If you engage with [childrens’] interest, you can also help them toward appreciating and understanding the context, most obviously the history and politics, but also the life lessons to be learned from the decision making and engineering, for example the parable of the Panther and the T34 (tldr: “Good enough now is sometimes better than perfect, later.”)
You can even view stories about soldiers and soldiering as workplace adventures, since most of them hinge on office politics and team building.
And, in this context, the violent video games are just another learning tool, for all that they are also fun and a way to let off steam.
The third cost is more nebulous: imagined agency.
Children don’t have a lot of real agency, and, not only is it hard for a child to imagine modern adult agency, it’s also not very exciting.
One of the reasons action stories are compelling is that the main conflict is explicit and easy to grasp, and character agency simple and tangible: you know who Sharpe is struggling with because they are trying to kill each other; and you know he has agency because he has a unit of men, a rifle, and that big French cavalry sword.
It’s just much much easier to play soldiers in the garden, than aid worker, doctor or even adventurer. After a certain age, a child can only spend so long pretending to climb a mountain or pushing through the jungle undergrowth, but they can spend an entire afternoon enjoying a running skirmish, especially if they have those cool laser tag guns that actually track hits.
If you take away the plastic gun (with it’s don’t-shoot-me orange cap), ban Call of Duty, and censor books with guns and explosions on the cover, then — to me — it feels like you’re saying, Don’t imagine making important decisions, balancing risks, or being proactive.
M. Harold Page, “Children and War Toys and Violent Video Games and Action Stories”, Charlie’s Diary, 2016-11-15.
November 29, 2016
November 22, 2016
“AAaargwannawannaaaagongongonaargggaaaaBLOON!” which is the traditional sound of a very small child learning that with balloons, as with life itself, it is important to know when not to let go of the string. The whole point of balloons is to teach small children this.
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky, 2004.
November 20, 2016
M. Harold Page, guest-posting at Charles Stross’s blog:
Little Harry blinks at me through his heavy Sellotaped glasses. “What’s that for?”
“It’s a submachine gun,” I say. “It fires lots of bullets.” I mime. “Bang bang bang!”
I’m helping out on a school trip. Normally I avoid volunteering – it’s too easy for self employed parents to end up as the school’s go-to. However this visit is to Edinburgh Castle and my daughter Morgenstern was very keen I should put in a showing…
So here I am helping to herd 5-year olds through the military museum. Morgenstern is nowhere in sight, but little Harry has latched onto me.
“Oh,” says Harry. He copies my mime and sprays the room. “Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang.”
“Not like that,” I say. “Three round bursts or you’ll run out of bullets. Plus the thing pulls up.” I mime. “So like this: Bang bang bang!… Bang bang bang!”
Solemnly, Harry discharges three imaginary bullets. “Bang bang bang!”
“Right,” I say, “Now, the other side have guns too. You have to use cover… better if you have a hand grenade, of course.”
His blue eyes widen. “What’s a hand grenade?”
So together we have a great time clearing each gallery with imagined grenade, automatic fire and bayonet.
Later on the way back to the bus Harry says, “My Daddy says wars are bad because people get killed…”
Yes, I had in fact spent the afternoon teaching (my best recollection of) World War Two house clearing tactics to the son of a local clergyman and peace activist.
November 12, 2016
So a new entry in the lexicon of mental illness?
Trumphausen by Proxy – when parents instill in their children irrational fears to garner sympathy and attention for themselves.
Comment by “Anna Puma” on “Leftists Ruin Everything, Including Childhood [Warden]”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2016-11-10.
November 4, 2016
The stories never said why she was wicked. It was enough to be an old woman, enough to be all alone, enough to look strange because you have no teeth. It was enough to be called a witch. If it came to that, the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about “a handsome prince” … was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called handsome? As for “a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long” … well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light! The stories don’t want you to think, they just wanted you to believe what you were told…
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men, 2003.
October 31, 2016
Just before Halloween my husband was talking about kids’ costumes (our favorite was when older boy was a dragon and younger boy a knight, with a plastic-sword-of-smiting brother. Good thing I padded the dragon head) and asked what I’d worn as a little girl. I pointed out we didn’t dress up for Halloween in Portugal and he asked what we did. So I started, “On Halloween night, you go to the cemetery–” and he said “Stop it. No story that starts like that ends well unless you’re Buffy.”
Sarah Hoyt, “Whistling Past the Graveyard”, According to Hoyt, 2015-11-07.
October 28, 2016
In Aeon, Paula Fass discusses an odd social invention of the 20th century that appears to have gone well past its best before date:
Adolescence as an idea and as an experience grew out of the more general elevation of childhood as an ideal throughout the Western world. By the closing decades of the 19th century, nations defined the quality of their cultures by the treatment of their children. As Julia Lathrop, the first director of the United States Children’s Bureau, the first and only agency exclusively devoted to the wellbeing of children, observed in its second annual report, children’s welfare ‘tests the public spirit and democracy of a community’.
Progressive societies cared for their children by emphasising play and schooling; parents were expected to shelter and protect their children’s innocence by keeping them from paid work and the wrong kinds of knowledge; while health, protection and education became the governing principles of child life. These institutional developments were accompanied by a new children’s literature that elevated children’s fantasy and dwelled on its special qualities. The stories of Beatrix Potter, L Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll celebrated the wonderland of childhood through pastoral imagining and lands of oz.
The United States went further. In addition to the conventional scope of childhood from birth through to age 12 – a period when children’s dependency was widely taken for granted – Americans moved the goalposts of childhood as a democratic ideal by extending protections to cover the teen years. The reasons for this embrace of ‘adolescence’ are numerous. As the US economy grew, it relied on a complex immigrant population whose young people were potentially problematic as workers and citizens. To protect them from degrading work, and society from the problems that they could create by idling on the streets, the sheltering umbrella of adolescence became a means to extend their socialisation as children into later years. The concept of adolescence also stimulated Americans to create institutions that could guide adolescents during this later period of childhood; and, as they did so, adolescence became a potent category.
With the concept of adolescence, American parents, especially those in the middle class, could predict the staging of their children’s maturation. But adolescence soon became a vision of normal development that was applicable to all youth – its bridging character (connecting childhood and adulthood) giving young Americans a structured way to prepare for mating and work. In the 21st century, the bridge is sagging at both ends as the innocence of childhood has become more difficult to protect, and adulthood is long delayed. While adolescence once helped frame many matters regarding the teen years, it is no longer an adequate way to understand what is happening to the youth population. And it no longer offers a roadmap for how they can be expected to mature.
October 2, 2016
Published on 1 Oct 2016
In this slightly shorter episode, Indy talks about indirect machinegun-fire and welfare facilities for children.
September 30, 2016
All teaching takes a toll on what’s taught, but high school is wondrously efficient at making interesting things dull. So why are kids forced to go? Well, one reason has to do with child-labor laws. In the middle of the 19th century, kids in most states could stop going to school after eighth grade, once they had learned to read and do a little arithmetic, and they got jobs. They worked on farms or in dark satanic mills, and one by one the states made laws (or began to enforce existing laws) that said that young people had to stay in school so their morals wouldn’t be corrupted and they wouldn’t languish in ignorance and be roped into a life of labor from dawn to dusk and die of consumption before they reached 30. So the government built high schools, lots of them, and the number of kids in high school burgeoned, and blossomed, and ballooned. By 1940, there were five times as many high-school graduates as there were before the labor-law reforms. It was a huge change all over the country, and it required discipline. Squads of truant officers would go sniffing around finding kids who were evading high school, and they threatened parents with fines or even jail time and got them to comply.
What happens if you suddenly have millions of kids in high school who would have been working under the old laws? You have to hire more teachers, and you have to figure out what they’re going to teach. You then get endless debates about cultural literacy — about what subjects should be required. Should everyone in high school learn Greek? What about Latin? What about sewing? Or needlepoint? Cursive? And the schools became bigger. The local schoolhouse went away, and the gigantic brick edifice on the edge of town took its place. James Conant, a president of Harvard, decided in the 1960s that the ideal high school should have at least 750 students. That’s a lot of students — it’s a battalion of students, in fact — and that’s perhaps where it all began to go wrong. The regional schools became meatpacking plants, or Play-Doh fun factories, squeezing out supposedly educated human beings, marching them around from class to class — bells bonging, punishments escalating, homework being loaded on. And yet the human beings who were marching from class to class weren’t being paid. “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369.” Oh, and do it for free.
Every day something like 16 million high-school students get up at the crack of dawn, slurp some oat clusters while barely conscious, hop on a bus, bounce around the county, show up and sit in a chair, zoned out, waiting for the first bell. If they’re late, they are written up. Even if they don’t do much academic work, they are physically present. Their attendance is a valuable commodity, because if students don’t attend, teachers and guidance counselors and principals and textbook makers and designers of educational software have no jobs. A huge lucrative industry is built around them, and the students get nothing out of it but a G.P.A. They deserve not to have their time wasted.
And it is wasted, as everyone knows. Teachers spend half their time shouting themselves hoarse, and young adults are infantilized. Their lives are absurdly regimented. Every minute is accounted for. They sit in one hot room after another and wait for each class to end. Time thickens. It becomes like saltwater taffy — it becomes viscous and sticky, and it stretches out and it folds back on itself through endless repetition. Tuesday is just like Wednesday, except the schedule is shuffled. Day after day of work sheets. By the time they graduate, they’ve done 13 years of work sheets. When they need to go to the bathroom, they have to write their name on a piece of paper by the door. If they hide in the bathroom, they’re in trouble. Whole hierarchies of punishment for scofflaws arise — school-supplied iPads are restricted, parents are called on the phone, in-school suspensions are meted out.
What makes all this almost tolerable is the kids themselves. They find ways to make it entertaining. They discover friends and co-conspirators. They rebel. They interrupt one another constantly in search of some tiny juicy Jolly Rancher of surprise. They subvert the system. They learn to lie convincingly to avoid work. The teacher’s aide (sometimes it was me) says, “Are you all caught up?” Kid: “Yep.” Aide: “Did you do that BrainPOP about the flipflap of the doodlesquat?” Kid: “Yep, handed that in yesterday.” One young man I talked to seemed unusually intelligent but downcast. I asked him how he survived his days. He pulled out his earbud, and he said one word: “music.”
Nicholson Baker, “Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher”, New York Times Magazine, 2016-09-07.
September 22, 2016
I taught all ages, from kindergarten to high school; I taught remedial classes and honors students. One day we factored polynomials, another day we made Popsicle-stick bird feeders for Mother’s Day, another day it was the Holocaust. Sometimes I substituted for an “ed tech” — a teacher’s aide whose job was to shadow kids with A.D.H.D. or dyslexia, or kids who simply refused to do any work at all. I was a bungling substitute most of the time; I embarrassed myself a hundred different ways, and got my feelings hurt, and complained, and shouted, and ate espresso chocolate to stay awake. It was shattering, but I loved it. After a while, I stopped being so keen on developing my grand treatise on educational theory, and instead I found that I enjoyed trying to keep a class going and watching it fall apart. I liked listening to students talk — even when they were driving themselves, and me, bonkers. The result of my 28 hellish, joyous days of paid work (I made $70 a day) was a book, more chronicle than meditation, called “Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids.”
The teachers left me daily assignments called “sub plans” to follow — which I clutched throughout the day until they became as finely crumpled as old dollar bills — and mostly what the sub plans wanted me to do was pass out work sheets. I passed them out by the thousands. Of all the work sheets I passed out, the ones in high school were the worst. In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-O-Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back. On the first page, usually, there are numbered “learning targets,” and inside, inevitably, a list of specialized vocabulary words to master. In English it’s unreliable narrator, or ethos, or metonymy, or thesis sentence. This is all fluff knowledge, meta-knowledge. In math, kids must memorize words like apothem and Cartesian coordinate; in science they chant domain! kingdom! phylum! class! etc., etc., and meiosis and allele and daughter cell and third-class lever and the whole Tinkertoy edifice of terms that acts to draw people away from the freshness and surprise and fantastic interfused complexity of the world and darkens our brains with shadowy taxonomic abstractions. The instantly forgettable gnat-swarm of word lists is useful in big-box high schools because it’s easier to test kids on whether they can temporarily define a set of terms than it is to talk to them and find out whether they have learned anything real and thrilling about what’s out there.
Nicholson Baker, “Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher”, New York Times Magazine, 2016-09-07.
August 15, 2016
Tiffany knew what the problem was immediately. She’d seen it before, at birthday parties. Her brother was suffering from tragic sweet deprivation. Yes, he was surrounded by sweets. But the moment he took any sweet at all, said his sugar-addled brain, that meant he was not taking all the rest. And there were so many sweets he’d never be able to eat them all. It was too much to cope with. The only solution was to burst into tears.
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men, 2003.
June 25, 2016
June 18, 2016
I admit, I’ve occasionally referred to the Pop-Tart incident as a prime example of bone-headed application of so-called “zero tolerance” rules, but given the full story, I’ll have to stop doing that:
Remember the Pop-Tart gun kid? He was 7 years old when he was suspended for chewing his breakfast (not actually a Pop-Tart, as it turned out) into the shape of a weapon and pretending to fire it at his classmates. Now he’s 11, and Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth just upheld his suspension.
In the end, the case hinged on whether the pastry incident was, in fact, the last straw in a long line of disciplinary problems. The Maryland school says yes; the parents say at the time of the suspension they were told that the two day suspension was a direct result of the deployment of food weaponry and that no other incidents were mentioned.
The records strongly suggest that this kid was trouble, but also that he was troubled. He was new to the school and joined the class late. In addition to the incidents of aggression, records contain multiple reports of the boy banging his own head on his desk and walls.
So why did the breakfast gun make the teachers go nuclear? On the day of the incident, before anyone at the school realized this would be a national story, the administration went straight to DEFCON 1, sending a letter home with every child in the school [PDF] which read, in part, “If your children express that they are troubled by today’s incident, please talk with them and help them share their feelings. Our school counselor is available to meet with any students who have the need to do so next week. In general, please remind them of the importance of making good choices.”
But the documentation makes equally clear that pointing chewed up breakfast food at his classmates wasn’t the most worrisome thing the kid got up to. The records say that over the span of a few months he left the school grounds during the instructional day, threw a chair, and punched a child in the nose.
If the school had suspended the child over that violent incident, I doubt anyone outside the local area would ever have heard of the situation. The media’s focus on the gun-shaped pastry part of the story ended up giving many people (including me) a very distorted picture of what was really the issue.
June 1, 2016
In the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) an individual could not survive outside the group of their birth and so conformity was a matter of life and death. Conform or be cast out. Conformity to arbitrary convention was not in fact arbitrary but signalled affiliation. Conformity banded groups together.
Today, however, conformity is often counter-productive. Trying to enforce the arbitrary conventions of one’s in-group impedes social cooperation on the scale that makes modernity possible. Conformity also slows the development of new ideas and new ways of doing things — the essence of growth and progress. Even though conformity is now counter-productive the desire to conform and to enforce conformity is buried deep–the atavism of social justice.
Individualism and liberalism are foundational ideas for modernity but these adult ideas battle the desire to conform in our childish hearts.
Alex Tabarrok, “The Developmental Roots of Conformity Bias”, Marginal Revolution, 2016-05-20.
May 31, 2016
“Illegal” British schools – “If this whole fuss were any more of a smear you could use it to test for cervical cancer”
Natalie Solent uses up some past-the-use-by-date outrage over a report of “illegal” schools in Britain:
Here is a BBC story from a couple of weeks ago: Thousands of children taught in ‘illegal schools’. Similar pieces appeared in the Times, the Guardian, and other newspapers. When this story came out I listened on the radio to an interview on the subject with some Ofsted guy, either the Sir Michael Wilshaw quoted by the BBC or one of his minions. Whoever it was, he came across as so evasive on one particular point that by comparison even the BBC interviewer was plain-spoken. From the way Ofsted Guy spoke of these illegal schools as places where only “religion” was taught you’d think clicking on the BBC Bitesize GCSE Religious Studies page makes a red light flash in GCHQ, and from the way he spoke of “radicalisation” you’d think that all roots resulted in the same flower. Oh, and from the way he spoke of these schools being “illegal” you would think that they had been convicted in a court of being illegal. The BBC interviewer pressed him and eventually got him to admit that the alleged illegality was merely his opinion, not having been tested in court, and that “some” of these schools were Islamic.
That’s progress of a sort. The Guardian article linked to above does not mention Islam at all but has a quote from a disgruntled former pupil at a Charedi school. We should all be very grateful to the Charedim and the Belzers. When one simply must have someone other than the Muslims to point to, they are there. They ought to start an agency and charge for their services: “Jews in Hats: the safe option for all your denunciation needs.”
The Times says the unauthorized schools are “predominantly Islamic”.
So far this post has almost written itself. The usual pathetic fear of naming Islam from the establishment, the usual pushback from angry commenters, the usual opportunity for bloggers like me to use up old out-of-code packets of sarcasm from the bottom of the freezer. But now things get a little odd and diffuse and unsatisfactory.
I would like to offer a few scattered thoughts regarding three points. (1) Not for the first time, the efforts of the media to conceal that some minority are disproportionately involved in some disfavoured activity has resulted in the public overestimating the involvement of that minority; (2) this whole effort on the part of the so-called Office for Standards in Education has all the characteristics of a power-grab and a smear; and (3) there is no evidence that these little informal schools, including the Muslim ones, do any worse than the state schools at either education or terrorism-prevention. There is some reason to suppose they might do better in some circumstances despite worse facilities. Many children turn to these schools having suffered bullying at normal schools. The low number of people involved means that everyone, teachers and pupils, knows everyone else; no one can “slip through the cracks”. Another benefit is that the presence of an affordable alternative helps keep more traditional types of schools on their toes.