Good intentions, split peas and Mimetic Desire
I think this is probably a general rule for human beings, because I see evidence of it in other people too. It's certainly apparent in the children's education: if they set themselves up to learn or achieve something, they often get distracted and procrastination sets in. But when they're just - living, a lot more progress is made.
Tuesday was a good day for us in that respect. We'd been working quite hard, in previous days, trying to get the house ready to sell and only succeeding in finding more and more jobs to do, whilst achieving less and less. So we stopped trying and had a day off - and achieved loads!
In chatting with her I realised Lyddie had some confusion with number sequencing, so we got out some pen and paper and did half an hour of maths, because she was interested just then and I was free to notice and accommodate this interest. I tried a few ways of helping her make sense of the sequence (10 to 100) and we ended up setting out the numbers 0 to 9, horizontally and vertically then fitting them together to make the numbers in consecutive order.
We got the old split peas out again, which she was happy about, and set them out in groups of ten. But Lyddie got bored with counting them, so we didn't pursue it and I suspect she's still not sure what 64 actually looks like, for example. And I was quite frustrated because I wanted to explain about tens and units and she looked absolutely blank about that. Hmmm. We need an abacus, I think. Actually I'd prefer a vertical abacus - does anyone know if there is such a thing?
Also on Tuesday I got very immersed in reading this parliamentary debate about the second reading of the Education and Skills Bill, which intends to extend the age for which education stops being compulsory from 16 to 18.
It's a fascinating debate for me to follow, given all of the above and my confirmed opinion that true learning can't be forced. This point was actually made in the debate by Michael Gove (Surrey Heath, Conservative), who said:
"I have expressed my scepticism that compulsion, in the way in which the Government are proceeding, is quite the best way to secure the greatest level of fruitful participation in education. It is said in the Army that a volunteer is worth 10 pressed men. It is an old saw, but we all know that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. More broadly, anyone involved in education will know that an effective precondition for successful teaching is a willingness on the part of the student to learn. The presence of sullen conscripts in a classroom or learning setting, who resent being there, is unlikely to lead to their sudden conversion to the joys of learning, particularly if their previous experience of learning has been unhappy. Indeed, their presence is unlikely to be conducive to creating a calm and purposeful environment for all those who do want to learn. Given the present high levels of truancy pre-16, with the numbers increasing every year from year 8, the task of enforcing attendance post-16 will certainly be a challenge. The priority should be to ensure that we can provide the right incentives and encouragements to persuade young people to participate in education for as long as possible."
- which I agree with, apart from the last sentence. If students are engaged with their learning, externally applied incentives and encouragements are unnecessary and if our experience here is typical of people everywhere, then they will actually be counter-productive.
I found Jim Knight's (Minister of State [Schools and Learners], Department for Children, Schools and Families) response quite disturbing:
I agree that we need to ensure that everything is right before the age of 16 in order to engage young people. However, does the hon. Gentleman think that it is possible to reach 100 per cent. participation without the galvanising effect of compulsion on the professionals who work with young people?
The 'galvanising effect of compulsion on the professionals'? I'd really like to sit down with Mr Knight and ask him to explain how this works, because it makes absolutely no sense to me. If anyone reading this can explain to me what he's on about, please do!
Something else I got into researching on Tuesday, after reading this blog post about Facebook by Allie, was the philosophy of René Girard, which is all about a phenomenon he calls Mimetic Desire, which asserts that most human beings generally desire only the things that are desired by someone else. I'm still trying to decide whether I agree with this.
Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, was apparently a student of Girard's and I found and transcribed this speech about 'Virtual Money, Privacy and Freedom' made by him three months ago, in which he explains one aspect of Mimetic Desire as follows:
"..if I were to give this $100 bill to [this lady], it doesn't have any intrinsic value to her either, but it would have value because somebody else values it and so it's valuable to her because it's valuable to other people, and to other people, and so on and you get this incredible infinite loop."
and then goes on to postulate his own theory, which seems to be that virtual reality is therefore going to be more important than actual reality and that, predictably: "information is more valuable than stuff", and "..a lot of value may exist in the virtual, alternate world and, you know, paper currency was an early prototype."
Peter Thiel and others are undoubtedly (as Tom Hodkinson complains) making a fortune out of Facebook for doing very little other than implementing the theories of Mimetic Desire. It obviously works, for them. En masse, Facebook users must be sufficiently sheeplike to be prompted to buy things they see advertised on webpages.
Personally I've always struggled to understand how people can maintain enough interest in Facebook activities to stay on the site for more than about 5 minutes every few weeks. I'm obviously playing it wrong!
But I think these issues - planning and achievement, being free to learn at one's own pace, compulsory education and Mimetic Desire - all come down to the same common denominator: is it right for people to try to manipulate one another?
For me, the answer is no.