Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Of ants and men.

There are many fungi, and some worms, that infect insects and take over their brains. It's not just insects. There is a parasite that can force a snail to expose itself to danger and make it flash its eyestalks so a bird will easily find and eat it. The parasite needs to move into a bird for the next stage of its life cycle and rather than leave it to chance, it actually takes control of the snail's physiology. Pretty impressive for something that has no brain of its own.

I wonder if there is one that makes people become politicians. But then that would assume a politician has a brain, of which there is scant evidence anywhere in the world.

Here's an interesting story. It's in a UK newspaper (well, more of a hack-rag but they do have some interesting things sometimes) and includes a video that could have come straight from the set of an alien-style movie, but it's real. I hope the article is available outside the UK or this whole post is going to look pretty silly.

Once you've been horrified at what a lowly fungus can do to a much more complex organism, consider something else. Consider the narrator. He's not just some reporter reading a script, he's a well-known nature expert and he didn't get to know as much as he does by having the attention span of a caffeine-laden fruit fly. In-depth study of anything needs concentration and application. That's how you make progress.

How confident would you be crossing a bridge built by Insanity Prawn Boy? How happy would you be in a skyscraper designed by Cornholio? 'Not very' is the answer I'd expect there. (You can find them on YouTube if you haven't met them before. Insanity Prawn Boy is in a series called 'On the Moon' and Cornholio is from 'Beavis and Butthead').

So you would think, faced with a class full of children who struggle to read something engrossing like Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and can't hold interest in any book for more than a hundred pages, you'd want to do something about it. These are future bridge-builders and architects and doctors and okay, a lot of them are future supermarket-trolley-collectors and some won't even be much good at that but even so. Some will progress into life-critical jobs and we really need those people to be paying attention.

The solution proposed is to take away the hard stuff and put the whole class back on 'Janet and John' books. What is the point? As an ex-lecturer, I despair. I used to teach people who had reached physical, if not always mental adulthood and I would not compromise. I was teaching B.Sc. and if you were not able to keep up, then you weren't B.Sc. material. Try HND. A perfectly respectable qualification which I also taught, but biased more towards practical application rather than head-filling theory.

In those days, the B.Sc students were expected to go on to be scientists and the HND students would be technicians. Now it's seen as some kind of failure to become a technician. I don't see why. Scientists cannot function without technicians. The scientist comes up with the idea but the technician knows how to work the machinery and knows how to fix it when it (inevitably) goes wrong. They are two parts of the same thing and one part struggles when the other is missing.

You can take it to any level. Sure, the big architect can design a town but someone has to sweep those streets or it'll be a pigsty within weeks. A world full of architects and no street-sweepers is going to be a very unpleasant place to live. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it would be like if nobody wanted to work on sewage disposal.

The current rubbish about 'no child left behind' ensures we will one day see buildings created by people who have learned the first hundred pages of a five-thousand-page series on safe building design. Old houses will soar in value. New ones won't be worth the number on the door.

It's simple. Some people are attuned to literature and some are not. Some people rave about Homer's Iliad and I found it the dullest block of print I have ever seen. Some dismiss the Gormenghast trilogy as the product of a swivel-eyed lunatic (which is fair enough) and I thought it was great. People are different and that applies right from birth.

This is not eugenics. Eugenics is a ridiculous concept that seeks to only breed the brightest and best of humanity and to cull the rest. Yeah. Great. So who sweeps the streets? Who deals with sewage? Who collects the trolleys in the supermarket - in fact, who works in the supermarket at all? Who works in the farms and factories that supply the supermarkets? Eugenics does not lead to Utopia, it can only lead to a Hell in which everyone has great ideas and nobody ever does anything about them.

That is not what the current system is creating. We are creating a generation of trolley-collectors because anyone who looks as if they might be better than Dim Jim in the corner is branded 'elitist' and denied the deep education they could cope with.

It is not wrong to teach the able to the best of their ability. It is neither wrong nor shameful to take a career as a sewer operative or a bin collector or a bus driver or a street sweeper. Civilisation needs all of them. It might be fashionable to tell children that growing up to be a grave digger is beneath them but someone has to do it. It is an essential job and one which, sooner or later, we would all like to have done by a professional. Not by some blundering idiot with five degrees and a professorship but who doesn't know one end of a shovel from the other.

The real solution is competition. I used this to great effect on a PhD student who was not working to her obvious potential. I told her I didn't expect too much because she was only a woman. Now I would be hauled before a disciplinary committee for saying it but you know what? She sailed through her thesis and produced a boatload of publications on the way just to prove me wrong. I have never told her I knew I was wrong all along. There is stuff in that thesis that is not yet published and there is a journal's worth of work that isn't even in the thesis. She was far better than she ever knew and although I have lost touch, I expect her to still be doing brilliant things.

If she's not, and if she happens across this, it's because you're only a woman, Shortly (she'll know what it means). If she is sitting at home doing nothing I will find out where she lives and come around and insult her in person. She already knows what that means.

Competition does not only bring out the best in the brilliant. It moves everyone up a notch. That future trolley collector might put some effort in and become a till operator. You may sneer but if you've experienced a North Scotland winter, indoors is far better than outdoors and the pay is better too. You have to deal with idiots, sure, but we all do. There are a lot of them around.

Civilisation needs people who can think up new stuff but it also needs people who can make the new stuff work. The brain is a wonderful thing but with no hands it is absolutely useless. It's all very well to design a sewage system that means nobody has to have a pile of poo in their garden but someone has to run it.

The future technicians, sewage workers, trolley collectors, till operators and street sweepers are now children. So are the future surgeons, scientists and architects. They are all essential and they have all been born.

Forcing sameness on children does not mean equality

It means Hell.


Frank Davis said...


Diesel said...

An eloquent and highly amusing way of stating the bleeding obvious Leggy. You have brightend up my morning, at the same time as angrying up my blood! Its just a shame those that have the direct ability to do something about it are in the wrong jobs. I've met teachers who would make acceptable trolley collectors, because they sure as shit shouldn't be anywhere near a position of influencing or teaching children.

Anonymous said...

Viva la Difference

Macheath said...

Succinct, perceptive and bang on the nail - this should be compulsory reading in every teacher training establishment in the country.

Until the education system experiences that Damascene revelation, spare a thought for those of us trying to nurture excellence in the face of the official line of 'all must have prizes'.

Anonymous said...

Luckily, we now have the internet on mobile devices and the new kids know how to operate it to get instant access to a large chunk of the total published knowledge of mankind and then some !
-Cennino Cennini

nisakiman said...

No problem with the link here in Greece.

Although I see the "all must have prizes" mentality via the MSM, my youngest daughter who is doing BSc in Arabic and Law is pushed very hard at her uni. She's a bright kid, but has to work like buggery to stay abreast of the courses, so I would say that the dumbing down process is not (yet) pandemic.

I totally agree that the system has lost touch with reality. As you point out LI, without the technicians and the labourers everything would grind to a halt.

The old system of grammar and secondary modern schools was really much more sensible, as it catered, educationally, to the kids who attended, and the majority benefited from the type of education they needed according to their strengths. It's bloody hopeless now. Any child who succeeds these days does so despite (rather than because of) the system.

Zaphod said...

You're always an excellent blog to read, but difficult to comment on. I can't just tell you you're right, you already know that!

If you ever saying anything that seems remotely stupid, I'll let you know.

Thunderous Applause!

Catherine in Athens said...

Absolutely brilliant! Well done, LI.

Leg-iron said...

Cennino - yes, everyone has access to the Internet but if they aren't taught to separate the truth from the mass of dross out there, how does that help?

The Internet caused a problem in science when journals first went on line. They only archived back to 1980 so many new academics acted as though there had been no science before that date. Some still do.

There are post-internet papers out there that are repeats of experiments done in the 1950-1970s and some are not done as well.

Don;t regard the Internet as the sum of all human knowledge and don't regard it as unalterable fact. It is very easily altered and it contains an awful lot of nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...... a good blog, but what's all this, comparing a technician
with a supermarket trolley pusher - about?

I'm an electronics technician with a "mere" HND and amongst other
things, I have built USB peripheral devices AND written the firmware
for use with a PIC microcontroller, hardly the same as a "labourer".

I agree that we all have an important role to play, but pleeeeez....

Sending rockets to the moon is 5% science and 95% engineering!!!
- but who gets all the glittering prizes?

Leg-iron said...

Anon - try another comparison.

I have a PhD and am a self-employed scientist (ex-lecturer). I have a long list of publications. I'm good enough at what I do that I continued doing it even after the closure of my department, by finding my own funding. Now I am a novelist too.

If I was to vanish today, you wouldn't even notice. Neither would anyone else. It would make no difference to anyone's life.

But if you went to the supermarket and the trolleys were just left all over the car park, you'd notice that. Everyone would.

On that basis, who is more important, highly educated me or a supermarket trolley pusher?

I think you'll find that for most people, the trolley pusher wins every time.

Be careful about climbing onto pedestals. They're just taller things to fall from.

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