Posts Tagged ‘government’

Genetics and education

Morning all. I’m handing over to my guest blogger today as it’s Wednesday. Enjoy!

 

This week’s subject is quite challenging so get your thinking caps on.

The results of a study (in the UK) and a recent book (G For Genes) about the academic achievements of 10,000 sets of identical twins have caused something of an uproar. Why? Firstly because the report was leaked to a newspaper when it was meant for internal use only and secondly because of its potential implications. The senior policy advisor to the UK Government’s Education Secretary reckons that genetics are the largest factor in educational achievement.

Let me explain. The identical twins were born 1994-96 and the results of their GCSE exams (at 16 yrs old) have been analysed. A recent radio programme (The Moral Maze, Radio 4) tackled the subject and one of the authors of the book quoted a figure saying that 52% of the variance in the results was down to genetics. Their suggestion was that we should consider the idea of “genetically sensitive schools”. Wow! Does that make you think (like me): “I wonder where this is going?”

If you fancy a listen to the discussion programme here’s the link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03fdjsp

Now it’s this radio programme I’d like to refer back to for this brief survey of some of the issues involved. For those who don’t know the format there is a panel who question the speakers (called witnesses in the prog) about the view they are putting forward either in favour of the subject or against it. The idea is to focus on any moral issues that do (or could) arise from the subject under investigation.

The first speaker was one of the authors of the book. Their view was that, as scientists, they simply put the facts out and it’s up to others to interpret or from the government side formulate policy based on the results of that research. In other words they did not see any moral dilemma in deciding whether to publish or not. They’re basically saying they do not see they have any responsibility for the possible outcomes. Do you agree with that? Should science incorporate a moral responsibility to the society round about it and possibly further afield? Despite the authors of the book claiming that it was not the scientist’s job to formulate policy one of the panel (who had read the book) said that they did actually suggest policy matters towards the end of their book.

The genetic information would enable schools to be able to personalise learning through understanding a child’s genetic as well as social background. I’m wondering at this point how on earth they could possibly keep data like this safe. I don’t what security is like in whatever country you live in but over the past few years, here in the UK, there have been a number of whole databases lost, stolen or compromised: laptops have been stolen (one from the seat of a car of a Ministry of Defence employee), memory sticks have been left where they shouldn’t have been and sometimes corrupt employees have changed information on a person (and more recently even patients in a hospital have had their “information” changed). Just think of the implications of say your whole genetic make up being stolen. Supposing you play in a group and someone finds out that you don’t have a “musical” profile in your genetic make-up. Do you get fired or asked to leave?

When a panel member suggested that it seemed that the research was leading us to a situation where when a child is born their genetic “profile” established & stored so that when they were of school age their learning could be tailored to suit that child; the author said that the research did not support such a view. They re-iterated the view that their role was simply to put the facts out and let others make decisions based on it.

The second speaker was a teacher from the south of England who works in a school (Years 1-6, ages 5-11) where they have a different view about how children should learn.

There is a video of some of the kids and the teaching in class on their site (http://www.thewroxham.org.uk/).

Now before giving you their idea he claimed that their results in exams provide proof that the system they use works. So what is the system? I can base what I write only on what the speaker said as I have no experience in the field (and don’t know anyone with it). The school ethos is “Learning Without Limits”. The difference is that they do not use the term “able” or “ability” (either high or low or any variation of it). He explained that the school allows the children to “choose their level of differentiation (or challenge)” in each lesson. If you watch the video you can see children explaining a bit about how this “challenge” idea works. The children make the decisions that affect the pace of their learning and ultimately I suppose their future. “Able” he feels has negative connotations so they speak of a child working at a particular “level”. The child makes the choice on the next level of challenge. They are the learner in the process; they are part of a “learning journey”. Now obviously I don’t know how that works in practise but I think most of us probably came through the old system of “streaming”: the clever ones in a subject went into “Set 1” (the top set) or whatever your school called it with the rest going downwards in 2,3,4 etc so it is very hard for us to imagine how we could choose what our next learning level would be. All I can say is that, if the school results which he says are very good are anything to go by, it seems to work where he teaches. When asked about whether genetic information would (or could?) help him in his job he was rather non-committal. I wonder what you think of the idea. I also wonder how the children will fare when they have to go into a senior school where this particular idea is not used; how well will they be able to adapt? Well, it’s food for thought for anyone who has left school behind even just a few years ago. Would this system have suited you?

The programme couldn’t go into many different areas because of its remit but think about some of these scenarios. Can you imagine a staff room conversation in which teachers would be talking about whether pupil X or pupil Y should be taught music or art because they did not have the “musical gene” or the “artistic gene” in their profile? Suppose a child just loves music and wants to do it. Why shouldn’t they? They might not be the next classical composer or pop sensation but they could enjoy doing music for its own sake and be willing to practise. Under this new idea they would probably be excluded because they didn’t have the right genetic profile for musical ability. Don’t know about you but it sounds scary to me! More importantly where does it go next? Do interviewees, for example, take their genetic profile to a potential employer to demonstrate why they should be given the job rather than someone else? What about relationships between people? Would dating agencies request genetic profiles so they could “match” the same sort of people? You might be offered potential dates only with those who are “most suited” genetically. Suppose the country is short of scientists would you be happy if the government decided to look for any of the population who had the scientific ability gene? They might then be given special “treatment” in certain areas: educational, financial & even social. I’m sure you can think of a number of other areas in which research like this would have a major impact. If you thought 1984 (Orwell) was scary the potential of this research takes things to a whole new level. If you weren’t scared before I hope you can see why now you could have reason to be. I’ve only been able to look superficially at some of the implications but where do you see this sort of thing going?

(There were two more speakers in the programme but I’ll leave them till next week as they cover a number of different areas to the two people I’ve covered here.)  

Advertisements

Meritocracy, privilege or equality?

Good morning all. Wednesday brings my guest blogger, Rambler5319, and his post prompting by a certain new arrival on the UK scene…

 

Last week LLM mentioned the birth of a certain baby: George Alexander Louis – one who is now 3rd in line to the throne here in the UK. (According to the statistics he is just one of 14,000 babies born in the UK last week.) The birth has stirred up interest in a particular area over the past week or so – privilege and the benefits it confers on later generations. Some people are not happy about those who simply inherit a pot of money or land or a title, and don’t have to work for it; others are quite content to live in a society where there will always be inequalities. My reason for writing about the subject is that the BBC dedicated a whole programme on the radio to a discussion on the subject. They have a discussion series called The Moral Maze and it tries to tackle controversial issues; it uses the format of a panel who question “witnesses” (3 or 4 on each prog) who come to state their case on the subject for the week.

Many folks consider life (in general) is unfair: those with money and privilege seem to get access to jobs, education and many other opportunities, those without don’t. The difficulty comes when we or the state take the view that the “playing field” should be levelled so that all have an equal opportunity to get the position under consideration be it a place at university, a job or membership of a club or team. How can it be done? Some would say we already have that in that anyone can apply but that it’s an equality of outcome that would be the best solution. For that to happen though certain things would have to be put in place which might seem unfair to those who do not get what they believed they deserved.

First principle to think about is – do we believe in the idea that if you work hard and get the results you need in exams for instance you should get the place that was offered? However if we then have a situation, as has happened in the UK in recent years, that for example the government wants more people from, as they put it, poorer sections of society to go to university how can that be achieved? Their answer is that you help them with maybe some extra teaching or finance or bursary payment. This though puts the university admission system under great strain because how do they decide between two candidates applying for say one place? Do they admit a person from a poor background who needs financial aid or say a middle class person who can afford to go because their parents simply have more money than the poorer person? Do you see the problem? Yes, they can admit say 10 people from poorer backgrounds to various courses but in order to do that 10 people from what is considered a higher social group have to be excluded. Is that fair or is it simply what we would call social engineering – making a university population a cross section of the wider society in terms of its social & financial groupings? Is that more morally right? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on the academic achievements of the candidates for the places and other factors come in afterwards? If the grade required in a particular subject is for example a “C” and there are two applicants – one has an “A” and one a “B”. Suppose the B grade applicant is from the poorer background – can you see the problem? Why should one way be more right than another? How many students from poor backgrounds would we expect to find in say some of the top universities like Oxford or Cambridge? It is not simply a case of grades it is also one of expense once you’re there. A further problem arises if, as history tends to confirm, that the people from the poorer social grouping, for one reason or another, don’t do as well academically as those from the more affluent neighbourhoods. Again this is not necessarily down to the child. It may be that the school itself has a poor record and one of the reasons for that might be due to poorer quality teachers ending up in say schools in poorer areas. The child may have come from a family in which education was not valued & books were not read. It could even be that the parents were just not interested in the child; perhaps it was not even wanted. There are a number of possible reasons and we can’t just blame or highlight one.

Second principle to think about is that of inheritance. Is it morally right that you or I as a parent should seek to do our best for our children? Do we believe that if we work hard and accumulate wealth during our lives that we have the right to pass it on to our children? In other words should you get what are called your “just deserts”? I think most people would say that this system seems fair – if you work hard, you get the rewards. Again we can do this in a number of ways but in the final analysis a big question is about what we leave behind for them. Suppose the parents “work their socks off” so they can pay off their mortgage so that their children can inherit their house and not be in debt. Should those parents be penalised for having worked really hard to be able to leave their children money or property or whatever? One speaker in the programme suggested that those who leave “excessive wealth” should have it taken off them. When challenged by the panel as to what he would define as excessive of course he couldn’t and also couldn’t say who should do the defining. The panel’s conclusion was quite simply that his idea amounted to straightforward theft!

Another speaker used the phrase when speaking of the opportunities that it was “unacceptably unfair” to those at the bottom of the social scale. As with the previous point, he was unable to properly define “unacceptably”. In the end he went down the route of saying that some things were unacceptably unfair but not all. He then went on to discuss the idea of rewarding those who “fulfil their potential”. In other words if you are not so clever academically and are expected to attain a grade C and you then do or perhaps achieve even higher, say a B you should be rewarded. This is a nice idea but think about this – suppose a student who was expected to achieve an A just misses it and gets a B. If both are applying to the same university, who is more deserving of the place? – Both have got B grades but to whom would you give the place if you had to make the decision? And why?

The last speaker came up with another generalisation: it’s unfair that bright kids from poor working class backgrounds are losing out to middle class kids who are less bright. I’m not sure how you could prove that. Surely I’d be just as “right” to say that bright middle class kids are losing out to bright working class kids because the latter are being favoured by the social engineering going on in higher education entrance procedures.

Now there isn’t time to go into all the arguments for & against but it seems clear to me that it will be incredibly difficult to move from our present position. Consider this – those who say the present system is unfair because a certain person only “got in” or “got the job” because they were born into a higher income family, than those who did not, haven’t got a practical alternative. If the current system is deemed unfair then how can you replace it with one which bestows favour on lower income groups in order to level things up a little? That just means there will be similar cries of unfairness by those who qualified but were discriminated against in the interests of some social policy either by the state or the institution concerned. You will simply be replacing one unfair system with another unfair one. So can anything help? Do we just have to accept that, as has been the case throughout history, in a society where money buys things those with the most can buy the most of whatever it is – material possessions or access to jobs & education? Is it unfair that one is born into a rich family and one into a poor?

The end of freedom

It’s the final in my guest blogger’s series on Freedom.

We now come to the 6th & final instalment of the series on Freedom. There is obviously a lot of ground we haven’t been able to cover but if you’re still with me thank you for persevering. What I want to do is try and bring the series to a close by drawing lessons from the first five parts but also by giving you some further food for thought.

I hope you’ve seen that each of the areas we have looked at (musicartliteratureinternet) has its own problems with regard to freedom. However there will always be those who want more freedom than they have. What I’m about to say now may strike you as being a bit odd: total freedom equals total chaos! How so? Let’s look at a couple of examples from real life. Take the network of roads across whichever country you live in. Ask yourself what will happen if drivers have complete freedom? They can drive on whichever side of the road they want at whatever speed they want, they can ignore road signs and traffic lights particularly if they’re in a hurry and so on. What is the result? – Probably lots of accidents, no claims because everyone can do what they want so no-one is responsible, and therefore general mayhem. Roads & drivers, and indeed all road users (cyclists, pedestrians etc), need rules otherwise the system breaks down.

Now think of sports or athletics. In a game of football, baseball or whatever – what happens if you allow all the players to do whatever they want? What happens if runners on an athletics track can deliberately trip up other runners or ignore the lane they have been given to run in? – Once again chaos because there is no order to what is going on. Imagine watching a game or an athletics event with no rules! How long would you stay? Rules are needed for there to be a meaningful competition between opposing teams. It just doesn’t make sense to have no rules.

Try this one – Draw a circle or rectangle on a piece of paper. Put the point of your pen inside the line(s). Now move your pen wherever you want to within the boundary of the figure you drew. You can go wherever you want; you have complete freedom inside the lines, you could draw, sketch, paint, crayon or whatever. If I gave you a piece of canvas 77cm x 53cm (30in x 21in) what could you do? I would probably just have a mass of lines and colours not looking like much. (However, looking at some of the pictures in recent exhibitions featured in the news, I think I might have a chance!) Perhaps you would do better. Not many could produce a picture like the one of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo – (Mona Lisa, in case you were wondering.) Da Vinci, in the early 16th century, did. The painting had to have boundaries and within those boundaries he produced a fantastic piece of work.

Transfer these analogies to real life and let’s ask the question again. How can society function if everybody does whatever they want because they want the freedom to do that? They do not want you or me or some authority telling them what to do. They don’t want boundaries on their behaviour. Why should the idea of rules be any different for a society of human beings than for any other activity they engage in. We must have rules otherwise we and our society can’t function. The real problem arises when we try to specify what those rules are or should be. Who is going to make them up? Who is going to police them? And who is going to apprehend & prosecute those who do not obey them? In a democracy we give that responsibility to the elected government & its law enforcement agencies – they are the law makers and enforcers.

Do you think it’s best to live in a democracy because that gives the most or the fairest rights to those living under it? Most will agree it’s better than say a dictatorship. We tend to believe that democracy equals good, non-democracy equals “not as good” or even potentially bad. Would you consider the following example and seriously ask yourself if you still agree after reading it? Suppose you’re on a ship and the ship is sinking. The alarm goes out to “man the lifeboats” and the crew begins loading people in and lowering the boats into the water. Let’s say each boat is built for say 10 people and has emergency food rations for that number. Once the boat is launched and has been rowed or drifted away from the sinking ship you find that there are 11 people in the boat. The boat is unstable with 11 (6 one side, 5 on the other), it’s too low in the water and there are not enough rations to support 11. A vote is taken on who the people think should be thrown out of the boat. It’s democratic and it’s fair and YOU are picked. Are you still a big supporter of democracy? Or are you now frantically trying to state your case? – Why you should be kept in the boat and someone else, who in your estimation, is less worthy should be thrown out. Do you see the problem? Democracy is great until it’s you that has to leave or be sacrificed for the greater good. This is not a “balloon debate” – this is real life. What gives them the right to throw you out? Errr..Democracy actually!

Another quite serious example from the TV last Sunday – would you or your town/area want nuclear waste dumped underground there (in safe containers of course)? In the area of Cumbria, where the Sellafield Nuclear Plant is located, in a survey, 68% of people (just over two-thirds) agreed with the proposal to use their area. A democratic result but those who oppose it simply won’t accept that. In other words, in a democracy when a vote is taken, you want (and probably have) the right to object to it. So a democracy which produces a majority decision must allow those in the minority to oppose that decision which means a democracy may not produce a democratic outcome. Or at least only a democratic outcome in certain areas because some people don’t like the result of the democratic vote. Hmmm….

Bring it, literally, nearer home – suppose the people in your street decide they don’t like you and don’t want you living in their street. You have to move. What gives them the right to force you to move on? Democracy again. It’s not as easy as you thought is it?

This is not a new problem. Almost 2,400 years ago Plato was considering exactly the same sort of issues in his work The Republic. Philosophers and thinkers down the ages have wrestled with the same problem. Plato believed the best way for a just society to function was to divide everyone into one of the following groups: producers (those who literally make stuff: food, objects, etc), auxiliaries (warriors or upholders of rulers wishes and making producers obey) and guardians or philosopher kings (rulers). (Social mobility is not allowed; once you’re in one group or class you stay there because that is your function. Seems like a precursor of the caste system perhaps? Also with the restriction of medical care to certain classes we see a worryingly early form of eugenics. Not a freedom, I hope, any would espouse. You might be surprised at some of the supporters of “The First International Congress of Eugenics” in 1912 which included our own Prime Minister at the time!) When the three groups, in The Republic are in the right relationships with each other, and the people in them understand and perform their functions, everything will be fine. Interestingly, personal freedom isn’t considered important and is subject to the good of society which comes first. He also believes poets need to be banished from this proposed ideal society (Book X). If you want to know why and the answer to other questions you might have but don’t fancy reading the whole treatise there is an excellent summary on the Sparknotes Website at:

http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/republic/summary.html

So we can say quite clearly freedom has to have boundaries, has to have limits beyond which we cannot go. What that means is that you can do whatever you want within the boundaries – in a sport for example that’s where we can see the skill of a player. One person can do things another person can’t because they don’t have that ability. Look at footballers with their ball-controlling skills, watch them as they dribble around other players in a match because of their superior skill and applaud the goal or home run or whatever is achieved within the rules. A referee decides on penalties for those breaking the rules. The admiration comes from recognising their abilities working within the rules of whatever sport is involved. And so it is with society. It is just a fact that things will work better and people will feel safer if there are rules and people keep to them. Those who want to push the boundaries have a big problem – how far? And who says how far? And once one boundary is pushed are we then waiting for the next person to come along and push even further? Again, I have to ask, “but how far?” Each new level simply proves that people are never satisfied because they want always to push a little harder, to go one step further. (In the newspapers, a couple of days ago, we read of the fastest selling paperback since records began (beating Harry Potter & the DaVinci Code!). It is described as an explicit novel and last week alone sold over 100,000 copies. Another boundary pushed! I hope you can see the inevitable consequences of this pushing. They’re actually all around us in the state of our societies.

Plato had an idea that the values a society needs to live by could come from someone or somewhere outside the people living in that society. Now there’s a thought – what happens if we don’t really know best? Who’s going to admit that – musicians, artists, writers, bloggers? What happens if freedom really does exist only within the rules not outside of them?

That’s the end of our look at Freedom in various fields and in society as a whole. Whilst it has only been brief I do hope you’ve asked yourself some important questions and perhaps found some answers or at least the road to some. I’d like to finish with the proposition of Democritus who said that a life of contentment cannot be achieved through either idleness or pursuing worldly pleasures but only by being satisfied with what you have, giving little thought to envy or admiration. So there you have it – the freedom to be content! Or not? It’s up to you. More to it than you thought? Of course there is!

Freedom rules!

It’s Rambler5319 again today, the regular guest blogger.

 

Another possible oxymoron? How can there be freedom and rules together? Surely freedom means not having rules? Or might it just mean freedom is the best thing? Obviously it won’t be possible to do in a few blogs what philosophers and the rest of mankind have pondered over for thousands of years but let’s see if we can discover anything of interest. I’m going to do a quick general overview for this opener. Next time I hope to do something on the concept of freedom as found in popular music, then literature/films and for part 4 maybe tackle, in more detail, the awkward bit about the rules and their interpretation.

On 6th Jan 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about looking forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms:
1. The freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world
2. The freedom of every individual to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.
3. The freedom from want – everywhere in the world.
4. The freedom from fear – anywhere in the world.

I wonder if you remember when you were younger words or phrases that were used to extol the perceived virtues of say footballers, singers or other heroes from the past and present.
Many who passed through the student ranks of tertiary education will remember the ubiquitous and iconic red & black “Che” poster which adorned the walls of theirs, or their friends’, rooms or the T-shirt which adorned the budding Marxist chest. Ernesto (Che) Guevara (1928-67) was a Cuban Marxist revolutionary – a ‘hero’ to many; he represented the way to fight for freedom from an oppressive regime. The Bolivians didn’t agree. Their armed forces captured and killed him in 1967. (He had been trying to stir up the Bolivian people up to rebel against their government.) On 9th Oct 1967, in La Higuera, Bolivia I wonder if Che realised that, co-incidentally & quite bizarrely, Engelbert Humperdinck was at the end of a 5-week run at No.1 in the UK Charts, with the song The Last Waltz? (Its first line reads “Should I go or should I stay?”) Probably he didn’t! Dodging bullets was definitely a higher, but unachievable, priority.
As I grew up, I remember seeing instances of graffiti, on walls, bridges and flyovers with the words “Liverpool or LFC Rules, ok!” or “Everton or EFC rules, ok!” or “Kenny (as in Dalgleish) rules, ok” and a number of others. They all wanted the viewer to know that their team or hero is the best.
Another type was painted by people who felt injustices had been done to an individual or group of people through a court sentence: for example in the UK, “Free the Birmingham Six” (given life in 1975 but freed after an appeal in 1991) and “Free the Guildford Four” (life sentences in 1975, freed after appeal in 1989). In these two examples the freedom is clearly from a prison cell; for Che & Fidel Castro it was freedom from the rule of a government they did not agree with.
Perhaps you hanker after a freedom closer to home: freedom from parents, parental control or from a bossy sibling. Would you like there to be more freedom in your school or place of work because you feel too restricted the way things are? We’ve seen in the press over many years cases where a pupil in a school wants the freedom to wear something or follow a fashion trend which flouts the school uniform rules. Should they be allowed to? Shouldn’t they? They want to break the rules, often in the name of freedom?
There are also cases of religious objections. For example, here in the UK, a Sikh can by law, wear a turban whilst riding a motorcycle instead of a crash helmet. A number of Christians have been in the news because of clashes with their employers about wanting to wear a crucifix (cross), as a symbol of their faith, in the workplace. And so it goes on with many different cases on our TV screens and in the press. Does this mean religious freedom trumps the law of the land? Sometimes, it does! Is it right to do so? I’ll leave that one with you.
Suppose you own your own house. Do you have the freedom to do whatever you want either with the building or in terms of the activities that take place there? Clearly not. For instance, you cannot play your music at full volume. Why? Because it causes a nuisance to neighbours. In other words there are rules! You cannot use it for business unless it has been authorised. Why? Because the rules say you can’t. What about your neighbour’s freedom to have peace and quiet? Do you see the problem? The use of your freedom may infringe someone else’s. Maybe that’s where the rules come in but who enforces them?
Think of those early pioneers in the 1960s Hippie movement. Freedom from society and its restraints was at the top of their list. However it doesn’t take long to figure out that this is an impossible lifestyle without money. If they work they follow the rules of their employers, if they don’t work they get benefits but either way they need and obtain money to fund their alternative lifestyle. Freedom costs!
Remember the bravado in words of the chorus to the song, “Society” about being free to go it alone, from the biopic, of Christopher McCandless’s life (1968-1992), Into The Wild:
“Society you’re a crazy breed
Hope you’re not lonely without me.”

Are you beginning to see the problem? Freedom does not, and cannot, mean freedom to do anything you want; and it cannot be achieved without monetary resources of some kind. Now what sort of freedom do you really want for yourself and others? What types of freedom are actually possible across the world? More importantly what are you, and others, willing to give up in order for more freedom to exist?