Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Clarkson, Home Ed and Gender

Once again I'm able to write a post which can appear on both blogs.  Due to that fact, it will probably manage to look off-topic on both.

Seven years ago, the then "Labour" government, which has possibly since shed its inverted commas, decided that full time responsible parenting was wrong because the parents concerned didn't deserve to have kids and would abuse them by not exposing them to bullying and the like, so it needed to be persecuted and discouraged through the Children, Schools and Families Bill.  People who aren't screwed up probably don't buy enough worthless tat made in Chinese slave labour factories or something, so clearly something had to be done to ensure that people led emptier and sadder lives.  Consequently, a lot of people who in normal circumstances would rather have shot themselves than vote Conservative found themselves forced to do so in good conscience.  Since many such people were not wealthy, this was an utterly selfless act.  They were fully aware that it would lead to them sinking into such things as utter penury, starvation, homelessness and suicide, but like most people, they recognised that sometimes you have to put your children first.

Today, those people are in the unfortunate position of having further pressure put on home ed due to excuses such as the distrust of certain madrassahs (I don't know the proper plural) and the failure of Welsh social services to do their job, which makes the whole exercise look rather pointless.

It so happens that Jeremy Clarkson has now, appropriately, also gone into reverse gear.  I hesitate to give him the publicity but since these blogs have only a very small audience, it's probably not a big issue.

Back when we were campaigning against the CSF Bill, we encountered some rather unexpected allies, one of which was the Conservative and Unionist Party and another of which was Jeremy Clarkson.  Rather surprisingly to most of us, we found that he was very supportive.  The original article is now behind a paywall, so I'll link instead to this, which is a fair summary.  I should also point out that although both I and this article are religious, most of the views expressed in it are shared by the majority of families whose children have not gone to school or been withdrawn from it even though many such families are non-religious or pagan, or of course Muslims.

Clarkson's argument here seems to be that the government have overreacted to a single serious incident.  Home ed families generally don't connect the Khyra Ishaq incident to home ed at all, except as a tasteless way of using a poor girl's tragic death as a political football to foist oppressive schooling on everyone, and his view may not have been exactly that but he was nonetheless an ally for once.  You can't stop the bad things from happening in this way and often you make things worse by interfering while not even solving the problem you are supposedly interfering to prevent.

I don't want to comment on the situation in Wales because plenty of people whose children are currently "home edded" will be able to take on the situation much more directly, and we aren't currently directly involved, and just like teachers, who are not always very involved in home ed, I run the risk of saying something ill-informed and inappropriate.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Clarkson's recent transphobic article is less wonderful.  I don't want to fuel traffic to his article so instead I shall link to the Huffington Post take on it.  Google it if you like, but bear in mind that it will make it more popular and play into his hands.  One of the issues he mentions is that of M2F pregnancy, which is naturally significant for me, apparently more so than for most other trans women.  F2M pregnancy already happens of course:

My personal view on M2F pregnancy for myself is that it would probably only happen as a result of vivisection and early on at least it would be an experiment which would risk the continued existence of the person-to-be, and therefore would probably be irresponsible.  That's my personal thought on it.  If my situation was different and M2F pregnancy was established, given the right life circumstances I wouldn't hesitate for a moment.

Note that this consideration is not about being a "special snowflake" but about how to act responsibly in these circumstances.

Leaving aside the mpreg issue, Clarkson expresses quite a common concern, which is that children who engage in gender play should not be encouraged to seek gender reassignment by their parents because it could be on a whim.  This is unfortunately seriously misinformed.  On the whole, parents know their children better than strangers and they are not about to submit them to a life-long course of powerful medication with life-threatening possible side-effects and major surgery, along with all the rest, unless they realise the situation otherwise is extremely serious and potentially lethal in itself, in the form of suicide.

There is also an irony here, in that one reason children end up getting withdrawn from school or not sent in the first place is that they face bullying and persecution for gender non-conformity there.  In other words, it's a reason for home education.  Moreover, the real situation is very often that parents only do this with a heavy heart and when it becomes clear that they were mistaken about their daughter's or son's gender identity.  For many of them it's a grieving process over the loss of the girl or boy they thought they had and it's not a case of feckless fantasising parents indulging childish whims.

This inconsistency in Mr Clarkson's views is therefore that home education is not indulging the vagaries of children or being excessively laissez faire with them, probably partly because he trusts parents' judgement on their best interests and willingness to follow those, but for some reason respecting their gender identity is, even though it can be a motive for home education in the first place.  In one area he trusts their acquaintance with their children and in the other he doesn't, even though the second is a subset of the first.  It's sometimes the same parents.

This of course reflects lack of knowledge and over-simplification, and it leads to an inconsistent belief system.  This is where I get a bit political.  People are often experts on their own lives although they sometimes lack insight.  They often imagine that they are also experts on other people's lives through a failure of empathy.  Other people's problems can seem a lot easier than one's own.  For instance, I'm pretty sure the Conservative Party is almost completely devoid of malice. They are not the nasty party.  They are, however, a misinformed party.  Since many of the people at the top of the Tories are upper class and wealthy, they tend to be confident and optimistic, and that carries them through. It's relatively easy for a Tory minister to spend a week on benefits and coast on through, not only because they already have a nice house and the like and because it's more expensive to be poor than it is to be rich, but because they are buoyed up by their past and the confidence, social capital and optimism it has engendered in them.  When they look at poor people, it then appears to them in good faith that they can in fact easily get out of their predicament.  There are of course all sorts of reasons why they can't, and these include the effects that stress, poverty and lack of perceived opportunities have on confidence and mental health.

Nor are parties traditionally associated with the downtrodden immune from this.  Exactly the same process is probably happening the other way round with these people.

Hence, leaving aside the sound-bitey and opportunistic aspects of Jeremy Clarkson's passage, I would say that it serves as an interesting illustration of a lack of joined-up thinking.  However, transphobic he absolutely is, but also we must never forget that he has also, amazingly, fought our corner in a major establishment newspaper in the past, and that because of his very inconsistency, trans children and their families may to some extent have benefitted from his views even though what he says now is ignorant and damaging.

Life's never simple is it?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Learning A Language

I recently made a rather late New Year's resolution to learn one new Arabic and one new Japanese phrase every day in 2016.  I hope I keep it up although I tend not to stay on task so I may not. Another hope is that there will be a learning curve in the sense that I will start to notice similarities and patterns I can then apply more widely, for instance the root S-L-M in salaam, Muslim and 'Islam.  Semitic languages have the added challenge for people literate in a Latin script that of them, only Maltese uses the Latin alphabet, and in fact I do plan to take a look at Maltese as part of my strategy as some of its vocabulary remains Semitic.

Arabic, more specifically Egyptian Arabic, is one of the languages our daughter knows something of.  This is because she used to go out with an Egyptian, and that motivation is pretty powerful, as I've found myself.  As a child, the German taught to me in school didn't take and this partly resulted from not having a firm reason for wanting to learn it and partly down to the teaching.  The number of pupils in my year who even got grades in O-level German were in single figures, let alone those passing.  This in itself is of interest because I was in fact highly motivated on an intellectual level to learn German, so it's rather odd that that didn't translate into proficiency in the language.  All that was to change a few years later the year after I graduated and started going out with a German.  I then had a strong personal connection with the language and a good reason to learn it - I was in any case interested in it as an attribute of my partner and also in order to share the burden of attempting to communicate verbally.  It seemed unfair that one of us should have to make the extra effort to express herself in a second language when the other didn't, so I learnt German, and found it to be extremely easy.  I proceeded to read for a Masters in continental philosophy during which students were expected to acquire a reading knowledge of French or German during their time of study, so I read the works concerned in German and largely ignored the French ones, although I did also generally read them in French too when I had to.  Disappointingly, those students who were not already fluent in French or German at the start of the course did not become proficient in them by its end, although of course I did.  Some of them did try, but not for long.

By the end of the course, my German was good enough for me to get paid for translation and I was close to being bilingual.

A couple of years later, I had a daughter with an English partner who was, however, fluent in Castilian and French, and decided to attempt to bring her up bilingually.  Learning to speak is the example par excellence of home education because virtually everyone is home educated at the stage of first language acquisition, and the feat of learning language is formidable.  Incidentally I reject the idea that humans have a specific aptitude for language but I won't go into that here except to say that the ability to do something as daunting as learning a language within the first thousand days of your life, when you can't even hold a knife and fork and aren't even toilet-trained or capable of dressing yourself basically means the human capacity for learning is greatly underestimated.  There is also the question of how much in the way of knowledge and skills can be seen as linguistic.  For instance, the fact that a doctor has learnt the word "syndesmosis" will lead her to being able to generalise about that particular kind of joint in a manner which would be a lot harder if she didn't know the word and what it meant, and go on to understand syndesmotic injuries better.  What has been learnt there is as much a new word as a set of medical facts.

Back to our daughter.  I made a point of speaking to her equally in German and English.  The first item she appeared to name was the door to the flat upstairs from us.  However, it wasn't clear whether she used the word "Tür" or "door" since her diction wasn't entirely that of an adult.  This raises the issue of where meaning is.  Is a child's first word something the child intends or is it the first successful communication between the child and another?  For all I know, our daughter may have considered herself to have been using words for ages before that, and I can remember myself being misunderstood by adults and getting very frustrated in the process because they couldn't understand what I was saying.  In fact I am constantly amazed at how patient children seem to be at that stage when they're surrounded by people unable to understand their needs or anything they're saying, but for some reason they don't constantly have tantrums, although of course they do have quite a few, which in the circumstances is fair enough really.  I can say that from a distance of nearly two decades of course!

My project was not very successful.  It turned out that our daughter regarded Castilian and French as possible other languages which she was motivated to some extent to speak but she saw German merely as a noise one of her parents made for no apparent reason.  This was because French and Castilian were spoken by lots of people around her and she could see an immediate practical reason for learning it, whereas German was just spoken by me and my ex.

A rather more successful undertaking was my practice of speaking to her in something like Elizabethan English.  This ultimately led to her being able to read Shakespeare with less of a language barrier and also act more convincingly in his plays, and she is now reading English Literature at university, so in a way that worked out.  To her, reading Hermia's lines in  A Midsummer Night's Dream is just like watching the latest episode of her favourite soap or singing along to a contemporary pop song, and this has stood her in good stead.  Moreover, her German is not completely dead.  She can still substantially understand German when she hears it and she speaks in German in her sleep.  Furthermore, her willingness to learn Egyptian Arabic when motivated to do so was doubtless down to the attitude that nothing is really that daunting, an approach instilled in her by the fact that she didn't go to school.

The point of all this is that motivation is key.  If a child, and often an adult, can't perceive a captivating reason for learning something, she won't find it interesting enough to learn it.  In school, there may be a disconnection between these  for a variety of reasons.  It may separate the pupils from the practical use of their skills and from their community, and to some extent the children need to stay in step with the order of the curriculum and the rate at which topics are covered through the very nature of the institutions.  Having said that, I can't say that I have any insight into why there was such a big discrepancy between how poorly I managed to learn German at school when I was in fact fascinated and obsessed by foreign languages at the time and how well I learnt it later unless it's to do with having a personal connection.  It so happened that even as I was failing to learn German, I was succeeding in learning Mandarin Chinese, Sanskrit, Finnish, Russian and several other languages, though somewhat poorly no doubt, and I have long since forgotten most of what I learned.  School to me was an irritating distraction from study and learning, although socially it was a marvellous escape from home, not because there was anything wrong with my home but just because it was part of growing up.  Home ed also provides plenty such escape, incidentally, but that's not the subject of this post.