Education for refugees can help save Syria’s lost generation

By Dorrie Chetty, University of Westminster

With the world’s focus firmly on the European response to the refugee crisis in recent weeks, attention has been diverted away from the humanitarian needs of the Middle East itself.

Only a minority of refugees have fled to Europe, with the majority of Syrians travelling across neighbouring borders to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. These movements of people have placed considerable pressure on already stretched public services, and children – one of the most vulnerable groups – are being severely affected.

Hundreds of thousands of them are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused and exploited – and for the vast majority, they have no access to education.

A significant proportion of the 13m children reported by UNICEF as deprived of an education in the Middle East, are from Syria. With limited and interrupted education, what does the future hold for these children – and for the future of Syria?

[Read more…]


Student accused of being a terrorist for reading book on terrorism

The Guardian reports: A postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University had spotted him reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in the college library.

Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, told the Guardian that he was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida.

His replies, Farooq said, were largely academic but he stressed his personal opposition to extremist views. However, the conversation in the library was reported by the official to security guards, because it had raised “too many red flags” .

“I could not believe it. I was reading an academic textbook and minding my own business. At first I thought I’d just laugh it off as a joke,” said Farooq, who then instructed a lawyer to help him challenge and rebut the claims. [Continue reading…]


Why access to computers won’t automatically boost children’s grades

By Steve Higgins, Durham University

Filling classrooms to the brim with computers and tablets won’t necessarily help children get better grades. That’s the finding of a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The report reviews the links between test results of 15-year-olds from 64 countries who took part in the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and how much the pupils used technology at home and school.

Pupils in 31 countries, not including the UK, also took part in extra online tests of digital reading, navigation and mathematics. The countries and cities that came top in these online tests were Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan – who also perform well in paper-based tests. But pupils in these countries don’t necessarily spend a lot of time on computers in class.

The report also shows that in 2012, 96% of 15-year-old students in the 64 countries in the study reported that they have a computer at home, but only 72% reported that they used a desktop, laptop or tablet computer at school.

The OECD found that it was not the amount of digital technology used in schools that was linked with scores in the PISA tests, but what teachers ask pupils do with computers or tablets that counts. There is also an increasing digital divide between school and home.

[Read more…]


The coddling of the American mind

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write: Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law — or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia — and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.” But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.” [Continue reading…]


On the value of not knowing everything

James McWilliams writes: In January 2010, while driving from Chicago to Minneapolis, Sam McNerney played an audiobook and had an epiphany. The book was Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, and the epiphany was that consciousness could reside in the brain. The quest for an empirical understanding of consciousness has long preoccupied neurobiologists. But McNerney was no neurobiologist. He was a twenty-year-old philosophy major at Hamilton College. The standard course work — ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophy — enthralled him. But after this drive, after he listened to Lehrer, something changed. “I had to rethink everything I knew about everything,” McNerney said.

Lehrer’s publisher later withdrew How We Decide for inaccuracies. But McNerney was mentally galvanized for good reason. He had stumbled upon what philosophers call the “Hard Problem” — the quest to understand the enigma of the gap between mind and body. Intellectually speaking, what McNerney experienced was like diving for a penny in a pool and coming up with a gold nugget.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel drew popular attention to the Hard Problem four decades ago in an influential essay titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Frustrated with the “recent wave of reductionist euphoria,” Nagel challenged the reductive conception of mind — the idea that consciousness resides as a physical reality in the brain — by highlighting the radical subjectivity of experience. His main premise was that “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism.”

If that idea seems elusive, consider it this way: A bat has consciousness only if there is something that it is like for that bat to be a bat. Sam has consciousness only if there is something it is like for Sam to be Sam. You have consciousness only if there is something that it is like for you to be you (and you know that there is). And here’s the key to all this: Whatever that “like” happens to be, according to Nagel, it necessarily defies empirical verification. You can’t put your finger on it. It resists physical accountability.

McNerney returned to Hamilton intellectually turbocharged. This was an idea worth pondering. “It took hold of me,” he said. “It chose me — I know you hear that a lot, but that’s how it felt.” He arranged to do research in cognitive science as an independent study project with Russell Marcus, a trusted professor. Marcus let him loose to write what McNerney calls “a seventy-page hodgepodge of psychological research and philosophy and everything in between.” Marcus remembered the project more charitably, as “a huge, ambitious, wide-ranging, smart, and engaging paper.” Once McNerney settled into his research, Marcus added, “it was like he had gone into a phone booth and come out as a super-student.”

When he graduated in 2011, McNerney was proud. “I pulled it off,” he said about earning a degree in philosophy. Not that he had any hard answers to any big problems, much less the Hard Problem. Not that he had a job. All he knew was that he “wanted to become the best writer and thinker I could be.”

So, as one does, he moved to New York City.

McNerney is the kind of young scholar adored by the humanities. He’s inquisitive, open-minded, thrilled by the world of ideas, and touched with a tinge of old-school transcendentalism. What Emerson said of Thoreau — “he declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession” — is certainly true of McNerney. [Continue reading…]


How Pope Francis is about to reshape the climate discussion

Celia Deane-Drummond, a professor in theology at the University of Notre Dame, writes: Geologists claim that we are now living in the age of the “Anthropocene:” a new geological era where human domination of planet Earth is becoming indelibly written into the geological record.

Human actions are becoming slowly but surely crafted onto the material remains each generation leaves behind. The difference between climate changes that are taking place in our present century and those at the dawn of human existence is that humanity now is affecting and instigating such changes.

We are constructing our world to such an extent that we have lost sight of both our origins and our futures, caught up in the micro and macro politics of the everyday, feasting on the products of our own creations.

It is against the backdrop of the Anthropocene that Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical will be delivered on June 18. In it, the Pope will draw on the praise poem Canticle of the Creatures, which was first penned by the patron saint of ecologists, Saint Francis of Assisi.

Pope Francis will speak to the ambiguous loss in Western societies of knowing ourselves as creatures. The world that we inhabit may be dominated by human activity, but it is still God’s world first and foremost. Once we know that the Earth is a gift, this creates a different relationship with it compared with the Earth as material for our use.

But he will not romanticize the Earth. Instead, he will speak of the need for human responsibility. And there are likely to be three facets of that responsibility to act, especially on the part of richer, consumer-driven nations of the world.

  • First, on behalf of the poor.
  • Second, in building relationships of peace.
  • Third, in service to creation.

The Earthly world is indeed our home but we have become estranged from it through our practices of domination. [Continue reading…]

Jeff Turrentine writes: Every now and then you come across a statement by a public official that is so ridiculous, so perfect in its unabashed wrongness, you have to read it a few times to fully appreciate it as a work of demagogic art.

My current favorite in this category comes courtesy of one Scott Weber, a member of the Park County School District #6 Board of Trustees in Cody, Wyoming. A couple of weeks ago, when he and his fellow board members were supposed to be voting on whether to purchase new textbooks and reading materials for the district, Weber put a stop to the vote by taking a bold stand in defense of climate denial, political cronyism, and intellectual closed-mindedness.

Here’s what he said about one of the reading materials the board was considering for purchase, as reported by the Casper Star-Tribune:

As a board member, I will not authorize any of the $300,000 allocated for this purchase to include supplemental booklets about “global whining.” … Our Wyoming schools are largely funded by coal, oil, natural gas, mining, ranching, etc. This junk science is against community and state standards.

This junk science is against community and state standards. Stop for a moment and give that sentence the attention it deserves. For thousands of years, going back to Aristotle, humanity’s greatest minds have sought to safeguard the precepts of the scientific method by keeping them away from the corrupting influence of political culture. Defending the integrity of science from powerful people is what got Galileo imprisoned. And yet, 400 years later, here we are: watching a public official tasked with guiding the educational trajectories of his community’s children rail against the accepted science on climate change—because its conclusions threaten to undermine the local political culture. [Continue reading…]


How a corporate cult captures and destroys our best graduates

George Monbiot writes: To seek enlightenment, intellectual or spiritual; to do good; to love and be loved; to create and to teach: these are the highest purposes of humankind. If there is meaning in life, it lies here.

Those who graduate from the leading universities have more opportunity than most to find such purpose. So why do so many end up in pointless and destructive jobs? Finance, management consultancy, advertising, public relations, lobbying: these and other useless occupations consume thousands of the brightest students. To take such jobs at graduation, as many will in the next few weeks, is to amputate life close to its base.

I watched it happen to my peers. People who had spent the preceding years laying out exultant visions of a better world, of the grand creative projects they planned, of adventure and discovery, were suddenly sucked into the mouths of corporations dangling money like angler fish.

At first they said they would do it for a year or two, “until I pay off my debts”. Soon afterwards they added: “and my mortgage”. Then it became, “I just want to make enough not to worry any more”. A few years later, “I’m doing it for my family”. Now, in middle age, they reply, “What, that? That was just a student fantasy.” [Continue reading…]


American academia — liberal in name but conservative in practice

The Daily Beast: The academy might seem like a bastion of American liberalism but an extensive database of faculty salaries compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education paints a damning picture of gender inequality at U.S. colleges and universities.

Not only does the data reveal a substantial gender pay gap at both private and public schools, it also shows that male-dominated college faculties disproportionately rely on the labor of women in instructor and lecturer positions.

Women may keep our colleges running but the American university is still an old boys’ club.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new tool displays faculty and staff salary data from over 4,700 colleges and universities stretching from 2003 to 2013. The federal data powering the database isn’t brand new but it provides the starkest and most accessible visualization yet of the gendered distribution of labor in the American academy.


Climate scientists need to produce more ‘actionable science’

John Upton writes: When a San Francisco panel began mulling rules about building public projects near changing shorelines, its self-described science translator, David Behar, figured he would just turn to the U.N.’s most recent climate assessment for guidance on future sea levels.

He couldn’t.

Nor could Behar, leader of the city utility department’s climate program, get what he needed from a 2012 National Research Council report dealing with West Coast sea level rise projections. A National Climate Assessment paper dealing with sea level rise didn’t seem to have what he needed, either. Even after reviewing two California government reports dealing with sea level rise, Behar says he had to telephone climate scientists and review a journal paper summarizing the views of 90 experts before he felt confident that he understood science’s latest projections for hazards posed by the onslaught of rising seas.

“You sometimes have to interview the authors of these reports to actually understand what they’re saying,” Behar said. “On the surface,” the assessments and reports that Behar turned to “all look like they’re saying different things,” he said. “But when you dive deeper — with the help of the authors, in most cases — they don’t disagree with one another very much.”

Governments around the world, from Madison, Wis., and New York City to the Obama Administration and the European Union have begun striving in recent years to adapt to the growing threats posed by climate change. But the burst of adaptation planning threatens to be hobbled by cultural and linguistic divides between those who practice science and those who prepare policy.[Continue reading…]


Harvard’s intransigence on fossil fuel divestment

Bill McKibben writes: Thirty-five years ago, students began demanding that Harvard sell its stock in companies that supported South Africa’s racist regime. The university said no; it was only after years and years of organizing—everything from building a mock shantytown in Harvard Yard to electing Desmond Tutu (and Al Gore) to the Harvard Board of Overseers on a divestment platform—that the university began selling off its apartheid-tainted stock. When the issue was tobacco, it was years after the American Medical Association recommended that medical schools divest their shares that Harvard sold its holdings—and only after a medical student, Philip Huang, ran a clever radio campaign pointing out that then-President Derek Bok was supporting an industry “that markets death and disease to blacks, women, the poor, and Third World countries.”

Now the issue is merely the fate of the planet’s climate system. With it is the future of our civilizations. At the moment, we’re on track to raise the planet’s temperature 4 degrees Celsius by century’s end, which is the biggest thing we’ve ever done. Ask the folks already abandoning islands in the Pacific, or twiddling the faucet handle in drought-stricken São Paulo.

Climate change threatens not only humans but a huge percentage of the Earth’s other species—the plants and animals carefully cataloged in the endless file cabinets at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology or the Harvard University Herbaria. But as usual, Harvard is sticking by its time-honored playbook. Despite huge majorities of students demanding fossil fuel divestment, despite powerful letters from the faculty, and despite the example of institutions from Stanford to the Rockefeller family beginning to divest, the Corporation has said no. President Drew Gilpin Faust, in fact, has issued a letter explaining that the university should be “very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the university as a political actor rather than an academic institution.” Just as it was very wary of letting women take classes or taking a stand against tobacco or apartheid. [Continue reading…]


Syracuse University to divest £800m endowment from fossil fuels

The Guardian reports: Syracuse University will remove its $1.18 bn (£800m) endowment from direct investments in fossil fuel companies, it announced on Tuesday.

Syracuse is the biggest university in the world to have committed to divest from fossil fuels. It aims to make additional investments in clean energy technologies such as solar, biofuels and advanced recycling.

In a statement, the university said it will “not directly invest in publicly traded companies whose primary business is extraction of fossil fuels and will direct its external investment managers to take every step possible to prohibit investments in these public companies as well”.

Chancellor Kent Syverud said: “Syracuse has a long record of supporting responsible environmental stewardship and good corporate citizenship, and we want to continue that record. Formalising our commitment to not invest directly in fossil fuels is one more way we do that.”

Syracuse joins other universities who have made similar commitments, including Stanford, Maine, Glasgow and the New School in New York.

Bill McKibben, founder of the environmental group said: “This is one of America’s great universities. It’s a great tribute to the students who made real sacrifices to stand up to power and to an administration that can see where the future lies.” [Continue reading…]


Academia’s caste system exposed

Quartz: Getting a job in academia is notoriously difficult. But the odds are especially bad for aspiring professors who didn’t earn their PhDs from a select few universities, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

Researchers at Harvard and the University of Colorado, Boulder looked at full-time faculty in history and business departments in US colleges, and at computer science faculty in the US and Canada, between 2011 and 2013, co-author Aaron Clauset tells Quartz. They examined where the professors had earned their PhDs, and created a ranking system of the most prestigious schools in each subject, based on how successful their graduates were in finding jobs. They analyzed 16,316 assistant, associate and full professors across 242 schools.

Overall they found a fourth of the institutions accounted for about three fourths of tenure-track faculty. For example, 18 universities produce half of US and Canadian computer science professors, 16 universities produce half of US business professors, and eight universities account for half of US history professors. They chose these three fields to get a range, from humanities to scientific fields, and demonstrate that exclusive institutions dominated across the board, Clauset says. [Continue reading…]


Taylor and Appel: The subprime education scandal

We used to hear more often about those malignant institutions serving, or rather plaguing, the poor: the loan sharks who charged 100% or more per year in interest, the furniture or radios that ended up costing several times their value on the installment plan. Two or three decades ago, however, we didn’t think of an education as being part of the landscape of predation upon the poor. Now, as Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel explain, when it comes to a new crew of “for-profit” colleges, higher education has gone hyena and is tearing at the financial flesh of the poor.

Even mainstream institutions can be sketchy these days, if you look closely enough. Most liberal arts college programs give their students a vague, if exhilarating, sense that the best possible outcome of their vocation is practically an inevitability, and yet there are far from enough tenure-track jobs, top galleries, or niches on bestseller lists for all the people being educated.

Though people make it in all these fields, they are a tiny minority.  So many others pay their dues and get little for it, except whatever is inherently meaningful in their education, which won’t, of course, lighten their loan burden at all.

Once upon a time, it was different. The radicalism of the 1960s, for instance, should be chalked up in part to the great freedom of youth at a time when the fat of the land seemed inexhaustible and the safety net unbreakable. The two radicals I know who became wanted fugitives in the 1970s and then tenured faculty members (now retired with pensions) operated in a more forgiving era — and a more affluent one.

My parents believed that any kind of bachelor’s degree pretty much guaranteed your white-collar future, and that was a truth of their era. Thirty years ago, when I came along, it was already less of a reality; today, so much less than that. Still, the hangover from that conviction lingers. I went to California’s public universities as their golden age of nearly free and superb education was ending and got through college scrambling to the sound of doors shutting behind me. It was all part of the end of an egalitarian dream birthed and nurtured by the New Deal of the 1930s, the creation of social security in the 1940s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It’s now popular to say that, as president, Richard Nixon was to the left of Barack Obama, but what that means is that our society was then closer to a social democracy (and that since we’re really bad at talking about it, we’d rather focus our attention on figureheads).

Maybe communism was good for us after all, at least — as David Graeber argues — in scaring the powers that be into offering their own limited versions of equality and opportunity. California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, was the beginning of the end of that dream, arising as it did from the now-entrenched belief that what we have separately beats whatever we have together anytime. Taxes were portrayed as the nails that stuck every breadwinning Jesus to his own personal cross, rather than the way to keep roads and bridges and schools in shape, have safe drinking water and, like, a postal system and libraries (and also a giant military eating up more than half of the federal government’s discretionary spending). As the retreat into the private sphere began in earnest, people started forgetting how good, how secure life had been, while Republicans launched the mantra that future tax cuts would be a magical ointment capable of curing anything.

Part of the great work of Occupy Wall Street was to make some of the brutality of the current economy visible. People whose lives were being ravaged by housing, medical, and educational debt came out of the shame and the shadows to testify, while activists and homeowners took action against foreclosures and banks. From the beginning Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, was part of that movement and moment.  Her work there led to her involvement with Strike Debt and the fledgling Debt Collective. Now, she and Hannah Appel focus on the conditions that produced the perfect educational storm in the form of the private for-profit university/corporation. Rebecca Solnit

Education with a debt sentence
For-profit colleges as American dream crushers and factories of debt
By Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel

Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream — gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.

Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%. In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.

[Read more…]


The case for banning laptops in the classroom

Dan Rockmore writes: A colleague of mine in the department of computer science at Dartmouth recently sent an e-mail to all of us on the faculty. The subject line read: “Ban computers in the classroom?” The note that followed was one sentence long: “I finally saw the light today and propose we ban the use of laptops in class.”

While the sentiment in my colleague’s e-mail was familiar, the source was surprising: it came from someone teaching a programming class, where computers are absolutely integral to learning and teaching. Surprise turned to something approaching shock when, in successive e-mails, I saw that his opinion was shared by many others in the department.

My friend’s epiphany came after he looked up from his lectern and saw, yet again, an audience of laptop covers, the flip sides of which were engaged in online shopping or social-media obligations rather than in the working out of programming examples. In a “Network”-inspired Peter Finch moment, he quickly changed the screen of his lecture presentation to a Reddit feed and watched some soccer highlights. That got everyone’s attention. [Continue reading…]


Master of many trades

Robert Twigger writes: I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.

We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me ‘Dr Twigger’ several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third ‘Dr’, I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine — he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert — otherwise why would anyone listen?

The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labour was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process. But Smith also observed that ‘mental mutilation’ followed the too-strict division of labour. Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: ‘Nothing tends to materialise man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labour.’ [Continue reading…]


Video: Neil deGrasse Tyson on how to promote scientific literacy in children


Video: Ken Robinson — How to escape education’s death valley


Education should offer people a greater sense of being human

Alan Smith writes: You OK?” said Casey.

“Yeah fine. I’m all right,” I said, but I wasn’t.

“It was an upsetting morning,” he said. “I feel upset myself.”

“Tell you what, Case, if I never meet another psychopath again as long as I live, it’ll be far too soon.” And I knew that I had lost the stomach for the whole damned business. If I carried on in prison, I would have to do it differently; I would have to admit that it was prison.

In 14 years, I had never excluded anyone, no matter how difficult they were. It had all been a bit of a club where everyone was good and bright and sensitive, especially when they weren’t. But now, my bottle had gone and I wanted to get under the duvet and stay there. Casey gave me a hug: “Retire, man. You don’t need all this shit.”

I suppose it had all been creeping up on me for a while. What I had to face up to was that I was becoming more and more indifferent. It was a difficult thing to do. There were moments, more and more of them, when I didn’t care about the things that happened, who they happened to. This was the selfishness that prison rubs into your skin. I listened to what Arthur had to say, nodded the right things back at him and then shrugged him off. Arthur led a life of growing desperation. He had an indeterminate sentence and lived from one parole board to the next, with no real idea if release would be sooner or later. He talked to me about his wife, his children, his father and, I said to myself, if I could do anything to help him out I would. Anyone could see that he was a decent sort of a bloke. If he managed to get into the education block a bit early, he gave our room a bit of a tidy, got the office vacuum cleaner and did the floor. If he caught me doing it he told me off: “You shouldn’t be doing that.” I liked him; we got on.His robust spirit was slowly winding down and sometimes he snapped at people, took refuge in contempt, laughed a lot less than he used to. But I shrugged him off. I caught myself doing it, caught myself thinking of something clever to say, making up something clever to tell myself so that I could slip away.

I had always tried to avoid this failure that begins with indifference. I had never tried to manage the men I met, deflect them, stand behind a platitude, promise anything and then lose the paperwork. That’s the track I had started to head down, towards that quiet life that I’d do anything to have. I could see it happening.

And so, after almost 14 years, it was time to go. I couldn’t just walk away, just leave the guys flat. I offered them a deal. I would stay as long as they did. There was a certain amount of dark laughter. “You might have a long wait,” said one. Sue, the education manager, agreed to let the class run down, no more new faces.

Teaching in a prison means that from time to time, someone who is really difficult walks through the door. I always felt obliged to persist, not to simply chuck them out. “You can’t treat people like that,” I would say when the guys advised me what they would do to the current nutter. Now, I had started to agree with them and it felt like failure. I was becoming growingly aware that when I heard about someone stabbing a man – “They reckon I stabbed him 47 times,” or about pouring boiling, sugary water over someone or about saving up stale piss to throw, there I was nodding and making notes and thinking, “Oh that’s good, I might be able to use that in a novel”. I knew that something was wrong but, just as it had been when I was a child, the wrongness had no purchase on me.

We got down to four and then, out of the blue, there was a run of golden, other-worldly mornings when we read Chaucer. Chaucer. It started when Ten-Foot thought I was kidding when I said that there was a marxist account of language. They couldn’t get enough of the Canterbury Tales, that lovely run of characters. It cheered me up to know again that anything good, no matter how old, obscure or difficult always commanded a hearing. We took our time over the spelling and where words might have come from or gone to. I told them about David Crystal and the notion of polite rather than correct English. We really got into it. The college didn’t want to pay me for a class of four; I was willing to pay them. The men’s enthusiasm reassured me that I hadn’t wasted my time. What, after all, does education offer to people if not a greater sense of being human? [Continue reading…]