Saturday, September 30, 2006

A new hope...

The kids are both feeling sick today, so it's a slow day without any trips or visits. Quie nice, really, if I weren't feeling a bit dodgy too. Still, I have a new game to cheer me up.
There is something wonderfully therapeutic about smashing things into tiny Lego bricks with a lightsabre. Have a go, I urge you...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I'm keeping an eye on the development of a new set of qualifications for school-leavers, designed specifically with a view to preparing them for university. The Cambridge Pre-U (awful name, that...) is being created by the Cambridge International Examinations and seems to be generating a lot of enthusiasm and interest, at least among some university teachers. (See a recent report here.)

I haven't seen a draft syllabus yet for any of the subjects I am particularly interested in (primarily Greek and Latin, but also I suppose 'Classical heritage') but the philosophy of the qualification sounds right, driven as it is by a concern to foster independent and self-directed learning. This is from the CIE site:

The values enshrined in Cambridge Pre-U are:
  • The development of well-informed, open and independent-minded individuals capable of applying their skills to meet the demands of the world as they will find it and over which they may have influence.

  • A curriculum which retains the integrity of subject specialisms and which can be efficiently, effectively and reliably assessed, graded and reported to meet the needs of universities.

  • A curriculum which is designed to recognise a wide range of individual talents, interests and abilities and which provides the depth and rigour required for a university degree course.

  • A curriculum which encourages the acquisition of specific skills and abilities, in particular the skills of problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, team working and effective communication.

  • The encouragement of 'deep understanding' in learning.

  • The development of a perspective which equips young people to understand a range of different cultures and ideas and to respond successfully to the opportunity for international mobility.
The Guardian report does cite some reasonable worries, voiced by Tessa Stone of the Sutton Trust. It is certainly essential that any new qualification should be accessible to all students and able to be taught effectively by a wide range of schools.

Let's all keep our fingers crossed and hope they get it right...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Childhood crisis!

After the grumbles a week ago about childhood being 'poisoned', the Archbishop of Canterbury has decided to join in. Very helpful. And we have now been presented with all manner of statistics intended to make us all very concerned about children and their prospects and we are also being asked to contibute our views on what makes a 'good childhood' to the Children's Society inquiry, being patronised by the archbishop. (The Children's Society is a Christian organisation.) If you want to join in, go here to submit 'evidence'. You only have until the middle of November, mind, so it had better be quick. You fill in a different survey according to whether you are a child (<18), an adult (18 years+), or someone who works professionally with young people. Only the last category, note, is prompted to make clear the basis on which they are answering the other questions by an important initial question:
What do you understand by childhood? What does a good childhood mean to you?
The rest of us, perhaps too dim to think this is an important first step or else because our views on this matter are thought irrelevant, just jump in. Both adults and children are then asked:
What things do you think stop children today from having a good childhood?

They are not asked to say if there is anything they think that is currently condusive to a good childhood, positive and useful.

I have no idea what happens to this evidence, but we shall no doubt be treated to another publicity round some time near Christmas, when spoiled children will once again be on the agenda.

By the way, one of the statistics released today surprised me. This, from the BBC report:

A Children's Society survey found that 93% of 14 to 16-year-olds questioned said
their carers or parents cared about them, but only 63% thought their parents
understood them. The 11,000 questionnaire responses also found that 24% said
they had "sometimes" been bullied or "picked on" because of who they were.

63% sounds high to me (I am surprised any teenagers think their parents 'understand' them, and I would be very surprised if 63% of parents do understand their teenagers) and 24% sounds very low. Perhaps things aren't all that bad!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Access and participation

News today of another round of worries about who goes into Higher Education in the UK and how different kinds of students fare when they are there. There are two new HEFCE documents to plough through: the shorter one, How to think about widening participation in UK higher education, is a thought-provoking set of difficult questions asking us to come clean about what we mean by 'access' and the like and making the sensible point that this all needs a long-term approach.

The second, longer, document, Review of widening participation research: addressing the barriers to participation in higher education, is much harder work to read. I can't say I've gone over it all, but as I browsed the odd sentence caught my eye. For example:
"Those who drop out of HE tend to be less motivated to continue than those who stay on." (p. 58)
Well, who'd have thought it?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

21st century childhood

Some people are worried about children. A letter to the Daily Telegraph today, signed by over a hundred psychologists, educationalists, authors etc., is concerned that modern technology, modern educational targets, and concerns about child-safety are 'poisoning' and damaging children's development. Here's a taster:
"Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed “junk”), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives."
It concludes:
"This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades."
I'm not sure what to make of this. For a start, it is not clear to me that adults do much better adjusting to technological and cultural change. The letter points to some recent research, but in general just gestures towards the usual bugbears: junk food and computers. Interviewed on the radio this morning, one of the signatories gave the common line that kids ought to be outside more, climbing trees and scraping knees. There is also an odd and repeated use of 'real' as a qualifier to mean 'good': real play, real food, real interactions. I'm not sure what this means, besides it being a helpful bit of rhetoric: Who would deny that it is a good idea to eat 'real food'?

But besides the various arguments we might have about whether it was ever true that children were not somehow -- often badly -- affected by their environment (Should they all be back up chimneys or down a pit? When was this better time for children?) the major hole in the account seems to me to be the lack of any clear statement of what is meant by 'children's well-being'. It appears to be in important ways different from adult well-being, but it is not clear how. Until we have a better vision of what this is -- and, no doubt, the authors of the letter might have their own view although it is omitted from their brief polemic -- we won't have any idea how this public and political debate ought to proceed.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

One man didn't go... mow. The lawn needs to be mown again and for some reason I really hate doing it. It doesn't take too long; I could probably do with the exercise; it's nice when it's finished. But all the same I hate doing it. If I had a reason for this hate, it would probably be something to do with the utter pointlessness of it. If I do it today, it will probably have to be done again in ten days or so and in the meantime the chances are that I will hardly spend any time in the garden at all to enjoy this nicely cropped grass. What is the point? (To get a bit Pseud's Corner: it could be a Sisyphean thing -- man struggling absurdly to dominate nature. Or else it must have something to do with men -- and it's usually men who do the mowing -- needing some reason to get out of the house for a while at the weekend.) Perhaps I should consult a new book on the philosophy of grardens (no, really...) for some insights (and for a grumpy review of it see here.) But then perhaps the philosophy of gardens is distinct from the philosophy of gardening... How about the Homebase chair in theoretical gardening? Is there anyone out there able to persuade me to love my mower? And, if there is anyone out there who does enjoy a good mow then she or he is, of course, very welcome to come and mow my lawn any time.

Friday, September 08, 2006


It is a strange time to be in Cambridge. Most of the university or college buildings are undergoing building or restoration work, so a lot of the town is currently covered in scaffolding or otherwise hidden. (For a nice view of the city from the top of the library tower go here. And for a view of the market square, go here. The Corpus college webcam is here, so you can watch the comings and goings of the corpuscles at your leisure.) It's as if the city is getting ready for the imminent influx of new and returning students, who will arrive to see the place clean and tidy, while we have had to spend the summer weaving through the debris.

Another bad sign -- the new university diaries have appeared in the CUP shop!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Alexander the Great and darts

Some marvellous commentary from Sid Waddell on Eric Bristow's darts victory in 1985:

When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer - Bristow is only 27!

Another story says that on hearing from the philosopher Anaxarchus, probably a Democritean atomist, that there were innumerable other cosmoses in the universe, Alexander cried because he had not conquered even one (Plutarch, De tranquillitate animi 466D; Val. Max. 8.14 ext. 2; DK 72 A11). Which is worse: an ambition achieved leaving nothing more to strive for, or the recognition that one's ambition can never be completely achieved?

Office supplies

Just in case you're looking for an excellent hole-punch...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rumsfeldian epistemology

My favourite Rumsfeld quotation:
“"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do no know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know”
He has been ridiculed for this, but it sounds perfectly reasonable to me. It's the unknown unknowns that are the problem -- just what Socrates was interested in pointing out. Much better for the unknowns to be known rather than unknown; otherwise how do you know what you need to try to find out?


Here is a link to the Youtube posting of the Germany v. Greece philosophy football match. (I've put it here because the link on Michael's Dissoi Blogoi doesn't work outside his university.) Marx is right, by the way: the goal should be disallowed.
If you want to buy the strip to show your support for your team, go here.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Plastic ataraxic

There are some excellent examples of 'Epicurean' being used by modern businesses to conjure up -- well, what? Some sort of idea of luxury and indulgence usually. Food and wine advice and reviews are perhaps an easy link to make. (And since Epicurus himself once declared he could dine happily on cheese he would have liked this.) But does that stretch to melamine and plastic tableware? (Thanks to Nick for the last link -- I'll find out if his purchase did indeed induce tranquillity.)

Friday, September 01, 2006


V. happy to have the Sopranos back on E4; I, Claudius in loud shirts. Not quite at its best with the first episode, of course, but still plenty to love: sushi addiction and car one-upmanship, the new Atkins fanatic and so on. All surrounding a nasty tale of violence and repressive structures of control and intimidation... Perfect Thursday night stuff.