About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 10 September 2017

"Millennium People" by J G Ballard

Ballard's always fecund imagination has conceived of a middle class in revolt, refusing to pay school fees or spiralling estate management charges, torching their own houses rather than let them be repossessed, manning barricades and throwing petrol bombs over parking disputes, fire bombing museums and video stores.

David, whose first wife has been killed by a terrorist bomb at Heathrow, infiltrates the shifting alliances of the middle class revolutionaries in some sort of attempt at closure on his failed marriage. But as he meets charismatic Kay and sinister Doctor Gould, has he fallen in love with violence?

A strange book. I found it difficult to accept the basic thesis that the comfortable bourgeoisie would, feeling trapped, throw it all away. The characters all did strange things; I never really identified with anyone. They seemed too much like puppets on a stage set by the author. If you want a book about middle class revolutionaries you might try Saturn's Daughters by Jim Pinnells set in the anarchist world of nineteenth century Russia, where real, well-to-do woman indulge in real crimes of violence.

The Guardian review of this book says it is "one of the most amusing novels I've read in a long time" so perhaps I misunderstood it: it was meant to be funny.

It was extremely imaginative and deeply embedded in reality. Real places were described with perfect accuracy; people were grounded in physicality. Acts of violence were full of sickening details. It made it even harder to understand how the protagonist could be seduced into complicity with the perpetration of these acts.

A book that made me think.

There were some stunning lines:
  • Not for her sake. For yours. ... You don't love her. I know that. But you still hate her. That's why you have to go.” (p 21)
  • Heathrow approached, a beached sky-city, half space station and half shanty town.” (p 25) 
  • Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police.” (p 52)
  • I told them to take their cameras into the bedroom and make a porn film Fucking is what they do in their spare time so why not look at it through a camera lens? They wouldn't learn much about sex but they’d learn a lot about film.” (p 53)
  • Tourism is the great soporific. It's a huge confidence trick, and gives people the dangerous idea that there's something interesting in their lives. It's musical chairs in reverse. Every time the muzak stops people stand up and dance around the world, and more chairs are added to the circle, more marinas and Marriott Hotels, so everyone thinks they're winning.” (p 54)
  • Knowledge-based professions are just another extractive industry. When the seams run out we’re left high and dry with a lot of out-of-date software.” (pp 79 - 80) 
  • “Have you noticed how vocabularies fluctuate in order to cope with our need to justify ourselves” (p 103)
  • They see that private schools are brainwashing their children into a kind of social docility, turning them into a professional class who run the show for consumer capitalism.” (p 104) 
  • Gould withdrew into himself, retreating behind the bones of his face.” (p 128)
  • Starter homes ... rabbit hutches for aspiring marriage.” (p 133)
  • Looking for God is a dirty business. You find God in a child’s shit, in the stink of stale corridors,in a nurse's tired feet.” (p 137)
  • First wives are a right of passage into adult life . I many ways it's important that first marriages go wrong. That's how we learn the truth about ourselves.” (p 138) 
  • Sex with Kay is like a resuscitation that's gone slightly wrong. You're deeply grateful, but parts of you are never going to be the same.” (p 168)
  • The guinea pigs had lured the experimenter into the maze.” (p 220)
September 2017; 294 pages

Saturday, 9 September 2017

"Styles of learning" by Noel Entwistle

This book was mostly interesting because of how different researchers classified human personalities in different ways. For example, Wertheimer studied how students approached a maths problem The first type ducked the question by saying that they didn’t like maths or they hadn’t yet studied this topic. The second type searched their memories frantically using a strategy of saying everything they knew in the hope that something somewhere would be correct. The third type sought analogies or tried to classify the problem. The fourth type used what Wertheimer called “real thinking” (p 54)

Roy Heath in the 1960s and 70s divided students into three types the non committed, the hustlers, and the plungers. I loved these descriptions!
  • The first type “views a commitment as a possible entanglement which might reduce his freedom to get out of the way when travel threatens. When storm clouds do break he’ll hold on and hope for the best. In other words he takes a passive role in a conflict situation ... [a non-committer had a myth that] “he could do a lot of things ... if he really went all-out” (Entwistle p 67)
  • The hustler “Is a great competitor. In his relations with others he is often aggressive and insensitive to their feelings. This is unfortunate for he possesses a strong desire to be received favourably and affectionately.” He “is impatient with the status quo. He must keep moving beyond his present level.Wasting time is for him a cardinal sin, a lost opportunity ... life is a battle. People must look out for themselves, must solve their own problems ... he is a study in antithesis ... a personality that is at war with itself. He is a strong-willed man couple with equally strong inhibitions and control over his deeper impulses.” (Entwistle 1996, 68)
  • The plunger “Today he might feel on top of the world ... tomorrow might find him bitter, sad, alone ... whether high or low, he seems at the utter mercy of his feelings. He responds as strongly to guilt as he does to his urges ... he works and loves in spurts”. (Entwistle 1996, p 68)
  • The ideal is the Reasonable Adventurer who can “attack the problems of everyday life with zest and originality. And he seems to do so with an air of playfulness” At times he is a believer and at other times a sceptic but he alternates these. (Entwistle 1996, 70) Rather too good to be true!
Entwistle is most famous for his distinction between 'deep' and 'surface' learning (I am always rather sceptical of any categorisation where it is obvious from the label where you 'ought' to be). He tells us that “It is impossible for a student adopting a surface approach ever to reach a deep level of understanding.” (p 79); this is partly because “Students adopting a deep approach also tended to spend longer in studying.” (p 80)

He is also slightly scornful of recently fashionable idea such as divergent thinking and holistic thinking. He points out that “The two major pathologies commonly found in learning are the failure to examine at the logical structure or the evidence in sufficient detail, and the failure to make use of appropriate analogies. ... The holist strategy involves looking at the whole area being learned, taking a broad perspective, seeking interconnection with other topics and making use of personal and idiosyncratic analogies. The examination of the logical structure and of the supportive evidence comes later when understanding is demanded, but left to himself the holist is likely to put off what he may see as the more boring parts of learning.” (p 93) Furthermore, “Imaginative thinking is important in problem solving in various ways. First it allows the problem to be reformulated, avoiding an exclusive focus on the most obvious interpretation. Then the review of possible solutions depends on a leisurely approach and a wide focus of attention which includes both likely and unlikely combinations of ideas. But the final stages of problem solving demand a return to tight, narrowly focused logical thinking.” (p 156)

There are also random facts which are just plain interesting:
The Latin word persona originally described the painted mask which an actor held in front of his face to portray the person he was playing. The word subsequently was used to indicate the ‘front’ an individual presented to other people - how he wanted to be seen. It was also used to describe ‘the player behind the mask’” (p 179)
In Greek, character meant engraving and implied a patent of traits in bothered in a distinctive life-style ... ‘characteristic’ remains a neutral term synonymous with ‘trait’.” (p 179)
A very well written book which reviews an important topic. September 2017; 272 pages

Friday, 8 September 2017

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J D Salinger

This is the classic novel of teenage discontent although to my mind the scenes set in the prep school are not as brilliant as James Kirkwood's Good Times, Bad Times and the 'brother killed himself' theme is explored in far more depth in Judith Guest's Ordinary People. But this is comparing it with two magnificent books. I only wonder why this book is the cult, the yardstick, while they both became also-rans.

The hero, Holden Caulfield, is extraordinarily privileged for a teenager; he has freedoms most teenagers could only dream of. Not only does he go to a succession of top private schools, but also his brother is a Hollywood scriptwriter, he lives in Manhattan, he can smoke both at home and at school, he has rich parents who clearly love him and look after him, he can leave his boarding school at will to travel into New York to party and to meet girls, and he has the confidence to wander into nightclubs and bars, to book into hotels, and even to ask waiters to invite singers to his table. Is he really a typical American youth facing an emotional crisis?

Plot Spoiler alert; this section has spoilers (although “I’d tell you the rest of the story, but I might puke if I did. It isn’t that I’d spoil it for you or anything. There isn’t anything to spoil, for Chrissake.” ,p 125)

The plot seems to divide into four sections; like Acts; each Act is almost exactly one quarter of the book. The first act recounts Holden at prep school. The second act follows him to New York where he takes a hotel room and goes to a night club. He tries to pick up some girls but in the end he has a hooker come to his room. This act finishes with him being beaten up by the hooker's pimp for an extra five dollars. If this is Holden's descent into hell, he descends a long way. But in Act Three he leaves his hotel and starts to roam around New York. He persuades a girl friend to watch the movies with him; he insults her and she leaves. He persuades an old friend to have a drink with him; again Holden's behaviour sends the lad away. Holden is now drunk and lonely. He decides to go to see his sister. In Act Four he sees his sister than he goes to the house of an old teacher to sleep the night but he becomes afraid that the teacher wants to sleep with him and so he ends up sleeping in a station waiting room. He is homeless and getting ill.

Style
Breaks the rules. He uses a lot of repetition. No kidding. A lot. And italics. Uses the phrase “It really does” a lot. Especially (?) when he is lying.

He uses the word “old “ to describe people.

He uses the phrase “it killed me” to mean it tickled me pink: talking about a film:

What's it all about?
  • Holden, the kid who hates phonys, is the biggest phony of them all. He's a spoiled rich kid who thinks he can use his money to buy people, like a prostitute, or old the girls from Seattle, or his friend old Luce; he gives them money and presents and he buys them drinks but he can't buy their love. The only love he gets is from Phoebe his sister; he buys her a record but he breaks it before she gets it. 
  • Holden, the kid who hates phonys, who is "the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life".
  • Holden, the virgin who is desperate to get laid, who can't take advantage of the young prostitute, who gets into a fight defending the honour of a girl he has never slept with.
  • Holden the naive innocent, who gets beaten up by a pimp and nearly seduced by his teacher.
  • Holden, the spolied brat with the unrealistic dreams of escaping to the countryside to chop wood and pump gas.
  • Holden, the adolescent who misses his dead brother, who can't study at school, who enters the hell of New York and descends into his own private hell of depression and loneliness, ending up sleeping in the station.
  • Contradictions abound. Even his dream of being a 'catcher' in the rye is based on his mishearing a song about meeting someone in the rye.

Great lines:
Then this girl gets killed, because she's always speeding. That story just about killed me.” (p 16)
Holden is very concerned with not being a ‘phony’; he hates phonys. “Grand. There's a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.” (p 8)
They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.” (p 3)
almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.” (p 46)
Mothers are all slightly insane.” (p 49)
He was one of those guys that think they’re being a pansy if they don’t break around forty of your fingers when they shake hands with you.” (p 79)
Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while he was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head.” (p 89)
My big trouble is, I always sort of think whoever I’m necking is a pretty intelligent person. It hasn’t a goddam thing to do with it, but I keep thinking it anyway.” (p 95)
Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.” (p 102)
I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do.” (p 105)
A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.” (p 117)
All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they'll do practically anything you want them to.” (p 142)
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” (p 192)

Great book (though there are better); September 2017; 192 pages

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

This story is narrated by Eleanor Oliphant, an office worker in her early 30s. She lives alone, so alone that she drinks vodka to block out the weekend. Why? At first we don't know but she drops little clues about her scar and the sinister Mummy who calls her every Wednesday. Eleanor hasn’t a clue how to fit in with normal social life; she makes faux pas because she takes things literally. This is a source of the book’s humour. It really is very funny; in many ways it reminded me of Adrian Mole. But the humour is two-way. We enjoy Eleanor’s acerbic comments about the strange things people do; she is like a Martian observing and wondering. But we are also laughing at Eleanor for her gaucheness.

But the hints keep coming about Eleanor’s troubled past and we are soon wondering whether she is not, actually, a little mad. Will she find love with the gorgeous pop singer or will she settle for scruffy Raymond from IT? Or will Mummy’s hate drive her to destruction? This book is a masterclass in foreshadowing.

Do I have a criticism? One tiny point of pedantry. Eleanor is a classics scholar and a pedant. So why does she use the phrase “the hoi polloi”? Hoi polloi is Greek for ‘the people’ so Eleanor is saying “the the people.” Inelegant. Oh, by the way, the Telegraph is NOT the best crossword; that honour belongs to the Guardian.

A stunning debut novel. So much humour, so much perception, so much horror.

Endless favourite bits:
  • That palpable sense of Friday joy, everyone colluding with the lie that somehow the weekend would be amazing” (p 9)
  • If I'm ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do?’” (p 13)
  • His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown.” (p 24)
  • I feel sorry for beautiful people. Beauty, from the moment you possess it, is already slipping away, ephemeral.” (p 28) 
  • The goal ultimately was successful camouflage as a human woman.” (p 30)
  • My face a scarred palimpsest of fire.” (p 30)
  • Terrible people danced in a terrible way to terrible music” (p 41)
  • It’s always nice to hear my first name spoken aloud by a human voice.” (p 51)
  • What was a muse anyway? I was familiar with the classical allusion, of course, but in modern-day practical terms, a muse seemed simply to be an attractive woman whom the artist wanted to sleep with.” (p 84) 
  • I have often noticed that people who routinely wear sports wear are the least likely salt to participate in athletic activity.” (p 99)
  • She looked at him with so much love that I had to turn away. At least I know what love looks like, I told myself. That's something. No one has ever looked at me like that, but I'd be able to recognise it if they ever did.” (p 106)
  • Imagine having to micturate in a row along side other men, strangers, acquaintances, friends, even? It must be dreadful. Just think how odd it would be if we had to display our genitals to one another” (p 202)
  • Go and sit in your empty little flat and watch television on your own, just like you do Every. Single. Night ... I sat down and watched television alone like I do Every. Single. Night .” (p 217)
  • It takes a long time to learn to live with loss, assuming you ever manage it. After all these years, I'm still something of a work in progress.” (p 236)
  • I was ready to rise from the ashes and be reborn.” (p 255)
  • Was I alive? I hoped so, but only because if this was the location of the afterlife, I'd be lodging an appeal immediately.” (p 273)
  • The lift had transported me back in time to that least belle of epoques - the 1980s.” (p 286) 
  • Such a strange unusual feeling - light, calm, as though I'd swallowed sunshine.” (p 314) 
Brilliant. Sept 2017, 383 pages

Monday, 4 September 2017

"The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind" by Julian Jaynes

Jayners wrote this book in 1976 when he was professor of psychology at Princeton University and so, on the face of it, not a nutter. His thesis is, on the face of it, nutty. He believes that consciousness evolved in human minds somewhere between the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey when all around the world people began to mourn that they had lost their gods, the voices they had heard commanding them to do things in their heads. These voices were the voices of gods. In other words, “before the second Millennium BC, everyone was schizophrenic.” (p 405)

The bicameral mind itself evolved: Archaeological evidence suggest early human tribe size like gorillas of about 30. "And it is the problem of this limitation of group size which the gods may have come into evolutionary history to solve." (p 129) Social control was effected by individuals hallucinating the voices of gods and kings. "The bicameral mind is a form of social control and it is that form of social control which allowed mankind to move from small hunter-gatherer groups to large agricultural communities. The bicameral mind with its controlling gods was evolved as a final stage of the evolution of language." (p 126)

What was that like? He presumes that the Iliad describes humans well: "the gods were organizations of the central nervous system ... The god is a part of the man, and quite consistent with this conception is the fact the gods never step outside of natural laws. ... The Greek god never steps forth in thunder, never begets awe or fear in the hero, and is as far from the outrageously pompous god of Job as it is possible to be." (p 74)

But then a further evolution took place. Language had ushered in bicamerality, now writing ushered it out again.  The world (middle east) became anarchic and a socially useful control that ran small city states was no longer an evolutionary asset; consciousness had to evolve. The change factors were:
  • writing weakens auditory brain
  • control using hallucinations is inherently fragile
  • The massive social upheaval throughout the ancient world consequent on the eruption of Thera making it more difficult for social control to be via hallucinated gods
  • Social mixing causing people to observe differences in others and thus to hypothesise internality
  • epic poetry introducing narrative
  • deceit becoming socially useful
  • natural selection
The major gods became invisible. "We have the beginning of hybrid human-animal beings as the intermediaries and messengers between the banished gods and their forlorn followers. Such messengers were always part bird and part human ..." (p 230). The epic of Gilgamesh has later interpolations: a "barmaid" (late interpolation, c650 BC) in Gilgamesh story speaks to her heart. (p 252) Gilgamesh has sadness in his heart (p 253). "God Utnapishtim, the Distant ... is looking into the distance and speaking words to his heart, asking it questions and coming to his own conclusions." (p 253) "The literature on the loss of gods is an unquestionable change in the history of Mesopotamia, unlike anything that preceded it. It is indeed the birth of modern religious attitudes and we can discover ourselves in the very psalm-like yearnings for religious certainty" (p 253) 

He notes the change in the character of God within the Old Testament: “He walks in his garden at the cool of the day, talking to his recent creation.Adam. He is present and visible at the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, shuts the door of Noah's Ark with his own hand, speaks with Abraham at Sechem, Bethel, and Hebron, and scuffles all night with Jacob like a hoodlum.” (p 301) “There is no question of virtue or of justice. So He-Who-Is prefers Abel to Cain, slays Er, the first-born of Judah, having taken a dislike to him, first tells Abraham to beget a son, and then later orders him to kill the son even as criminal psychotics might be directed today.” (p 304)

He notes that words that are key in the Iliad change as we move to the Odyssey:
  • thumos: activity, movement, agitation (perhaps caused by adrenaline) (p 262)
  • phrenes: lungs, breathing (p 263)
  • kradie: later kardia, cardiac, heart (p 265); "originally, I suggest, it simply meant quivering, coming from the verb kroteo, to beat." (p 266)
  • etor: belly, guts (p 267)
  • ker: trembling, perhaps from kradie, perhaps from cheir, hand (p 268)
  • noos: "from noeo = to see, is perception itself" (p 269) "The coming of consciousness can in a certain vague sense be construed as a shift from an auditory mind to a visual mind". (p 269)
  • mermerizo: divided into two parts, in two minds (p 259)
  • psyche: from "psychein = to breathe", life
From Iliad to Odyssey these terms increase except for thumos which decreases. (p 274) "The Odyssey shows an increased spatialization of time ... there is also an increased ratio of abstract terms to concrete" (p 276)

And oracles which were once everyday now become specialized. He sees six stages in the development of oracles: (pp 329 - 330)
  • Place
  • Prophet
  • Trained prophet
  • Possessed prophet
  • Interpreted possessed prophet
  • Erratic
Nowadays he sees the vestiges of bicamerality in those with Tourette's syndrome, in schizophrenics and in religious group ceremonies like Voodoo and the glossolalia experienced in certain charismatic churches.
  • Hallucinations are dependent on the teachings and expectations of childhood” (p 410)
  • The memoirs of Schreiber a German suffering from schizophrenia mention that “as he slowly recuperated, the tempo of speech of his gods slowed down and then degenerated into an indistinct hissing.” (p 416)
  • The patient in trying to keep some control over his behaviour repeats over and over to himself ‘I am’ or ‘I am the one present in everything’ ... another patient may use only single words like ‘strength’ or ‘life’ to try to anchor himself against the dissolution of his consciousness.” (p 420)
I didn't find it convincing. Clearly there were profound social and cultural changes at these times and the nature of godness changed (and has changed again more recently) but these are surely much easier to explain as cultural changes. We all (?) hear voices in our heads and some interpret this as voices from outside their heads. Perhaps that interpretation was more common among pre-literate people. Perhaps, also, hallucinations were more common in ancient times: the ancient Greeks were always watering their strong wines, perhaps before modern methods of food production it was quite common to ingest psychoactive substances with your bread and your beer. It just seems a step too far to postulate that bicamerality evolved into human brain architecture and then evolved out again in favour of consciousness.

One of the troubles with this thesis is his use of language. For example: "The function of meter in poetry is to drive the electrical activity of the brain, and most certainly to relax the normal emotional inhibitions of both chanter and listener." (p 73) The use of "most certainly" suggest to my bullshit detection faculty that he is using rhetoric to bolster a weak argument. If the argument is strong enough, don't add superfluous qualifiers.

He also makes claims that are just plain wrong. "The Iliad is not imaginative creative literature and hence not a matter for literary discussion. It is history." (p 76) But of course it is imaginative creative literature. It is historical fiction. It is like saying the Shakespeare's Richard III is not drama but biography. Furthermore, the analysis of words used in the Iliad which Jaynes undertakes later is a type of literary criticism. 

But a fascinating read and there were lots of side snippets some of which I have recorded below.

By products:
  • If you continually mistype 'the' as 'hte' you should practise typing 'hte': "the mistake drops away - a phenomenon called negative practice" (p 34)
  • "Poems are rafts clutched at by men drowning in inadequate minds." (p 256)
  • Time is “spread out in a spatial succession ... The before and after of time on metaphored into a spatial succession.” (p 280)
  • When I am melting I have no hands, I go into a doorway in order not to be trampled on. Everything is flying away from me. In the doorway I can gather together the pieces of my body.” (p 425 )
  • The word psyche originally meant life and only later came to mean soul. (p 291) “So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. ... So dualism, that central difficulty in this problem of consciousness, begins it's huge haunted career through history.” (p 291)
  • The word for vagrants in Akkad, the language of Babylon, is khabiru, and so these desert refugees are referred to on cuneiform tablets. And khabiru, softened in the desert air, becomes Hebrew.” (p 294)
  • "You cannot, absolutely cannot think of time except by spatializing it. Consciousness is always a spatialization in which the diachronic is turned into the synchronic, in which what has happened in time is excerpted and seen in side-by-sideness." (p 60)
  • "the most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors". (p 48) He gives huge numbers of examples that use the human body such as the head of the household, the face of a clock, the brow of a hill, the teeth of a comb, the lip of a crater, the arm of a chair, the leg of a table ... (p 49) 
  • All the tablets from Hammurabi "are apparently incised in wet clay by the same hand" (p 198): H himself?

Cuneiform poetry: (p 225)

One who has no god, as he walks along the street,
Headache envelops him like a garment
My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

September 2017; 446 pages

Sunday, 3 September 2017

"The Origins and Growth of Modern Education" by Elizabeth Lawrence

This is an extraordinarily comprehensive account of the development of educational thought in western Europe, particularly Britain.

The author displays her bias clearly, applauding those who, hundreds of years ago, had views which might be interpreted as being support of Lawrence's educational ideals: for example: "Pestalozzi expresses clearly what is now accepted, if not acted upon, as an educational truth: that education can force nothing into children, but only draw out what is already there. ... This was not theory. It was put into practice and it succeeded, as anyone who has tried it knows that it does succeed." (p 199) Notwithstanding Socrates and his scripted tricks with Meno's slaveboy, I am not convinced that education can never be anything more than drawing out what is already inside and the uncompromising and unevidenced way in which she advances her doctrine seems unacademic at best. This is a rather whiggish view of the history of education in which progress is always progress. It rather assumes that "modern education" is now as good as it is going to get.

And certainly some of the practices of the old days (eg trying to beat knowledge into children) seem wrong although perhaps the biggest improvement is that nowadays, instead of having philosophers pontificate about what they believe about education we actually have people observing children and their learning.

It was interesting that some of the metaphors for learning are used time and again:
If you pour a liquid into a narrow necked bottle it will overflow (Quintillian, Comenius
(Erasmus says you shouldn't feed a child more meat than he can take which is similar)
Teaching is like igniting flames (Plutarch, Alciun,
Teaching is like gardening, tending plants (Plutarch, Origen, St Anselm, Vives, Sir Thomas Elyot, Francis Bacon, John Dury, Pestalozzi, Froebel
Learning is like digesting food
Curiosity is key: (St Augustine of Hippo, Montaigne, Locke, Fenelon, Rollin, Isaac Watts, Rousseau
Timing is important (Vives, Isaac Watts, Froebel, Piaget
You need to know the kids (Sir Thomas Elyot
Kids need to have things to do (Comenius, Locke, Rousseau, Robert Owen, Dewey


Selected quotes:
"Going to school has become accepted as a kind of sentence imposed on all, which must be served before one can be let free into the world." (p 9)
"In primitive societies ... children learn all they need to know in the life of the tribe, by imitating and taking part in its work and rituals. ... It was only with the invention of writing that a new kind of education arose ... which gave rise to schools, since the work of teaching was now too skilled to be carried out at home." (p 12)
"The future of the State, and indeed its survival, depend on the quality of its education." (p 19)
"In the story of the slave in the Meno he [Plato] showed that, before one can learn anything, it is necessary to know oneself and to realize the extent of one's ignorance." (p 27)
Clement wrote: (The Pedagogue 4:5): "To become as a little child - does not mean that adults should be unlearned or childish, but that, loosed from the world, they should touch the earth on tiptoe. That is the secret of the life-long springtime of youth." (p 49)
Peter Abelard (Sic et Non, Prologue) said "through doubt we are led to inquiry, and by inquiry we discern the truth." (p 55)
Comenius thought  that "Too much sitting still ... is not a good sign" (p 100)
"If they will put a Man's coat on a Child, the Child may yet be cumbered with his long and loose Habiliments, and yet be starved with Cold." Isaac Watts; (p 143)
"Children generally acquire speedily and certainly whatever they are not pressed to learn" Rousseau (p 164)
"Children are always in motion: quiet and meditation are their aversion" Rousseau (p 164)
"Education ... should enable the child to live in and make his own contribution to society." Rousseau (p 166)
"Education must be active experience"  David Williams (p 175)
"it is one thing to have learnt, and another to be able to teach" Arthur Hill (p 223)
"those brought up under the severest discipline should so frequently turn out the wildest of the wild." Spencer (p 282) 
"The child who teaches another ... teaches himself" Seguin (p 297)
"The first function of education is to lead the child to independence" so don't do things for kids Montessori (p 328)
"Most political newspapers are bristling with hate ... too many are socialistic because they hate the rich instead of loving the poor." AS Neill (p 347)

"We should never do for children what they are able to do for themselves." Edgeworth (p 206)
RLEdgeworth and novelist daughter Maria (who wrote Castle Rackrent, reviewed here) wrote Practical Education (1798) based on transcripts of children's conversation. They advocated learning by doing: "Children ... work hard at play" (p 205) though they advocated the use of the right toys.

M De Fellenberg's School of Industry at Hofwyl in Switzerland taught kids, including an ex beggar boy, after they had laboured all day in the fields; they wanted to learn and refused to go to bed
Massively comprehensive and written well enough to read without falling asleep. September 2017; 370 pages

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

"Dialogism: Bakhtin and his world" by Michael Holquist

Mikhail Mikhailovitch Bakhtin was a student during the Russian revolution; his brother who fought for the White Guards took English exile and died a professor of linguistics at Birmingham University in 1950. Philosopher Bakhtin survived the turbulence of post-revolutionary Russia, Hitler's invasion, and the Stalinist regime and wrote (sometimes under borrowed names) a series of works in which philosophy merges with literary criticism under the doctrine of Dialogism. 

He was therefore a neo-Kantian who believed, with Kant, that "The world, the realm of things-in-themselves, really exists, but so does the mind, the realm of concepts. Thought is the give and take between the two." (p 4) Bakhtin understood "perception as an act of authoring" (p 7). This means that there are "Problems that confront anyone seeking to heed Socrates injunction to 'Know thyself!'": is there a single 'self'? (p 12); "How can I know myself? ... How can I know if it is I or another who is talking?" (p 13).

I read this book because The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough had mentioned Bakhtin's heory of Dialogism and made me interested. Holquist's explanation was so well written that what might have been an impenetrable explanation of a highly complicated doctrine was actually fun to read. Some of the fascinating insights included:
  • Existence itself is seen as a dialogue and one which involves necessary limitations. "You can see things behind my back that I cannot see ... cognitive time/space ... is the arena in which all perception unfolds." (p 21)
  • "Dialogism's master assumption is that there is no figure without a ground. The mind is structured so that the world is always perceived according to this contrast." (p 22)
  • "Dialogism is the name not just for a dualism, but for a necessary multiplicity in human perception." (p 22) Dialogism is a library of novels like Borges 'Library of Babel' (p 30)
  • Dialogue "is present in exchanges at all levels - between words in language, people in society, organisms in ecosystems, and even between processes in the natural world. ... dialogue is carried on at each level by different means." (p 41)
  • "Bakhtin maintains that in cognition the time of the self is always a present state without beginning or end." (p 45)
  • Infancy is "a stage without speech in which organisms have difficulty with otherness not directly tied to their biological needs" (p 52) Infant comes from Latin in = not fans = "present participle of fari 'to speak'" (p 93)
  • Autism and schizophrenia involves "the inability to mediate between inner speech and the social dimension of language" (p 52) "Official discourse is autism for the masses" (p 52) 
  • "In the totalitarian state, language seeks to drain the first person pronoun of all its particularity." (p 52)
  • "An utterance ... is always an answer to another utterance that precedes it" (p 60) "The utterance is always on the border between what is said and what is not said." (p 61)
  • Bakhtin shares with Hegel and Lukacs "a vision of history conceived as the history of consciousness". (p 73) He should have read Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind!
  • For example, "the Homeric Greek heroes ... do not sense a distinction between themselves, their society, and nature ... modern men ... seem to wander the world alone, alienated from themselves and their culture" (p 74); the novel is "an expression of transcendental homelessness" (p 74) Sounds interesting to compare the Odyssey with Ulysses! Perhaps M should also have read The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson.
  • "In Bakhtin's history, the criteria by which higher degrees of consciousness can be judged are not singularity and unity as in Hegel and Lukacs, but rather multiplicity and variety ... dialogism conceives history as a constant contest between monologue and dialogue ... it is a sequence that has no necessary telos built into it." (p 75)
  • "In Hegel's dialectical version of history there is an iron law of entelechy [the realization of potential] at work ... similar to the theory of cognitive development ... found in Piaget." (pp 77 - 78). Lukacsian cognitive development like Piaget's has irreversibilities. (p 78) "The novel 'arises' suddenly in the modern period because the cognitive conditions that make it possible were lacking in earlier ages." (p 78)
  • "Given Bakhtin's emphasis on inner speech" his theory closer to Vygotsky than Piaget.
  • Piaget: a genetic innate pre-fixed approach to development: "Individual children were conceived as local instances of a general algorithm." (p 80); Vygostsky assumes nurture rather than nature, culture, social milieu.
  • "Both Bakhtin and Vygotsky ... assume that thought is inner speech" (p 80)
  • Bakhtin talks about "the dark chaos of my inner sensation of myself" (p 81)
  • Bruner points out that the way a mum talks to a kid tends to follow a pattern: (p 81)
    • Attention grabber: "Oh look, Richard!"
    • Question: "What's that?"
    • Answer: "It's a fishy."
    • Affirmation: "That's right."
  • "The adventure novel of ordeal ... the main body of the story consists of a potentially endless number of adventures as the hero repeatedly attempts to save the bride from monsters, brigands, and so on; and in the conclusion the two lovers are united. ... The time is 'empty' in the sense that events are not connected to each other in any causal relation; none of the events is linked in a sustained consequence." (p 109) "No matter how frequently the hero rescued his intended bride ... he gets no older or wiser: 'These hours and days leave no trace'" (p 110)
  • "The 'adventure novel of everyday life'" is more realistic and the "hero bears some responsibility for the changes in his life. These changes may be abrupt metamorphoses ... but ... they create a pattern of development in the biography of the hero as he moves from guilt through punishment to redemption." (p 110)
  • "Some kind of correlation exists between the characteristic plots inside Greek romances and the world of experience outside those texts" (p 111) although the adventure plot type goes right through to Sir Walter Scott: "Bakhtin provides a long catalogue of such recurring patterns (the chronotype of the road, of the trial, of the provincial town, and so on)." (p 112) 
  • "Most so-called 'formula fiction' ... is formulaic precisely in the degree to which it deploys what Bakhtin calls 'abstract adventure time'" (p 118)
  • "St Augustine in his Confessions ... told his life before conversion as a temporally sequential narrative that ceases on the day when he hears the voice of God in a Roman garden: after that point in his twenty-first year he gives no more chronology, but an unplotted meditation on the mystery of time." (pp 136 - 137)
  • "Bakhtin is saying that Kant was right to emphasize the central role of time/ space categories in perception ... Time and space do indeed work ... as the shaping tools by which the potentially infinite variety of the world is molded into specific forms." (p 151)
  • "Because consciousness cannot have a (consciously perceived) beginning or end, it is experienced as 'infinite'" (p 165)
  • The Great Gatsby:
    • Oxymoron is "the most characteristic feature of Nick's narrative voice" (p 170)
    • "A grotesque incompatibility dominates all the incidental features of the narrative" (p 171)
    • "No discrepancy felt between the improvisatory nature of jazz and the linear nature of history". (p 178)
I thought this would be dry philosophy but I loved it. August 2017; 181 pages