideas!

I had to laugh at this:

In these progressive days parents almost invariably allow their children to sit up until their own bed hour: the children have just what they fancy for supper, not what is most suitable…

Plus ça change…