Wednesday 26 March 2008

Recommended Listening

Somebody I've mentioned a couple of times on this blog is Dean Bavington, one of the friends I made in Mexico at last December's Illich colloquium. It was an amazing week, bringing together a bunch of thinkers from around the world who are working in Illich's tradition, as well as a mixture of Mexican students, activists and friends of the man himself.

With such a gathering, there's always the potential for people to be talking at crossed purposes or over each other's heads, but the one talk which really seemed to cross the barriers of language and culture was Dean's. When he spoke of the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery, he drew on all his academic discipline and insight, but he did so to tell the story of the place where he grew up and its people. As he spoke, he passed a cod jigger out into the audience, so that each of us could feel the cold weight of the object at the centre of his story.

I wish I could hand that weight to you - or even pass on a recording which caught a little of the atmosphere in the room that evening. Failing that, though, I was delighted to get an email from Dean a couple of weeks ago alerting me to a programme David Cayley had made with him for CBC, in which he tells much of the story. You can get a podcast of it here.

The interview, done several months before the colloquium, doesn't quite reach the emotional depth of the story as I heard it in Cuernavaca - but it is a great piece of radio, nonetheless. And it reminded me how much I look forward to getting to hang out with Dean again some time soon.

Thursday 20 March 2008

Worse than Patriotism

On today's anniversary, I want to share a passage which I read around the time of the invasion of Iraq and which has stayed with me over the five years since. I don't agree with it all or claim that it is all relevant, but at its heart is a distinction which pinpoints what made Tony Blair's justification of the war so repulsive. What makes this more striking is that the book from which it is taken was first published in 1960:

Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for 'their country' they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country's cause was just; but it was still their country's cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds - wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine - I become insufferable. The pretence that when England's cause is just we are on England's side - as some neutral Don Quixote might be - for that reason alone, is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it.

The author is CS Lewis, the book 'The Four Loves'. I am not sure that I can resign myself to the necessity of war or patriotism, but I suspect that Lewis is right when he says that what has replaced patriotism is worse. In the case of Iraq, Britain did not need to defend itself, but nor was the decision to join the invasion made without self-interest. The pious justifications were, indeed, insufferable.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

School of Everywhere!

I've been really grateful for all the enthusiasm from regular readers for my work on School of Everything - the internet startup I started with friends in late 2006. If this blog has gone a bit quiet lately, it is because things are really getting busy over there. And today we've got some news: is now officially global!

Until yesterday, you could only show up on the map if you were based in the UK - but last night, my colleague Paul Miller presented at the NY Tech Meetup. To coincide with this, we were able to open up the site to teachers around the world. Already, we have teachers in New York, Montreal, Berlin and San Francisco (hi, Nick!).

There's still loads we want to do to finetune things and make the site truly global, but we know there are already people connecting with each other and meeting up as a result of using it. And we've got work underway to take us closer to the vision that drove us to start this:

Our current education system was designed in the industrial revolution to prepare people for factory work. The world has changed a lot since then - and the time has come to rethink education from the bottom to the top.

At School of Everything, we believe that learning is personal, and starts not with what you 'should' learn but with what you're interested in. So we're building a tool to help anyone in the world learn what they want, when, where and in a way which suits them. Putting people in touch with each other, not with institutions.

This isn't about e-learning. There are lots of great online tools, but not much beats being in a room with someone who wants to teach you the thing you want to learn...

Read the rest here.

The most helpful thing for us at the moment is to have people using the site and telling us what would make it more useful for them. So if you know anyone with skills or knowledge that they would enjoy passing on, whether as a paid teacher or just for the love of it, do tell them what we're up to. And keep sending me your thoughts and ideas for directions we might go or people and projects with similar values.

I will try to get back to some regular blogging soon - and Anirudh, I'm aware I owe you a post about liberalism.

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