Wise Hat News
14th December 2004, #9
When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.
The darkest day has yet to come. As Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, “the worst is not so long as we can say 'This is the worst'.” Iraq, global warming, nuclear proliferation, oil, election fraud, fundamentalism, genocide. The list is truly dismal. Dark as it is, it can all get worse and probably will. But it can also get better. Dilly-dallying with despondency helps no-one. Despair is a luxury we can learn to live without. Who can afford to be that certain?
Uncertainty is the mother of hopeful action. There's a great piece written by Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States which homes in on this point. Here's a link.
So throw the dice and never say die. This time around I'm going to follow the advice offered in the Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen song, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive. No messing with Mr In-Between!
Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
At the end of last month I found myself once more giving a presentation on avoiding competitive games for language learning. It seems like I've been giving this presentation forever. I think issues of democracy in the classroom are even more important. But then, I'm still unsatisfied with where I am on this, and looking at co-operation seems to be where more people are at.
During the presentation I used Co-operative Bingo. Rather than individuals trying to get bingo alone with co-operative bingo players must work together. One very pertinent questioner asked if in large classes where people divided into groups each with their own board whether they might see this as a competition – teams racing to get a bingo first.
This is certainly possible, and in a classroom where competitive games are the norm, more than likely. Structure, alone, is not sufficient. It is always possible to inject a competitive attitude into the most co-operative of situations. This is sometimes used as a reason to dismiss the importance of structure all together. For instance, one argument that was once put to me used the example of an orchestra. An orchestra works together but within the orchestra players may end up competing over who gets first position. Conversely, a game like ice hockey is extremely aggressive and competitive but the team that co-operates together the best will most likely win. In other words, because competition and co-operation can be found in any given situation, so using co-operative structures is pointless.
Of course an immediate response is to actually look closely at structure. An orchestra is pretty hierarchical and has scarcity built into its structure. The First Symphonic Assemble formed in 1922 in the USSR actually tried to work without a conductor and did so for a number of years, which in a way was trying to defy the structure of the orchestra without really changing it. Similarly, to claim that there is no really difference between competitive team games and co-operative games because there are teams is really to say that competition is indefinable. It ignores the real differences structures do create.
And it is important to realise that structures are somewhat like boxes. A game has a structure, a classroom has one, as does a school. A non-competitive game used in a competitive classroom will feel different to when played in a co-operative classroom. Cause and Effect?
Having spent years creating both competitive and co-operative games I am clear that there is a difference. Once we are asked to win, once we are asked to beat other players the whole experience changes. There is a very simple experiment to confirm this. Just try playing a competitive game with children and focus on winning. Then try playing the same game but instead focus on co-operation even if this means going against the rules. I'm sure the co-operative way will be more enjoyable for the children.
Yes, it is possible to play co-operative games in a competitive way, but if a person did so I think the other players would want to know what was up. Having observed groups who are used to playing co-operatively the idea of deliberately injecting competition just doesn't appeal. It detracts rather than adds to the enjoyment. Actually, I've never had groups of children racing to compete to get the first bingo. Perhaps that is because if I do keep track of the score I focus on the total number of bingos made by the class. Back to structure again.
In a way co-operative structures tend to expose the rigidity of competition. As Spencer Kagan has written, “Children don't play co-operative games, they obey them.”
Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.
One thing that can be said about the neo-conservatives is that they are insistent. They never let reality get in the way of invention. Or perhaps it's the other way around. They keep inventing until they create a reality to their liking. Truth doesn't enter into it. As big H wrote, if you are going to tell a lie make it a whopper.
There's more than some concern that the United States is slipping into fascism. George Monbiot, a regular for the British newspaper The Guardian, disagrees. In a recent article Religion of the Rich he points out that fascism usually relies on “hysterical popular excitement” and that President Bush hasn't exactly created this. Rather than fascism, George Monbiot argues that the correct ideology to look at is Puritanism. With Puritanism making money became respectable. Amassing wealth became a kind of Christian duty and conversely it allowed the poor to be dismissed as slothful and undeserving. It was the perfect theology for capitalism.
I think the argument is an interesting one, though I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the arguments about fascism. Political scientist, Dr. Lawrence Britt, identified 14 indicators of fascism and the government of George W. Bush follows the flag with all of them. For the details see here or here
One point George Monbiot concedes is that originally Puritanism was focused on production rather than consumption. He suggests both are the symptoms of the same disease, which defines the world as something not to be enjoyed but conquered. Doesn't sound very different from fascism to me. But I agree the root is the same. It's what historian A. J. P. Taylor described as “guns and butter” and what novelist, Daniel Quinn calls, “Taker Society”. It's the idea that everything can be controlled and either subjugated or destroyed. It's social Darwinism. It's rampant individualism. It's winner take all. It's mutually exclusive goal attainment. It's competition.
Eliminating competition from the classroom is probably the most important thing I've learnt since I began teaching children. When I first began I used competitive games without question. I was like a goldfish swimming in circles unable to see the glass bowl I swam in. Now I'm out in the open sea charting unknown waters. Pretty good for a goldfish! But actually one of my adult students who teaches English at a cram school asked me the other day how to be creative and writing this as I sip champagne I realise that it's because I am no longer in that bowl – I've learnt how to look at things in more than one way and that means I have more choice. By making comparisons I can generate alternatives and this can serve to help me create new game ideas. It works for me.
There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.
When I spoke to my father recently about competition he reminded me about cricket. He said that watching Test Match cricket was one of life's pleasures. That the enjoyment came from watching very skilful people compete.
Sometimes I do wonder whether it might be possible to create a non-competitive sport that was as skilful and artistic as cricket. Cricket, in itself, does not invalidate the argument about removing competition from the classroom.
I think that if society were truly democratic and egalitarian that new forms of social activity would arise. Whether an interest in cricket or football would survive is another matter. I certainly don't hold with the notion of banning competitive sport or preventing children learning such sports. My father and I definitely agreed that the central question is one of choice. All too often children are given no genuine choice at all and this is usually the case in school.
I think if education was genuinely about the needs of children then we would begin by eliminating all notions of standards. In the United States there is the “No Child Left behind Act”. In Britain there is OFSTED (The Office for Standards in Education). The talk in both countries is about standards. As if genuine learning is something that can be graded like meat hanging in an abattoir.
The whole focus on standards has nothing to do with the rights of the child or even children's well being. It is much more to do creating a productive workforce, and supporting the needs of business. It is much more to do with so called market demands. It is much more to do with being competitive.
In my vision for education there would be learning resource centres where children could access resources if they wanted to. And not just children. Learning isn't something we stop doing once we quit school. Learning is one way of expressing being human. It is a human joy and a human right. Or it should be.
Some people will argue that it would cost too much. Well, for a start we could stop spending money on killing people. If we'd quit that competition we'd find we had wealth to spare.
Everyone who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.
The whole site has changed! I've completely redesigned it. There is now a search facility though a lot of pages are offline at the moment. There is a new menu system. There is a lot more randomness and juxtaposition. We'll see how that progresses.
There's one completely new page:
Snow Escape: This is a winter version of Out of the Depths, the game I use to introduce non-competitive games when I present on competition and co-operation. I had a request for it recently and promised to put a copy online.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
I had a couple of very interesting comments after my last newsletter. Here they are in full:
Thank you for your thought provoking articles on democracy and free speech.
I don't normally read your articles because they are too liberal based. I have just a few comments I would like you to consider.
I have been practicing Buddhism now for some 20 years. One thing I have learned is that real change in society comes from within. It has to start with each person. I believe that the world is in the mess it is in because of people and the belief that individual freedoms are more important than society itself. Instead of looking after society as politicians are supposed to do, they look after themselves or only their group instead of looking out for what is best for the society as a whole. You can look at businesses the same way. If you look at the kanji character for business, it has a profound philosophical meaning. It means to stand between consumer and producer and work for society so that you can eat. Where many businesses fail is to work for society. They are only looking out for themselves.
This idea of personal freedoms also reaches down to the individual. Your examples of what you feel free speech should be are individualistic in nature. Is it really OK to express a view if it causes so much hurt and hate in society? The laws of defamation and libel were enacted by people because people have abused the right for free speech and have distorted what the idea of real free speech is.
I haven't read your articles in ELT. However, if the editors felt that your articles were becoming too political in nature then you should learn something from what they are telling you. I believe in teaching English purely to teach. I do not believe that teachers should teach their agendas in their classrooms. I don't believe that political messages are correct in a classroom and maybe your editors felt that political messages in an English teaching journal were not appropriate to the goals of English teaching in general.
Your quote of Gandhi is very appropriate.
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)
The abuse I believe he is talking about is individualistic in nature.
Abuse comes from people taking advantage of the system. Lawyers are the best at this, and most of the politicians are lawyers are they not? To use or abuse the system for one's gain is not working for society. Society doesn't work for us, we must work for society. At least that is the message I have learned from what I have been practicing. As individuals, we have to stop thinking only about ourselves, what is best for us, and start thinking of others, what is best for others.
I look forward to reading your insightful articles. I love your ingenious observations and fresh viewpoint. Perhaps it helps that I agree with you on so many points. Your latest mailing was an exception to the rule, and since your wheels are squeaking, though I am usually silent, it's time to pull out the grease.
Adam Smith wrote: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." In this statement Smith outlined the fundamental motivating factor behind our actions. Most of us don't want to see the truth here. We do not want to think of ourselves as self-serving beings. We honor people like Mother Theresa and hold self-sacrifice in high esteem and we'd like to think a "balanced system" can be formed. We don't want to accept a system which says that we are greedy. I assert that the only fair economic system is Adam Smith's Capitalism and that the "balance" between greed and charity which most people feel must be formed on an individual basis.
Chris, I disagree with your statements from the last issue, because they fail to take this foundation of human behavior into account. You said "HAVA stands for Help America Vote Act. The voters who will loose their votes are black." I have never heard of HAVA, but I am willing to bet that this statement is not literally true. I believe you overstating the problem. I believe you are either overstating the loss of voting power or overstating the racial composition of those affected. I seriously doubt that a law which completely strips the voting privilege from one million black Americans without affecting anyone else has been passed.
You also said, "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." Wonderful! Good for South Africa! Wow, where would the 60 % of the South African population be without those 13.6%? If it were not for those "marching corporations" South Africa would be in a situation similar to so many other countries in Africa. Other nations in Africa dream about having only 40% of their populations impoverished! What percentage of Somali arable land is owned by capitalists? Not enough to get them up to 60% over the poverty line. Don't blame the locomotive because the train is moving too slowly, there are 99 other cars which you should blame first.
Dutch with capitalist ideas settled in (or invaded, if you prefer) South Africa long ago. True, they exploited native populations in order to build an industry and I am not advocating this sort of behavior today, but the African National Congress in South Africa today has inherited the fruits of their forefather's labor and the capitalists' initiative.
In the U.S. today many black people still feel that white people owe them something, even if it is just an apology, for slavery. This feeling has prevented them from embracing capitalism and taking advantage of the fruits of their forefather's labor. It is a shame that people focus so much on the crimes of the past and so little on the opportunities of the present.
You also said, "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."
Outside the control of individuals and corporate interests? Then who can control broadcasting? If not under the control of an individual or a group, then who? I'd love to see a "Wise Hat Network." It would be so entertaining and thought-provoking, but then Chris Hunt would be controlling broadcasts. What if you formed a non-profit organization, but then it would be a corporate interest! The individuals and corporations who buy their space on the airwaves invested a lot of money - not usually in hopes of advancing an agenda - but in hopes of making more money. If they stopped producing the kind of programming that most people want to view then they will fail to achieve their profit goal. They would go out of business. If you don't like the decisions they make then you can choose not to participate, but why should you be able to decide what does and doesn't get shown?
I like to listen to National Public Radio. I find it more thought-provoking than the kind of programming which most people like. However, these programs are not self-supporting. They are funded by government grants and listener and corporate contributions. They are also very biased against capitalism and corporations (though they do not ruffle the feathers of those corporations that fund them).
You are promoting democracy, but the free-market is the truest democracy civilization has ever known. The majority may make bad decisions, (Iraq war support, SUVs, Prime-time TV, etc.) but if not the majority, then who? A benevolent representative government? I don't think so. A benevolent king? Probably not. A benevolent... NO. Forget about benevolent leadership (like your quote from Gandhi). Live in a society where the engines are not derided but honored, a society where those who are dependent seek to become independent for material gain. The society should allow everyone a fair chance to make a living without pining over those who choose not to work for their own betterment. Individuals should be charitable to those who do.
Don't you agree, Chris? Is there something you are seeing that I do not? If you have time let me know what you think.
Thanks for the interesting articles,
I won't burden this newsletter with the replies I wrote. Perhaps I should create a webpage for correspondence, or perhaps it would be a good idea to start an online forum. Possibly a good idea to do both.
What I find interesting is the degree of convergence in the two letters. Unless I misunderstand, both suggest that answers to the world's problems lie with the individual. True, the second letter suggests we look out for ourselves where as the first letter suggests that we focus less on ourselves and more on society, but the focus is the same.
To borrow from Taoism somehow I feel there is too much Yang here and not enough Ying. I do think that individual attitude and action is important. But it is not enough. There is the goldfish bowl and the sea. There is the prison and there is the commons. There is structure to human society and the structures we accept affect the results we get. More on this next time.
Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes.
Last issue I wrote about free speech and how I had been asked to tone down the “political” content of my contributions for the ELT News Think Tank column. At first I wasn't sure how to respond but eventually decided to write an open letter to the other panelists and get their opinion. I figured we were a group and I didn't want to step on anybody's toes. The response was very uplifting – basically I was told to get on with it. In the end the whole exchange of emails was published as a column – a very enlightened approach by the editor which I'd like to take up by offering you the chance to have your say about Wise Hat News.
To coincide with the new look at Wise Hat I've created a mini survey. If you'd like to influence the size, shape and direction of this newsletter please use this link and fill out the formPerhaps democracy is a journey of 1000 steps, taken one at a time. Regardless of whether you respond to the survey take one step today and start observing just how much choice you and the people around you have and just how much control is taken for granted.
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The aim of life is self-development. To realise one's nature perfectly - that is what each of us is here for.
(Quotes this issue by Oscar Wilde)