What septic tanks and education have in common

I’ve spent three-quarters of my life being educated and the last two years educating others.

Since I began school at the age of four, I’ve associated education with evaluation.

First it was stickers and stars and rubber stamps. These evolved into report cards with little boxes beside the words: poor, fair, good, very good and excellent. Next came the letters of the alphabet: A, B and C. Then fractions and percentages arrived and after that, points. At university, marks were converted into classes and you could be first, second or third.

Compulsory education – like the septic tank- originated in the nineteenth century. While both aged tolerably well, of late they have begun to fail us.

image source: insectapedia.com

After all, as Ken Robinson, an educational theorist points out, the current system of education was conceived in the intellectual era of the enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution.

Like the septic tank, it has failed to keep up with the times, often producing impenetrable sludge before practical distillation.

(If you need proof, try understanding what on earth academics writing in humanities journals are trying to say).

It’s not that our education is of poor quality. It’s not that we have bad teachers, or unmotivated students. They never help but they’re neither unique to this period nor the cause of the problem.

The real issue is that we haven’t decided whether education is a journey focussed on itself or on its destination.

Let me explain.

Up to recently, education was a means to an end. You walked out of school and into the workplace. If you went to university and got a first class degree, you got a first class job.

Now things have changed. We have too many people educated in areas with too few jobs.

The difficulty is that we still believe that the higher your educational level, the loftier your career expectations should be.

Of course it’s a prospect that many are failing to realise.

Now, if you get a first class degree, you take your place among all the others and compete for any old job.

It’s a case of social progress outrunning institutional reform.

You could see the situation as a social leveler. Now unemployment is for everybody, not just the least privileged.

Some students spend twenty years collecting stamps and stars and letters and numbers.

And then they find that the numbers don’t add up to a job.

Their experience calls into question the very purpose of evaluation.

The transition from pupil to teacher has taught me that evaluating students is rather arbitrary. It doesn’t measure very much at all.

But we’re hooked on comparison. We get frustrated if our own evaluation can’t be backed up by a standard measurement. If we think we’re better than the person next to us, we want it neatly before us in percentage form.

I guarantee that in a secret ballot, students wouldn’t vote out tests and exams.

Science backs it up. Research has shown that the pleasure circuits are activated in advance of finding out a result.

We thrive in conditions of uncertainty.

Waiting for a test result is like waiting to see if you have won in Poker. Ultimately neither tells you how well you have played or how much you have learnt, but rather how well you have performed relative to others.

It’s time we took a step back though.

The right to education is one of the great privileges of our age. While its original and most important purpose-to lay the foundations for economic subsistence- has been eroded by the unprecedented pace of progressive reform relative to growth in employment opportunities-we must take time to remember what has been so long neglected: the timeless, immeasurable pleasure of learning for its own sake.

Could it be that indulging ourselves in constant measurement against others is doing us more harm than good?

Andrew Bird, an American folk singer condenses the possibility beautifully in the song “Measuring Cups” which opens:

Get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game. Come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain. We’ll give you a complex and we’ll give it a name.

This generation, more intensely than any other before it, has experienced education as a closed system of incessant measurement.

For many that measurement has not amounted to more than restlessness and disillusion.

Learning for its own sake has been forgotten amidst the obsession with making ‘it’ which means ‘making money’.

If teaching has taught me one thing, it’s that the responsibility to evaluate is nothing compared with the possibility to inspire. My job is to encourage before it is to instruct.

Pupils are not watering cans: we can’t fill them up without their consent. They must want to learn, not in order to get a good job or to become rich or to sound clever, but because, as Merlin in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King reminds us, “it is the only thing that never fails”.

I have the following words pinned to my bedroom wall:

“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then, to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the Mind can never exhaust never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you”.

Equipped with this original joy of learning, and a quieter, more humble confidence, our young people may be more inspired to carve an independent niche on the side-lines rather than enter the desperate rat-race of out-performance.

Let’s make our recovery less sludgy than a septic tank. In remembering why education matters for its own sake, we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Confessions of an Arabic student: Ordering Falafels And Sounding Like A Pirate

Monday was a very important day for me. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, or the day I competed in the Slovakian jousting championships. In fact, it was an occasion of much greater significance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, and she-who-serial-googles-‘snails’-to-land-here, last Monday evening, I learnt the last four letters of the Arabic alphabet: ط, ظ,
ع and غ.

Those final four characters had been hanging over my classmates and me for a full three weeks. Our Mudarrissa (مدرسة) kept promising we’d get to them the following lesson, but we got tied up learning how to attach possessive pronouns to objects like chairs, bags, chickens and doors and how to ask for falafels.

The four offending letters had been left until the end because native English speakers tend to mispronounce them because we lack an equivalent sound. The most felonious one is: غ.

“Who wants to pronounce this one?” asked the Mudarissa, pointing at the lone-standing, three-shaped character with a hat she’d printed on the board.

(Teacher tip: Never, ever ask open questions)

An eerie silence descended.

“How about …. you. Kate?”

“Agggghhhrr”, she said.

“Aaarr” I replied, as if I was at the dentist. She shook her head.

“Agggghhhrrr” she repeated.

“Rrrrrrrrrgh” I tried once again, only to cause her to shake her head more violently.




This went on for some time. I estimate that I voiced the letter incorrectly seventeen times before she gave up on me. I was prepared to continue indefinitely but the other students were beginning to shift in their chairs and smother giggles.

It might not seem like a big deal to seasoned polyglots, but I am pretty glad I’ve got this far. You might remember that Arabic has twenty-eight letters, which change shape according to their position in a word.

What’s now happened – since Monday- is that I can look at a word and actually read it –albeit incredibly slowly. Of course as most standard Arabic script doesn’t mark vowels, what I’m reading could have a myriad of actual pronunciations. The point though is that I’m now in a position to consider those possibilities.

Today I started using facebook in Arabic. My profile picture was immediately transported to the other side of the screen and the ads offering me Masters Degree Courses in John Hopkins University switched to the left. In an effort to learn new vocabulary, I diligently copied and pasted some of the Arabic characters into Google translate. The Arabs, I’ve learnt have a way with words. They may not have the time to mark their vowels, but they do translate ‘unlike’ as “cancellation of admiration”.


Life for LSB has become yet more tedious since my initiation into the Arabic language. We can’t pass a kebab shop without me reading “H-A-L-A-L” (حلالا) extremely slowly while missing the English translation that accompanies it. The other evening, on Camden Street while we were on the way to meet a friend for a hot port and a natter, I reeled off everything I could say in Arabic complete with elaborate supporting gestures.

“That is a beautiful and new car!”, I said pointing to a rusty 1993 fiat punto. “I am Kate Katharina.” “Pleased to meet you.” “Give me a falafel please”.

Why Philosophy is best on the bus

I never thought I would be reading Bertrand Russell on the bus. Having endured a term of Critical Theory at college and made an ill-conceived investment in the accompanying reader (I was a Fresher; young and naive), I came to the conclusion that part of a Philosopher’s delight lies in deliberately employing obscure words and a surplus of relative clauses and that the general intention is to make oneself incomprehensible.

Not so with Bertrand Russell. You can read his prose while listening to snippets of conversations from the St Mary’s boys, the hum of the engine and the relentless beat of rain against the window pane.

As I was reading his essay On Being Modern Minded last week, I was struck by how much I could relate what he was saying to my own relationship to the world around me. Russell’s main argument is that the modern (post first world war) mind is stifled by an ever-increasing reliance on trends in thinking and that as a result people are scared to form their own judgements; held back by the belief that a more ‘contemporarary’ (and accepted) view will appear before they have had the chance to formulate their own.

Russell’s observations were rooted in the growing popularity of new philosophies and the tendency to impose them retrospectively on texts. Russell writes: “I read some years ago a contemptuous review of a book by Santayana, mentioning an essay on Hamlet ‘dated, in every sense, 1908’- as if what has been discovered since then made any earlier appreciation of Shakespeare irrelevant and comparatively superficial. It did not occur to the reviewer that his review was ‘dated, in every sense, 1936′”.

Russell was writing pre-Internet of course but in his world, ideas were moving more quickly than they had ever done before and at a speed that meant they were evolving before they could be fully digested. That may be why the behaviourism of the 1960’s led to some dubious parenting practices and why literary texts developed Marxist, then Freudian undertones overnight.

Our generation has the great advantage of easy access to a vast quantity of information so that any new tenet may at the click of a button be analysed in relation to the belief that preceded it. However, with such a vast amount of information available, it has become easier and easier to quit thinking for yourself.

I’m definitely guilty of this. Look at this blog post for instance: it’s Bertrand’s, not my own. Sure, we’re supposed to learn from each other but the amount of times I encounter something that seems at first glance incomprehensible and resolve to “google it” makes me uncomfortable. Am I incapable of assessing the importance of a news story myself? Can I not figure out what Joyce was about by reading his words alone? Have I lost my originality? (Can I google it?..)

Skimming is a skill I’m now supposed to teach and it’s something I’m not quite comfortable with. Sure, it’s practically important to teach students to find relevant information at speed but doesn’t that take the joy away from the ultimately satifying slog of analysing a text to death identify grammatical structures and unusual vocabulary? Would we be as well as to teach them to use google translate to extract the main points of a text?

I love the internet. It’s enabling, democratic and wonderful. Without a lot of self discipline though, it can also be disabling and anti-democratic, with messages being spread and consumned at a rate the human brain is incapable of keeping track of. If BR thought in 1950 that “The emotional tone of the world changes with equal rapidity, as wars, depressions, and revolutions chase each other across the stage. And public events impinge upon private lives more forcibly than in former days”, I don’t know what he’d think of the world as it is today. One to google ponder.

How’s Tricks?

Having spent a considerable portion of the day attempting to manipulate a loop of string into impressive shapes, I am resigned to what I always knew: that I am helplessly impractical. As the quest for employment meanders through paths untrodden, I find myself a soon-to-be-teacher of ‘puzzle solving’ to 6-7 year-olds, classified as “highly-gifted”.  I had planned on opening with an etymology lesson. My tenet – that the knowledge of word origin, at age 7 sets in place the principles upon which future semantic puzzles may be solved- seemed structurally sound. Alas, it was not to be. My superiors alerted me gently to the fact that the emphasis was on fun activities, like tying knots and performing magic tricks.

Luckily, I have books on both.

Indeed, I am being too hard on myself: today’s achievemnent was not insignificant. I learned how to form a piece of string into the shape of a tea cup and saucer. Furthermore, I can now release a ring in the clutches of complex folds with a swift movement of my forefingers and thumb. When my left hand is consealed by a large hankey, I can subtly slip a button up my sleeve to make it disappear. The addition of certain numbers on a pre-arranged grid always amounts to 34.

 I am determined to present these tricks with the relentless enthusiasm that is the responsibility of every teacher to convey. In fact, I am genuinely looking forward to setting my scholarly babes the challenge of creating their own board games. Before then, however, I must take a deep breath before trying to master ‘Bunch of bananas’, and matchstick diagrams of the form ’make one move to form three equilateral traiangles’.