Saturday, September 19, 2009

Decline of British History in Education

Source: Telegraph
Author: Dominic Sandbrook

In April 1942, the Luftwaffe launched a series of night bombing raids against the historic cathedral cities of Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury. The targets had been picked out of the Baedeker Guide to Britain, not because they were militarily important or commanded crucial transport routes, but because they represented something vaguer but more profound.

The Nazis' aim was to smash Britain's moral and historical heritage – and, of course, they failed. More than 1,500 people were killed, but York Minister and Canterbury Cathedral still stood proud and unbowed amid the flames, symbolising the long centuries of England's past. Not even the might of the Nazi empire, it seemed, could break the thread of our national history.

What a tragic irony, then, that where Hitler's bombers failed, a generation of home-grown political meddlers and "progressive" educationalists have succeeded all too well. For to anyone with even a passing interest in the teaching, reading and writing of our national past, the Historical Association's massive new survey on history teaching in secondary schools reads like the report of some callous, devastating military barbarism.

Across the board, history teaching is in retreat. Seven out of ten teenagers say they enjoy the subject, yet barely three out of 10 study it to GCSE level. Among younger children, the hours set aside for history are being slashed to make way for supposedly vocational subjects. And almost unbelievably, 12-year-olds in half of Tony Blair's beloved academies study history for just one hour – one! – a week.

An entire generation, in other words, is leaving school ignorant of what their parents and grandparents once took for granted: the solid, reassuring knowledge of what we all once recognised as our national story.

Terrible as they are, the Historical Association's figures come as little surprise. A few years ago, when I was a lecturer at one of northern England's biggest redbrick universities, I quickly realised that it was a mistake to assume any prior knowledge of British history on the part of our 18-year-old students. Most had studied the Nazis and the American civil rights movement in great detail at A-level, but few had heard of, say, David Lloyd George or Stanley Baldwin, or could explain why Britain had won and lost a global empire.

They were bright and keen to learn, but had been betrayed by a system that fed them titbits of knowledge, and by a culture of continuous testing that left little time to appreciate the broad sweep of our national past. But by today's standards, they were lucky. For as the Historical Association points out, if the trend continues, history may well decline into virtual irrelevance as a school subject, overtaken by Media Studies and Beauty Therapy.

It is too easy to blame the students, who find themselves under intense pressure to get the best possible grades for their university applications – which inevitably means that they pick subjects that are seen as "easier" or that offer more "value". And it is too easy, I think, to blame their teachers.

Whenever I give sixth-form talks, whether in private or state schools, I am always struck by the sheer love of history shown by most teachers, whose attitudes often put academics themselves to shame. Only a few weeks ago, giving a lecture to a talented and engaging group of A-level students on the Isle of Man, I felt almost humbled by the enterprise and sheer commitment of their history teachers, a husband-and-wife team who might have been an advertisement for education as one of life's most enriching vocations.

But there is no doubt that something has gone badly wrong when seven out of 10 schoolchildren are no longer studying history at the age of 16, when two out of 10 think Britain was once occupied by the Spanish, and when some identify Sir Winston Churchill as the first man on the moon. And the blame lies at the very top, shared by politicians of both parties, who have been systematically cheating and betraying our children since the 1980s.

During the Thatcher years, it was meddling from the top that downgraded history from a compulsory to an optional subject at the age of 16 – which, because it was seen as "difficult", made it easy pickings for Mickey Mouse subjects such as Beauty Therapy. It was supposedly "progressive" interference, meanwhile, that did away with old-fashioned essay questions and replaced them with empathy exercises and multiple-choice quizzes that sacrificed any sense of intellectual depth or discipline.

And perhaps above all, it was in Westminster and Whitehall that officials designed our absurd Yo! Sushi approach to history, in which schools randomly pick unrelated historical topics like saucers from a conveyor belt, instead of studying our national story as a continuous narrative, which is how any sensible person sees it.

What makes this betrayal all the more depressing is that in society at large there is clearly such an eager appetite for historical narrative. Even now, 20 years after I was forced to do empathy exercises ("Imagine you are a housewife in Hamburg in 1932 …") as part of my history GCSE lessons, British readers devour more popular history than almost any other nation, helping to keep Andrew Roberts in silk pyjamas and Simon Schama in leather jackets.

With almost four million members happily forking out to visit its country houses, castles, factories and workhouses, the National Trust is the biggest membership organisation in the country. Even the latest Booker shortlist reflects our deep shared thirst for history, from A S Byatt's lovingly evoked Edwardian social landscape to Sarah Waters's haunting recreation of Attlee's Britain and Hilary Mantel's coruscating portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. And, of course, it was the readers of this very paper who contributed £25,000 to the reprint of H E Marshall's Our Island Story, the children's history of England first published in 1905 that still gives a more entertaining overall account of our national story than most modern textbooks, even if it is a bit dated.

Any sensible government, recognising the extent of the popular enthusiasm for history, would have intervened long ago to restore the subject as a central, compulsory element of the national curriculum. Instead, Labour have flapped and floundered, bleating about Britishness lessons and citizenship classes instead of doing the one thing guaranteed to inculcate a sense of community and identity: teaching children their national history.

One reason that America has proved so successful as a melting pot for immigrants, after all, is that its schools give their children a solid and reassuring sense of themselves as Americans, embedded in a shared national past which is studded with patriotic landmarks from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address. And we have only to look across the Irish Sea, where schools in the Republic patiently trace their national story from Ireland's first Christian missionaries to its bloody struggle for independence, to see that teaching your national history from start to finish is hardly rocket science. Nor is it necessarily reactionary or old-fashioned or even conservative, as its critics suggest. It is simply common sense.

"The past is a foreign country," L P Hartley famously wrote at the beginning of his great novel The Go-Between. "They do things differently there." Exploring that vast and impossibly rich continent ought to be one of the most exciting intellectual adventures in any boy or girl's lifetime: a chance not just to tread the fields of Hastings or Bosworth, or to see Shakespeare and Milton at work, but to encounter an enormously, uproariously diverse range of characters, to make lifelong acquaintances, to draw lessons and parallels, to meet humanity in the raw.

In any sane and decent society, that journey ought to be the centrepiece of the education system, a long and thoughtful expedition, not a botched and half-hearted day-trip to which most children are no longer invited. And one day, I suspect, we will look back and judge that our Government's ignorance and neglect of that wonderful, dazzling, irresistible country was among the greatest of its failures and the most unforgivable of its many betrayals.

Friday, September 11, 2009

20 Key Events in the Neurosciences

1. Mapping of the Human Cortex.
2. Discovery of the roles of the Medulla Oblangata and the Cerebellum in brain functioning.
3. Invention of the CAT and PET Scans as well as the NMR for brain observation.
4. Discovery of the Brain Wave and the Invention of the EEG.
5. Elucidation of the process of information flow through the visual cortex.
6. Understanding of the Pain pathway through the Central Nervous system.
7. Identification of Broca and Werniecke region for Speech and Language Processing.
8. The discovery of neurotransmitter chemicals such as Dopamine and Seritonin.
9. Discovery of the pineal controlled biological clock mechanism.
10.Identification of the physiological nature of depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Mania and other forms of mental illness.
11. The Establishment of Psychology as a science outside the realm of philosophy.
12. Birth of the science of psychopharmacology. Includes the development of Anti-Depressants, SSRIs and Barbiturates.
13. Development of the Science of Psychoanalysis.
14. Discovery of the conditioned reflex response.
15. Understanding of the different types of sleep. Includes the discovery and analysis of Rem Sleep. Birth of Dream Therapy.
16. Birth of the discipline of Behaviorism.
17. Carl Jung develops the concept of the Collective Conscious/Unconscious.
18. Development of the Science of Personality study, an outflow of Carl Jung's work.
19. Birth of the science of Psychometrics includes the testing of intelligence and learning.
20. Development of Gestalt Therapy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Inflation and the Fall of the Roman Empire

by Joseph Peden

Two centuries ago, in 1776, there were two books published in England, both of which are read avidly today. One of them was Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and the other was Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's multivolume work is the tale of a state that survived for twelve centuries in the West and for another thousand years in the East, at Constantinople.

Gibbon, in looking at this phenomenon, commented that the wonder was not that the Roman Empire had fallen, but rather that it had lasted so long. And scholars since Gibbon have devoted a great deal of energy to examining that problem: How was it that the Roman Empire lasted so long? And did it decline, or was it simply transformed into something else (that something else being the European civilization of which we are the heirs)?

I've been asked to speak on the theme of Roman history, particularly the problem of inflation and its impact. My analysis is based on the premise that monetary policy cannot be studied, or understood, in isolation from the overall policies of the state.

Monetary, fiscal, military, political, and economic issues are all very much intertwined. And they are all so intertwined because any state normally seeks to monopolize the supply of money within its own territory.

Monetary policy therefore always serves, even if it serves badly, the perceived needs of the rulers of the state. If it also happens to enhance the prosperity and progress of the masses of the people, that is a secondary benefit; but its first aim is to serve the needs of the rulers, not the ruled. This point is central, I believe, to an understanding of the course of monetary policy in the late Roman Empire.

We may begin by looking at the mentality of the rulers of the Roman Empire, beginning at the end of the 2nd century AD and looking through to the end of the 3rd century AD. Roman historians refer to this period as the "Crisis of the 3rd Century." And the reason is that the problems of the Roman society in that period were so profound, so enormous, that Roman society emerged from the 3rd century very different in almost all ways from what it had been in the 1st and 2nd centuries

To look at the mentality of the Roman emperors, we can look just at the advice that the Emperor Septimius Severus gave to his two sons, Caracalla and Geta. This is supposed to be his final words to his heirs. He said, "live in harmony; enrich the troops; ignore everyone else." Now, there is a monetary policy to be marveled at!

Caracalla did not adhere to the first part of that advice; in fact, one of his first acts was to murder his brother. But as for enriching the troops, he took that so seriously to heart that his mother remonstrated with him and urged him to be more moderate and to restrain his increasing military expenditures and burdensome new taxes. He responded by saying there was no longer any revenue, just or unjust, to be found. But not to worry, "for as long as we have this," he insisted, pointing to his sword, "we shall not run short of money."

His sense of priorities was made more explicit when he remarked, "nobody should have any money but I, so that I may bestow it upon the soldiers." And he was as good as his word. He raised the pay of the soldiers by 50 percent, and to achieve this he doubled the inheritance taxes paid by Roman citizens. When this was not sufficient to meet his needs, he admitted almost every inhabitant of the empire to Roman citizenship. What had formerly been a privilege now became simply a means of expanding the tax base.

He then went further by proceeding to debase the coinage. The basic coinage of the Roman Empire to this time — we're speaking now about 211 AD — was the silver denarius introduced by Augustus at about 95 percent silver at the end of the 1st century BC. The denarius continued for the better part of two centuries as the basic medium of exchange in the empire.

By the time of Trajan in 117 AD, the denarius was only about 85 percent silver, down from Augustus's 95 percent. By the age of Marcus Aurelius, in 180, it was down to about 75 percent silver. In Septimius's time it had dropped to 60 percent, and Caracalla evened it off at 50/50.

For the rest go to the Source

Some World War II Updates

Looking for Remains of the War Dead
I was surprised to find out that there were 74,000 missing American servicemen from WWII.

Pope decries Holocaust
But will he admit that the Vatican should have taken a stronger stance against Nazism during the War?If Pius XII had issued a Bull arguing that anyone who supported the anti-semitism of the Nazis (or any of their other genocidal policies) was a disgrace to the religion it may have reduced the grass roots collaboration that facilitated the Nazi driven holocaust.

Wars of Choice and Wars of Necessity
A good boost in an era when so many seem to have forgotten the reason why Hitler had to be stopped.