Month: May 2010

Stupid People

Indiana. Apparently.

It’s not very PC to say so, but stupid people are, unfortunately, all around us. I know. I spend more time with them than most, especially during The Exam Season. I hold my throbbing head in my hands and reflect on the fact that they might have gained more marks if the paper had been written in Serbo-Croat and I sometimes experience a momentary pang of guilt because nobody got the easy question on radioactive decay right. Stupid people are those for whom the formation of words is little more than a maxillofacial contortion which produces farmyard noises, in fact, they speak only to draw attention to themselves. As an educator – the word is rather loose, I admit – my task is to attempt to make the sounds that come out, either out loud or on paper, carry some semblance of meaning.

There’s a distinct racial bias to how one feels about stupid people and it’s all too easy for a Brit like myself to conjure a mental image of the Irish, for example, and ascribe quite unjustifiably low IQ’s to them, based purely on geographical proximity. For example, how unfair it would be to laugh at the following…

A man was on a walking holiday in Ireland. Irish hospitality being legendary, he knocked on a cottage door to ask for something to drink. The lady of the house invited him in and served him a bowl of soup by the fire. There was a piglet running around the kitchen, bounding up to the visitor and paying him a great deal of attention. The visitor commented that he had never seen such a friendly pig. Putting down her pipe, the housewife replied: “Ah, he’s not that friendly. That’s his bowl you’re using.”

Even the Americans, known for their egalitarian and non-judgmental outlook, seem, strangely, to have a blind spot for those from Indiana to whom similarly unfair aspersions in respect of their quantity of grey matter are frequently cast. Put simply, Indianans are thought to be stupid, with the notable exception of the current Vice President of the United States, for whom different arrangements apply. We can all empathise with these people…

Sandra Schmidt from Valparaiso, inadvertently tore off two pages from her yearly calendar, thus experiencing a mild frisson as she realized what it meant to live in the future.

Carpenter Karl Gartung from Galveston was pleased to find a pocket in his carpenter’s pants just the right size for a copy of  ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. His work colleagues teased him because he told them he was born in Texas.

Nearing the end of a heated game of Monopoly, Taylor Davis stopped short of purchasing his fourth railroad, realising that nobody really takes cross-country trains these days. Taylor was born in Russiaville, of mixed parentage.

Were this level of awareness present in my students, the scripts that I shall actually be able to read would be full, replete with meaning, and would doubtless make an old man very happy.

I didn’t know there was a place called Warsaw – “the orthpaedic manufacturing capital of the world”  – right there in Indiana. Strange. I was convinced it was elsewhere….


Group Theory

I think, or rather wonder about groups sometimes and the stratagems people adopt to either belong to them or the steps they take to avoid belonging. Having said that, I wonder if my thinking is accurate, or just a projection of the fact that I am less involved in a group that I have been for some time. With apologies to those whose training and experience exceeds my own:
Anxiety – a perception of a shared foe –  is often a cohesive force which can hold a group together and people join it as a defence against such anxiety. I think however that groups themselves can also be the source of anxiety.
Being in a group leads to blurring between the self and others that, whilst giving the comfort of the ‘Body’,  – effectively similar to neonatal comfort – also causes inner conflict. As the attachment of the self to the group increases, the sense of individual selfhood decreases, which leads to anxieties about integrity and hence a ‘true’ and ‘false’ self. This I think is prevalent in groups having a strong sense of corporate identity, like churches with a sharp, almost unyielding doctrinal position. The true self is masked behind a facade of self acceptable to the group – a false self, in other words. Someone posted elsewhere  that when one’s foundation is neither stable nor reliable it separates seemingly similar individuals into two groups – those who can tolerate the physical, emotional, and psychological ambiguity, perhaps more at home with a false self, and those who can’t. ‘Tolerate’ in this sense would seem to mean discovering a mechanism – being resourceful emotionally – to help them deal with a potential but ever-present feeling of impending loss.
The image is from the Saatchi Gallery.

Weighed in the Balance

It’s that time of year again. The examination season, like grouse shooting, is almost upon us. No, it’s not the academic staff getting their own back, nor is it some kind of purgatorial rite of passage. It’s an event, like breakfast. It comes, it goes. Here, we bang on and on and on about exams – from the Latin meaning ‘accurate weighing’ – as if by worrying about them the candidates can add a single grade to their result – Matthew 6 springs to mind.  In Japan, student stress can lead to suicide with horrifying frequency. Here, they might get a beating if results don’t match parental expectations. It’s also noticeable that staff become fretted, as if a successful outcome earns an insecure teacher a brownie point, cosmically recorded somewhere. Teacher frustration boils over sometimes and people sit down in a corner and say ‘won’t’.

Kids’ brains don’t work like mine does; they don’t see things in the same way, and they react differently. I quite enjoy writing flow diagrams on the board, carefully colour-coded knowing that the diagram is rich with meaning and a lot of stuff can be learned from it. The kids just want to copy it down as fast as they can and the fact that it actually has some educational merit  is of little significance. What they care about is getting as many decent grades as possible in order to screw more money out of their parents. Bribery and greed are powerful motivators. Plus ça change…
As an educator, my job is to talk myself out of a job. It gives me no little satisfaction when I am shooed away and told that I’m redundant and they can gain more from the texts or each other than they can from me.
I thought this worth publishing, as a reminder to me.

“High school is horrible for me. I am a junior and go to a small, private, and extremely competitive school. I have an average of three tests a day, and 6 hours of homework, not to mention working every night and taking care of my little sister. I find myself crying hysterically four nights a week because i just can’t work fast enough, and am purely exhausted from lack of sleep and can never just relax. I take five college classes now and it is just impossible. I am under so much pressure; I just want to give up and have some fun before college, but that can’t happen since my parents expect nothing less than acceptance into Harvard or Princeton! Please help me!”

Neglecting adolescent hyperbole for the moment, this kid is a potential train wreck.

An educational establishment, whether kindergarten or Harvard Law isn’t an encyclopedia – an informational mincing machine able to turn out well-read but emotionally incompetent graduates because knowing what isn’t the same as knowing how. Perhaps all teachers as a prerequisite should have a diploma in psychology and be themselves required to pass tests on their emotional intelligence since it has been obvious for some time that the methods for solving quadratic equations are instantly forgettable but the person who taught them might not be.

Virtual Unreality

I’ve never really got on with computer games or social networking sites, indeed the use of the word ‘gaming’ in conversation brings me out in hives. Millions of young, tech-savvy professionals – I use the words loosely, use Twitter and Facebook on their iPubs or whatever to ‘keep in touch” with such blithering, mindless inanity as ‘what are you doing now?’ The answer to which, in all probability is “you don’t really want to know”. As friends will tell you, should you text them and ask, this is because I’m a complete troglodyte who believes in the rather quaint notion that people aren’t remotely interested in what I had for breakfast or which brand of toothpaste I happen to have picked off the shelf; instead anyone with whom I want to have meaningful contact with does me the courtesy of personal interaction. The newest kid on the block is something imaginatively entitled “Foursquare”. The only time I have previously run across the term was in the context of Aimee Semple McPherson and the birth of American Pentecostalism. Foursquare is a little bit of everything—a friend-finder, a local city guide, an interactive mobile game,” said company cofounder Dennis Crowley, as if reading from the same tired script used by every one of these Web 2.0.1 or whatever-the-hell-they’re-called startups. “But more than that, Foursquare is an [endless string of meaningless buzzwords I just couldn’t bring myself to write down] I can feel my eyeballs melting.
Foursquare works by allowing users to “check in” from their present location, which might be a restaurant, coffee shop or (very probably) gentlemen’s convenience and in so doing, they can earn tangible, real-world rewards. For instance, the Foursquare user with the most points at any given venue earns the designation of “mayor” and can receive discounts, free food, or other “giveaways” that, quite honestly, I’m appalled at myself for having actually researched. I can’t imagine being “Mayor of Starbucks in King’s Cross” on the best day I ever had. Somebody please shoot me. Such ephemera is grist to its founder’s mill, who comments ‘it’s a unique and transformative social networking tool”. The guy has a PhD, for Heaven’s sake. I intend to strenuously resist throwing myself at the latest mobile technology trend in a humiliatingly futile attempt to remain relevant. Oh, God, all right then. Here’s the link.

Indigo Children

I’ve had my share of badly behaved children in my classes. In the course of a career spanning over thirty years, I’ve come across the brilliant, psychotic, insecure, indolent and  irremediably stupid. In the warm, indigo glow of history, kids seemed to be roguish, mischievous, inattentive, sometimes unwilling to scoop up any small pearls cast before them, but relatively easy to persuade and comfortably disciplined by a raised eyebrow or two. Later, grammar school girls were well-behaved, determined and usually successful, followed by a rag-bag rainbow of international students, often bewildered by scientific English. These, often with unpronounceable names, attempted to access British examination courses with varying degrees of success. And, now we’re here, where F and G grades are commonplace, not because the student body is necessarily less able, but because there is for many no sense of struggle, no embodiment of effort and no consequent pride in achievement. Someone reminded me the other day about so-called ‘indigo children’ whose parents believe them to be in some way gifted or extraordinary. Although there are no scientific studies lending credible weight to the existence of such children, or their traits, the phenomenon appeals to parents whose children have been diagnosed with learning disabilities or parents seeking to believe that their children are in some way special, in some cases, paranormal. This is viewed by sceptics as a way for parents to avoid proper paediatric pharmaceutical treatment or a psychiatric diagnosis which implies imperfection. In this country, the sceptics might just be right. There’s been a lot of brouhaha linking ADHD with indigo children – some even suggest that such ‘challenging behaviours’ are the next stage in human evolution, which is a lot more palatable than telling a parent that their child is merely lazy, arrogant, self-serving and attention-seeking. Meantime, I spend my time either babysitting or zookeeping.


A friend left today.  This isn’t the first time that someone has been ‘asked to leave’ in something of a hurry. The ‘charge’ was ‘stamping on a copy of the Holy Qur’an’ which, even without material substantiation, is sufficient for some authorities to recommend deportation. Were it to be found to be true, such an action would be defamatory, provocative and blasphemous to Muslim eyes. The reality is, of course, that it was not and the story was fabricated in order to discredit. Westerners here are usually remarkably sensitive even about practices which they privately think are arcane and medieval, thus the injustice of such a course of action by the authorities is unconscionable. A man’s livelihood has been summarily removed, ironically citing ‘the law’ as a flabby, weak and morally reprehensible excuse. Justice is blind and also deaf here.
Expat life has a fragility about it, a pond-skating mentality that has at its heart that within a matter of hours, everything could change. For example, the roads are actively dangerous here and accident-watching is a spectator sport. Last night, I heard a grinding, tearing sound, tortured metal on asphalt. Looking out over the balcony, it looked as if a bus had been almost parked by the side of the road, with its front bumper caved in. Spectators were rushing to the scene, looking out of my field of view on the other side of the bus. Later, the bus moved away under its own power, revealing a upturned vehicle almost underneath it. It was as if the vehicle has been run over by a tank. There were almost certainly fatalities. There was a second accident on the way home today. A huge SUV, heavy and powerful, looked as if it had cannoned into a small minibus, shooting it like a pool ball a hundred feet across the highway and into a brick wall. Both vehicles were scrap metal, littering the road.
I thought about consequences. It was the time when people who had been out for dinner might be returning. Cars carrying young children in them who almost never use seatbelts. Much as the friend left with no conscious  thought that tomorrow would be materially different than today,  he found himself on a journey, leaving much behind. The unfortunates in the car also found themselves on a journey, but one of a very different kind.
Perhaps much of life is like waiting for a bus in the rain. In C S Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”, the bus to heaven shows up, often when those waiting at the bus stop least expect it.

Skiing with Noah

Had breakfast with a couple friends today. McWrinkles isn’t my favourite dining establishment, nevertheless that’s where the guys were gathering so I decided to get up early, be a good Joe and show up on time. First mistake. The only other guy to show up was the convenor of the meet and we shot the breeze for the next forty-five minutes until eventually a couple other people put in an appearance. I say this not out of malice but simply to accurately inform as to the timeline. Nobody shows up on time here. Ever. Appointments are made and it’s entirely a matter for conjecture whether they show up half an hour late, an hour and a half late, or not at all. People have perished in house fires because nobody showed up. Nobody showed up to collect my rent. For six weeks. Years ago, this would have enraged me. Not the rent part, obviously – one lives in hope that someone just forgot about it this month – but about UNACCEPTABLE TARDINESS! Now, I guess I just let it go because I have learned that God is an economist. Not the beige, dark-suited type, but I think he recognises that time, like money, is under his full control and the sooner we stop fretting about it, the more constructive use we can make of it. Taking ‘no thought for the morrow’ isn’t a bad policy, on reflection, which the exegete in me translates what needs to be done today and tomorrow has a habit of taking care of itself. It was ‘nice’ to hang out with a few of the church folk today, without the additional stress of actually having to attend the service. I felt rather like a water-skier behind the Ark.