Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Moral Panics, Tutors and Deponent Verbs

This blog is of course supposed to be about home ed and herbs, so here's a few thoughts about the former.

There's been a letter doing the rounds recently regarding families who have not currently opted into the school system purporting to warn people about tutors who are on the sex offenders register.  This has become somewhat controversial because it's been sent to EHE ("elective home educating") families when families who have elected for schooling also use private tutors, so the question arises of whether it has also been sent to them, which it may have been, and if not, why not.  As I say, it may have been.  Another thought is that it may be an attempt to sow FUD - Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - among home edders who are not confident they can deal with something like maths or a foreign language on their own and wish to recruit outside help.  It may be the usual process of trying to talk down someone's self-belief to the point where they feel a need to rely on the school system.  It's not exactly a recipe for self-assured and mentally healthy families.  Again, I'm not attributing intention here so much as looking at possible consequences.  To spout yet another cliche, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  I'm merely reporting a probable effect of such a letter on perhaps isolated families.  Just as Microsoft might want people to buy their software rather than use perfectly serviceable free alternatives, and consequently talk about things like the Total Cost of Ownership, i.e. the idea that people will have to spend time learning how things are done outside Microsoft's little proprietary bubble rather than sticking to the familiar and that this will cost time and therefore money in training and errors, so might the local authority want people to go to their schools.  The bureaucracy has a stake in feeding itself and perpetuating its dominance, even if subconsciously.

Sarada and I have now been involved in education otherwise than at school since the Lib Ed conference in summer 1993, and so we have had a lot of experience offering our services as facilitators of education, which I suppose is fairly similar to being tutors in some ways.  Children who come to us often leave, for example, knowing more Spanish or German than they did previously or being able to get GCSEs in chemistry, so we are presumably doing something right on occasion.  In case you're unfamiliar with the way home ed tends to work, perhaps because you haven't read this blog much, it needn't be done in isolation and frequently people avail themselves of each others' skills and talents where they currently lack the confidence to do it for themselves.

This might at first sound like we're tutors.  At this point, I will digress into Latin, because after all classical languages are one of the things I offer as a tutor.  Let's look at that word "tutor", or should I type TVTOR?  It is of course a Latin word.

You may remember a few entries back that I mentioned in passing that Afrikaans, whatever its faults and political connotations, has the virtue of using the same verb for teach and learn (penultimate paragraph).  Well, there is a whole class of verbs in some languages which has a similar kind of ambiguity - the deponent verb.  First of all, the active, middle and passive voices need to be understood.  The active voice is something like "I hit the ground", the passive is "I was hit by the ground" and the middle includes such things as "the ground and I hit each other".  If English wasn't a Germanic language pretending to be Chinese, the word "hit" in each of these would have a different form as is so in, for example, Swedish.  Latin expresses the passive voice by changing endings, so for instance we have the famous:

which is the active voice but also this:

And of course there's the gerund "amanda" - "a female worthy of love"!  Latin has no middle voice, incidentally, so it does have some grammar in common with English.

Some Latin verbs (and the same applies to all sorts of other languages) are passive in form but active in meaning - they have no grammatically active voice and always look as if they're describing something being done to rather than actively doing (which sounds a bit like my life).  I find these interesting because to me they usually have some connotation which explains that.  Examples of deponent Latin verbs include moror - die; loquor - talk; conor - try; orior - arise.  It would be easy to imagine connotations here which just aren't there but even so, I would say that a conversation involves being spoken to as well as speaking, hence loquatiousness is something we do together and it also is, I would hope, understood, so speaking is a cooperative activity involving agreement on meaning and intention.  Dying is something one isn't around to experience once it's done.  In this case something similar happens in English:  people are dead in cenetaries, but they aren't dying, on the whole, there, so living and dying are not two opposite activities, there's just "being dead", a passive state, hence mori.  Conor is less clear to me but orior makes more sense as rising seems to me to be something which sort of happens to you.  The elective home education staff have arisen in this blog and the discussion without them being willing to do so.  Nonetheless it has been they who are doing the arising.  The subject of fear, uncertainty and doubt has arisen here too.  And so on, she says as ungrammatically as the King James Bible, that well known bastion of illiteracy.

Anyway, we have this Latin word "tutor", which is apparently a deponent verb, so when you "tutor" someone, or when you are a tutor, you are engaging in an activity which is grammatically passive but actually active.  The word "tutor" originally meant "guardian" or "custodian".  So, when I am tutoring children, and I'm not sure I ever really am, I am protecting them and also engaging in "learning" them - we are learning together.  This meaning is not trivial.

The sessions which I've held with parents and children have usually involved the children being there with their parents or other children's parents, or of course the parents trusting me enough to leave them in my care. The main function of schooling is childcare, so it stands to reason that a parent might want to leave a child with me if she needs to do something which would be harder to do with that child.  I'm going to use this afternoon's Spanish session as an example here.  I don't know exactly what's going to happen but a typical session involves several parents turning up with their children, and, and this is the crucial thing, staying with them for the duration of the session.  This is because parents enjoy sharing activities with their children and it also has the practical effect of completely booting the idea of the children being at risk out of the window, unless you are completely paranoid and assume that all us home edders are running a pedophile ring, in which case you're probably unreachable by rational persuasion.  It also has the practical effect of parents and children learning together, which means that when they go away, rather than having to recall something which may or may not have happened in a school classroom decades previously, they're sharing a recent memory of something which they all enjoyed.  And regarding child safety, well, even if the parents are taking advantage of the willingly offered childcare aspect of the session, the other parents who are staying act as a near guarantee of their safety.

The tutors are also deponent of course.  We may learn, for example, that some children are intimidated by questions but learn by osmosis whereas others thrive on showing off their knowledge.  We may learn that sometimes we give too much information:

Child:  Mum, what would we do it we weren't alive?
Mum:  Why do you ask?
Child:  Because I want to know.
Mum:  Why don't you ask your father?
Child:  because I don't want to know that much!

Yes, that is from personal experience, on both sides.

Hence a certain letter from a certain official body whose effect, never mind the cause, is likely to be that fear, uncertainty and doubt will arise (orior) among parents about a tutor, isn't really anything to worry about in a home ed community where skills are shared and learning involves children, parents and adult friends.  But most of you already knew that, didn't you?