Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain, Social Economy
Is it just me, or does politics on the other side of the pond invariably seem more interesting?
It is fairly clear that the next Labour leader will be a Miliband, if not an Ed, and I find myself underwhelmed by either prospect, and the contest as a whole. The aftermath of the general election was hugely exciting, but now that the coalition seems to be holding itself together, I find I am less trigger happy with my mouse on British news pages. The ‘Big Society’ interests me at a conceptual level, but it’s a slow burner, and Tony Blair’s biography will doubtless create a media frenzy, but the focus will be on Iraq, and I will be surprised if we learn anything that transforms existing opinion.
Politics in the USA invariably feels more vivid, dramatic and personal, perhaps because of the way it is reported. I got into the habit of watching The Daily Show while I was a masters student in the US, and I now watch it on Channel Four. Rory Bremner is funny, but frankly he is not a patch on John Stewart, who hosts the show with a rare mixture of insight, humour, respect and side-splitting incredulity.
Last week’s main story was the Fox news anchor Glenn Beck’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in which he used the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to ‘reclaim civil rights’ and ‘restore honour’ to America. Neither idea makes much sense to me, but the Guardian’s American editor, Mike Tomasky, frames the issue in a typically astute way:
“Part of citizenship, a crucial part of citizenship, is standing in their(the less privileged/prosperous-JR) shoes for a few moments – as they must stand in yours, and understand your point of view too. The Beck movement is the we-stay-in-our-shoes movement. It’s Grover Norquist’s “leave us alone” coalition.”
Perhaps it is such binaries that make American politics more engaging. Indeed I strongly encourage anybody interested in exploring the mutual incomprehension that lies at the heart of political debate to read Jonathan Haidt’s excellent essay called: “What makes people vote Republican?” Haidt(author the critically acclaimed ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’) contends that the American right has a wider range of moral reference points:
“The second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer.”
Our social brain project is partly founded on building a deeper appreciation for this ‘it’, because the importance of group membership and institutions falls out from our understanding of human nature outlined in ‘Changing the Subject‘. However, ’sanctified and noble’ remains a hard sell in a relatively secular society, and is perhaps closer to Glenn Beck’s motivation, who referenced ‘God’ several times in his speech.
But what of the strange fruit in the title? I also read the New York Times on most days, and I was prompted to blog by one particularly elegant Op Ed by Charles M Blow called ‘I had a Nightmare’, in which he lambasts Beck’s decision to associate himself with Dr. King and refers pointedly to ‘strange fruit‘. This expression rang a bell, but had no emotional impact, until I looked at the wikipedia page above.
If you are not already aware of the poem or the song, made famous by Billie Holiday, I will leave you to discover it for yourself, but be warned that the image may haunt you for a while.
Perhaps American politics seems more interesting because such atrocities are still visceral, and form part of the collective political unconscious there. Our political discourse seems to be relatively bereft of such intense cultural reference points, or perhaps I am missing something?
I’m attending a seminar this afternoon to find out more about an exciting competition from the Social Innovation Camp and NESTA which I thought you might be interested in.
Jailbrake is a competition to find and support great ideas that could break this cycle of youth offending and re-offending using simple web and mobile tools.
They want to bring together those who have an idea about how to slow down and stop the cycle of youth offending – whether they’re part of a youth offending team, a service user, police officer or a member of a local community – with people who can make their ideas idea a reality.
They want to find the best ideas and turn them into real projects with a helping hand from software developers, designers and funders.
This afternoons seminar is for anyone interested in finding out more about NESTA’s Jailbrake competition.This ideas evening is an opportunity to find out more about how the competition works. You’ll be able to meet other people interested in innovation in youth offending and take part in a short workshop session to show you how we can help source good ideas and begin turning them into prototype projects.
There will be a chance to talk to the Social Innovation Camp and NESTA team to ask questions about how you can get involved and to discuss your own project ideas.
You can find out more at www.jailbrake.org
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the RSA is once again delving into the drugs world. We’re set to officially launch the project next month so the excitement is building not only around the new user-centred approach based on action research that the project will be piloting, but also around how it’s going to be received out there, by our Fellows, by the media, by my blog readers.
User centred, personalisation, co-production, individual budgets are increasingly appearing in discussions around public services where the ambition is to put people at the centre of the development and delivery of service and support. Empowering people to take control of their own lives, direct their own care services, or health treatments is becoming common place in support, health and care services.
We believe that drug services are a public service that would benefit from these sorts of approaches and even prove to be an exemplar for these discussions.
Last year I read a report published by the IPPR that made me think. It was called Warm Words, and analysed the language and discourses used in the media and campaigns to talk about climate change.
The authors identified several discourses at the time of publication (August 2006 – so it’s a bit out of date now) that fell into three main groups; alarmism (we’re doomed), “settlerdom” and “British comic nihilism” (climate change is just too fantastic to be true), and “small actions” (messages that encourage people to beat climate change by doing little actions like turning off lights). I thought this was all fascinating, coming at the same time I was getting slightly power crazy after being exposed to the sort of sneaky public engagement strategy that campaigning organisations use, and the ideas behind social marketing and population segmentation models.
The report suggests most of these discourses are pretty ineffective, and among its recommendations are to improve the way the media uses the small actions discourse:
As mentioned earlier, populist climate change discourse (for example, in magazines) tends to put together alarmist and small-action repertoires, through features such as ‘20 ways to save the planet from destruction’. In bringing together these two repertoires without reconciling them, these articles feed a notion of asymmetry in human agency with regards to climate change.
This, the report says, is pretty disastrous, and makes people think that while their actions are responsible for climate change, they are also powerless to do anything about it. How can turning off my telly make any difference to rising sea levels and ecosystem collapse?
Their conclusion is to create a new discourse which they call “ordinary heroism”, an attempt to create a (very British by the way) language about climate change (more about heroism in another post soon). Their explanation of what makes this unique isn’t entirely clear from the report to be honest, but the examples they quote of early uses of this discourse in the media all have in common that little changes from lots of people add up to be significant.
This is absolutely one of the reasons that technology and the internet is so crucial to helping us change our behaviour. My own energy saving rituals (nothing odd, I promise) seem negligible until I’m connected to everyone else, when I realise that the cumulative effect of my and our small actions are beginning to bring about significant change. This, as well as the competitive and social proofing reasons, is why it’s great that socially-networked energy displays/smart meters are beginning to find their way on to the market.
But what else can we come up with?
One of the big problems for education in this country was illustrated yet again today with the publication of the report from the Centre for Policy Studies’ on re-training military service people to work as teachers in schools.
First, for clarity, I am not implying there is any reason that people with a background in the military can’t re-train to become wonderful teachers. Secondly, I am commenting less on the substance of the report itself. Rather, what concerns me is the public story that accompanies the report, and some of the response to it from members of the public and politicians.
It is just one more demonstration that the public imagination about school is stuck in destructive notions of the ideal classroom being about silence, acquiesence to authority enforced with the threat of sanction, and absorbing knowledge from one point at the front of the class.
The idea things should be this way is contradicted by the schools we know using Opening Minds, or one of a number of other innovative approaches. These schools are seeking to help young people become creative, independent learners, active citizens, and people who can take the opportunities afforded them in a fast moving economy.
They show the possibility and benefits of actively engaging learners, whatever their background, in buzzing, noisy but focussed classrooms. They create healthy communities which encourage exploration, peer interaction, and most of all excitement about learning.
Disadvantaged young people might ‘respond to raw physical power’ (who doesn’t?!) but they respond better in caring communities of learning.
And that’s the image we need to see in the media, and getting positive responses from politicians. Perhaps we need to shout louder to get that point across?