Thursday, September 25, 2008


"It's exactly the same as every other shopping mall on earth!" exclaim punters.

"Buy stuff! Buy stuff! We get to buy stuff!"

Making eight in all.

Solving the obesity crisis one cake at a time

I don't think all my ties cost £65

Exciting new House of Fraser department store

Exciting empty building where House of Fraser department store used to be

All her merchants stand with wonder,
What is this that comes to pass:
Murm'ring like the distant thunder,
Crying, "Oh alas, alas."
Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles,
Priest and people, rich and poor;
Babylon is fallen
is fallen
is fallen
Babylon is fallen
to rise no more.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This really isn't complicated.

Spider-Man is a hero who fights baddies. He can carry on having adventures as long as the writers can think up baddies for him to fight. You might think that no-one ever wrote and drew Spider-Man as well as Ditko and Lee did (and frankly, if you don't think that, then I don't want to be your friend any more) but the idea of "Spider-Man stories by people other than Ditko and Lee" isn't intrinsically silly.

Similarly, once one person has had the idea of a sophisticated English assassin who hates Russians and likes martinis, it isn't intrinsically silly for a second person to invent new adventures for him.
It may be intrinsically stupid to suppose that he can continue to exist into the 21st century without getting any older, or suddenly turn into a black man, but that's not the question I'm worrying about at the moment.

And a clever modern detective story writer might conceivably be able to think up decent new mysteries for Sherlock Holmes
to solve, although it isn't quite clear why they would want to. If you've got an idea for a mystery that's worth solving, why not let your own detective solve it?

Going back to comics, were I in a magnanimous mood, I might concede that there have been one or two
episodes of the Fantastic Four since 1970 which haven't been a complete waste of space. Before everyone jumps up and down shouting "John Byrne, John Byrne", I will note that Mr. Byrne's cleverness was in being as close to Mr. Kirby and Mr. Lee as it is physically possible to be, making his comics arguably pastiches and arguably redundant, even if they are quite enjoyable redundant pastiches. But surely it was Jack Kirby's uniquely deranged concepts, embellished by Stan lee's uniquely overdone writing, that made the Fantastic Four the Fantastic Four and once you take away Mr Kirby's stories and pictures and Mr Lee's dialogue, what you are left with is four not particularly interesting adventures.

But things like The New Gods
(I'm looking at YOU Jim Starlin even though my fourteen year old self thought Warlock was profound) and The Eternals (you should be ashamed of yourself, Neil Gaiman, ashamed) derive all of their interest from being "a slice of what it feels like to be Jack Kirby in graphic form". Nothing that has been done with those characters by people other than Jack has had anything to do with the source material, and very little of it has had any merit on its own terms. (I believe that people who know about these things think that Darksied was once well-used as a villain in the Legion of Superheroes.)

But if you wanted to come up with the clearest possible example of a work of fiction whose whole interest comes from the original writer's cock-eyed way of looking at the world; whose whole interest is in being "the universe as seen through the eyes of..." then it would be The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (If you wanted to come up with the second clearest possible example, it would be The Prisoner.) I am not saying that a story by A.N Other writer in which there happen to be characters called Ford, Arthur and Zaphod would be a travesty, or the equivalent of weeing on Douglas Adams grave or that they would somehow damage the original books.

The original books - and more importantly, the original 3-7 hours of radio footage - exist, and will always exist, as a snapshot of what 1970s earth looked like through the eyes of a particularly clever and silly man.

But still. A non-Adamsian sequel to Hitchhiker is a preposterously stupid idea.

Don't do it, guys. You'll regret it in the morning.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

When the pistols were ready, Blackbeard blew out the candle and crossing his hands discharged them at his company: Hands, the master, was shot through the knew and lamed for life, the other pistol did no execution. Being asked for the meaning of this, he only answered, by damning them:

"If I did not now and then kill one of you, you would forget who I was!"

Being one day at sea, and a little flushed with drink

"Come" he says "Let us make a Hell of our own and try how long we can bare it"

Accordingly he, with two or three others, went down into the hold, and closing up all the hatches, filled several pots full of brimstone, and other combustible matter, and set it on fire, and so continued till they were almost suffocated, when some of the men cried out for air, at length he opened the hatches, not a little pleased that he held out the longest.

The night before he was of Blackbeard's men asked whether his wife knew where he had buried his money. He answered:

"Nobody but myself and the devil knows where it is, and the longest liver shall take all!"

happy September 19th

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Is "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" by C.S Lewis a critique of American education?

1: Summary

2: Chronology

3: Education in the 1950s

4: English Education or American Education?

5: The Provenance of the Preface

6: English English or American English?

7: Lewis on English Education

8: All Must Have Prizes

9: Conclusion: Lack Thereof

1: Summary


2: Chronology

1941, May-Nov: 'The Screwtape Letters' published as a column in The Guardian (UK religious weekly)

1942: Collected edition of The Screwtape Letters by C.S Lewis published.

1943, Jun: The Norwood Report recommends the introduction of Grammar Schools and the 'eleven plus' exam.

1943, Aug: 'Equality' by C.S Lewis published in The Spectator (UK)

1944, Feb: 'Is English Doomed' by C.S Lewis published in The Spectator (UK)

1944, Mar: 'The Parthenon and the Optative' by C.S Lewis published in Time and Tide (UK)

1944, Apr: 'Democratic Education' by C.S Lewis published in in Time and Tide (UK)

1944, Aug: Butler education act, reforming English education in line with the Norwood Report, becomes law

1959, Dec: Publication of 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast' by C.S Lewis in the Saturday Evening Post (US)

1960: Toast reprinted in 'The World's Last Night' and Other Essays' (US)

1961: Toast reprinted in 'The Screwtape Letters' and 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast' (UK)

1963: Death of C.S Lewis

1964: Incoming Labour government states intention to abolish the eleven plus and introduce Comprehensive schools

1965: Toast reprinted in 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast' and Other Pieces (UK)

1982: Toast reprinted in 'The Screwtape Letters' With 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast' (US)

3: Education in the 1950s

In 1944, English education experienced one of its periodic shake-ups. The school leaving age was raised to 15 (astonishingly, it was not officially raised to 16 until 1972) and secondary schools were restructured in accordance with the recommendations of the Norwood Report. Sir Cyril Norwood, former headmaster of Harrow, believed that there were three different types of mind: those which could deal with pure ideas; those which wanted to apply those ideas; and those which worked more slowly and preferred to deal in facts and the concrete. Owners of these three types of mind obviously required different kinds of education, so the Norwood Report proposed the creation of three new kinds of schools. Grammar Schools would teach traditional academic subjects; Technical Schools would teach arts and applied sciences; Secondary Moderns would teach a more practical syllabus. In the absence of a magic hat, children were to be sorted into the three groups on the basis of an objective intelligence test administered in their final year of primary school: the Eleven Plus.

Astonishingly, this system didn't work terribly well. For one thing, the Eleven Plus exam was based on the probably debunked and possibly fraudulent theories of Cyril Burt. In the second place, very few Technical Schools were ever opened: the system ended up simply splitting eleven-year-olds into the 'clever' and the 'not so clever'. Thirdly, one's chance of getting into a Grammar school depended entirely on how many places were available in a given town: if the school took 200 kids, then the kid with the 201st best mark had blown his chance of having an academic education. Fourthly, and contrary to Sir Cyril's ideals, the Moderns were never as well resourced as the Grammars: the less clever children did not get a different kind of education, but a worse education, in worse schools, with worse teachers. Fifthly, the whole thing ran aground on the rocks of the British class system: when an entirely objective exam was set by middle class psychologists, marked by middle class teachers and administered by middle class civil servants, the children of middle class parents astonishingly and inexplicably turned out to be the ones with the right kinds of minds for the Grammar Schools. Sixthly – and again, contrary to the original idealistic plans the system failed to take into account the possibility that someone could develop intellectually after the age off 11, or indeed, that one might be rather good at French but terrible at Maths. And seventhly, although Norwood believed that his three types of children were equal but different; and that his three kinds of schools should have 'parity of esteem', parents, children and especially primary school teachers came to regard the Eleven Plus as a 'scholarship' which you won a book or a bicycle for 'passing'. Students who, by hypothesis, had the kinds of minds which were better at dealing with concrete facts than with abstract ideas found themselves labelled as 'failures' before their twelfth birthday.

In 1964 the incoming Labour government declared that the Eleven Plus system had failed and that it should be replaced by a Comprehensive system, whereby every child in a particular area, regardless of ability, went to the same school. But due to the complicated balkanization of English education, the old system lingers on in a few parts of the country, where it is allegedly very popular. Whenever anyone suggests that the Comprehensive system be made universal, the cry goes up from Middle England: 'Save Our Secondary Moderns!'

4: Education in 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast'

In 1959, an addition to C.S Lewis's famous Screwtape Letters was published in the U.S magazine The Saturday Evening Post. Where the original letters are about individual morality, the Toast is a social satire. The Devils (who are imagined to feast on the souls of the damned) are disappointed by the low quality of the souls they are getting; but Screwtape points out that they are getting them in great numbers. This glut of low quality souls has, he says, come about through confusing the humans about the term 'democracy'. Although it really only refers to a system of government, it has become bound up with the obvious falsity that everyone is equal, with the happy result that inferior humans say to superior ones 'I'm as good as you!' (which they don't believe) and superior ones actually try to disguise their cleverness – or else become prigs and fanatics. Screwtape points out several methods which the devils have used to bring this about: education, philosophy, the worship of celebrities. He foresees a time when that this love of egalitarianism will have made the 'democracies' so mediocre that they'll be swept aside by Communism. However, mediocre as all these damned souls may be, there is still one source of truly first class sinners – namely, the hypocrites in the Christian Church!

The section on education takes up just less than two pages of a 17 page essay. Screwtape says that the spirit of 'I'm as good as you' makes humans reluctant to allow weak students to feel inferior to able ones. This may have the following results:

1: Everyone will be allowed to go to university, whether they are clever enough or not.

2: Everyone who goes to university will be allowed to pass their exams.

3: Special subjects will be invented so that stupid school children have something to excel at and the pretence will be maintained that these made up subjects are just as good as the real ones.

4: Perhaps children may even be grouped by age rather than ability, so that those fluent in ancient Greek and classical Italian will be held back by the ones who can't read simple English.

5: This will result in 'the abolition of education' – because they'll be no incentive to learn and no disincentive to ignorance. (Humans may even actively prevent the clever ones from learning, the better to maintain the illusion of 'democracy'.)

6: This will apply to everyone, since a socialistic state will monopolize education, and will in any case tax people so hard that they couldn't afford to send their children to private schools even if they want to.

Clearly, this is a social satire: a massively, and comically exaggerated picture of what could happen if certain trends were carried to their logical conclusion.

4: English Education or American Education?

Screwtape prefaces his remarks with the following words:

'My own experience was mainly on the English sector and I still get more news from it than from any other. It may be that what I am now going to say will not apply so fully to the sectors in which some of you may be operating. But you can make the necessary adjustments when you get there. Some application it will almost certainly have. If it is has too little, you must labour to make the country you are dealing with more like what England already is.'

On the surface, this seems pretty clear. Lewis is a British writer, writing for an American audience. So he adds, in Screwtape's persona: 'I only know about England: it's for you to judge whether what I'm saying also holds true in your country. If not, be careful that it doesn't ever become so.'

However, in a preface to the Toast first published in 1982, Lewis says that the opposite is the case. He is really talking about American education; but since he felt it would be bad manners for an Englishman to criticize America in an American paper, he pretends he's talking about England:

'I resorted to a further level of irony. Screwtape is in fact describing American education; he affects to be holding English education up as the awful example. The most intelligent of my American readers would, I hoped, see the game I was playing and enjoy the joke....'

This is surely a rather peculiar approach. An Englishman, fearing that America was going to be overrun by Communism as a result of its terrible obsession with baseball might, I suppose, write a comical piece describing the terrible English obsession with cricket, and adding: 'I don't know if anything similar is happening in your country. You'll have to tell me.' But it would be rather odd to come along three years later and say 'Oh, and by the way, I was really talking about baseball all the time': particularly if the majority of what you had to say about 'cricket' (meaning baseball) turned out to be things which were, in fact, perfectly fair comments about cricket itself. It would be even odder to reveal that cricket means baseball in the preface to an English edition of the satire.

5: The Provenance of the Preface

At the last count, there were four different Screwtape prefaces:

1941: The original preface to the Screwtape Letters ('I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands.') (Hereafter 'P1'.)

1961: The preface to the combined UK edition of the letters and the Toast ('It was during the second German war that the letters of Screwtape first appeared in (now extinct) The Guardian.') (P2.)

1965: Brief preface to the Toast in the UK collection Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces. This is in fact an excerpt from P2 ('I was often asked or advised to add to the original Screwtape Letters'). Nothing in the text indicates that this is an excerpt from a longer piece, although it is in no sense taken out of context or misrepresented. (P2a )

1982: New preface to the Toast, in the US combined Screwtape Letters With Screwtape Proposes a Toast. (P3)

In a brief note to the 1982 edition someone – presumably Lewis's editor and acolyte Walter Hooper states that:

'This critique of American education was written in 1962 as a preface to a collection of which the Toast was to be the title essay. After Lewis died, his publisher gave the book a new form, one result of which was that Lewis's preface was lost. Now recovered, it is published here for the first time.'

However, in his 1974 biography of Lewis, Hooper had stated that in 1962:

'Lewis was putting together another volume which was to be called A Slip of The Tongue and Other Pieces. which did not appear until 2 years after his death, shorn of his Preface and of two essays – "Historicism" and "The Vision of John Bunyan"– and renamed Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces.'

And Hooper's 1991 bibliography contains the following rather cryptic and carefully worded paragraph. The 1982 combined edition:

'contains a hitherto unpublished piece by C.S Lewis, which here serves as a Preface to "Screwtape Proposes A Toast".'

In summary, Hooper has at different times made the following statements:

1974: In 1962 Lewis wrote a preface to a book that would have been called A Slip of the Tongue, but it was renamed Screwtape Proposes a Toast and the preface was dropped.

1982: In 1962 Lewis wrote a preface to a book which would have been called Screwtape Proposes a Toast but the preface was dropped when the 'form' of the book change.

1991: A 'piece' from 1962 'serves as' the preface to the Toast in the 1982 combined volume.

It's stuff like this that makes studying Lewis's minor works such fun, and by 'fun' I mean 'like hitting your head repeatedly against a brick wall'.

P2a (the excerpt) and P3 (the diatribe against American schools) both run to around 500 words - a page and a half. P3 would have fitted neatly into the 1965 Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces without any changes to the typesetting of the rest of the book. Therefore a change to the form of the book cannot possibly explain the absence of P3. If Hooper is correct when he says that Lewis wrote P3 for what became the 1965 UK collection, it follows that the editor rejected the new piece, and replaced it with a previously published excerpt of exactly the same length. Why was P3 rejected? How did this result in its being lost? And how and when was it recovered?

Answer: we don't know.

One possible explanation is that it was rejected because it had never existed in the first place. According to Kathryn Lindskoog, whose facts are generally accurate even if her conclusions tend towards the lunatick, says that while P3 is dated to 1962, the publishers did not have sight of it until 1965 (three years after Lewis died). She further claims that three versions of the piece – two typescripts and one handwritten were deposited in the Bodlien by Hooper between 1974 and 1980. That is: we have only Hooper's word that it was intended for what became the 1965 edition; and indeed, only Hooper's word for the provenance of the three MSS. If you give any credence at all to Lindskoog's conspiracy theory about Hooper having forged some of Lewis's posthumous work, this information would be very worrying.

Lindskoog points to the style and quality of the preface, suggesting that some of the phrases 'don't sound like Lewis.' I agree: I doubt that Lewis would have written 'without distinction of race, colour, class and religion'. Since I also think that writers often produce inferior work, particularly when they are seriously ill and, as it turns out, have less than 18 months to live, I don't attach much significance to this doubt. I'm much more worried that the preface seems to be written by someone who has either not read, or not understood, the essay it's attached to.

The authors of the preface thinks that the main subject of the Toast is education. It isn't: it's democracy and equality. Screwtape thinks that the true meaning of democracy is 'a system of voting'. Lewis agreed. In this true sense, Screwtape dislikes democracy:

'Like all forms of government it often works to our advantage, but on the whole less often than other forms.'

(Surely an echo of Churchill's 'Democracy is the worst system of government, apart from all the others.') But the meaning that he, the Devil, wishes to attach to the word is 'I'm as good as you' artificial egalitarianism. Lewis in the Toast is careful to distinguish between the two usages: Screwtape talks about democracy 'in the incantatory sense' and in the 'diabolical' sense. But the author of the preface uses 'democracy' as if it meant 'equality': it is good for education to be democratic in the sense that it is available to everyone regardless of race or religion. And more bizarrely, he writes that some less clever American readers might take his irony literally and think that 'democratic education (in the true sense) had gone further in England' than it had in America. This only makes sense on the assumption that 'true' is a slip of the pen for 'diabolical'.

6: English English or American English?

The text of 1982 (US) version of 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast' differs slightly from the 1965 (UK) version.

UK 'Here is a fellow who says he doesn't like hot dogs. Thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here's a man who hasn't turned on the jukebox – he must be one of those highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were the right sort of chaps they'd be like me.'

US 'Here is a fellow who says he doesn't like hot dogs. Thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here's a man who hasn't turned on the jukebox – he must be one of those goddam highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they'd be like me.'

Now, there is nothing particularly surprising about a writer suiting his language to his audience; and nothing particularly surprising about an editor gently changing a writer's words to make them fit in with the house style of their paper. In the essay 'The Seeing Eye', Lewis remarks that Christianity is cheaper than psychoanalysis 'in dollars' (rather than 'pounds'). In 'Rejoinder to Dr Pittinger' he asks the American liberal theologian how he would set about converting the 'storekeepers, realtors and morticians' (rather than 'shopkeepers, estate agents, and undertakers') in his own city.

So, who is editing who? Did Lewis write 'highbrows' and an American editor change it to 'goddam highbrows'? If Lewis himself wrote 'goddam', was it he, or a British editor, who deleted it for the UK edition?

Answer: we don't know.

The editing, in either direction, hasn't been done very consistently. Rather British sounding phrases like 'la-di-dah' and 'municipal authority' are retained in the American edition. And while I realise that people had probably had the idea of putting sausages between pieces of bread even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, I think that most English people think that 'hot dogs' are a characteristically American food. In the original Letters, when Lewis wanted an example of a rather lower class, unpretentious meal that an honest to god all right Joe might like, he used 'Tripe and Onions'. Is it possible that in the Toast he might have written 'Here is a fellow who says he doesn't like tripe and onions; if he were the right sort of chap he'd be like me'; that a US editor changed it to 'doesn't like hot dogs, if he was an honest-to-god all-right-joe'; and that a subsequent UK editor dropped 'honest to god' but left in the self-consciously American 'hot dog'?

I certainly can't believe that Lewis would ever have written 'the scholar never says it to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum.' That simply isn't what the word 'bum' means in English English. (The thrice sainted Mrs. Mary Whitehouse still, in the 1960s, regarded it as a Very Rude Word.) And it is very hard to believe that Lewis would have allowed Screwtape to use the words 'god' (twice) and 'damn' in this context. Screwtape calls god 'The Enemy'. Damnation is, from his point of view, a good thing. If Lewis had intended the devil to swear, wouldn't he have made up some funny inversion like 'dishonest-to-Satan'?

I do not think that a single one of these changes affects the tone or the meaning of the piece to any significant degree. But it is extremely interesting that someone – Hooper, the 1965 editor, the Saturday Evening Post sub, or Lewis himself has at some time fiddled with the piece to make it sound either more (or less) American.

7: Lewis on English Education

In the year before the Butler Act became law, Lewis wrote four essays which cover substantially the same ground as the Toast.

'The Parthenon and the Optative' and 'Is English Doomed' are explicitly critiques of the Norwood report – which contained the bonkers recommendation that English Literature should be taught but not examined in schools, and that there was no need for specialist English teachers. Lewis gruffly explains that if there were neither examinations nor teachers, then all the university English departments would close and the subject would cease to exist. (It is of passing interest that Lewis felt that a system that was going to divide children into Philosopher Kings, Artisans and Slaves would also result in the banishment of the poets. Truly, it is all in Plato.) 'Equality' makes out the case that legal democracy (a good thing) should not be confused with actual equality (an obvious falsehood). He uses some of the same language that Screwtape is going to use in the Toast: 'Every intrusion of the spirit that says "I'm as good as you" into our spiritual life is to be resisted. '

But the important essay for our purposes is 'Democratic Education', published in 'Time and Tide' in April 1944. The essay begins:

'Democratic education says Aristotle, ought to mean, not the education which democrats like, but the education which can preserve democracy'

Screwtape has also studied Greats:

'Nor, of course, must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle's question: whether "democratic behaviour" means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy.'

Lewis says that a system in which clever 'boys' were given no advantage over stupid ones, or hard working 'boys' over lazy ones, would in one sense be 'democratic', but that a society organized in that way wouldn't survive for very long. Screwtape also predicted that the 'democracies' which encouraged mediocrity would soon fall to Communism. Lewis admits that 'such total egalitarianism has not yet been openly recommended' but thinks that we, the English, have begun to move in that direction. He affects to believe that the reason that Latin has ceased to be compulsory in most schools is that it's the kind of subject that some 'boys' excel at and some do badly at: he claims (on the basis of 'a letter in one of the papers') that maths may soon cease to be taught for the same reason.

He says that if this approach were to be applied consistently:

'Even the boy who can't or won't learn his alphabet can be praised and petted for something – handicrafts or gymnastics; moral leadership or deportment; citizenship or the care of guinea pigs... Then no boys, and no boys' parents need feel inferior.'

Now: this is not what he thinks is happening. It is a reducto absurdium of what would happen if the logic which has banished Latin were applied consistently. It is, of course, almost word for word what Screwtape says:

'The children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing the things that children used to do in their spare time. Let them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the expression – "parity of esteem." '

Again, Screwtape does not claim that this has happened: only that he hopes that it will.

'How far operations there have gone at the present moment, I should not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially, as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers are not to be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils.'

As we've seen, it was the Norwood Report that said that Secondary Modern Schools and Grammar Schools should have 'parity of esteem'. Lewis's supposed attack on the American system of education is based on things which haven't happened yet: his one concrete example of something which has already happened is taken from the English system.

Lewis is very clear about what makes the 'boy' who is making mud pies different from the 'boy' who is reading The Divine Comedy:

'In drawing up the curriculum one should always have chiefly in view the interests of the boys who wants to know and who can known. (With very few exceptions they are the same boy. The stupid boy, nearly always, is the boy who does not want to know.)

Similarly. in 'The Parthenon and the Optative' he argues that it is much better to teach difficult grammar than vague literary appreciation: even if some 'boys' don't understand the grammar:

'When the first [kind of education] fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn't care for knowledge, but he knows he doesn't care for it and he knows he hasn't got it.'

Similarly, in 'Democratic Education', he thinks that it is positively to the advantage of the dull 'boy' to sit in the back of Latin classes that he doesn't understand, not paying attention and sometimes getting into trouble:

'This priceless benefit he will enjoy: he will know he's not clever.'

It is also to the advantage of society, because boys who know they are not clever are pillars of democracy in the true, elective sense, but don't run away with any ideas about democracy in the bad, egalitarian sense.

'A mild pleasure in ragging [=fooling around in class]; a determination not to be much interfered with is...a valuable curb on the meddlesome of minor officials: envy, bleating "I'm as good as you" is the hotbed of fascism.'

'Democratic Education' (definitely about England) and 'Screwtape Proposes a Toast' (allegedly about America) both present grotesquely exaggerated pictures of what would happen if a particular tendency which Lewis has observed were extended to it's logical conclusion. They resemble the technique used in The Abolition of Man in which it is shown that if we applied the teachings of a particular English text book consistently, it would result in the destruction of the human race. ('The Abolition of Education' would be a good sub-title for the Toast. So, come to think of it, would 'Democratic Education'.) In case we miss the point, there is one reform which even Screwtape admits is far-fetched:

'An even more drastic scheme is not impossible: children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back because the others would get a trauma – Beelzebub, what a useful word! - by being left behind.'

This 'even more drastic scheme' which Screwtape thinks may possibly happen one day is, of course, the one in force in Lewis's time: English schools have always been organized by age, rather than ability. (Am I right in thinking that the American system is more likely to advance a clever child into a higher 'Grade' or keep back a less able one?)

8: All Must Have Prizes

I think it is fairly clear what Lewis's ire, in both the earlier 'Democratic Education' and the later Toast is directed at – and, I have to say, it isn't particularly pretty.

To this day, Grammar Schools and Comprehensive Schools remain a totemic issue for both the political left and the political right. For Old Labour, the Grammar schools represent an elitist system that reproduced and legitimized a previously existing class structure and which effectively wrote-off two-thirds of the population before their twelfth birthday. Plus, they were posh. To the Tories, Comprehensive Schools represent a near Stalinist experiment in social engineering in which all notions of excellence was sacrificed on the alter of spurious inclusivity. Plus, they were common.

However, when the tripartite system was introduced, it was widely regarded as progressive by the Labour Party; and as too progressive by the Tory Party. Labour liked the idea that a poor child who could never afford to go to private school might earn the right to a Grammar school place; Tories were horrified at the idea that their voters' children might have to be educated alongside ghastly people with common accents simply because they weren't very clever. But today, pratically everyone would agree that Grammar schools were part of an 'elitist' system: any debate is between those who think that elitism is a good thing and those who think that it is a bad thing.

So it is disconcerting to realise that Lewis was objecting to the Norwood reforms on the grounds that they were too egalitarian. Norwood seems to have believed in Platonic essentialism; in psychological determinism. People have different kinds of minds; they are born that way; there is nothing you can do about it. The job of education is to find out what kinds of minds people have, and then train them appropriately. You can't be proud of having a Gold, Silver or Bronze mind, any more than you can be proud of being tall or having blonde hair. The three groups have parity of esteem.

Lewis, on the other hand, believes that academic ability is an act of will; almost a moral choice. 'Boys' who want to learn, learn; 'boys' who don't want to learn, don't. 'Boys' are clever if they work hard and stupid if they are lazy. A lazy 'boy' may be a pillar of society and the salt of the earth in other respects but there's no point in pretending that he's the academic equal of the clever one; and there's certainly no point in inventing some new kind of school for his benefit.

Lewis's satirical exaggeration ends up with a future where children are given 'A' levels in playing with plasticine and we are all overrun by the Communists. But the starting point is the idea that Secondary Modern kids should have Parity of Esteem with those at the Grammar School. A British phenomenon.

9: Conclusion, lack thereof

I like conspiracy theories. They are neat, simple and plausible, where real life is messy and unlikely. I do not know why Lewis, having re-cast a fifteen year old essay on English education into a diabolical after dinner speech, then wrote a preface claiming that he was talking about the America all the time, when he plainly wasn't. I don't know why his publishers posthumously rejected this new piece and replaced it with a previously published excerpt of the same length. I don't why he would, in Lindskoog's words, write a muddle headed preface to explain a clear essay. The conspiracy theory, in which a well-meaning acolyte, wanting to make Lewis seem more interested in and relevant to America, and possibly wanting to drum up sales for a new edition of his work, whips up an essay in handwriting that looks quite similar to his master's and then claims to have discovered a long-lost work removes all the difficulties, and is really very attractive.

But that's all it is: a conspiracy theory.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Look on the positive side, though: if it all goes horribly wrong and the scientists accidentally create a black hole the brings about the destruction of the entire universe, we won't have to listen to the "Torchwood" special.

News Values...

Daily Mirror






Daily Express:

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Play Up, Play Up

And all the world over, each nation’s the same
They’ve simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won
And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!
Flanders and Swann

If you were to ask 117 people what most summed up the English character, 43 of them would reply "sportsmanship". (SOURCE: Department of Made-up Statistics.) As ideals go, it's not a bad one. When we play games, we try really, really hard to win: but if we lose, we don't mind too much. Or at any rate, we pretend we don't.

We use expressions like "be a good sport", "it's not cricket" and "play the game" without thinking about them; we take it for granted that the ideals of sportsmanship apply to other walks off life. Indeed, the main reason we value sport is that it promotes sportsmanship. I spotted this as a very young child: there wasn't much point in egg-and-spoon races, but grown ups liked them because they illustrated the timeless precept: "For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against you name / He marks - not that you won or lost / But how you played the game." [*]

The idea is burned very deep into our psyche. When King John I of France surrendered to the Black Prince at Poitiers, Edward took him back to his tent, served him tea, and said: "Hard luck, old chap! Actually, I thought you fought far better than I did and deserved to win, but that's the way it goes sometimes." [**] When Winston Churchill said that we should be resolute in war but magnanimous in victory he was basically saying that we should good be sports and not boo the losing side, even when they're Nazis. Our own dear Tony's problem with the execution of Saddam Hussein wasn't so much that they killed a helpless prisoner in cold blood, but that they were insufficiently sportsmanlike about it. It may be that as running people through with lances became a less and less important accomplishment for members of the House of Lords, the ideal of chivalry on the battlefield mutated into that of sportsmanship on the rugby field. Or it may be that chivalry was only ever the application of sportsmanship to mass slaughter.

Now, Mr. Polly Tishon is currently much concerned with the question of what makes the English English, particularly because we are irrevocably committed to running a hugely expensive egg-and-spoon race in London in four year time. It would be very easy to mock our contribution to the close of the recent blow-out in Peking, so that's what I propose to do. England is the country that gave the world, off the top of my head, William Shakespeare, the Bible [Check this], Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the language that most of it speaks, albeit not very well. So when it comes to putting together what is, I grant you, only meant to be an oversized carnival float, all we can think of to crow about is "our capital has a public transport system, and it rains a lot." I mean, couldn't we at least have rubbed Johnny Chinaman's face in the fact that his system of government was invented in the reading room of the British Museum? By a German, I grant you, but the fact that we let him live here was pretty sporting of us.

One understands the problem. We can't talk about English literature (too high brow), English history (too much whopping of European allies), English classical music (too white ), English traditional music (Rowan Atkinson once made a joke about it), the Empire (too much slavery, although I can't help thinking that one or two other things must have been going on as well) or the Church of England (too religious). So you are pretty much stuck with that fairy tale England that only exists in American movies and The Beano: that part of London which Londoners can't find, but which consists of Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Big Ben, London Buses and Union Jack underpants.

But you might possibly have thought that the "sportsmanship" thing would have occurred to someone. Particularly as the Olympics are all about, you know, sport.

Before the hymn the Skipper would announce
The latest names of those who'd lost their lives
For King and Country and the Dragon School.
Sometimes his gruff old voice was full of tears
When a particular favourite had been killed.
Then we would hear the nickname of the boy,
‘Pongo' or ‘Podge', and how he'd played 3Q
For Oxford and, if only he had lived,
He might have played for England - which he did
But in a grimmer game against the Hun.
John Betjemen

One thing that does occur to Polly Tishon with some regularity is that people who couldn't tell you date of St. George's Day and think that Gandalf commanded the English Fleet against the Armada genuinely do show signs of getting excited when England score more tries than France at cricket, or when the Scottish rugby team get New Zealand out for a duck at Wimbledon. Aha! They say. We may not read Shakespeare or go to church any more, but here's something which all the English – in fact, all the British - have in common. Sport. It doesn't stand up for five minutes. The English only get really enthusiastic about cricket when they win - something which doesn't happen all that often. They are are quite indifferent to Welsh success at rugby, and indeed, to rugby. The Welsh will cheer for the Dominican Republic or Tonga if they stand a chance of beating England at anything. And, as that nice Mr. Tebbit reminded us all those years ago, it's entirely possibly to hang a Union Jack outside your corner shop, have three children in the Royal Navy and a picture of the Queen over the fireplace and still want Pakistan to win the Test Match.

You might think that Gordon Brown would be more sensitive than most people to the principle that winning and losing don't matter nearly so much as taking part. But he has only become an enthusiastic proponent of the great Olympic sport of bandwagon jumping because "Team GB" won a lot of red ribbons at the big Chinese sports day. It's only when we win at something that we're told that sport is what should make us proud to be English. (When the Scottish win at something, it means we should be proud to British. Obviously.) But nothing could be less British or English than caring whether or not we win.


"Gordon Brown vowed to bring back competitive sport in school today, saying it had been wrong to discourage children from competing against each other."

Jolly good show!

" 'We want to encourage competitive sports in school, not the medals for all culture we have seen in previous years...It was wrong because it doesn't work.' "

Spiffing! Or "hoots mon!" for that matter.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, our heroine watches a strange game called "the caucus race" in which a number of creatures run around aimlessly for several minutes, until the Dodo calls a halt. The Dodo then announces that "Everybody won, so all must have prizes." In 1998, cuddly Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips used All Must Have Prizes as the title of her book about how schools weren't as good as wot they were in the olden days. The title presumably referred to the perception that it is increasingly difficult to fail exams, and possibly to the sense that the system was a chaotic mess with no clear rules. It didn't specifically refer to sport. Brown seems to have half remembered the quote, and used it as portmanteau phrase to stand in for an argument about what is good or bad about the teaching of P.E . "Everybody won, so all must have prizes"; All Must Have Prizes; "the medals for all culture."[***]

What evidence is there for the existence of an "all must have medals" dragon that St. Gordon must slay? When I happen to pass schools whose playing fields have not yet had branches of Tescos built on them, it has certainly appeared that young people are playing footy on them. Glancing at the websites of educational establishments in the Bristol area I note that that Cotham School offers Year 10 boys (fhat's fifth formers, in old money) options including rugby, soccer, volleyball, softball and basketball, as well as more outre pursuits such as climbing and "ufrisbee". Bedminster Down mentions that Master Bobby Medjedoub and Master Rhys Hickery both acquitted themselves admirably in the soccer match against Ashton Park, which is particular impressive since the latter's site boasts of having "five netball courts, a basketball court and extensive pitches for football, rugby, hockey, cricket and an athletics track".

It is, I suppose, within the realms of possibility that the same infant school that mandated the singing of Baa-Baa Green Sheep and the consumption of Halal Hot Cross Buns replaced its egg-and-spoon race, which one kid wins and ten loose, with an obstacle course or a treasure hunt, which everyone can have a go at. I must admit that, speaking as one who was always last at everything, this doesn't strike me as a necessarily terrible idea. If you are teaching kids how to throw javelins – a very useful skill in the event that Bedminster Down is invaded by Spartans – it makes good sense to say "Try to throw the pointy stick further than you did last week," rather than "Try to throw the pointy stick further than the furthest pointy stick thrower in the class." But I submit that the idea that basketball, netball, touch rugby, association football and egg-and-spoon races have disappeared from schools and needs to be brought back by ministerial fiat is a total fantasy. Either Gordon Brown knows that it is a fantasy, in which case he is a liar; or else he doesn't, in which case he is a fool.

People occasionally ask me why I think it matters that newspapers like the Daily Express and the Daily Mail write about an imaginary version of the United Kingdom which has no connection to anything which is happenng on Planet Earth. This is why.

Mr Brown - the same Mr Brown who want more children to dress up as soldiers and play with guns - also wants to encourage them to hit each other.

"Defending the decision to include contact sports such as boxing and martial arts in the list of activities that will be available to children, Brown said: 'I have met quite a lot of amateur boxers. At one of the clubs I said to one of the young guys' "

- oh, please, Gordon, you are better than this; if you start down the path of saying "guy" because some media consultant thinks it sounds kewl then six weeks from now you'll be saying "look, y'know","dudes" and "innit", only it won't matter because David Cameron will be doing press calls with President McCain and you'll be working on your very bitter memoirs -

" ' one of the young guys there who I'd been told had been in some trouble in the past: "Tell me what's the most important thing you've learned here." His answer was "Discipline." ' "

If you want to be good at something, you need to give some attention to it, spend some time on it, turn up to practice even on the days when you don't feel like it. Almost certainly this is all Guy meant when he said that boxing had taught him discipline. If you are giving your attention to one thing – hitting a punch bag; throwing pointy sticks; putting Spider-Man comics into acid-free bags; painting 25 millimetre lead models of hobbits - you are less likely to be doing some other thing - getting into trouble, for example. Any fool can see what follows from this: if we want to keep kids out of trouble, then we give them time and space to to do things which they are interested in, whether that happens to be tiddlywinks or full contact boxing. But in politician-speak, "discipline" means "doing what you are told". Hearing that one young man has learned "discpline" from being repeatedly hit very hard in the face Brown draws the general conclusion that more young people need to be given the opportunity to be hit in the face more often. When he finds someone doing something they love for the sheer love of doing it, Gordon asks "what is it for? what use is it?". Learn boxing, not because it's a noble, civilized pursuit but for some other reason.

"He gave the example of Shaneze Reade, the British BMX champion..."

You see: C.S Lewis was right; "riding your bike round the playground" now counts as sport.

" 'She was not happy to settle for a silver. She went full throttle...'" me minister, but I'm not sure if a BMX bike has a throttle....

" '...for gold. I think that's the spirit we want to encourage in our schools.' "

And there you have it. Dividing people into winners and losers. No prizes for second place. It's not the taking part, it's the coming first that counts. Only sing when you're winning. Just slip on the wet floor, did you? Last one back to the changing room gets the slipper. Now that is English.

What the Olympic Closing Ceremony Ought To Have Looked Like

* I had always assumed that this was specifically written for the 'wayside pulpit', perhaps by the same fellow who pertetrated the one about life being mostly froth and bubble. It transpires that it is part of a very much longer and more dreadful poem, full of stanzas at the level of: "Bill tried to punt out of the rut, but ere he turned the trick / Right Tackle Competition scuttled through and blocked the kick / And when he tackled at Success in one long, vicious prod / The Fullback Disappointment steered his features in the sod" and "But one day, when across the Field of Fame the goal seemed dim / The wise old coach, Experience, came up and spoke to him./"Oh Boy," he said, "the main point now before you win your bout /Is keep on bucking Failure till you've worn the piker out!" The "Scorer" isn't, as I'd always thought, sedately marking off the overs in a little book for a village cricket match. He's updating the scoreboard for a game football.

** "In my opinion, you have good cause to be cheerful, although the battle did not go in your favour, for today you have the highest renown of a warrior, excelling the best of your knights. I do not say this to flatter you, for everyone one our side, having seen how each man fought, unanimously agrees with this and awards you the palm and the crown, if you would consent to wear them." -- Froissart's "Chronicles."

*** Lewis Carrol takes the trouble to include a strange game that it is impossible to lose in his surreal dream vision. In a textually problematic essay called "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" another well known Oxford Lewis complains that "modern" school shave made it impossible for children to fail: if a child is too stupid or lazy to do Latin or Algebra, teachers simply invent something that he is capable of doing and pretend that it's a proper subject. Lewis is referring to Melanie Phillips' beloved Secondary Moderns, not the hated Comprehensive Schools (the widespread implementation of which didn't start until two years after C.S Lewis died.) Could it possibly be that old fogeys have always thought that schools "nowadays" have made it impossible for kids to fail?