Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Samarakis: Naked Among the Clothed

A favourite book cover:


Although I have had this book for over 15 years and although I read it ages and ages ago, it is only this year that I realised what the cover photo depicted. Perhaps it was the fact that earlier this year a stray goat wandered onto our field and we tried to look after it. A couple of days later it became obvious why the shepherd had never come looking for it. It was ill. It died. Another sad loss. I buried it, taking care to ensure that the grave was covered well enough with a pallet and heavy stones so that the dogs would not dig it up again.

When I next came to pick up the book by Samarakis, I seemed to see for the first time what was on the front cover. I already knew the boy was Peruvian. There was a note to that effect in the book. Now I saw that the baby goat must have just died, and the boy is desperately trying to blow the breath of life back into it. It suddenly looked like one of the most moving images I had ever seen. And still is.

I re-read the short story bearing the same title as the book. It was first published in 1954. What is striking is that nothing essentially has changed.

In the kafeneio the protagonist flicks through that day's paper: stories about the government deficit, a kidnapping, a rape and three suicides - two for financial reasons. Later in the paper the section about what used to be called high society, with reports of how elegant and chic the ladies were the previous evening.

"He ran his hand through his hair, and wiped the sweat from his brow. He was perspiring, although it wasn't hot.

"The war, the hydrogen bomb, the suicides for financial reasons, high society... What a panorama of life!

"Nothing had changed for the better since the war. Things were just as they were before. Once he had hoped, as millions all over the world had hoped, that after the war, after so much blood had been spilled, that things would change. That peace would come, that the nightmare of war would never again cast its shadow over the earth, that there would be no more suicides for financial reasons, that...

...

"In the mirror opposite he caught sight of his face. A very ordinary face. Nothing indicated the turmoil within."

Then on the next page, when the protagonist finally admits to himself that he no longer feels that there is any hope, there is my favourite passage:

"It suddenly seemed a terrible thing to be without hope. He had the feeling that everyone in the kafeneio was looking at him and others in the street were thinking and whispering to each other: 'That man there has no hope!' As if it were a crime. As if there were some mark on him making his guilt obvious to all. As if he were naked among the clothed."

Now, as then, the times have some of us thinking about the "dark face of life". Some. Not so many it seems. And we walk about feeling like the naked among the clothed.

Yet we do not completely despair. There is some hope - however dim. We know there must be, if only because there once was a boy in the hills of Peru who desperately tried to blow the breath of life back into his limp infant goat.

In Defence of Home Logging

A confession: We are home loggers. We are fortunate to live on the very edge of civilisation, beyond which the land stretches as far as the eye can see without human habitation. Although that wild area is classified by the local authorities as forest, it is not exactly what ordinarily comes to mind when people hear the word "forest". For the most part it is filled not with tall trees but with a sort of bush - the prickly-leaved pournaria that abound in Greece. Generally, they don't grow to much over head height, but in the hollows where the richer soil allows, there are a good few thickets within easy walking range where the pournaria manage to develop into trees over three metres tall.

Well before winter sets in we hike over to those thickets with a rucksac, a hand saw (because although we have a chainsaw, we prefer to keep a low profile in the forest) and a pair of thick gloves (because those pournaria are damn prickly). Now we don't fell thoughtlessly. For a start off, we always leave the tallest trees. Of the less tall trees we choose which are the best to cut so that the remaining trees have space to grow unhindered. What gets felled is cut into lengths about a metre long, packed into the rucksac about 30kg at a time and carried back to the cottage. In my opinion the practice is utterly sustainable.

In today's local newspaper there is a headline on the front page calling on the authorities to clamp down on the "thieves" operating in the forest. I read on and I see that the paper is actually repeating a call issued by a local ecological group. Now, in general we are very sympathetic to the ecologists, but we object to this blanket characterisation of home loggers as thieves. Am I a thief? Whose property have I stolen? If it is the case that other home loggers are cutting trees indiscriminately or if there are places on the mountain where people are filling large trucks with logs, rather than carrying them home on their backs, then I agree steps have to be taken to protect the forest, but let's not start a discourse calling anyone who cuts wood to keep his shivering family warm in the winter a thief, especially in these times of crisis when some families may have no other option.

If we are thieves, here is a photo of our loot.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Walter Benjamin's angel of history

Walter Benjamin (born 1892) lived through the First World War and its aftermath in Germany. Following the rise of Nazism he fled Germany in 1933 (to escape persecution as a Jew). He fled to France. After the occupation of France in 1940 he had to flee again. He made it to Marseille and managed to get on a freighter bound for India, but he was discovered and put ashore. Later he decided to walk across the Pyrenees to avoid border patrols. He had an American visa and hoped eventually to make it to the States to join his colleagues Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. He managed to cross the border into Spain. While staying at a hotel in the Catalan town of Port Bou he was betrayed by the hotel owner. On 26 September 1940 he was found dead in his hotel room. The circumstances of his death remain mysterious.

A few months before his death he wrote “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. The ninth thesis is a meditation on a drawing by Paul Klee called “Angelus Novus” – a drawing which he had bought in 1921 and which remained one of his most prized possessions.

Here is the drawing by Klee.


Here is the ninth thesis by Benjamin.
A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin
(Below is an edited extract from an insightful piece by Raymond Barglow.)

The intensity of Benjamin’s description here suggests that he experienced the condition from which the Angel of History cannot escape as a personal as well as a political impasse. Although he did not go to prison or suffer any other severe repression on account of his beliefs or activities, his outlook on life is inseparable from his perception of history.

Like so many of his generation, Benjamin experienced the First World War – the bloodiest conflagration in human history up to that time – as pointless and horrible carnage. But the revolutionary upheaval that occurred in its wake, in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, seemed to represent a turning toward social emancipation as powerful and promising as any that had ever been experienced in the past.

That promise was not realised. The revolutionary movement faded, to be replaced first by a cynical nihilism then by fascism.

Like Klee’s Angel, Benjamin felt caught in history’s tangle – propelled forward, yet incapable of disengaging from the past. He was acutely sensitive to everything going on around him, seeming to live without the normal defensive mechanisms that block out the horrors being perpetrated around us.

In the historical project of liberation, Benjamin represents the Angel of History as being on our side – the angel wants to intervene but does not have the power to do so. Do we? Benjamin criticizes the pessimism that regards fundamental change as impossible and that tells us that historically, utopian dreams have been losing propositions. As an antidote to resignation, Benjamin proposes “the gift of fanning the spark of hope [that was] in the past,” as if memory could ignite a kind of blaze of aspiration across the generations.

Yet Benjamin could not figure out how to join with others to put such a memory-based politics into practice. Although he enjoyed the company of his friends, he conducted his life quite privately, independent of any political association. Alone, feeling too deeply the catastrophe of history, he was himself destroyed.

Our footnote


A suggestion: The angel depicted by Paul Klee has died. It signified the hope of a utopian impulse. Benjamin's Theses on History are a dialogue with historical materialism, which for all its faults, retained the utopian impulse, and insisted that there could be a decisive break with the bad history of the past, and there would be some kind of redemption - it wouldn't all have been for nothing. Is there any discourse like that now? Are we working together – struggling – fighting perhaps – for a better world?

In a sense history has died. Here in Europe at the moment the only talk in the corridors of power is about balancing the books. I don't hear any visions of a better society that might become possible once the books have been balanced. If I raised the question to an imaginary European bureaucrat once the debts have been paid (assuming they can be paid), I imagine being told: "You can shop. What more do you want?" And he leaves before I have time to speak because he is convinced that the question is unanswerable.

Postcript


Henry Giroux’s article on Walter Benjamin’s angel of history reads it in the light of the contemporary situation in America. Here is the crescendo:
We no longer live in an age in which history's "winged messengers" bear witness to the suffering endured by millions and the conditions that allow such suffering to continue. Thinking about past and future has collapsed into a presentism in which the utter normalization of a punishing inequality and the atomizing pleasures of instant gratification come together to erase both any notion of historical consciousness and any vestige of social and moral responsibility owed as much to future generations as to the dead.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Back to school with Spark Notes

I have just been helping James launch his Quintessence of Dust blog – whose title borrows from a Hamlet speech that – ideally – an educated Englishman ought to have pretty much off by heart. I didn’t, so when James wasn’t looking I Googled "quintessence of dust" to make good the lack. The link that caught my eye was to Spark Notes. I clicked it.

In a plain font in black and white, there was the snippet of the speech:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
Reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! and yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust?

Here - I take it - there is a reason to pause and reflect upon the ways that we puff up a ridiculous conception of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things - a conception that prevents a more humble appreciation of the realities of our situation. What do I mean? I admit that more needs to be said, but to the right and left of the white box with the Hamlet speech there are large photos of smiling attractive teenagers jumping in the air. I mouse over those photos in a moment of distraction (because it is impossible not to be distracted), and see that those photos link to a page entitled Back To School. I allow myself to be distracted further and click a photo of a smiling, air-borne boy in a check shirt.

Despite the photos, because this is Spark Notes, because I associate (perhaps wrongly) Spark Notes with literature, and because I have just been reading a piece of sixteenth century English drama on the Spark Notes website, I am expecting this Back To School page to be full of things to help students get (back) into literature, or at least back into studying, back into learning, back into a deeper engagement with the wider world.

I was wrong. Here's the list of topics on the Back To School page:

1. The Pros and Cons of Being Brunette

2. First Day of School Pics!
(With a photo of Sabrina and the caption: "We love Sabrina's multicolored shoes—they give her uniform personality!")

3. Thrifty Back-to-School Outfits
"It's that time again—backpacks, schedules, SCHOOL! But first and foremost, it's time to go shopping for back-to-school outfits."

4. The Pros and Cons of Being Blonde

5. Shivani Explains Makeup: Concealer Edition
"Concealer is foundation’s fraternal twin sister; they are very similar, but possess key differences."

6. 10 Best Things about Feeling Healthy
(This is actually about losing weight.)

7. Shivani Gives Her Wardrobe a Makeover

8. Everything You Need to Know About Body Piercing


"Fraternal twin sister" jars a bit for me, but that is the least of the problems here.

This is all aimed at girls. Perhaps Sparky people have done some research and found that boys don't figure much in their target market. But which young lady - after starting to worry so much about her skin, her hair, her figure and her clothes - would be at all inclined to click back to the page with Shakespeare's profound words and muse a while longer about human vanity?

Quintessence of dust indeed.

We are absolutely and completely fucked.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Suicide of Nikos Kerasiotis

On September 25, 2008 there was a demonstration outside the New York Stock Exchange protesting the massive Wall Street bail out. One of the demonstrators carried a banner saying: "Jump You Fuckers". As far as I know, no one jumped.

The crisis that began on Wall Street only hit us here in Greece hard much later, and it hit hard first in the construction sector. Masses of people who had been earning a living on building sites lost their jobs. One of those was Nikos Kerasiotis, aged 34. He lived in a tiny two-roomed cottage next to the river four or five fields below us.

At about 10.15pm on September 8 2011 Nikos shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle and died instantly.

I don't want Nikos to be treated as just another statistic. He was a friend, and in this dry, Greek valley with only 14 or 15 households, he was the only real friend we had. He was the only person who came round for coffee or sometimes for a meal, not often, but when Flora - my wife - passed him occasionally on the road, she would invite him up and sometimes he would come. He never came empty-handed, even after he lost his job. The bottom drawers in our fridge are still full of all the apples he brought with him the last time he came to see us, and above them the six cans of beer we never got round to drinking.

The really sad thing is that on any measure of what constitutes a good person, he ranked way up at the top, which must sound like the sort of thing anyone would say of their friend at a time like this, but in Nikos's case it is true. In this backwater of rural Greece where there is so much nastiness and back-biting and mutual hostility, Nikos kept himself way above all that. He was a tall, strong man who had had special forces training during his military service (still obligatory here in Greece), but he never seemed to allow himself to become aggressive when he was wronged. And in a society where corruption is rife, he struck me as incorruptible. Certainly in this little valley outside the city of Volos, there was no one who could be called virtuous apart from Nikos. The best among us has now died, so unnaturally, and unnecessarily.

Why did he do it? It is painful to hear people say - as I heard them today - that he was crazy - psychologically ill. There is something shockingly cold and cruel - almost violent - in pigeon-holing Nikos in that way. However disturbed he may have become, that fatal shot was the result of a long history that deserves respect - a history that must surely have become unbearably painful.

Nikos grew up in much the way that his father must have grown up, spending a great deal of his time in the forest helping his family make charcoal (karvouna), managing huge earth-covered piles of smouldering wood - kaminia - that could never be left unattended for months on end lest the fires get out of hand and the whole forest go up in smoke. As soon as was legally possible, his parents wanted him to work full-time at the kaminia, and so he was taken out of school despite the protests of his teachers who insisted that the unusually bright boy ought to be allowed to continue his education.

I first saw the family one summer about 12 years ago. I had ridden up the mountain for the first time on my motorbike, hurriedly looking for a children's camp that I was supposed to start work at. Somewhere near the camp high on the mountain I took a wrong turning, went up a dirt road in the trees and suddenly came upon a soot-covered couple busy outside the rudest of shelters made from branches covered with old plastic sheeting. I could have asked for directions but I am ashamed to admit that the sight was so unlike anything I had seen before that I quickly turned the motorbike round and sped off back to the main road.

As it turned out, Nikos's family had close ties with the children's camp - they were lending the camp a donkey to help ferry supplies - and soon I got to know them.

Nikos must have been about 20 or 21 then. When I sat down to have coffee with him and his parents in the forest he didn't seem at all bitter or frustrated. I imagine the frustration set in years later, when Nikos moved to find work in the city (Volos) following the retirement of his father and his decision not to continue the charcoal business (where conditions, in any case, had already been undermined by the influx of cheap Albanian labour).

Nikos found work, first in a factory and then on the building sites of Volos, and with that came his first taste of economic independence. The city must have been both liberating and tormenting. The torment seems to have been most acute around the issue of women. Back in the sexless forest I imagine Nikos became accustomed to celibacy, and I imagine him feeling he was saving himself for the woman of his dreams. Among all the smoke and the soot, shovelling earth, packing charcoal and watching over the kaminia, I imagine Nikos dreaming of the tall, proud woman who would become his wife.

Nikos never found that proud woman. A few weeks ago he told us of a day he had just spent working picking pears. While he was in the trees there was an attractive woman from a nearby village packing the pears neatly in boxes. When they met in one of the breaks, Nikos - who had a car - asked her if she wanted to go for a ride with him after work. "I wouldn't give you the honour," she said (the word "honour" sounds old-fashioned in English and not the sort of thing a village girl would say, but the Greek equivalent - timi - doesn't sound at all out of place). In retelling the story, Nikos made it sound more like a joke, but I bet those words were a dagger to his heart.

There seemed to be lots of other stories along the same lines. Just this morning one of the local shepherd's sons - with whom Nikos spent more of his free time - told us another. When his village - Pouri - had its annual festival this year, Nikos invited the shepherd's sons to go with him. They walked into the village cafeteria, where there happened to be a large gathering of the local girls. As soon as they saw Nikos they started laughing. I know that he had spoken in the past to at least one of them and asked her out, and had been refused with the excuse that the girl wouldn't go out with a karvouniaris (charcoal maker).

Now I have never spoken to the shepherd's four sons (aged between 17 and mid-30s) about this, but it seems clear that if a man comes down from the hillsides around here to the city, and is a cheerful bloke with money in his wallet and untroubled by high romantic ideals, he can find female companionship sufficient at least to satisfy the needs of the flesh. The shepherd's sons, despite their father being a ruthless blaspheming tyrant, are a very cheerful bunch who are clearly not having to struggle with celibacy. From what he told us, Nikos went out partying with them a number of times, but could never quite join in the fun. He had his romantic dream and I am sure he didn't want to ruin it.

Nikos just might have made his dream come true, despite all the idiotic prejudices in provincial Greece, if he had been more able to communicate with women. Growing up in a forest with a younger sister whose greatest affections were for the family mule can't have helped. Women seemed to remain for Nikos another species whose behaviour was unfathomable. Hence his tendency to rush clumsily at things when he met a woman he found genuinely attractive.

I doubt though that the romantic problems on their own would have pushed Nikos to commit suicide. While he was in work there must have been an apparent chance of making enough money to rise above the ridiculed status of the karvouniaris. But after being made redundant and having to scrape around for a little money picking pairs here and a little money digging a cess pit somewhere else, he must have felt trapped in poverty, and lumbered forever with the status he had been ridiculed for.

Because Nikos had somehow picked up a good working knowledge of English (and it was amazing that he managed to do that without any formal lessons and without anyone to speak to in English) we suggested he go abroad and look for work. From what I gather, he did seriously consider the idea, but somehow could never muster the courage to leave. He did go to the capital - Athens - to look for work, but either he didn't find any or things went wrong in the big city, and he returned to his tiny cottage by the river (where, by the way, there is only water on the very wetest days of the year).


Now I am left with an awful sense of guilt at not having seen the signs and not having done anything. On the last couple of occasions that he visited us he did keep mentioning guns and referring back to his experience in the army as an outstanding marksman, but those references always seemed to crop up in the middle of discussions of political corruption and economic collapse here in Greece. It made me worry a bit that I might someday see news of an assassination and then see footage of Nikos in handcuffs. It never crossed my mind that he might be thinking of turning the gun on himself. But it should have crossed my mind. It was obvious that Nikos was being far too hard on himself. No one criticised him more severely than he himself did. Fit and tall with fair hair he was a "fine figure of a man" as they say, but he would always say he was unattractive, and flail his long arms around in the air to emphasize the point. He did occasionally allow himself to speak angrily about how his parents had wasted a large sum of their life savings buying him a car without speaking to him first (and choosing a car that really was useless for someone like Nikos) and also speak angrily about his sister (with whom there were disputes about family property, apparently), but at the end of the conversation the impression was always that he blamed no one more than himself.

Turning against himself I imagine that he had allowed the condescending laughter of the stupid girls of the village to play incessantly in his head like a broken record. Perhaps there was no way out, but someone should have tried to help him find a way out. I don't think anyone did. The last time he visited I suggested going hiking together (something he had never done before). I meant it, but looking back, the suggestion probably didn't sound very serious, and to get him to agree I would have had to really insist and encourage him. I didn't do any of that.

I am also ashamed to admit that I never actually went to his cottage to visit him. He invited us over once when he rebuilt the roof and wanted to show us his handy work (or we suggested going over to see it - I forget which), but after that he didn't invite us again and I never took the initiative to call on him. It did cross my mind, but I always doubted whether he would want me to call, because of my own stupid hang-ups, but also because, despite my fondness and admiration for him and my wish for us to be friends, there was always this feeling that we were worlds apart. I never stopped to think that he might need someone to call, because now that I think about it, I don't think anyone ever called on him.

On Thursday evening I went by on my scooter at about 8.30pm. After coming over the little stone bridge I was only about 100 yards from his cottage and it would have been easy to make a right turn and call in on him. I did look up at his cottage. There was no light on and I didn't see him. I just carried on on my way up the hill to our house. About two hours later he shot himself.



Sunrise over the valley where Nikos lived.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

A philosophy of EFL?

In the post today I got an invitation to the International Publishers Exhibition in Athens and a free copy of one of the Mary Glasgow magazines. The exhibition is a kind of conference, and I see from the programme that there are 31 talks. 14 talks deal specifically with exam preparation. Talks dealing with classes at a lower level tend to emphasize things like "fun activities for juniors and seniors," and "exciting" materials for A-C classes, although the excitement there seems to centre around new technology like the whiteboard. One talk title mentions teaching methods, but it is actually about how to use interactive e-books in the classroom, not about methodology as such. Another talk is about how to make education more "effective", reducing "teaching sessions to only two periods per week". Only one talk mentions the word "philosophy", but the subtitle is: "a totally new philosophy for preparing students for all higher level English language certificates" – clearly not much philosophy there, though. Someone with a more thoughtful approach to the business of teaching English has to wait for the last (the 31st) talk given by Cliff Parry from the British Council – a talk entitled "Values in Education", looking at teachers as "models of values" and asking the question: "What are values and how are these reflected in the classroom?" I want to go to that talk (and only that talk), and I find myself wondering if it is entirely a coincidence that Cliff was sent to the back of the queue. Did he do something wrong?

Let's have a quick flick through the Mary Glasgow magazine. Now, I just assumed that Mary Glasgow was ever so slightly radical. Hence my disappointment on flicking through the magazine (bearing in mind that this is the Crown magazine, aimed at pre-intermediate level). Cover topic: money, illustrated with photos of Bank of England notes that have the faces of smiling kids superimposed on them. Plus a star: "Britain's top tennis star, Andy Murray". Page two: a photo of Lisa looking happy in her bedroom surrounded by her collection of 12,000 Pokemon toys. Page three: pumpkin lanterns with faces carved out of the skin – the five faces being those of four famous Hollywood actors and actresses plus the singer, Madonna.

Past the two-page spread about Britain's top tennis star onto page six, which is about money, with more photos of children smiling out of Bank of England notes, supplemented with a big photo of a tall pile of pound coins with the face of a girl in the background staring anxiously at the top of it almost as if it were some sacred totem pole that she must pay homage to. Then flicking over to page seven where there is a piece about a rap star and how he became rich. Following that an interview with a "real British teenager" talking about his pocket money and spending habits. After the English coach clarifies the correct preposition to use when telling the time, we have another double-page spread, this time about Cheryl Cole, who wasn't good at school but who became famous as a singer and talent show judge. The two last pages are almost in black and white, and tell us about the "amazing life" of Florence Nightingale. In one of the frames from the cartoon we see the compassionate Florence reading about thousands of British soldiers dying in Turkey and saying: "I must go to the Crimea – I can help those poor soldiers!" She is appalled by the conditions in the makeshift hospital. "Come on ladies. We must feed these men good food. We must dig toilets. We must wash the floors. We must open the windows," she says to the other nurses.


After all those stories about people becoming rich and famous, and photos of people smiling out of banknotes, and all the concern about money and what to spend it on, I wonder what sort of impression the story about Florence Nightingale might make on a young mind. It's the only story in the magazine about anyone who actually does anything good. It's right at the back of the magazine. The colours are all sepia tones, and the story is about a woman who has been dead for a century. There are some pretty powerful and rather dubious subliminal messages there.


Part of the message comes from the juxtaposition. For instance, children closing the magazine after reading about the "amazing" life of Florence Nightingale, thinking perhaps about how thin and underfed she looked, or wondering if they could ever bring themselves to dig toilets in Turkey, can't help but notice the back cover, which is devoted to sending multi-coloured birthday greetings to Super Mario – "a famous video character". The huge gaudy photo of the obviously well-fed Super Mario must surely obliterate the pale memory of Florence Nightingale in the minds of all but the most sensitive children.

Perhaps Mary Glasgow seemed quite radical back in the 1950s. According to the Wikipedia entry about her she proposed "abandoning the whole apparatus of grammar, replacing it with a simple course in conversation, greetings, courtesy phrases… with songs, cross references to cookery, sport, geography, railway posters and fashion."

Although railway posters haven't caught on as a foreign language teaching aid, Mary Glasgow's more general approach to producing "fun" learning materials has now become pretty much mainstream.

What does this have to do with a philosophy of EFL? What I want to suggest is that we might be able to appreciate the need for something like a philosophy of EFL by reflecting a little on, for one thing, the materials we are using and the subtle messages they might be conveying. If this magazine is anything to go by (and I admit that a sample size of one is a bit limited), by handing out Mary Glasgow materials we are lending support to a mindless celebrity culture. Unwittingly perhaps at first, we are promoting those values, going from one activity to another centering on the lives of the rich and famous. If we are not happy about promoting those values, then we need to start thinking about what values we should be promoting, and that is the kind of thinking that would lead to what would be called in everyday language a "philosophy of education".

But we don't have to begin by looking critically at teaching materials. We could begin by taking another look at things like seating arrangements, whether we encourage students to work on their own or in groups, how we praise and assess them, the way discipline is imposed, etc, etc.

There is lots to be discussed here, and in a two day conference with 31 talks it is a topic that deserves to be discussed in more than one of those talks, and it is definitely not a topic to be relegated to the final talk, when lots of people are probably a bit tired and anxious to get off home.

Does it matter if we don't have a philosophy of education, and if we leave before the Cliff Parries of this world have had a chance to speak? Yes, it matters massively. There is absolutely no hope for society if the educators allow themselves to become unthinking cogs in the commercial machine. Perhaps I am seeing things too bleakly, but my impression is that things have sunk so low that I am cheered just to see that someone has a bit of a philosophy – it really doesn't matter what sort of philosophy it is. Any old philosophy – as long as people are thinking about it and discussing it – is way, way better than the current intellectual self-abnegation on the part of teachers.

In closing, let me just touch on one issue: fun, and giving students material that they want to read and work with, which is presumably the idea behind materials like the Mary Glasgow magazines. Now if we could resurrect Mary Glasgow and ask her to justify this, she would doubtless articulate the sort of progressive approach that David Deubel neatly summed up in one of his blog posts:

Progressives believe that "the teacher should try to arouse student interest and motivation through the use of student centered activities and interests in the classroom. The curriculum should in no way be prescribed and should come from the "interests and needs of the students." It should in no way be imposed upon students from above."

Now the reason why we are called Torn Halves is because the world is full of stuff that is torn in half, and the progressive concept of education is no exception. Of course, we must try to arouse student interest and motivation and work with students as they are, with all their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncracies, but we must also insist – and find clever ways of getting this across as much as possible – that there are things – values – more meaningful than the bling of pop culture, with all the greed, manipulation and profiteering that goes on behind it. We must insist, for instance, that Florence Nightingale gets put somewhere near the front of the magazine, if not on the cover, and when someone suggests we include a fat, happy Super Mario, we tell them very firmly that Super Mario has no place in the English classroom. We don't object to children whiling away a little of their freetime playing mindless video games, but lets not create the impression that the virtual stooge in a plumber's overall has any right to stand shoulder to shoulder with Miss Nightingale.

The progressives would be more in the right if students arrived directly at the school from lots of little houses on various prairies, each bringing interests and needs that are genuinely their own. That is far from the case. Children arrive with interests and needs deviously whipped up by cynical marketing managers dangling gaudy baubles in front of them. Teachers need to see the school (as I am sure most of them do) as a refuge from the barbarism of commercialism, and their work as an antidote to the pernicious nihilism of business. In such a context it is equally important to have a clear vision of what we ought to be doing, instead of just letting the kids carry on running after those gaudy baubles and patting ourselves on the back for being oh-so child-centred. Another word for that sort of clear vision is: "philosophy".