Streaming: the new education policies made visible?

Department for Education home page, 25 May 2010
Department for Education home page on 25 May 2010: streamed from right to left

Not much happening on the new Department for Education website; they must all be too busy setting up free schools, abolishing quangos and the like. Their home page (which still, nearly two weeks into the new government, has the temporary feel that I commented on earlier) prompted my next article for NATE’s English Drama Media magazine. Not published yet – and members only: another reason to join NATE! There is a Twitter feed, to show they’re modern, though (bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s comments on ‘too many twits’, there aren’t many tweets so far and those are anodyne).

The photograph on this page becomes increasingly unsettling the more I look at it. Children are reading books – to resort to the demotic: what’s not to like? Look closer, though, and you see Tory streaming policy in action: right wing girl reads one book, commandeers another (it’s the Matthew Effect). Move left and the girls begin to close their books (closed minds). Left-wing boy can’t read, just suck his thumb – must be destined to be a hewer of wood or drawer of water – no doubt there’s some vocational training that an outsourcing company can devise to keep him busy.

One quango that they have abolished is Becta, the education technology agency. Whilst many classroom teachers might not know much about it, some of us will regret its passing. A keen young teacher wrote to NATE: ‘I’m disgusted by this frankly. If there’s one thing a country of this size and waning political influence needs, it’s surely the wider dimension of learning possibilities that ICT offers the common classroom teacher and pupil. What use is the structural investment without sharing the good practice?’ Another commentator with many years experience as a key player in the application of ICT to English added: ‘The worry is that this actually reveals a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of ICT in schools in general.’ Let us hope not. As the Guardian leader commented: ‘Even if the staff now facing the chop at the Becta agency, which promotes technology in schools, are not deployed as effectively as they might be, they are more useful than they will be if they end up in the dole queue.’

Reading: a Darwinian or an aesthetic activity?

Is Darwinian literary studies the next big thing?

Virginia Woolf: photograph by George Beresford from Wikimedia Commons
Hmm, I'm not so sure about all this, thinks Virginia Woolf

The Observer reported yesterday that literary critics are going to ‘scan the brain to find out why we love to read’. ‘The aim, Yale literature professor Michael Holquist says, is to provide a scientific basis for schemes to improve the reading skills of college-age students.’ Ah, it’s a utilitarian project, then? ‘Lighting up the right neurones is every bit as important as a keen moral insight or a societal context.’ Some hail this as revolutionary: ‘It is one of the most exciting developments in intellectual life,’ said Blakey Vermeule, an English professor at Stanford University. Vermeule is examining the role of evolution in fiction: some call it “Darwinian literary studies”.’ Or, as the journalists put it: ‘Forget structuralism or even post-structuralist deconstructionism. “Neuro lit crit” is where it’s at.’

Others protest: ‘It strikes me as just plain silly. The mind and the brain are two quite separate things, and nobody knows what the relation is between them,’ said Dr Ian Patterson, a fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. That old mind-body thing, eh? Now didn’t one Ludwig Wittgenstein, formerly Professor at Cambridge University, deal that some blows? Never mind. As he wrote in 1929: ‘A good simile refreshes the intellect,’ (Culture and Value, translated by Winch, p 1e) and no doubt the neurons will show that on the scans. He also wrote: ‘Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it read at the right tempo. My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly.’ (ibid, 57e). Will the machine be able to distinguish the different effects of reading quickly and slowly? Classics or trash? Since the Observer used the familiar, rather mournful picture of Virginia Woolf (as here) to illustrate the article, the paper seems to think this is about ‘high art’. Of course (as Wittgenstein might have pointed out) that is probably the product of the way her picture is read – with the knowledge of her high modernist works, tortured life and unhappy death.