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1. Democrazy

The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart.

Nights are falling later and frogs are croaking louder. The rice fields I can see from my window are flooded with water. Around the World the trumpets of democracy are brandished and the flags of conviviality are unfurled. Underneath the water in the rice fields rice has been planted in the mud. I wonder what the harvest will be.

In the United States up to one million voters could find themselves disenfranchised as HAVA is implemented. HAVA stands for Help America Vote Act. The voters who will loose their votes are black.

In South Africa it seems that the only party that can be elected is the ANC and it is questionable what this means. In South Africa 13.6% of the population are white and they control about 84% of the arable land. 40% of the population live in poverty though South African businesses are marching across the continent. Amongst other things South African businesses run the national railroad in Cameroon, the national electricity company in Tanzania, and manage the airports located in or near seven African capitals. But the wealth these businesses generate isn’t reaching the majority. I won’t mention Aids.

In India it is a fair prediction that whatever the outcome of the election the poor will remain poor. In Sub-Sahara Africa the rate of malnourishment in children is 20-25%. In India it is 53%. In 1991 the number of landless labourers was 74.6 million. In 2001 it was 107.4 million. Nine out of ten rural families and seven out of ten urban families spend as much as 60 percent of their income on meeting their basic food requirements. Meanwhile the government is stockpiling food. It is also dismantling the Public Distribution System that could be used to distribute food. The Government is effectively spending more money on keeping people hungry than feeding them.

In Iraq, well, I can’t imagine you think there is going to be democracy in Iraq. But the question is, to what extent is there democracy anywhere? Sure, there are many countries where it is possible to vote. And in many countries there is even some chance that all the votes will be counted. But what practical difference does it make? And what can we do about it?

This time around I’d like to focus a little bit upon democracy. Winston Churchill described it as the worst form of government apart from all the rest. But perhaps it is time to examine carefully and find a better one?

2. To the Death

All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.

Way back around or before the time of the French Revolution Voltaire made his famous pronouncement about disagreeing with a speaker, but defending to the death their right to speak. We’ve come a long way since then, now it seems it isn’t that simple. For example, various countries have laws to outlaw race crimes. These can include incitement to hatred, effectively placing limitations upon what people are allowed to say in public. Then there are defamation and libel laws that also limit what people can say. It is not untrue to say that often free speech is a liberty that only the rich and powerful can afford.

Certainly, large powerful media companies can make free speech difficult. Two recent examples spring easily to mind. Currently, Michael Moore is battling with Disney because Disney are preventing their subsidiary Miramax from distributing Moore’s latest film “Fahrenheit 911”. His film looks at the ‘Saudi Connection’ to the Bush family and the September 11th Twin Towers Attack. Disney will have us believe that they don’t want to distribute a politically controversial film in an election year. What they won’t tell us is that they been touting for funds from a member of the same family investigated by Moore. Click here for more information.

Just before news of this broke there was another case of a company interfering with programming. The Sinclair Broadcasting Group pulled the plug on the April 30th edition of Nightline. The program was to have a list read of all the soldiers who had died in Iraq. Sinclair deemed this to be antiwar propaganda and instructed stations under its control not to air the program.

One can argue that the right of free speech doesn’t necessarily include the right to broadcast it over a network. But such an argument would only make sense if control of what was broadcast remained outside the control of individuals and corporate interests. The Fair reports linked to above give examples of the bias in the output of companies like Disney and Sinclair.

The situation is complex. As Media Lens often points out, the corporate media are quick to dismiss the idea that they are controlled either by their advertisers or their owners. But just because control is seldom direct it does not mean that it is not there. Essentially the structure of the system creates the constraints. Here’s a link to an overview by Noam Chomsky.

One of the points that Chomsky makes is that since the system is essentially hierarchical one doesn’t advance up the hierarchy unless one serves it. The system is essentially selective. So no one needs to tell those advancing up the hierarchy what is permissible and what is not. One simply won’t be successful unless one thinks the right way and accepts the legitimacy of the system.

I’ve recently felt this kind of pressure. A while back I was invited to write Think Tank Articles for ELT News and have been doing so for several months. Recently, however, I was asked to tone down the “political” content of my articles. This was seen as a bludgeoning approach and one that upset the balance of the column as a whole. I wasn’t being kicked out. I was being asked to comply. I was offered the possibility of a separate forum if I “would rather not change my style”.

The editor may well have a vision for the nature and scope of the column as a whole. But this was never given to me before I accepted the job. If such a stipulation had been laid down I’d never have bothered.

There are various issues here, such as how come some people get appointed as experts and their words become weightier. Why does touching on political issues upset the balance of the column and what is the purpose of the column if not to expose people to ideas and views they might never consider, but what I am focusing on now is how structures tend to promote conformity.

I guess my days as an expert at ELT News are numbered

3) Gaian Democracies

Democracy must in essence, therefore, mean the art and science of mobilising the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of all the various sections of the people in the service of the common good of all.

What is democracy, anyway? Is being able to cast a vote once or twice every four or five years really democratic. If it is democratic why is it that the richer are continuing to get richer and the poor poorer? If voting did anything wouldn’t we expect the reverse to be happening? Or are the mass of people just masochistic? Or perhaps they are just constantly misinformed and keep making the wrong choices?

It is certainly true that voting does make a difference to the fates of individual politicians, but to what extent does it really give people creative control over their own lives?

In the book Gaian Democracies Roy Madron and John Jopling maintain that what we understand as democracy now is really a ‘Global Monetocracy’. The system is not designed to deliver justice and sustainability. Rather injustice and unsustainability are ‘emergent properties’ of the system as a whole, the purpose of which is “the continuation of money growth in order to maintain the current debt-based money-system.” Don’t ask me to explain this, I’ve only just started reading the book, but intuitively I feel this is true. I strongly recommend reading this book!

One way I can suggest you test out this idea about maintaining the money system is to start looking at the assumptions embedded in the news headlines. I wrote the introduction to this newsletter last week as the election in India was taking place. The count is in and the BJP coalition has had a shock defeat. But even before the result was out BBC World News was reporting that the result could have an effect upon the Indian economy. But why should that be? If the economy was under real control of the people and the election an expression of the people’s will would one expect such a knock-on effect? It’s precisely because people have so little control that capital can move as it does. And this is taken for granted. It is not questioned.

What is taken for granted, what goes unsaid can tell us quite a lot about the nature of a system.

Another example is provided by ETJ. English Teachers Japan is a national body for teachers in Japan. It has several yahoo lists. Two lists are moderated and one is unmoderated. By their very nature lists require owners and whoever is the owner has power over the list. But any individual owner can still decide whether to exercise that power or not. An owner can allow the group to set its own guidelines and rules. An owner can decide not to use the power that the position of owner gives. When the owner does use the power of the position the response of the other list members gives an indication of what the list members think they are participating in.

It was my assumption that as a National Organisation ETJ would be democratic. However, recently two events occurred that I consider undemocratic. The first was when one member was removed from the unmoderated list for a stinging abusive post. The second was when the ownership of another list was transferred without consulting the membership of that list. What was interesting to me was that there were no comments about the process of either action. They were simply accepted as benevolent actions by the group’s founder. Or rather, because the actions were conducted by the founder they were not given a second thought.

I‘m over-suspicious of the role and necessity of leadership. However, one of the themes of Gaian Democracies is the importance of liberating leaders. A system has a tendency to be self-perpetuating. In a hierarchical society power concentrates at the top. It follows that only if people in leadership positions act in a liberating way will opportunities for change to that society occur. But the liberating leader cannot create the change alone.

One example, of a liberating leader is Mikhail Gorbachev who moved to reform the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. When a coup was organised by the communist old guard thousands of young Russians rose to defend the new structures Gorbachev had implemented. Unfortunately, there is a difference between ‘Social Defence’ strategies and ‘Social Change’ strategies. Despite installing Yelstin into power the Russian activists found themselves betrayed. They had fought the wrong battle.

To reconfigure a meaningful human system Roy Madron and John Jopling state that both a clear purpose and principles to enact that purpose are essential. A clear purpose can be expressed in a single sentence. The sentence should be so powerful that participants can agree that if the purpose is achieved their lives would have meaning.

What purpose would give meaning to your life, and if you teach, what purpose would give and maintain meaning for your teaching? For myself I haven’t formulated it as a sentence yet, but the key, the purpose is freedom.

4) What's New?

An ounce of practice is worth more then tons of preaching.

I’m a long way from redesigning the site but it’s been given a face-lift. Here is a list of new additions. Hope I got them all, my apologies if I repeat anything:

A BLOG!

I've started an online diary describing my experiences at the four preschools I 'teach' at. No-idea if it is of interest, but here's the link.

ARTICLES:

The Only Thing – written for the Winter 2004 Kagan Online Magazine. I reminisce about my time in secondary school and introduce a new Co-operative Learning Structure.

Think Tank (January 2004): It will Pass. Proverbs for Teaching

Think Tank (February 2004): Being Purposeful. Children deserve as much respect as adults do.

Think Tank (April 2004): What Can I Say? The Real World in the Classroom?

Think Tank (May 2004): Democracy in the Classroom

GAMES:

Monster Bingo: Combines Writing and reading practise with board thumping fun!

WORKSHEETS

Both, One, Neither: A pairwork exercise that may lay the groundwork for doing Spot the Difference exercises.

Spot the Difference: An example set including two pictures and a corresponding worksheet

Wordsearch – Magic E: Four Sheets and some thoughts on how to introduce the concept.

5) Democracy as Daily Practise

The first condition of humaneness is a little humility and a little diffidence about the correctness of one's conduct and a little receptiveness.

I cringe when I think about the lack of democracy in my own classrooms. Even that phrase is suspect. I could have written, “in the classrooms where I teach” but that was an after-thought. How is it that democracy is so often an after-thought? One reason, I guess is that we are used to ‘command and control’ classrooms. I guess it is the norm for teachers to control their classrooms and give commands. This goes hand in hand with the ‘empty vessel’ analogy. Students lack knowledge and it is the teacher’s job to provide it.

Of course even if a student’s knowledge of a subject is nil (and this is almost impossibility if the student has chosen the subject) each student has a unique set of experiences and interests. No student is empty and being living and breathing will have at any given time a fluctuating mood and interest. Even the most diligent student may have a low energy level or be distracted or have an equilibrium disrupted by other events. Who is the teacher to make decisions for the student?

One answer is the person with the most wisdom in the room, and when teaching children this is almost always the case. What use is experience if we don’t call on it?

But there is a difference between calling on one’s experience and force-feeding it down another’s throat. I think part of the job of teaching is to help students discover things that they might otherwise miss. I think it is to help students to understand the choices available and weigh up the likely outcomes of those choices. I think it is to help students to find questions and to widen their horizons. Perhaps this sounds like I am talking more about mentoring than teaching. Nothing I’ve mentioned has anything to do with subject-knowledge. Somehow, I think that is of little importance. I mean, if a student has passion for a subject then that student will be able to learn. Too often, though, teachers are put in the position of having to teach students who have no real passion for the subject. Why is this, and why is it acceptable? I guess because on a day to day basis democracy is so little a part of our lives.

If we lived and breathed democracy and choice would compulsory schooling in any way be palatable?

This week an observer will be present in one of my classes. I asked the three children concerned whether it would be OK if another teacher came and watched. They were nonplussed, perhaps because the question was outside their experience. Meanwhile, tomorrow a boy will come and join another class to see what he makes of it. But what about what the existing members make of him? Should students be freely able to join any class without the say-so of the existing class members? Even to raise such a question seems strange, but isn’t it an important one?

A while back I mentioned that I had started to do some fantasy role-playing in with a couple of boys. One of the boys wasn’t keen and so the experimented ended. Last week we had a meeting. I was really unhappy with how the class was going, or rather with the attitude I was perceiving. They would come and do some English with me for five minutes and then chase each other around the table or throw balls at each other or root around in a box and pull out some toys. Even when they sat down with me their focus was poor.

A few times I attempted to join in with them but wasn’t satisfied. They were off in their own world communicating in Japanese and English couldn’t get a look in. I decided that I just didn’t want to participate in the kind of class we had, hence the meeting.

What surprised me was that both had clear ideas about why they wanted to learn English. I had the impression that perhaps they were doing it to please their parents but, while this was a factor, I concluded that it wasn‘t the dominant one.

We decided to create a four-part lesson. In one part we will work on a puppet show. In another we will use a textbook. In a third part we will prepare for taking the Eiken test. The other part will see us playing board games. It remains to be seen how much additional focus this structure will generate.

Of course, the impetus for the meeting came from me, the teacher. I need to figure out a way so that it is clear that everyone has this right. Read this space.

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There is no human institution but has its dangers. The greater the institution, the greater the chances of abuse. Democracy is a great institution and therefore it is liable to be greatly abused. The remedy therefore is not avoidance of democracy but reduction of the possibility of abuse to a minimum.

(Quotes this issue by Mahatma Gandhi)

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