Friday, January 18, 2008

Good intentions, split peas and Mimetic Desire

Whenever I write a long list of jobs to do I find myself doing very little and becoming frustrated and daunted by the huge stack of aspirations I've set for myself. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. Conversely, my most productive days are usually the ones in which I decide to just drift aimlessly. Then I end up getting interested in an issue and pursuing it until I've learned a lot or developing a skill, or finishing tasks, or all three.

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.


Blogger Allie said...

I'm not sure if you can avoid trying to manipulate others - not totally. We all know we have power over each other to some extent. I think the healthiest option is to acknowledge the power and be honest about what we want - and thus minimise manipulation. But it isn't easy to achieve, is it?

My chief concern in all these cases is the lack of respect implicit in all the interactions. Herd people about and tell them what they need and thus steal their time/money/soul/determination to do anything different.

8:17 pm, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

I agree Allie, because I do catch myself sometimes in the act of trying to persuade someone to do something! But in theory, I'm allowed to set my own goals and standards, and no-one else's.

Lack of respect: yes Michael Gove said something in the bill reading debate about that:

"My view is that we are increasingly recognising that at age 16 someone is a young adult, and we have to show more respect to individuals at that point."

- which made me splutter. Obviously fine to not bother respecting them before that point!

8:43 pm, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Mrs Darcy said...

Wow you did maths ;-)
Early Learning Centre do a vertical counting abacus!

11:10 pm, January 19, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Lou.

Yes! She asked me, "How do you know what comes after 19?" so we got quite deeply into it for a while. It's times like that I realise how much Tom, Ali and Zara missed when they were at school at that age. I mean yes, they could count - but they didn't seem to understand the mechanics of it and of course there was never chance for them to wonder, or ask.

Thanks for the abacus info!

9:08 am, January 20, 2008  
Blogger Willow said...

Is this Mimetic Desire idea like keeping up with the Joneses? It seems like a poor way of describing money, but a good way to describe a desire for peer approval.

I think this idea of compulsory education for 16 - 18 year olds galvanzing the teaching staff might be to do with the way if affects their role. They become responsible for continually pressing the unwilling into whatever activity they are trying to lead. This may lead teachers into using coping strategies to get through the lesson rather than addressing the learning of students who at least in theory are there of their own volition.


9:06 pm, January 21, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Willow

"Is this Mimetic Desire idea like keeping up with the Joneses?"

I suppose so yes. It seems to me to be an attempt to rationally explain why people tend to want so much more than they actually need, and of saying that it's not the items themselves they desire, but the envy or respect of other people for having acquired them. Or the satisfaction of having deprived the other person of the thing, or both.

My oldest son Tom thinks this is all about our tribal instincts: we're constantly trying to get to the top of the social pyramid because it's a safer position to be in. I suppose it's fairly obvious when you think about it that way.

Peter Thiel was (rather stumblingly) making the point that this is the only reason paper money has value in our society. In other words, if we only traded and desired the things we actually needed, there would be no paper or virtual money.

Thanks for your thoughts about the 'galvanizing' effects of compulsory education on teachers. It hadn't occurred to me to think of it that way, but yes I agree, the nature of the classes and everything connected with learning for 16-18 year olds will be more utilitarian and less inspiring, won't it? It's quite shocking to think this would be a desirable outcome to some people, but you only have to look at what's happened to the pre-16 education system to believe it's true.

10:39 am, January 22, 2008  
Blogger Carlotta said...

I only stay on Facebook to try to network for HE and children rights issues. Otherwise v. boring I agree.

12:30 pm, January 25, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Carlotta, yours wasn't one of those Facebook 'friends requests' with names I didn't recognise, was it? Let me know, if so, and I'll approve it!

12:40 pm, January 25, 2008  

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