Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Flipping Ada! David Duff gets his panties in a twist about culture and class debates

I go away for a couple of days (bank hol weekend: a nice bit of gardening since you ask) and I come back to a flurry of comments to-and-fro between Reidski and de Duff. AND I find yet another post all about me (shucks) on Duff's blog (one would almost think he has a real issue with what I write: as if it matters much in the great scheme of things...)

Well, as a riposte to this demolition of me (how I quake to have stirred such antagonism: it's almost as if these debates are important enough for Duff to be frightened by their mighty influence?) can I offer a few remarks?

Presumably it's perfectly fine to accept that systems of power have inequalities and never shall these be thought about, discussed or challenged? On that basis, I suspect most of us would still not have a vote and would be condemned to poverty in numbers even greater than those that currently suffer such an experience in our so-called free world. And don't try any "hard work reaps reward" rubbish: check out my previous remarks more extensively.

Regarding art history (though I think it can apply to many aspects of society and history), if feminism is to mean anything it cannot just add on women to the history of great artists since that leaves fundamentally unchallenged the reasons why women have generally been excluded from lists of great artists. Likewise, as the same post just cited said, from whence the quote about feminist art history was ripped (and can I just state for the record I'm not "some dizzy whore, 1804"), nor is it enough to separate off feminism into a ghetto labelled 'feminism'. I would like to think that we can ask questions about why women are economically so disadvantaged, why the structures of power continue to devalue their work and contributions to society and culture, and why women being more like men ultimately doesn't really change anything. Both ghettoisation and the add-on approach to including women in history fails to explore how certain default positions are set as the norm against which everything else must be marked. It's how many political parties are able to demonise 'the other' - shouldn't we at least be thinking about how this happens and its consequences (one of which is some currently rampantly racist ideologies).

In terms of upsetting applecarts ...Nottingham has built its reputation on trying to be in the same league as Oxbridge, and it attracts a fair number of very nice middle-class boys and gals to its towers. Some of these are beautifully well-mannered, with perfect etiquette, and of reasonably good intelligence. I get a hell of a lot out of teaching students, and always have: these students included. But you can only cope with so many such students with four first-names, RP, and a near-bottomless parental fund prepared to financially support these students. They frequently arrive with a bunch of prejudices and a lot of ignorance about how the other 90% lives. Before long you start feeling that the efforts (both intellectual, social and economic) required to successfully complete a degree are worth something indefinably greater for those without advantages. Mature students, working class students, for whom the decision to go into (further/higher) education is not an automatic process: I admit it, I get a really big buzz about working with these students. And for these students, seeing examples of others like them breaking through the systems can be really empowering. Moreover, explaining just how hard it can be to those who arrive with the full weight of advantage behind them, helps me to keep my head and makes me constantly aware of how they still dominate so many of the most powerful structures in society.

On matters Popish, I would say that thus far we have had a mixed bag of remarks from PapaRazi. On some issues he has proved more conciliatory than expected (eg on dialogue between faiths), but overall his election does not suggest a shift to a more liberal and open theological and social stance (on sexuality, the place of women etc). What a shame that Liberation Theology has been effectively outlawed by the Catholic church...

As for disputing the inherent racism of the Tory party's current elision of immigration and asylum... could anyone tell me how the current Tory party are NOT racist? (On second thoughts, PLEASE PLEASE DO NOT inundate me with discussions about how the Tories are just nice fluffy bunny-lovers who are not at all racist: I am more than capable of searching the web and reading books and articles from the press. I've read their stuff and plenty of the journalism supporting them and frankly it just makes me sick to see how this panders to 'worst-fears' attitudes.... And don't think I haven't noticed how Labour frequently wears similarly shabby politics on its sleeves).

And to conclude: education. the minds of the young deserve to mix fully and freely. Yes I do believe that students should encounter ideas that alert them to the power structures of society. I do think that the constant division of public/private schooling does nothing to help debate or challenge those structures. Since they are largely damaging and restrictive, I do want students to become aware of them, how they operate and the effect they have. To respond to one of Duff's correspondents, anything so crass as playing a pro-peace record with a fulmination for the pupil audience to be something other than are is doomed to failure (and rightly so). The problem is that accepting the status quo, accepting the current structures as normal and rightful dooms too many to failure and subjugation. And I can't really sit comfortable with perpetuating that, no matter how many Duffs take me to task for propounding my views online...

Ah well. I could probably spend all my days replying to the Duff and his criticisms which hardly feels productive. Nevertheless, I hope that he and my other readers (I have some!) have got something out of reading my musings.


David Duff said...

Our hostess provides an excellent demonstration of flogging a dead horse. She goes to enormous lengths to *repeat* her previously recorded views which I had also quoted at length.

What she seems to have missed is that I was *not* arguing with those opinions, indeed, I made it quite clear by writing: "Now please do not misunderstand. Ms. Rullsenberg is absolutely entitled to these opinions."

The point I *did* make, quite clearly, I thought, was that when Ms. Rullsenberg claimed that she would be a fair-minded and even-handed teacher examining all sides of a debate amongst her pupils, she was (let me put this kindly) kidding herself.

However, the matter can be easily settled. Let her write a brief post on the advantages of free market capitalism over socialism, and let us all see what sort of a fist she makes of it. She could look on it as a test of her "thinking skills" - whatever they are.

Neil said...

Why should anyone do a post to order? You appear to be saying that to accept the status quo is to be unbiased and objective and to challenge the status quo is to be biased and subjective.

A blog is a polemical medium and not a lecture and opinion rules.
Rullsenberg has nothing to prove and anyway she has to go home and taste my cooking.

David Duff said...

Wilson is as chivalrous as he is confused. I wrote no such thing.

The point at issue is whether or not Ms. Rullsenberg is capable or desirous of putting a case to her pupils that is at variance with her own opinions. She maintains that she can. I see no evidence, not least because all the evidence from her own writings, repeated and confirmed proudly above, indicates that she cannot.

And, no, there is absolutely no requirement for her to respond at all, but her silence would be eloquent.

I hope your cooking is better than mine!

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

The last word (and no, this is not to follow your demand or satisfy you with silence):

It really depends on how free your concept of capitalism is and to what extent the government is involved in maximising market efficiency. Realities are such that completely free economic markets don't exist: indeed excepting some anarcho-capitalists I doubt anyone believes they could practically exist without reinventing the world.

My ultimate response would be I don't have the considerable time necessary to prepare a full argument on this matter (this issue would be simplistic and nonsensical to articulate in a brief statement). To properly attempt to defend free market capitalism against socialism (which I would also argue has not yet been properly realised in practice) requires the presentation of examples, evidence and questions to interrogate validity.

Whilst you might feel I have ducked the question, I would ask that you pose the reverse question to yourself. Any answer in simplistic terms will always be inadequate, open to attack and needing further debate. I would also say that though you might feel that I have simply repeated myself, I would say I have given further examples to back up or explain my discussion. It's a stalemate and I want my blog to be more than just an attack mechanism to-and-fro with yourself.

David Duff said...

I take your point, and I didn't really expect you to attempt my litle 'thought experiment'. I merely hoped that it would give you pause, and that maybe you would look inwards honestly, and admit that you would find it extremely difficult to test the opinions of your students in debate if they actually agreed with *your* personal opinions.

You should have bought that red coat, and the hell with it!

Hilary Wade said...

I’m afraid I’ve been rather late in finding out that this discussion has moved, so this comment comes in belated response to the last-but-one or so. I think the motive for my telling the peacenik harangue anecdote has been slightly misinterpreted. The anecdote wasn’t intended to illustrate the inept communication skills of one single member of staff a long time ago, but rather as a sort of parable to underline the more general point that people, even when young, can be self-seeking, ornery and perverse, and when you apply an action to a group of them, while what you get is not necessarily an equal and opposite reaction, exactly, it will almost certainly be an effect different to that which you intended.

But perhaps it would have been better if I’d used a broader example. So let’s take comprehensives. These, as you will know, were introduced by Shirley Williams in the belief that if you take a group of children who smoke, swear, cover their bags with graffiti and bunk off school, and teach them side by side with others who are quiet, shy, studious, neat, do their homework and buy copies of “Mathematical Circus” out of their pocket money, then Group A will be inspired to emulate the example of Group B, and everyone will benefit. This groundbreaking piece of child psychology was put into effect at my own school (Wath) in 1969, and in 1975 I found myself at the receiving end of it.

Back in those early days, the Labour party must have felt that comprehensive reforms were a popular idea and a vote-catcher, because round about 1981 or so, the then leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock, visited our school to give a talk to the Sixth Form on how he and his party would extend the reforms, should they be returned to power at the next General Election. Public schools, private schools, grammar schools would all be abolished, he told us. Instead we should expect to see the introduction of “Eton Comprehensive,” “Harrow Comprehensive,” and so on. And I remember sitting there, aghast at these proposals, and thinking, “But I like the idea of boarding schools! I like Dimsie and Molesworth and Red Circle School and “Fifth Form at St Dominics,” and even though I’m at a comp myself, I find it really heartening that there are still these two dozen or so places – “ (I wasn’t clear at the time quite how many public schools there were, but it seemed a fair estimate) – “where they still have proper dormitory feasts and the teachers wear mortar boards and the Head is strict but fair and the school captain wins the match in the last over by hitting a six into the pavilion clock, and the school, in short, is just like a proper school ought to be. In fact, the things that I like most about Wath itself hearken back to the days when it was still a grammar school – the old West Riding buildings, the 1930’s school song – shamefully neglected by the early ‘80’s - (“Let the hockey ball fly, let the tennis ball speed”), my father’s tale of how he and other VIth form boys built a complete Spitfire in the quad in 1943. I wish our school had more of these features to recommend it. I don’t want us to become more like a “Comprehensive”. God no. We’d end up like what you see on Grange Hill.” (The word ‘chav’ hadn’t been invented then, but had it existed, it would, I think, have figured at this point in my train of thought.) Of course at that age I had neither the diction not the chutzpah to articulate any of this out loud. Though I sometimes wonder what Mr Kinnock would have said if I had done.

None the less, a lot of schoolchildren evidently still think this way – look at the abiding appeal of Hogwarts.

Anyhow. In due course I went up to university, and met people who had actually been to public schools, en masse. And I didn’t find it divisive at all, more of a vast social melange. I don’t think I’ve known any group of people before or since so fluid, so socialised, so much constantly in and out of one another’s rooms (apart from the then presiding officer of the Labour Club, bloke called Kamm, who memorably slammed his door in my face) constantly arguing, discussing, exchanging ideas, views, experiences, riffing off one another until the early hours, and all of this happening out of natural undergraduate resilience and curiosity and without any prompting or agitation at all on the part of the dons, who were (one assumed) there to teach. Even the allegedly “elitist”, all-male dining societies were happy to extend invitations to women, in my experience. And if I came out of all this social mobility with any conclusions, one of them would be this: that wherever they come from, boys of that age are pretty tribal creatures, on the whole, and that the biggest loser in the comprehensive system is the bright but impressionable boy who is unlucky enough to fall in with a coterie where it is fashionable to be thick; and it is to protect the interests of this highly vulnerable group, and prevent their talents from being suppressed or squandered, that I would vote, had I the option, for the reintroduction of the grammar school.

But I don’t suppose that this is the result that Shirley Williams ever meant to achieve.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Just a brief note as I am about to trudge home and get myself to an election booth.

David, thanks for the enouragement about the jacket. I will cope quite well without it though! And as a postscript, I have done a great deal of devil's advocate in classes over the years even - sometimes even especially - when students have shared my views, particularly if I have sensed that they have not really thought their reasoning through. So in my time I have taken anti-conceptual art stances; I have taken to task simplistic statements about women having to have careers rather than being at home parents; and I have challenged anti-interventionist/pro-war/anti-war arguments --- I do try wherever possible to get them to think and I hope that they do at least do that. But I don't try to pretend to objectivity, because frequently that is where acceptance of ideas at face value lies.

And as a final note: Hilary. Fascinating post and one I will try to come back to in future days/weeks. I walk a fine line between promoting egalitarianism and recognising difference each day and this is what the grammar/secondary modern and the comprehensive systems have all failed to grasp. As for public schools: yep, no trouble agreeing with your comment that many are able debaters, confident and articulate people. But what is it about that environment that inculcates that, and must we condemn all outside it to be without it? It's also a lot easier to be at ease with a variety of people when you have been instilled with the confidence of your social position than when you are constantly aware of the fragility of it...

To be returned to!

David Duff said...

Hilary what an excellent comment. I would implore you to bear my children but, alas, I think I'm past that sort of thing, and anyway, the little 'memsahib' might have something to say.

I'm giving a talk shortly entitled: "Books Wot I Read: The Literary Perigrinations of a Semi-educated Man". It will be a (short) history of my lamentable reading over a lifetime. I intend to start by offering a huge homage to the unknown writers of Wizard, Rover and Champion comics who, week in, week out, enthralled me with their tales of mostly public school chaps doing frightfully decent things and dishing the rotters. Those stories never raised in my lower-middle class heart the slightest tinge of envy. In retrospect, having been brought up without formal religion, I now realise that they provided me with my moral compass. They spelt out what was the 'right' way to conduct yourself, and what was the 'wrong' way. I never lived up to it entirely, of course, but at least I always felt shame when I transgressed.

However, in future, please try not to mention Shirley Williams, it causes in me, either apoplexy or uncontrolled giggles.

Please forgive me, but I could not resist sending Oliver a copy of your 'memoir', particularly as I have just given him a rough-ish ride over on my blog.