Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Of ants and men.

There are many fungi, and some worms, that infect insects and take over their brains. It's not just insects. There is a parasite that can force a snail to expose itself to danger and make it flash its eyestalks so a bird will easily find and eat it. The parasite needs to move into a bird for the next stage of its life cycle and rather than leave it to chance, it actually takes control of the snail's physiology. Pretty impressive for something that has no brain of its own.

I wonder if there is one that makes people become politicians. But then that would assume a politician has a brain, of which there is scant evidence anywhere in the world.

Here's an interesting story. It's in a UK newspaper (well, more of a hack-rag but they do have some interesting things sometimes) and includes a video that could have come straight from the set of an alien-style movie, but it's real. I hope the article is available outside the UK or this whole post is going to look pretty silly.

Once you've been horrified at what a lowly fungus can do to a much more complex organism, consider something else. Consider the narrator. He's not just some reporter reading a script, he's a well-known nature expert and he didn't get to know as much as he does by having the attention span of a caffeine-laden fruit fly. In-depth study of anything needs concentration and application. That's how you make progress.

How confident would you be crossing a bridge built by Insanity Prawn Boy? How happy would you be in a skyscraper designed by Cornholio? 'Not very' is the answer I'd expect there. (You can find them on YouTube if you haven't met them before. Insanity Prawn Boy is in a series called 'On the Moon' and Cornholio is from 'Beavis and Butthead').

So you would think, faced with a class full of children who struggle to read something engrossing like Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and can't hold interest in any book for more than a hundred pages, you'd want to do something about it. These are future bridge-builders and architects and doctors and okay, a lot of them are future supermarket-trolley-collectors and some won't even be much good at that but even so. Some will progress into life-critical jobs and we really need those people to be paying attention.

The solution proposed is to take away the hard stuff and put the whole class back on 'Janet and John' books. What is the point? As an ex-lecturer, I despair. I used to teach people who had reached physical, if not always mental adulthood and I would not compromise. I was teaching B.Sc. and if you were not able to keep up, then you weren't B.Sc. material. Try HND. A perfectly respectable qualification which I also taught, but biased more towards practical application rather than head-filling theory.

In those days, the B.Sc students were expected to go on to be scientists and the HND students would be technicians. Now it's seen as some kind of failure to become a technician. I don't see why. Scientists cannot function without technicians. The scientist comes up with the idea but the technician knows how to work the machinery and knows how to fix it when it (inevitably) goes wrong. They are two parts of the same thing and one part struggles when the other is missing.

You can take it to any level. Sure, the big architect can design a town but someone has to sweep those streets or it'll be a pigsty within weeks. A world full of architects and no street-sweepers is going to be a very unpleasant place to live. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it would be like if nobody wanted to work on sewage disposal.

The current rubbish about 'no child left behind' ensures we will one day see buildings created by people who have learned the first hundred pages of a five-thousand-page series on safe building design. Old houses will soar in value. New ones won't be worth the number on the door.

It's simple. Some people are attuned to literature and some are not. Some people rave about Homer's Iliad and I found it the dullest block of print I have ever seen. Some dismiss the Gormenghast trilogy as the product of a swivel-eyed lunatic (which is fair enough) and I thought it was great. People are different and that applies right from birth.

This is not eugenics. Eugenics is a ridiculous concept that seeks to only breed the brightest and best of humanity and to cull the rest. Yeah. Great. So who sweeps the streets? Who deals with sewage? Who collects the trolleys in the supermarket - in fact, who works in the supermarket at all? Who works in the farms and factories that supply the supermarkets? Eugenics does not lead to Utopia, it can only lead to a Hell in which everyone has great ideas and nobody ever does anything about them.

That is not what the current system is creating. We are creating a generation of trolley-collectors because anyone who looks as if they might be better than Dim Jim in the corner is branded 'elitist' and denied the deep education they could cope with.

It is not wrong to teach the able to the best of their ability. It is neither wrong nor shameful to take a career as a sewer operative or a bin collector or a bus driver or a street sweeper. Civilisation needs all of them. It might be fashionable to tell children that growing up to be a grave digger is beneath them but someone has to do it. It is an essential job and one which, sooner or later, we would all like to have done by a professional. Not by some blundering idiot with five degrees and a professorship but who doesn't know one end of a shovel from the other.

The real solution is competition. I used this to great effect on a PhD student who was not working to her obvious potential. I told her I didn't expect too much because she was only a woman. Now I would be hauled before a disciplinary committee for saying it but you know what? She sailed through her thesis and produced a boatload of publications on the way just to prove me wrong. I have never told her I knew I was wrong all along. There is stuff in that thesis that is not yet published and there is a journal's worth of work that isn't even in the thesis. She was far better than she ever knew and although I have lost touch, I expect her to still be doing brilliant things.

If she's not, and if she happens across this, it's because you're only a woman, Shortly (she'll know what it means). If she is sitting at home doing nothing I will find out where she lives and come around and insult her in person. She already knows what that means.

Competition does not only bring out the best in the brilliant. It moves everyone up a notch. That future trolley collector might put some effort in and become a till operator. You may sneer but if you've experienced a North Scotland winter, indoors is far better than outdoors and the pay is better too. You have to deal with idiots, sure, but we all do. There are a lot of them around.

Civilisation needs people who can think up new stuff but it also needs people who can make the new stuff work. The brain is a wonderful thing but with no hands it is absolutely useless. It's all very well to design a sewage system that means nobody has to have a pile of poo in their garden but someone has to run it.

The future technicians, sewage workers, trolley collectors, till operators and street sweepers are now children. So are the future surgeons, scientists and architects. They are all essential and they have all been born.

Forcing sameness on children does not mean equality.

It means Hell.


Regina Richards said...

I always find it interesting that the same parents who think that kids should have to try out for the basketball team and demonstrate a high level of skill and talent to get on the 'select' team, become outraged if the school tries to group students of comparable academic abilities in classrooms.

Seems like inconsistent thinking to me.

Romulus Crowe said...

I hadn't thought of that, but you're right.

The parents are fiercely competitive at the pageants and the sports, but don't seem to care about actual education.

So we can look forward to a future full of reality TV 'stars' but nobody capable of building a TV.

That could be interesting.

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