Education

The Rationalist’s Defence of Injustice

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Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, supposedly replied that he thought it might be a good idea. Taken at face value, we can presume that he was both contemptuous and cynical of the idea of civilisation of any kind existing in the West. Being on the receiving end of Western civilisational endeavours such as the one he experienced in India during his life, he would have been well aware of hollowness of the idea that actions and ideas emanating from the West were inherently virtuous. Indeed, very few people, especially in Ireland, need to be reminded of the great altruism with which the British Empire undertook the task of civilising the world. Although Great Britain is no longer the empire it once was, it continues to play the civilising game along with its master, the United States. Meanwhile, the notion that great powers undertake certain actions for the benefit of the “uncivilised” of the world continues to hold sway, along with the concomitant idea that such actions are inherently virtuous. They are inherently virtuous simply because said actions are being carried out by the U.S. and its allies. Nothing more needs to be said in their defence according to the reigning orthodoxy. Said orthodoxy resides not only in and around the centres of power, and not only emerges from the mouths of the most devoted nationalists and neoconservatives but can also be found in those who are considered to be sceptics and rationalists.

Two of the most vocal types of this are Sam Harris and his former colleague, Christopher Hitchens. Both men had become two of the four faces most associated with rationalism, specifically atheism, and the so-called New Atheism, that emerged more or less immediately in the aftermath of 9/11. In the case of Hitchens, advocating for a non-religious world due to the fact that he deemed religion a threat to humanity became one part of his public persona. The other part was as a cheerleader for the neoconservative movement. Counting amongst his friends Paul Wolfowitz, the former U.S. Deputy Director of Defence in the Bush II administration, Hitchens could be relied upon to decry the evils of religion in the same breath as declaring British and U.S. intentions in the Middle East as righteous. His views did not in any way evolve before his death in 2012 from oesophageal cancer. One year before his death, when asked if he thought the invasion of Iraq along with the subsequent chaos it unleashed was worth the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, he responded in the positive; the fracturing and destruction of a country, from which it may never recover, was deemed a price worth paying for the regional interests of his acquaintances in the White House.

Although claiming to take a more nuanced view of things, Harris is arguably worse than Hitchens in his support for the British and U.S. interests around the word. Although Hitchens was outlandishly crude in some of his pronunciations, Harris on the other hand relies on the veneer of calm and respectable discourse in order to promote views that are far from respectable. Harris’ position is essentially that Islam in particular represents an existential and ongoing threat to superior Western civilisation and ideals. Therefore, it must be dealt with accordingly by those who have the power to do so. Being unmentionable is that it just happens that the balance of power resides by far in the hands of the U.S. and its closest allies, yet the threat apparently remains. This is half of the premise of Harris’ main point of contention with Noam Chomsky, the other half being that that our intentions are good regardless of the outcomes. In this view, because collateral damage is not intentional on the part of leaders, what we do that causes civilian deaths in the first place is therefore not judged by the supposedly unexpected outcome of collateral damage. The act is judged simply by its intentions. If the intention was to destroy a terrorist training camp via a Hellfire missile, and civilians were accidentally killed in the process, the civilians do not enter into any moral calculation. The initial act was carried out for the correct reasons, at least according to those in power and their supporters, therefore the unintentional deaths of civilians do not enter into any moral calculation of the hypothetical missile strike.

This is Harris’ stance on the nature of U.S. foreign policy, at least as he laid it out in recent correspondence with Chomsky, arguing that the U.S. is “in many respects, just… a ‘well-intentioned giant.’” The Clinton Administration’s bombing in 1998 of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which resulted in the destruction of roughly half of the country’s medicines, including its entire supply of anti-malaria drugs, was a legitimate act according to Harris. The apparent intention, which Harris takes for granted, was to destroy a chemical weapons factory, with the resulting suffering unleashed on the country being of no concern. What matters are intentions, nothing else. Harris simply takes it for granted that what we do is right and proper simply by virtue of the fact that it is being done by us. Harris presumes, with no evidence, that “Clinton (as I imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily.” The more likely reason, which Harris fails to mention or perhaps even realise, is that the plant’s destruction was in retaliation for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks earlier. Although a terrorist attack on civilians in the Middle East or somewhere in the West may have the same outcome as the al-Shifa bombing and other similar acts by Western states, the two cases cannot be compared according to Harris conception of intentions. By logically extending his notion of intentionality, our crimes are not really crimes, and deaths caused by us are not really caused by us, a logic that would impress the most committed totalitarian ideologue.

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Education Versus Neo-Liberalism

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The ongoing events in the National College of Art and Design (N.C.A.D.) speak to a larger and slowly emerging crisis in the Irish educational system. Having endured increases in fees, an escalating dearth of studio space, and an ever more obstinate college bureaucracy and leadership, the students took it upon themselves to offer a list to demands to the college management. The college ignored the requests of the students, even going so far as to pull out of a meeting with the students where their concerns and objections would be voiced in person. The students responded by occupying a room in the college on Tuesday, March 24th, with further similar actions, including public lectures, having taken place in the last few days, and with more actions planned. A petition has also been circulated and signed by a number of Irish academics and graduate students, declaring solidarity with the students and the need for “another model of what higher education might be — one guided by the pursuit of learning rather than the pursuit of profit, driven by radical enquiry rather than bogus metrics”. Events in the N.C.A.D. are a microcosm of what the education system in Ireland is currently enduring. 

Although having to meet certain economic and financial requirements have always been part and parcel of the lives of academics and students, such requirements were not as threatening and all-encompassing as they are now. An obvious starting point for the current attack that the education system is under is the sinking of the economy due to financial malfeasance on the part of banks, civil servants, and governments. In fact, and to my knowledge something that has never been reported on, the education system, particularly third level, was always going to be one of the first areas that would come under attack in order to save the banking system. Reading the transcripts of the MacGill Summer School of 2009, in which over forty Irish intellectuals, government ministers, and elites gathered together to discuss what needed to be done to fix the economy, demonstrates this. Of particular note was the speech given by Dermot Gleeson, the then Chairman of Allied Irish Bank (A.I.B.), and who also happened to have a meeting with the Taoiseach and Minister of Finance on the evening before and night of the bank guarantee. Gleeson, blaming the public as much as the banks for the economy collapsing, pointed out that something needed to be done in order to increase government revenue. He laid out the corrective plan as follows: 

“We need to broaden the tax base by cutting out reliefs which are no longer justified; this is very much preferable to raising tax rates. Property taxes need to be less dependent on transactions and a property tax of some sort, needs to replace stamp duty, at least in part. There may be need for more user charges to fund high quality infrastructure in the form of road tolls, water charges and university fees. A carbon tax needs to balance the demands of climate change and competitiveness. In relation to expenditure we need more difficult decisions while maintaining investment in research and infrastructure. The cost of public services needs to be brought into line with costs in the rest of the economy. Excessive regulation and outdated work practices need to be eliminated. We need to reduce the long term inflation expectation back to the Euro average and we are well advanced on that project…. We need to implement public sector reform with real urgency” [emphasis added].

 University fees are far from the only thing we have to worry about, however. Third level has not only had fees reintroduced in all but name, as per Gleeson’s suggestion, but cutbacks have been made across the system as a whole. In spite of such cutbacks, student numbers have increased, putting the system under even more pressure. An obvious result of such pressure is that it makes universities and colleges more pliable. They simply need the funding and will do what they can to attract such funding.

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From Alpha to Omega: #043 The Falling Rate of Learning

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The guest on this years Christmas edition of From Alpha to Omega is David Blacker. David is a Professor of Philosophy of Education and Legal Studies at the University of Delaware. His academic background is in the history of philosophy, and his writings pursue insights from that tradition within the context of contemporary education problems. His essays have appeared in the Monthly Review magazine, and he has just released an excellent new book, called, ‘The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame’, which looks at how the educational world is being affected by Marx’s law of the falling rate of profit. We discuss many of the themes of the book, including: determinism vs free will, base vs superstructure, the ‘Ye Deluder Satan’ Act, student debt and neo-feudalism, radical youth movements, and the utility of a stoic pessimism.

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Education: Giving our young people the kind of qualification they need

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This post appeared originally on William Wall’s Ice Moon blog on the 2nd of November.

We hear so much nowadays about the need to find a way to measure how our education systems work. In England, for example, the government has just instituted a major educational reform that will see GCSEs graded in 9 levels to replace the antiquated 8 point scale. What’s even more shocking is that the old system of designating student achievement by letters (G- A*), which everyone must recognise as a way of masking the actual real world function of the metric, is to be replaced by a straightforward numerical system with 9 as the top grade. This new scale will make it easier for bosses to work out who is at the top and who is at the bottom. To say someone got a 9 in English, for example, is a much better indicator of achievement than to say they got an A. Bosses are plain-speakers and like things explained to them in plain language.

However, I feel this change, revolutionary though it is, does not go far enough. There already exists a perfectly good numerical scale that would serve to provide a real world understandable equivalent to a student’s achievement at the end of education and would be much more readily appreciated by bosses.

Money.

The ideal real-world equivalent of grading an examination would be to benchmark a student’s knowledge against a currency. So, instead of saying that after x years in the system a student has achieved a ‘pass’, a ‘d’ or whatever, terms that have no real-world equivalent, we could say that he has earned 50c or 55c, etc.

Now we have a proper metric by which to understand the fruits of education. Furthermore because of currency exchange benchmarks in the real world, we have a metric of international equivalence. Our student’s 50c can be measured against an American student’s achievements by the simple expedient of applying the prevailing exchange rate, which, of course, reflects the real world value of education over there. By applying the Reuters spot rate for today, for example, I can tell you that British Pound GCSE value of 50p is equivalent to an American Dollar rate of 67.4. It is no accident that this figure represents the European point of view as regards the American education system – their grade inflation is worse than ours.

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From The Republic of Confiscation

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After Seamus Heaney’s death, the Irish Times sought contributions from its online readers about what Heaney meant to them. One reader recounted meeting him at a reading at Harvard:

After the reading, I joined the throng that inched its way toward him bearing my copy of Opened Ground. When I finally reached him, to my surprise he looked me over and asked, “Ah, now. what do you do.” Flabbergasted, I told him I was a Boston Public School teacher. His response: “Ah, now, that’s a real job.” He scrawled the words, “Keep going” in my book.

Heaney himself, of course, was a teacher. He trained as a teacher at St Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast, and taught at a secondary intermediate, St Thomas’s, in Ballymurphy, West Belfast. He then trained other teachers at St Joseph’s, and when he moved south, got a job teaching trainees at Carysfort College. His wife was a teacher too, as were his sister and brother.

By becoming a teacher, Heaney was taking advantage of possibilities created by the 1947 Education Act in Northern Ireland. In his superb book of interviews,Stepping Stones, Heaney recognised that neither he nor his brothers and sisters would have gone to university were it not “thanks to the system put in place by that Labour government in Britain.”

This isn’t strictly true: the 1947 Education Act, though introduced in Northern Ireland under a Labour government in Britain, was modelled on the 1944 Education Act in England, brought in by R. A. Butler under a Conservative government. However, it’s certainly true that prospects for disadvantaged young people in Northern Ireland in the 1950s were shaped for the better by the building of the Welfare State that occurred under the Attlee government elected by landslide in 1945, so the gratitude isn’t misplaced.

Nonetheless, Stepping Stones reveals Heaney’s unease at the inequalities that the new system imposed: between those who went on to a grammar school education and those who didn’t. In recalling his time spent teaching at St Thomas’s, a school for the supposedly “non-academic”, he saw how “instead of a school where equal attention was paid to all abilities, there was this favoured upper stream and then the great non-academic flow-through. My job, for the year I was in the school, was to teach English at first-year and fourth-year levels, to two of the exam-oriented classes. And I had a PE class with a group of really low-ability first years, 1G, for God’s sake, in a ranking that began with 1A.”

He said the “school was attempting to inculcate a regime of respectability and conformity, a kind of middle-class boarding-school style, but the home culture and the street culture of working-class Belfast was very different”, and recognised “disadvantaged homes and impoverished conditions generally as a barrier to growth and self-realization”.

For all its drawbacks and inequalities, the education system in the North of Ireland for working class children, sustained by gains won by the labour movement in Britain, compared favourably to what was available south of the border.

It wasn’t until 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, that free secondary education was formally introduced in the Republic. But despite its constitutional claim to be a democratic state, the Irish State continues to fund teaching at exclusive private schools. In Enough is Enough, Fintan O’Toole highlights the fact that a fifth of all university students had paid fees at second level in 2008, and that 43% of students at UCD came from either fee-paying or grind schools. The attitude of the current government to education in line with democratic principles can be glimpsed in the fact that the 2012 Finance Bill allowed high earners to write off private school fees of up to €5,000.

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Applications for Scholarship to NUIM MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism

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Deadline for applications for this scholarship is Monday, July 1 – please circulate

A scholarship covering full course fees for the MA CEESA at Maynooth, awarded on the basis of practitioner excellence in community education, action for equality and / or social movements.

The MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at NUI Maynooth has now completed three very successful years in the course of which we have worked with a wide range of social movement activists and community educators who are using the course to reflect on their own experience, develop their practice and build links across movements with others committed to equality and social justice.

To mark this, and in keeping with the course’s own commitment to equality, we are offering a scholarship for one student entering the course this autumn. The scholarship is named after the Dublin Lockout of 1913, which marks a historical moment in the encounter between social movements and Irish society, and a landmark in struggles for equality. It has also become a key reference point in community education and popular culture.

The 1913 Lockout Memorial scholarship is innovative in form, representing the course’s status as a practitioner course and the University’s commitment to community engagement. Rather than duplicate the various scholarships based on academic criteria, this scholarship is awarded on the basis of practitioner excellence in the field and by a committee comprising both practitioners and scholars in the area.

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Book Review: Social Work and Social Theory- Making Connections by Paul Michael Garrett

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Book Review: Social Work and Social Theory- Making Connections by Paul Michael Garrett (Polity Press, 2013)

At the outset of this text Garrett outlines his view that there is a frequently unrecognised value in applying social theory to social worker’s day-to-day education and practice. In this book, he makes the case that theoretical engagement can help social workers to navigate those “indeterminate zones of practice” (p.1). Garrett notes in his introduction that social work is often seen and represented as a practical, common sense profession- an ideal activity for “retired City bankers and ex-insurance brokers” as Garrett notes, quoting a UK government official (p.2). The reality is, of course, far more complex than this and Garrett positions himself in opposition to the harmful, yet enduring, belief that social work is, or indeed can be, “theory-less”

The book concentrates on critical social theory developed in Europe by contemporary thinkers and attempts to highlight where these theoretical positions and social work may meet, intersect and be beneficial to social work. At the outset of the book, Garrett explains two theoretical omissions from the text. The first of these being the work of Michel Foucault which he explains by way of noting that much has already been written linking Foucault’s work to social work. Furthermore, Foucauldian theory is thought to a greater or lesser extent on many post-graduate social work courses and I felt the omission could be justified. The second omission which Garrett addresses is around feminist theorists. Garrett acknowledges the absence of feminist theory in the text but states that the book itself is informed by a feminist analysis.

Garrett’s first chapter proper is focussed on the questioning theories of modernisation. He begins by questioning what happened to post-modernity, and its relationship to social work education. Garrett makes two important claims- firstly, that social work academia came to postmodernist thought much later than other disciplines and secondly, that the social work academy’s short engagement with postmodernist theorisation did not impact upon the day-to-day practice of social work professionals primarily because of the complex, sometimes impenetrable language of postmodernist theorisation. However, Garrett does acknowledge that the postmodernist turn in social work and the “blurring of boundaries between professionals” (p.23) along with the move toward actuarialism in social work did change how services were delivered. In line with this shift toward counting, and drawing on the work of Fredric Jameson (2000), Garrett argues that “a new kind of superficiality” (Jameson, 2000:196, quoted by Garrett) evident in late-capitalism was mirrored in the development of one-size fits all social work “tools” which have become increasingly prevalent, particularly in child protection and probation practice.

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Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest

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The book Understanding European Movements, edited by Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox, has just been published and might be of interest to readers.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox, eds. (2013) Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest. London: Routledge (Advances in Sociology series).

304 pp. hardback, ISBN 978-0-415-63879-1, release date 21 May 2013.
List price $143 / £80; discount $114.40 / £64 (order via www.routledge.com using discount code ERJ67*).

A paperback edition will come out in due course but in the meantime we are encouraging people to try ordering this through university and public libraries.

Across Europe, social movements are resisting the onslaught of austerity politics and challenging the legitimacy of the neoliberal economic model. In Ireland, commentary from both sides often revolves around the relationship between Irish movements and those elsewhere in Europe. At the same time, much of this analysis is flimsy, restricted to English-language information and anecdotal accounts. Understanding European movements represents a collaborative project by participants in the Council for European Studies’ social movements research network. Its 15 chapters include authors based in 11 countries whose analyses are all grounded in ethnographic and historical research on these movements – in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Spain and the UK as well as transnational relationships – and in keeping with the traditions of European movement research many are active, critical participants in the movements they analyse and the book is written for movement activists as well as researchers. The book offers a comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective on the key European social movements in the past forty years and sets present-day struggles in their longer-term national, historical and political contexts.

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Another World Is Possible: Learning from Each Other’s Struggles

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MA in COMMUNITY EDUCATION, EQUALITY & SOCIAL ACTIVISM

Applications are invited for the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at NUI, Maynoothhttp://ceesa-ma.blogspot.ie/

What can we learn from each other’s struggles for equality and social justice – and what do we already know about how to change the world?

This course brings together students who want to learn how to make equality and social justice into realities and more experienced activists in community education and social movements looking for space to reflect on their own work, with a team of staff who are experienced teachers and researchers, community educators and social movement practitioners.

We form a community of practitioners learning from each other’s experiences and struggles to create new kinds of “really useful knowledge” and develop alternatives.

The MA enables students to think about how to build real alternatives to challenge existing structures of oppression and injustice. It is about developing people’s capacity to change the world through community education, grassroots community activism and social movement campaigning.

The women's movement, global justice campaigners, self-organising by travellers and migrant communities, trade unions, GLBTQ campaigning, environmentalism, service user movements, anti-war activism, survivors of institutional abuse, and many other such movements have reshaped our society and put human need on the agenda beside profit and power. This process has not ended.

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A Call to Educate

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The following will focus on the relationship between planned political education and left activism. If there is a justification for this, it lies in the history of the worker’s movement itself. Almost every significant step toward the self-emancipation of the working class has rested on a deep and thoroughgoing emphasis on the educational development of those indispensably involved.

Careful planning and organisation of political education among activists and workers, within and without their respective organisations, is always centrally important. In an attempt to provoke discussion, some questions are raised about the different strategies for the development of educational forms worthy of the movement the present generation of socialist activists hope to build.

The most influential socialists of the 19th and 20th centuries all realised the necessity of ensuring workers take ownership of, and develop, the knowledge necessary for self-emancipation. Certainly Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, along with many other pioneers of the movement, were never prepared to neglect this necessary work, not under threat of exile, not in the midst of revolutionary upheavals, not during imprisonment, conditions of civil war and/or counter-revolutionary witch-hunts. Realising that action has to be theoretically informed, they never stopped studying, analysing and writing, throughout their lives. They have done much to prepare the ground, providing many useful signposts for subsequent generations, yet the necessity for intensive scholarship and focused dissemination of knowledge has not diminished in the slightest.

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Audio: “How can women defeat austerity?” Selma James’ Talk at Maynooth, 13 March 2013

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“How can women defeat austerity?” – Selma James at Maynooth, 13 March 2013

An MA Community Education, Equality and Social Activism podcast, available on the Community Education, Equality and Social Activism (CEESA) website here.

Founder of the Wages for Housework campaign and coordinator of the Global Women's Strike, Selma James brought a lifetime of movement experience to bear in this electrifying talk. Asked to speak to organisers' needs in the current crisis, she spoke to a roomful of 30 activists and researchers passionately, clearly and incisively for an hour without notes.

To understand austerity, we have to understand the struggles which gave birth to the welfare state, the poverty which went before it and the attacks it has been under since the 1970s, and the first part of her talk tackled these themes. In the second part she discussed the weaknesses of movements since that time in responding to the attacks: how NGOisation has demobilised movements and left them dependent on funders, far-left parties try to substitute themselves for popular action while social-democratic parties simply represent a slower attack on people's basic needs. In the third and final part she discussed the urgency of building a broader movement which does not see class and gender, anti-racism or environmental survival, as separate and opposed issues. A lively and engaged discussion followed.

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DEFENDING CARING AND WELFARE IN CARELESS TIMES – Selma James at UCD

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PRAXIS and Equality Studies are proud to announce that a Communiversity event will take place on Tuesday March 12th 2013 2.30 – 4.30pm E114, UCD Newman (Arts) Building where renowned activist and author Selma James will address the theme DEFENDING CARING AND WELFARE IN CARELESS TIMES. The event comes at a time when austerity policies, triggered by the global economic meltdown, are devastating already-burdened communities. In particular, the rights and entitlements hard-won over the years by carers, overwhelmingly women, are being senselessly eroded. Despite all of this, care work and other work that women must do for the survival of families and communities continues, unabated and uncelebrated.

Selma James is known for coining the phrase “unwaged” in the 1970s to describe the unremunerated care work done almost universally by women. She continues to address these and other inequalities in her work, and information on her new book Sex, Race and Class, The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011, is available at the end of this press release. She is co-author of the women's movement classic The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. James founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign and is coordinator of the Global Women's Strike. She is also the widow and former colleague of influential historian CLR James.

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