Category Archives: Dumbing down

Now, We Fight Back

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Photo by @pollyjohughes (dissembledesign.com)

7/7. The Opening Ceremony of The Olympics. Marching in The Women’s March on Saturday. Recalled moments in which I have felt a welling sense of pride in my adopted city.

They say that the arts thrive in times of intense uncertainty and pressure. I believe it true of progressivism as well. That we will become stronger through having our beliefs tested to the utter limits over the next four years I do not doubt. Though unwelcome, I wonder if the left perhaps needs this in order to sort ourselves out and pick more exciting candidates that act as beacons of moral leadership.

Whatever the sinister circumstances that brought us together over the weekend, let us not let it break us apart in the trying times ahead. Let us counter every one of Trump’s utterances of moral depravity with fierce, fierce love and unity. Let us counter his cynical, insidious narrative, every time.

Highlights of the day: a dog walking around with a sign on its back that said: ‘Even I wouldn’t grab a pussy,’ having to explain the course connotations of the word ‘pussy’ to my ten year old (Thanks, Mr President!) because it just became inevitable, and the eloquence of those present on the day, including Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, whose speech was moving and who spoke with conviction about the murdered Pro EU MP Jo Cox:

“We are marching because a talented woman MP was murdered by a far-right extremist and we need to call it out as the terrorism it is. And we are not just marching – we’re … standing up to the misogynists, the bullies and the haters who try to intimidate and silence people online, just as for years they tried to intimidate or silence women on the street.

“We are here because we want to take a stand against Donald Trump. Millions of American women and men voted for him. Marching isn’t enough – we need to persuade, to win arguments, to challenge the causes of division and to build a future in common. For the sake of our children and grandchildren … we are here because we will not let the clock be turned back.” (Reprinted from guardian.co.uk)

Thank you, London, as so many of the placards on Saturday said, we shall overcomb.

Jim Carrey Sort of Missing The Target

Jim Carrey Gun Control

Jim Carrey incisively sticking it to the gun lobby (image via theblaze.com, still from ‘Cold Dead Hand’ on Funny Or Die)

I like Jim Carrey and I admire his brave stance on gun control; I laughed at him for the first time in years when I watched ‘Cold Dead Hand‘. Over. And over. And over again.

So I hate to say this, but I think he’s missing the point here.

I know. I know. The twitterstorm about his refusal to promote Kick-Ass 2, in which he appears, is old hat (Geez, Pete, like epic #timeliness #fail. That is so June 24th, 2013), but bear with me for just a few seconds because this is an attempt at drive-by pith here.

Carrey’s backed out of promoting the film because he ‘cannot support that level of violence,’ which is fine. Anyone can have a change of heart and he probably wanted to appear consistent given the vocal stance he’s taken on Sandy Hook. Typically, howls of hypocrite have come frothing unpleasantly from the mouths of cadres of conservative do gooders looking to sort ’em out on earth like our Puritan forefathers.

I do not know what Jim Carrey’s response will be to these fits of verbal flatulence coming from the wrong ends of the twitter accounts of loudest mouths on fox, but I can’t help but feel like by backing out of promoting the film, he missed a real opportunity to confront this vicious political environment on its own terms by stating the obvious: there is no direct causal relationship between violent media and violent behaviour.

I watched all the Freddy Kruger films and the Friday the 13th franchise. I even saw one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films in the theatre, but I somehow grew up to be a productive non-violent member of society. So have millions of others. None of these films lead to massacres or murders because they encapsulate and articulate the fears of us all during the 1980s about what lay lurking behind the rapidly decreasing family structure and what happens to our children when we aren’t there to protect them, but by articulating those fears, as awful as those films were, they functioned to help us deal with them. And yet, there are so many gun deaths and so much violent behaviour. I admit, I find some videogames irresponsibly violent, but that does not mean I hold them responsible for gun violence.

But don’t take my word for it. See what Dr Gene Beresin says in Psychology Todaybacked up by studies done by the FBI, the Secret Service and various other medical researchers who conclude that there is ‘no causal relationship between violent games and violent behaviour.’ So no matter how much blame-shifting the NRA does, there is no getting away from the corrosively unhealthy gun culture alive and well in America today.

I still think Jim Carrey is a good guy. I wish he’d made that point.

American Classic? Hard to tell.

The Great Gatsby Baz Lurman

Who needs narrative? We’ve got Jack White and Jay Z

I’m torn.

I was ready to like Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous protagonist in this upcoming adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann. I had forgiven them both for Romeo and Juliet and had come to accept that cinematic effort in all its smoking guns glory as a useful and exciting way to introduce teenagers to one of the most difficult stories Shakespeare has to offer in terms of engagement and narrative.

I thought  Carey Mulligan would work as the beautiful, thoughtless and morally bereft Daisy Buchanan, and I actually thought Toby Maguire was perfect for Nick Carraway, the deceptively innocent looking young man from the Midwest who comes out to New York to make a living and resist the city corrupting his soul while he hypocritically claims the moral high ground.

Nor am I so close-minded as to think that a non-American director can’t handle an American story. Sam Mendes did too good a job with American Beauty for anyone to think that.

Apprehensive though my English teacher’s heart was about this sublime story being given the Hollywood treatment again, I had been convinced by various parties and was ready to believe that it could be done with style and still convey some sense of the aesthetic wonder that is Fitzgerald’s prose.

And then I saw the trailer.

It left me with something nameless beyond apprehension, something approaching dread. How can you tell a quintessentially ‘Jazz Age’ story without jazz? What this trailer appears to do is take Gatsby out of the roaring 20s, and place him firmly in the twentyteens (that seems all right, doesn’t it?) not so much roaring as swaggering with his trousers around his knees and his bling firmly on show, dressed to impress.

Which is not to say I have a problem with the presence of hip hop or even Jack White’s cover of U2’s ‘Love is Blind’. I can actually see the parallels and the reasoning perfectly. The song that was chosen for the trailer, ‘No Church in the Wild’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, seems to ‘teach the lesson’ of Gatsby, dropping lines like, ‘When we die the money we can’t keep,’ but it also talks about ‘the girl in all leopard… rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd,’ not quite the flapper dresses, feather boas and the Charleston of the roaring 20s.

But still, I can see the temptation. In all honesty, there is a lot of rap that is about acquiring material wealth and flaunting it as a kind of two fingers to an oppressive state and rigid class structure that has made it all but impossible to acquire such wealth or any sort of social mobility. And Gatsby is a man who makes his fortune dishonestly but for what seem like the right reasons, holding a quixotic candle for years to one day impress Daisy in the same way Pip one day would like to be ‘good enough’ for Stella. So the excess, the decadence, and the emptiness is all there. And I can see that. 

But why then does it need to be updated? Why take away the joie de vivre of jazz that ultimately evokes the hollowness of the glitz and glitter indulged in by these characters, especially when that loud whizz bang blare of apparent life and unthinking esprit serves to heighten the depths of pathos at the end?

It’s not as though it’s a story that’s completely alien to us. The young and the restless of a generation get carried away speculating with money they either don’t have or that doesn’t exist or will never come back from bad loans but no one heeds the warnings because everybody’s having fun. No one wants to hear about it because everybody’s too busy spending money and partying. The desolation when the party stops is stark and unbearable. Sound familiar anyone?

Those of us who have been in education or in theatre or just appreciators of beautifully composed language know that translation is an occasional but lamentable necessity and that something is always lost. Will what appears to be one long F Scott Fitzgerald inspired music video manage to convey the existential longing in lines like ‘Men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…’ and the subsequent tragedy, or will this story be a narrative with the life-blood cruelly drawn out of it? Will this, in the more modern sense of the word be, simply a tragedy?

Great Gatsby 1974

Gatsby, with the jazz left in

There Are Still Some Good Guys: Rosen Championing Reading For Meaning in the Great Phonics Debate

The piloting of the government’s current obsession with phonics suggests some interesting, but deeply worrying results. 
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I grew up reading. My parents made sure to take me on regular trips to the local library during summer vacations when I was a child. My mother read to us every evening before bedtime. I was reading a mixture of Shakespeare and Stephen King (because I found a tattered old copy of Skeleton Crew in my older brother’s closet, a hoarded away and hidden treasure to be devoured) for pleasure by the time I was coming to the end of elementary school and reading when I was younger seemed as natural to me as riding a bike. 
But I was lucky. 
I came to school with a certain cultural currency and my parents enabled me to learn that cultural currency with fluency and speed. Many that I teach and have taught over the last ten years or so are not nearly as lucky. Many do not understand how to read simple sentences out loud. Many have never been read to out loud. Many have never become familiar with the joy of fairy tales. Alarmingly, many are developing deep anxieties and even antipathies to reading for pleasure. 
I can think of no better way to expedite such a massive distaste for reading than the government’s current efforts to stalwartly fly the flag for phonics, phonics and little else but phonics in reading education. All children in England from this year are required to take a ‘Phonics Screening Check’ test at the end of the academic year 1, (aged 6) in which they have to decode 30 real words and 10 fake words. The government is even offering an incentive of £3,000 which it claims ‘will be hard to ignore for many cash-strapped schools’ in order to promote the teaching of ‘synthetic phonics’. 
The first examination took place in schools in June and the results were intriguing and unsettling. First of all, results were generally low, which the government may, no doubt say is down to teachers not having taught the ‘synthetic phonics method’ effectively. Could it be something deeper? Results also found that otherwise good readers had moved beyond just using phonics as a reading strategy, that they looked for meanings in the ten ‘psuedo words’, that their brains were making real words out of fake (eg storm out of ‘strom’) and some of the fake words were arduous to get one’s mouth around, deterring children from pronouncing them as they were spelt. 
So, children score lower in the test for trying to make meaning out of what is unfamiliar to them. Trying to construct order out of the unknown, otherwise known as creativity and initiative, is marked down in this new compulsory test, whilst sticking to what you know and rejecting all familiarity will be marked higher. The government is, through mandatory testing and irresistible cash bonuses to schools, disincentivising initiative and independent thinking in young minds. 
One is put in mind of Gradgrind from Dickens’ Hard Times: ‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them.’

Say what you will about the American Education System.

Go ahead. Say what you will about it.

No, do. 

What worries me is that my son and many of his friends have already been raised up with a similar affinity for books and reading; what worries me is that when my son faces this test next year with his classmates, we will be sent a short letter home afterwards saying that he has scored low because he tried to make sense out of nonsense words, make meaning out of familiar looking verbal chaos. 

And what worries me greatly is that poorer schools in places like Hackney, where I live, will be unable to resist cash incentives for ‘synthetic phonics’ in the classroom. If the government wanted a docile, unquestioning mass of dunderheaded deltas and epsilons, unable to decipher complex treaties, pacts and agreements; antipathetic to compelling narratives anywhere except presented through moving images; unable to resist being oppressed through paternalistic power structures and figures; desiring nothing but bread, circuses and X Factor; and awed by the use of stutterings statistics and figures, a cynic might conlcude that there are fewer quicker routes that this one.

I owe most of the information in this post to Michael Rosen’s intelligent and well-thought out recent blog posts and his continuing effort to fight the good fight. Please do read up on this crucial issue.

This post is also informed by the following articles:

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