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Aug 15 2012

Back into the trenches

This is the punchline:

You’ll have to read the rest for the setup.

And then there’s the meta punch line. I’m teaching introductory biology again this semester. Starting next Thursday. Also second-year cell biology, starting Wednesday. I’m already counting down to 7 December, the last day of classes — this is going to be a very tough term.

87 comments

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  1. 1
    Ace of Sevens

    As I recently-graduated history major, I concede this. There are plenty of points where the the anti-reality gang wants to diverge from real scholarship and substitute their own cherry-picked evidence and a couple theories of history they reject wholesale, but nothing like denying the central concepts of history.

  2. 2
    kp71

    EXACTLY!!!!

    Add to that teaching Intro Biology in a heavily fundamentalist part of Washington State, and you have my job.

  3. 3
    davidnangle

    I knew that one was going to get to you. Try to avoid the temptation of decorating the entire outside of your building with it.

  4. 4
    Glen Davidson

    Explain how, in every detail, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire, or I’ll just have to conclude that it was God who did it all.

    Ha, you can’t do it, I win.

    Glen Davidson

  5. 5
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    ROBESPIERRE RECANTED ON HIS DEATHBED, THEREFORE THE REIGN OF TERROR NEVER HAPPENED!

    Also, Marat died of natural causes.

  6. 6
    Muz

    Hahahaa Oh those apologetic-yet-supercilious downcast eyes.

  7. 7
    Loqi

    You shouldn’t have given away the punch line. I’d have gone the whole strip thinking the biology professor was David Barton.

  8. 8
    skeptifem

    My first college bio course had an instructor who deflected any criticism by saying “evolution is the explanation that we have right now, so I am teaching it”. We didn’t learn a lot about evolution at all, actually. I was really glad for my time on skeptic’s boards reading about evolution. I felt bad for other students who saw everything as memorizing seemingly unrelated facts instead of trying to understand it all in the context of a theory.

  9. 9
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    It seems like SMBC is unaware of Bobby Jindal’s curriculum for LA schools.

  10. 10
    shouldbeworking

    I’m a physics teacher. A few years ago I had a similar discussion with a social studies teacher.

  11. 11
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire

    Were you there?

  12. 12
    ChasCPeterson

    I heard that Charlemagne kicked puppies. Teach the controversy.

  13. 13
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Actually, Audley, I’d guess that ZWS is aware of it. He generally seems to be pretty on top of that sort of shit.

  14. 14
    kantalope

    I dunno – not all of history is about revolutions. Every once in a while (by that I mean the whole time) history has to bang its head on someone’s religion: and then you get the flabbertygibbits about god getting involved.

    PZ will appreciate this part – my Medieval History prof at the University of Utah used: “and if you don’t believe that you are not a Christian” as a segue before we were supposed to start the review for the final. We did not get much reviewing done and my friend coined the term ‘Mormon Baiting’. I liked ‘Mormon Chumming’ but it was eventually decided that sounded more like we were just throwing mormons into the water.

  15. 15
    Nick Gotts

    The weirdest and wackiest historical revisionism I’ve come across is Anatoly Fomenko’s “New Chronology”, according to which written history goes back only 1200 years. Fomenko is a talented mathematician with many publications to his name, and has drawn a number of other Russian mathematicians, and the former world chess champion and anti-Putin dissident Gary Kasparov, into his crankery.

  16. 16
    geocatherder

    The professor who was my M.S. thesis advisor used to teach an upper-division general education class called “Prehistoric Life”. He’d start on the first day of class by saying something to the effect of, “I don’t care what your religious beliefs are. I don’t care if you believe one word of what I’m here to teach you. All I care is that you learn it.”

  17. 17
    cartomancer

    But Marat did die of natural causes. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, being stabbed in your bath by a dissident probably counts as natural causes in revolutionary France.

  18. 18
    qwints

    To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, being stabbed in your bath by a dissident probably counts as natural causes in revolutionary France.

    “Murder was in fact, a fairly uncommon event in Ankh-Morpok, but there were a lot of suicides. Walking in the night time alleyways of The Shades was suicide, asking for a short in a dwarf bar was suicide, you could commit suicide very easily if you weren’t careful.”

  19. 19
    qwints

    I remember being introduced to the Velikovsky nonsense by a series of sf novels by James Hogan at a young age decades after that brief fad had ended. I wonder if some child of fundamentalists is going to show up in class spouting Bartonisms in a generation or two. I’ve got no doubt that their will be a kid spouting the same stuff that Gish was arguing fifty years ago.

  20. 20
    infraredeyes

    Yeah, but history is very much subject to ideological bias. In the UK, learning British history, particularly the Reformation and the (Cromwellian) Civil War, in a Catholic school is very different from learning it in a non-denominational state school. To pick a glaring example: in one case you will learn that King Charles I was a holy martyr, possibly even a saint. In the other case, you will learn that he was essentially a kleptocrat who had to be stopped before he bankrupted the nation.

  21. 21
    Alukonis, metal ninja

    Couple weeks ago when I was suffering through the grading of lab reports in TET another commenter (whose name I don’t remember argh) was commiserating with me, except while MY students were doing things like “Cu2+ + NH3 -> H3Cu(s)” their students were doing things like “but if humans are primates why are there still primates?” and some other bad-faith questions.

    It’s the difference between “wow you are terrible at chemistry” and flat-out denying the essential principles. I mean if someone gets the aufbau principle wrong, they don’t fight you on it when you say so, but biology students think they can fight you on evolution? Argh! I’m just happy no one has ever said any of that bullshit about the second law of thermodynamics when we do that chapter.

  22. 22
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    E:

    Actually, Audley, I’d guess that ZWS is aware of it. He generally seems to be pretty on top of that sort of shit.

    Then he should know that history profs are totally going to get this shit, if they’re not already. How long until a freshman college students asks if the Egyptians rode dinosaurs?

  23. 23
    katansi

    The ‘everyone supports microevolution’ line got thrown up in my geology class last semester. I aggressively called bullshit and offended some creationists in the process which my teacher had to apologize for letting happen based on school policy. Why even enroll in a science class if you have no intention of learning anything? And after class my teacher said she agreed but again, if reality is offensive to idiots we have to respect their poor wittle feewings over, you know, science.

  24. 24
    robb

    the second law of thermodynamics is statistical in nature. it *is* possible for heat to flow spontaneously from a cold to a hot resevoir.*

    therefore goddidit.

    *nevermind that for N>>1, the chance is so exceedingly small as to be indistiguishable from zero.

  25. 25
    Kel

    I got a laugh out of it.

  26. 26
    onychophora

    Alukonis! It was ME!

    I taught intro bio for non-majors this summer. I continue to be inundated by the utter drivel and inanity of their fucking responses. Most recently, I had a kid tell me (in a 2 pg essay about genomics) that it was important to study human diversity since all races came from the Tower of Babel.

    One more final, one more ass handing, then I’m free.

  27. 27
    RFW

    An introductory course in any science must be a nightmare to prepare and teach. I went to a very good public school system through high school, then to one of the most prestigious research universities for my bachelors, and even though I’m fairly smart (or used to be!) an awful lot of stuff went whizzing right over my head.

    Perhaps one of the stumbling blocks to learning is that science (no matter what field you are concerned with) is presented as a synthesis of all that’s gone before. It’s not made clear that what we “know” today represents the work of a great many very smart people over a very long time – centuries, even millennia, in many cases. Students are presented with this beautifully formed account and don’t realize how difficult it was to reach that understanding. And, hence, that it’s difficult for most people to really “get” what it all means.

    An analogy might be a jigsaw puzzle that someone else has assembled: ooooh, lookit the nice picture! Yet someone slaved for hours gradually piecing the thing together.

    This is a fancy lead-in to proposing that in an introductory science course, especially if the students aren’t going to major in the field, a historical approach might get the point across better. Emphasize the importance of observable phenomena and explore the various inferences (most of them wrong) drawn from each over time, perhaps.

    Good luck, P-zed: you have a horrendously difficult task in front of you. And in saying that I’m not even thinking about the possible interference from creationist attitudes on the part of some students.

  28. 28
    onychophora

    Ah, but to be fair, it was not all horror in the trenches for me this summer. Every once in awhile there is a ray of light instead of constant shrapnel.

    One student said something like this in her reflections about the semester: I found Neil Shubin’s book [Your Inner Fish] to be a great topic in itself. I liked how geology and chemistry and anatomy and taxonomy are intricatley intertwined into a great field of study called evolutionary biology. If I were to go to graduate school and choose a topic to study, evolutionary biology would be it.

    Fuck. Yes.

  29. 29
    Paulino

    Well I’d have a chat with Chris Rodda before deciding which one is harder…

  30. 30
    Anthony K

    How long until a freshman college students asks if the Egyptians rode dinosaurs?

    Duh. Even a freshman knows that if the Egyptians rode dinosaurs, they wouldn’t have needed the Israelites to build their pyramids.

  31. 31
    uri4

    I’ll be teaching Astronomy 101 in the Fall. I am certain to be informed by one of more of my students that:

    - We can’t know how old the universe
    - We can’t know the distances to astronomical objects
    - We can’t rely on radiometric dating
    - We can’t know that the speed of light is a constant

    I will also be informed that the First Amendment required me to permit “witnessing” during final presentations.

    Excited students will tell me that the moon is really only ever 16 miles from the surface of the earth.

    That we would all burn to death if the earth’s orbit was just 10 feet closer to the sun.

    The that Grand Canyon was carved by lightning bolts from Venus.

    That a 13th “Sun Sign” was “just discovered”.

    That a 10th planet (they will say “10th planet”, even after we discuss the reclassification of Pluto) was discovered orbiting beyond [insert planet here]”

    I will correct the errors. I will explain how we know what we know. I will fail the 20% of the class who miss more than half the labs, or who don’t turn in final papers, or who they blow off one or more of the exams.

    I am actually really looking forward to it. The knuckleheads notwithstanding, it is a really fun class to teach.

    I will be castigated in the evaluations for being intolerant of “alternative theories” [sic] and making the class too hard “When it is just supposed to be about stars and the zodiac and sh*t”.

  32. 32
    uri4

    Hey — got truncated:

    Despite the knuckleheads, I am really looking forward to the class. Astro 101 is really fun to teach.

  33. 33
    jt512

    PZ:

    [T]his is going to be a very tough term.

    You say that every term!

  34. 34
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    I did my part today – I explained that evolution worked without animals “knowing” that there was some benefit to their behavior (in this case, gnawing dropped antlers and gaining the calcium therein), and that all that was required for a trait to be passed on was that it led to some animals having more babies which survived long enough to have their own babies.

    The 9 year old in my camp got it beautifully, and seems to me to be a future biologist, which I’m working hard to encourage. (Said kid has been in 3 previous camps that I’ve run.)

  35. 35
    Quine

    This last weekend I went to the Atheist Film Fest in SF, and one of the films was No Dinosaurs in Heaven which is about a woman, Greta Schiller, who, after many years as a documentary film maker, decided she wanted to do something to help counter the low level of science understanding in our country by going back to school to get her masters degree and become a science teacher. When she went to do so, she found that her instructor (in the NY college system), at the graduate level, would not teach Evolution in biology for personal religious reasons. A bad idea, in general, but especially if one of your students is a professional documentary maker.

  36. 36
    ladyatheistatheist

    Yours may be the only true science course your victims students take in their whole lives. It may be the most important course you ever teach. Instead of “This is The Truth” if they come away with “This is how the scientific method works” they’ll figure out the truth for themselves. As a musician, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve knocked down pseudo-science my fellow musicians have swallowed, sometimes literally. In college I took two science courses I didn’t have to take: a writing course that was based around genetics and one physics course (acoustics, of course). I retained at least a little skepticism, apparently because I never bought BS wholesale (though I dabbled in the 80s)

    The latest: my stand-partner “I have a water ionizer that raises the pH of my tap water.” me: “Wouldn’t that just be hard water? Indiana already has the hardest water in the country.” stand-partner “but it’s ionized!

    *facepalm*

  37. 37
    DLC

    If the American Revolution never happened, then we are still British Colonies. In which case, I’ll gladly pay my taxes to the Inland Revenue, but I want my NHS !

  38. 38
    epikt

    robb says:

    the second law of thermodynamics is statistical in nature. it *is* possible for heat to flow spontaneously from a cold to a hot resevoir.*

    therefore goddidit.

    *nevermind that for N>>1, the chance is so exceedingly small as to be indistiguishable from zero.

    Thermodynamics is only designed to work for N=shitload. If you apply it to a few-body problem, you’ll break it.

  39. 39
    krubozumo

    Quite a few good comments above, I’m a total outsider, barely managed to squeeze through the academic sieve series four decades ago, and not unscathed. I was not recalcitrant because I did not agree with or accept the curriculum. I was just too impatient. So instead of becoming a professor I am still an advanced student.

    In at least one sense I think the claim of trepidation at the onset of formal classes is a bit overblown. But I’ll concede that academic obligations do complicate and sometimes confound wider ambitions. Never the less, that is our system of education, it may well be improvable, but so far it has a pretty good track record.

    I’ll say this much, if I was an undergrad looking at a career in biology, I’d choose Morris just for the opportunity to chafe up against Prof. Myers. Not about nonsense like the great flud mind you, but about the actual things we don’t completely understand, and how to look for the answers. The long process of education is in essence learning how to learn what is not known.

    Also it is exploring. To paraphrase, nature is obscure but not malicious. I have spent my life working on problems that remain unsolved. I am not in the least dissapointed. I will spend what remains of it pursuing the same goals, whether I succeed or not is of no importance. I know I have given it my best shot. Perhaps I will have saved someone else going on a wild goose chase.

    We all have a role to play.

  40. 40
    lither

    Thank you for making the prospect of teaching Calculus I again seem pleasant. Luckily, Bishop Berkeley’s address to an infidel mathematician doesn’t seem to have caught on with the evangelicals.

  41. 41
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    If Americans are descended from the English, why is Paul McCartney?

  42. 42
    Charlie Foxtrot

    Uri4 – that is tragic to hear…
    I fielded a bunch of questions/statements from the Year 5/6 class at my daughter’s primary school on the day of the transit of Venus, and not one of them went anywhere near your experience for misinformed or god-sozzelled. However, this is Australia and I presume you’re in the States?

  43. 43
    lcaution

    My sympathies are all with the students.

    One of the happiest days of my life was finishing my final exam in Graduate School. I swore I would never take another test, and I haven’t – but a very long time later, I still get exam nightmares. Talk about branding one for life.

  44. 44
    eriktrips

    Try teaching gender and queer theory to straight men. Or the rhetoric of race in the US to young white adults who think history has no consequences in the present, or at least certainly not for them.

  45. 45
    Rutee Katreya

    As I recently-graduated history major, I concede this. There are plenty of points where the the anti-reality gang wants to diverge from real scholarship and substitute their own cherry-picked evidence and a couple theories of history they reject wholesale, but nothing like denying the central concepts of history.

    Are you kiddin’? The USA not only teaches even-more-blatant propaganda, but it tends to focus on not just names n’ dates (Which can easily be wikipedia’d), it has a horrific tendency to focus on how Great People altered hte course of history with their awesome-itude.

    Biology isn’t the only academic field that has its share of religious, or religious-like, interference. In the ass-end of florida, one of my history professors in fact pointed out that she had a lot of opposition that, when looking at that in biology classes, was quite similar. It’s just not as sexy because of course, history is just people’s opinions XD

  46. 46
    dianne

    ROBESPIERRE RECANTED ON HIS DEATHBED

    Robespierre didn’t have a deathbed. He was shot then guillotined.

  47. 47
    dianne

    The USA not only teaches even-more-blatant propaganda, but it tends to focus on not just names n’ dates (Which can easily be wikipedia’d), it has a horrific tendency to focus on how Great People altered hte course of history with their awesome-itude.

    There’s also an amazing about of regional “we’re the best” teaching in various parts of the US. In Philadelphia, they teach that they’re the best because of their prominant role in the revolution. In NYC they teach that they’re the best because duh! NEW YORK FUCKING CITY! In the midwest they teach the wonders of the heartland, in Texas the grandeur of the Texas revolution, in California the superiority of people who kept migrating as long as possible (actually, the frontier closed last in the western mountain states, but never mind that just now). Everyone learns that they’re the best.

    Stupid question, but does this sort of thing not happen in other countries? I’ve read German middle school history books and they seem rather modest, but don’t know anything about how history is taught in other countries. Do the French talk about the wonders of their revolution and how they saved the US from the Brits single handedly? Do the Brits discuss their empire and how it has produced all that is good in the modern world in loving detail?

  48. 48
    Crys T

    “Yeah, but history is very much subject to ideological bias.”

    This. So much this. And what eriktrips said in #44.

    And there’s also introductory level composition. I’ve never taught it, but I did sit through a full quarter of clueless whiners saying, “But how can you grade my opinion??????”

    Bio teachers may have to deal with creationist wibble, but every lower-level Liberal Arts & Social Science class has to deal with moaning about how “it’s my opinion, so you can’t criticise it.”

  49. 49
    Crys T

    “Do the Brits discuss their empire and how it has produced all that is good in the modern world in loving detail?”

    Yeah, they kinda do. Over the past couple of years, there have been a fair number of tv programmes & articles “reappraising” the Empire–which basically means going on about how it actually did “bring civilisation” to “those backward natives.” As a non-Brit living in the UK, it’s been pretty horrifying.

  50. 50
    Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority)

    Crys T: there’s a difference between “programmes and articles” and what is taught in schools. The History national curriculum is actually relatively well balanced, and aims to set British history within a European and world context. The mandatory study that covers the Empire is set thus:

    the development of trade, colonisation, industrialisation and technology, the British Empire and its impact on different people in Britain and overseas, pre-colonial civilisations, the nature and effects of the slave trade, and resistance and decolonisation

    The accompanying guidance notes include:

    Recognition should also be given to the cultures, beliefs and achievements of some of the societies prior to European colonisation, such as the West African kingdoms. The study of the slave trade should include resistance, the abolition of slavery and the work of people such as Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce. Links could be made to emancipation, segregation and the twentieth century civil rights movement in the USA.

    So, not particularly insular or self-serving.

  51. 51
    Louis

    Crys T,

    You’re right that we Brits do get a fair amount of patriotic revisionist TV, but this is largely pandering to the Red Top Readers and Daily Mail Fans. This is something present in every nation, not exclusive to the Brits. Obviously! :-)

    As Marcus notes the education system is a good bit different, and you don’t have to scour the popular media far to find more in depth (and less jingoistic) analyses of history on, for example, BBC 4/The Grauniad/Channel 4/The Independent.

    Anecdote: I was lucky enough to attend a bastion of Imperialism, a British Headmaster’s Conference Public (read?: very posh, fee paying, private) School* for much of my pre-uni education. You might expect such a place to have a decidedly nationalist historical curriculum, or at least to slant it in that direction. Happily my (albeit only school level) historical education was excellent. We had a Oxford educated head of history (who taught me) and he was very far from the tub-thumping bewhiskered jingoist caricature that one might imagine such a figure to be! His first lesson was that history was largely about perspective and how easy it was for that perspective to be corrupted/biased even unintentionally. This was during a time in education where the recitation of dates and “facts” was heavily emphasised. He said that learning the “facts” was the easy bit, understanding how history worked was more fun. So he taught us the entire curriculum in about two thirds of the time required and spent the rest on teaching us how to read between the lines, so to speak.

    It was about as far from a Brit-Booster version of Empire as it could have been.

    Louis

  52. 52
    Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority)

    I had a pretty similar experience of school level history to Louis. Then and, if you look at the curriculum, now, a significant amount of emhasis is given to critical thinking, looking at different pesectives and the reliability of sources. This gives pupils the tools to do history rather than merely learn facts, just as teaching the scientific method gives pupils the tools to do science.

  53. 53
    Owen

    I wish I’d had a history teacher like that – mine wasn’t particularly jingoistic, but by god he was tedious. It wasn’t until I got to college and took a history of science course where there was some actual context around the people and events that I started to find history interesting.
    Part of me still wonders if I should have gone into that as a profession. I could have been the next James Burke or Jacob Bronowski…

  54. 54
    Crys T

    Noted about the differences between popular media and education systems. And I know that just because popular media champions a particular view, it doesn’t necessarily follow that people in general accept it.

    However, I haven’t seen much in the way of protest/criticism against the media triumphalism. Which makes me wonder if your educational system teaches about imperialism in a similar way that mine taught about sexism & racism, ie with a lot of lip service as to how bad these things are, while doing even more to subtly foment them.

    Also, only certain things seem to count as colonialism/imperialism. If either of you who’ve responded were educated in England: how does the system deal with the English treatment of the other nations of the UK? Because I get the feeling that most English people are unaware of some of the more hideous abuses carried out by England. Hell, I live in Wales and most (English-monolingual) Welsh people seem unaware.

    I’m just generally sceptical that ANY national educational system is ever going to really teach about the dark side of the nation without doing a lot of revising and minimising.

  55. 55
    dianne

    If either of you who’ve responded were educated in England: how does the system deal with the English treatment of the other nations of the UK? Because I get the feeling that most English people are unaware of some of the more hideous abuses carried out by England.

    Oh, you silly Brits and your internal politics. In the US, the various states and regions joined completely voluntarily and without coercion because of the obvious awesomeness of the US and all has been complete harmony since then.

    …What? That’s not right? I’m sure that’s how they taught it in school…

    Actually, my rather liberal private high school did make mention of some of the less than savory ways certain states became states. But it somehow managed to play even that in an exceptionalist-trimuphalist manner: Look how wonderful we are that we recognize that our history isn’t perfect.

  56. 56
    David Marjanović

    Fomenko

    Ah yeah. A delight.

    His primary motivation seems to be his unexamined belief in steady progress. Long periods of stagnation simply must not exist.

    H3Cu(s)

    Awesome!!!

    Excited students will tell me that the moon is really only ever 16 miles from the surface of the earth.

    *blink*
    …whaaaaat?

    I’ve read German middle school history books and they seem rather modest

    Same in Austria, for the same reasons.

    French history books are now much tamer than a few decades ago, when it was still a long sequence of glory after glory ever since nos ancêtres les Gaulois (“our ancestors the Gauls”, naturally taught in all of France, even overseas islands where almost everyone is black).

    BTW, the street names in Paris seem to operate on “history is good”. Streets are named after major and minor figures from every period in the last 300 or more years except the occupation and Vichy during WWII: prerevolutionary nobles, revolutionaries, imperial celebrities, and so on and so forth. No sides are taken.

    I’m just generally sceptical that ANY national educational system is ever going to really teach about the dark side of the nation without doing a lot of revising and minimising.

    The Austrian system puts quite a lot of emphasis on things like the fact that Austrians were overrepresented among concentration camp guards and leaders, and austrofascism (the last few years before annexation in 1938) isn’t prettied up in the least.

  57. 57
    Crys T

    @dianne Srsly. I went to school in Ohio & it was standard to teach that the US Civil War happened because the South was just baaaaaaaad. Not like Us.

  58. 58
    David Marjanović

    (…That’s of course explicitly to counter the tendencies of earlier decades to claim that Austria was a poor innocent victim of National Socialism.)

  59. 59
    Crys T

    “The Austrian system puts quite a lot of emphasis on things like the fact that Austrians were overrepresented among concentration camp guards and leaders, and austrofascism (the last few years before annexation in 1938) isn’t prettied up in the least.”

    But that’s just one example of one period in the history of Austria. Do you really mean to tell me that, whatever the era being discussed, Austrian education never glosses over the dark side or overhypes the good. Ain’t buying it.

  60. 60
    dianne

    The Austrian system puts quite a lot of emphasis on things like the fact that Austrians were overrepresented among concentration camp guards and leaders, and austrofascism (the last few years before annexation in 1938) isn’t prettied up in the least.

    Well, there was this one leader from Austria…

  61. 61
    dianne

    I went to school in Ohio & it was standard to teach that the US Civil War happened because the South was just baaaaaaaad.

    Having gone to school in the south, aka the loosing side, we didn’t get this option. The Reconstruction probably got more classroom time and less positive a spin than it did in Ohio, though. Also, the Texas revolution (from Mexico) got played as being all about Freedom, whereas, in fact, the motivation for it was exactly the same as the motivation for the Civil War. Odd, that.

  62. 62
    Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority)

    Popular culture in any country will, due to basic human tribalism, tend not only to play down the country’s past misdeeds but also to demonise those who highlight the sordid past. This is especially true of the right wing (and thus generally more nationalistic) press such as the Daily Fail and its ilk. Most people’s perceptions of history will, unfortunately, become more aligned with the populist version even if they had a more balanced view at school due to the effects of fading memory and source amnesia.

    In fact, I don’t recall exactly what I learned about various topics in school and what I learned since (the intervening decades have been unkind to my poor little brain). I know we covered the English civil war and the Union (as well as some of the English/Scottish history that contextualised it). I don’t think we explicitly looked at Wales, and I’m pretty certain we didn’t look in depth at the history of Anglo-Irish relations, given that this was at the height of the spectacularly misnamed “Troubles”. However, from the NC I linked above:

    The different histories and changing relationships through time of the peoples of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales: This includes studying the histories of the different parts of the British Isles and their impact on each other, and developing an understanding of the historical origins of the UK. Pupils could explore both the separate histories and identities of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England and their interrelationships, for example through English colonisation and/or their economic and political interdependence.

  63. 63
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    Robespierre didn’t have a deathbed. He was shot then guillotined.

    You say toMAYto, I say toMAHto.

  64. 64
    Rutee Katreya

    Do you really mean to tell me that, whatever the era being discussed, Austrian education never glosses over the dark side or overhypes the good. Ain’t buying it.

    If you want “Never”, invest in some omniscient, objectively accurate oracle-ravens. I hear they go cheap if you buy them in pairs in Iceland.

    Seriously though, what you’re looking for is “Not very” or “Not particularly”. That’s a thing that might actually exist.

    But it’s not even just the propaganda itself. It’s also the style of that propaganda. It’s not enough to frame the ‘discovery’ of Merika as Christopher Columbus heroically sailing out to prove to dullard kings that the earth was round (which is what I was taught growing up). It’s that the story is consistently packaged as the heroic explorer (or villainous imperialist) singlehandedly organizes the expedition after the Monarchs of/Queen of Spain pays for it. Never you mind the sailors (And particularly the skilled crew) on the expedition had to agree, or the fact that the Spanish Crown, and Izzie in particular, had to pony up that money somehow, or that people had *reasons* to take such damn-fool chances to reach China. None of that’s important. It’s also not important what kind of information was available that made these risks damn-fool risks to take. What matters is that a Great Explorer saw fit to make the journey, possibly with the aid of a wise pair of monarchs/queen.

    Never mind that Izzie was fanatically loyal to the church, and wanted to spread the glory of god. That this sentiment was itself common. That the reason this was a stupid idea had nothing to do with the ‘flat earth’ we inhabited, and everything to do with astronomers having calculated the rough size of the planet, and determining that China was too fuckin’ far to sail to (they were right, btw). That the expedition funding came, in part, from the seizure of assets of heathens. That those heathens had reasons to be in Iberia… All of that, irrelevant before the Great People who shaped history.

    It’s kind of a fucking dangerous kind of propaganda. That shallow fiction helps breed a lot of terrible narratives. Whenever we, for instance, discuss Dubya as the primary cause of the Iraq/Afghanistan war, or Hitler as the catalyst for WWII, we helpfully erase the asshattery of the common people that helped make these things possible, for instance. When Meriken worship the Founding Fathers, it ignores that they really only made a decent constitution for their time and situation, rather than the platonic ideal of a constitution (hampering attempts to improve or change it, or to update their guesses with, you know, the results of observation of their ideas. It’s huge, and can pop up everywhere.

  65. 65
    jmst

    “The Austrian system puts quite a lot of emphasis on things like the fact that Austrians were overrepresented among concentration camp guards and leaders, and austrofascism (the last few years before annexation in 1938) isn’t prettied up in the least.”

    It’s in the textbooks, but how much of it is actually taught very much depends on the teacher. I know quite some people whose history teachers somehow managed to loose so much time on the 19th century that they never even got to talk about any period beyond the early 1930s; and, austrofascism is prettied up in some quarters.

    When you go further back in time, the wars with the Ottomans are still being portrayed in very stereotypical terms as a clash of civilisations or religious war – ignoring for example the facts that France was not-so-secretly cheering for the Ottomans, or that there were both Christian vasall forces in the Turkish army and a Muslim Lipka Tatar contingent in the Polish relief army.

  66. 66
    DanDare

    Fucking neo classical non changist romantics. Its revolutions all the way down!

  67. 67
    Crys T

    OK Marcus (#62), that’s what the curriculum says it will do, but how well does it actually do it? Because if it came even close, then English people wouldn’t be so woefully ignorant (and unbelievably paranoid) about, say, anything to do with the Welsh language. Every British English-speaker I’ve ever heard comment on this apparently believes that the reason English dominates in Walees today is because, duh, English is just so naturally superior that the Welsh cleverly picked it up & dropped their own useless tongue.

    No awareness AT ALL that language change happened as the result of a deliberate campaign on the part of the English to destroy Welsh by legal, economic and social sanctions. As well as, in the case of schoolchildren, literally beating the use of Welsh out them.

    I do find it amusing that in a discussion of how countries whitewash the past and indulge in jingoistic flagwaving in their history lessons, there are Brits claiming that, although other, lesser, nations may be that pathetic, the English are a shining example of scrupulous honesty.

    Think y’all have drunk a bit too much of your own Kool Aid. Or Ribena, as the case may be.

  68. 68
    Louis

    Crys T,

    However, I haven’t seen much in the way of protest/criticism against the media triumphalism.

    Of late this can be explained to some degree by a genuine patriotic resurgence (Jubilee, Olympics etc) and, I think, the economic downturn (did I read somewhere in times of economic uncertainty various ideologies seem more appealing, nationalism, fascism etc. Maybe it was a dream! Not a good one!).

    Also, only certain things seem to count as colonialism/imperialism. If either of you who’ve responded were educated in England: how does the system deal with the English treatment of the other nations of the UK? Because I get the feeling that most English people are unaware of some of the more hideous abuses carried out by England. Hell, I live in Wales and most (English-monolingual) Welsh people seem unaware.

    Again, I was lucky (exceptionally so I fear) in that we learned about the subjugation of Celtic cultures, right up to and beyond the Potato Famine and the Troubles (O.o I always hated that name!). I freely grant that we didn’t learn an enormous degree of depth, but we learned to be very sceptical of the received wisdom and culturally prevalent historical claims. The red hot poker lesson was a particular highlight if I remember correctly.

    When I lived in the USA I found it obscenely nationalistic/patriotic. I rather suspect a large part of that was because it is a foreign country, it’s history is not my history in the same way the UK’s is. Do you think that something similar might be colouring your impressions too?

    Louis

  69. 69
    Louis

    Crys T,

    I do find it amusing that in a discussion of how countries whitewash the past and indulge in jingoistic flagwaving in their history lessons, there are Brits claiming that, although other, lesser, nations may be that pathetic, the English are a shining example of scrupulous honesty.

    I don’t think I’ve claimed anything like it, neither has Marcus. In fact we’re well aware of the problems. The tendency to gloss over the nasty parts of history is universal. Meaning: It happens here too! ;-)

    I am also a little disturbed by the “lesser nations” comment, I don’t see that anywhere.

    I’ll see your projection of psychological defence and raise you:

    Is it perhaps that your own national identity is so threatened, as a stranger in a strange land, and that you are so acutely aware of the gross flaws of the education and overt nationalism in the USA, that you are trying to overcompensate by pointing the finger at others?

    We’re aware that we’re not perfect. Hence, for example, why I pointed out my background was exceptional, i.e. non-standard. If you are trying to judge the quality of a particular education system by a few TV programmes, a lack of outrage apparent to you and the general ignorance of people in your social grasp, then be prepared to have people disagree with your incredibly narrow sampling and shoddy reasoning.

    I’d agree with you that, by and large, every country, the UK included, engages in revisionist history to varying degrees. I wouldn’t even doubt that the UK is one of the relatively bad guys in this, although I have no real evidence. What I am disagreeing with is that your subjective impression is necessarily representative of a wider, or more objective, problem. We know we have problems, we have Jeremy Clarkson and Nick Griffin to remind us. We have the Daily Mail. But we also have Stephen Fry and The Beast of Bolsover. We also have sceptical treatments of Booster-For-Britain historical ideas. If the relative lack of outcry over a few TV shows bothers you (TV shows I’m unlikely to have seen, I confess) then do something. Letters to editors, write to the channel, you have the power!

    Louis

  70. 70
    Louis

    Bollocks arse and fuck. This time without borkquotes:

    Crys T,

    I do find it amusing that in a discussion of how countries whitewash the past and indulge in jingoistic flagwaving in their history lessons, there are Brits claiming that, although other, lesser, nations may be that pathetic, the English are a shining example of scrupulous honesty.

    I don’t think I’ve claimed anything like it, neither has Marcus. In fact we’re well aware of the problems. The tendency to gloss over the nasty parts of history is universal. Meaning: It happens here too! ;-)

    I am also a little disturbed by the “lesser nations” comment, I don’t see that anywhere.

    I’ll see your projection of psychological defence and raise you:

    Is it perhaps that your own national identity is so threatened, as a stranger in a strange land, and that you are so acutely aware of the gross flaws of the education and overt nationalism in the USA, that you are trying to overcompensate by pointing the finger at others?

    We’re aware that we’re not perfect. Hence, for example, why I pointed out my background was exceptional, i.e. non-standard. If you are trying to judge the quality of a particular education system by a few TV programmes, a lack of outrage apparent to you and the general ignorance of people in your social grasp, then be prepared to have people disagree with your incredibly narrow sampling and shoddy reasoning.

    I’d agree with you that, by and large, every country, the UK included, engages in revisionist history to varying degrees. I wouldn’t even doubt that the UK is one of the relatively bad guys in this, although I have no real evidence. What I am disagreeing with is that your subjective impression is necessarily representative of a wider, or more objective, problem. We know we have problems, we have Jeremy Clarkson and Nick Griffin to remind us. We have the Daily Mail. But we also have Stephen Fry and The Beast of Bolsover. We also have sceptical treatments of Booster-For-Britain historical ideas. If the relative lack of outcry over a few TV shows bothers you (TV shows I’m unlikely to have seen, I confess) then do something. Letters to editors, write to the channel, you have the power!

    Louis

  71. 71
    Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority)

    Nobody claimed that the UK’s education system and history curriculum represent a shining example of scrupulous honesty, merely that it seeks to represent those subjects that it covers in a balanced manner. The choice of topics might betray some bias (I’m not a historian, so I’m not in a position to judge), but I’m not sure which bit of the curriculum you’d drop to teach the history of linguistic drift in Wales. I have no clue whether teachers are actually delivering the curriculum in the spirit in which it seems to be written and thus looking at the way that English culture is driving out the Welsh (with linguistic domination forming a subset of this).

    I’m sorry that all the English speakers you’ve listened to on the matter so far are fuckwits of the highest order. They certainly don’t have any linguistic understanding, or they’d know that Welsh is significantly easier to learn than English. However, the current contiuation of the decline in monolingual Welsh speakers is liable to be more pragmatic than political. The population of England outnumbers that of Wales by around 17 to 1, so learning English is far more useful for a Welsh speaker than learning Welsh is to an English speaker, and I strongly suspect the situation would be similar even if the language hadn’t been persecuted in the past. Although the suppression of Welsh is, as you say, a historical fact, I’d say the even more brutal subjugation of the Irish is a topic I’d want included in the curriculum as something far more relevant to understanding modern politics. Nowadays, the Welsh language has a significant degree of legal (and financial) protection.

  72. 72
    Crys T

    Oh come on, Marcus & Louis, you can’t make comments like those in #51, #52 & #62, all about how education in the UK like SO TOTALLY DOES TOO cover all those bad things and don’t say it doesn’t, then get all mad because someone thinks that you believe what you’re saying.

    @Louis:
    “I am also a little disturbed by the “lesser nations” comment, I don’t see that anywhere.”

    Well, Louis, you’ve never spend any time living in Britain as a Spaniard, then. We’re DEFINITELY considered “lesser” by a significant proportion of your population. Along with Southern Europeans in general. It’s especially fun for me, because, having grown up in the US, I have a USian accent & don’t fit the stereotyped Dago physical appearance, so people here think they can air their anti-Southern bigotry at me safely.

    “Is it perhaps that your own national identity is so threatened, as a stranger in a strange land, and that you are so acutely aware of the gross flaws of the education and overt nationalism in the USA, that you are trying to overcompensate by pointing the finger at others?

    I don’t know you well enough yet, but I’m guessing that you are, really and truly, joking. Also, heh, heh: not USian. Though I do know that the Spanish educational system is pretty much a disgrace re these matters. Like pretty much all countries. Which was my actual point. You’ll notice that I also queried David’s assertion that Austria was somehow better at these things.

    “we also have Stephen Fry”

    I love Stephen Fry, but he does buy into English-language triumphalism faaaaaar too much.

    @Marcus:
    “Welsh is significantly easier to learn than English”

    Uhh, I guess it can be for some people, depending on what languages they already speak. Which is true of every other language.

    “the current contiuation of the decline in monolingual Welsh speakers is liable to be more pragmatic than political”

    As someone who’s devoted the past 15 years to studying language attitudes and language shift, I couldn’t disagree more. And it’s annoying, because this is one of those topics that every social justice activist has to deal with: what the general public considers common sense is simply not the case. And I would love to go into explaining why, but in all honesty, it’s time for me to leave work and my connection at home is currently down. (no, really) I’m sure there’s some brilliant parallel to be drawn using an example taken from feminism or queer theory, but for the life of me, I can’t think of a one right now.

    “The population of England outnumbers that of Wales by around 17 to 1, so learning English is far more useful for a Welsh speaker than learning Welsh is to an English speaker, and I strongly suspect the situation would be similar even if the language hadn’t been persecuted in the past.”

    You know, I can’t think of the exact term for what the above is, so I’ll just go for circular logic: England goes all out to ensure that Welsh is less valuable and is therefore used less, and is therefore less “useful,” and then justifies that by saying that English is more useful. Come on.

    It also assumes that modern-day borders have existed for longer than they actually have. Welsh used to be the language of all Britain well into southern parts of Scotland. English took over as the result of invasion, not because it was more “useful.”

    And the whole “usefulness” issue ignores many of the important reasons why people use and learn languages in the first place.

  73. 73
    Louis

    Crys T,

    I’ve never lived in the UK as a Spaniard. Oh to be thatfortunate!

    I’m a mutt, a mongrel, and a particularly dark skinned one at that. My heritage spans large bits of Southern Europe, as well as the Near East, my name and appearance are not remotely English/UKian, and I could tell you tales of racism/nationalism growing up that would make your hair turn blue! Amazingly enough people were not concerned with what my birth certificate said. Naughty bigots!

    The fortune of a concrete identity would be quite useful, I’d have been able to explain that I wasn’t a nigger or a paki, but in fact a “whatever”.

    I am only being slightly tongue in cheek. And yes, I was partially joking with my comment about psychological defences too. My point was you are reading things into the things Marcus and I have said that are not there and then making claims about our psychological motivations based on that shoddy “evidence”.

    Your comments imply a universality that isn’t there. You are extending from your (naturally limited) experience to a nationwide issue. What Marcus and I are saying is that a) that experience is limited, as is ours, and b) don’t be surprised if your experience isn’t universally representative as (for example) it isn’t for us and many others. Hence why Marcus and I disagreed.

    We don’t disagree that things are far from perfect here, they are, as agreed to a few times now, and we don’t disagree that these things happen everywhere, as agreed to a few more times now, and indeed stated clearly. Disagreement with what you are claiming does not necessarily imply our positions are the polar opposite of yours. So far from our comments being mere patriotic defensiveness, they are in fact comments that illustrate we’re more than aware of the glaring imperfections, but are also aware that those imperfections are not universal nor applicable to all. Since all you’ve done is comment on your own anecdotal experience, different anecdotal experience to your own has relevance. If you have some better quality evidence for your comments and claims, present it.

    Louis

    P.S. You said you were educated in Ohio. I reasonably presumed you were American. My inability to not see through the internet to where you are is not a problem. Sorry, no gotcha. Nice try though.

  74. 74
    Nick Gotts
    The population of England outnumbers that of Wales by around 17 to 1, so learning English is far more useful for a Welsh speaker than learning Welsh is to an English speaker – Marcus Hill

    You know, I can’t think of the exact term for what the above is, so I’ll just go for circular logic: England goes all out to ensure that Welsh is less valuable and is therefore used less, and is therefore less “useful,” and then justifies that by saying that English is more useful. Come on.

    It also assumes that modern-day borders have existed for longer than they actually have. Welsh used to be the language of all Britain well into southern parts of Scotland. English took over as the result of invasion, not because it was more “useful.” – Crys T

    It’s really hard to see that response as anything but dishonest. Marcus Hill is not claiming that any inherent quality of English makes it more useful; and he makes that quite clear, along with the fact that he’s talking about the state of affairs now. That Welsh and closely related languages* were once (more than a millennium ago) spoken over much of Britain, and that English** was the language of invaders, are complete irrelevancies.

    *Actually, Early Welsh. I don’t know how different this is from the Welsh of today, but according to this article, a ninth-century inscription is “barely understandable to a modern Welsh speaker”. According to this one, it was not Welsh (even Early Welsh) that was spoken in what are now northern England and southern Scotland but a related language, Cumbric.

    **Actually, Anglo-Saxon, completely unintelligible to a speaker of modern English.

  75. 75
    uri4

    Charlie Foxtrot #42
    Uri4 – that is tragic to hear…
    I fielded a bunch of questions/statements from the Year 5/6 class at my daughter’s primary school on the day of the transit of Venus, and not one of them went anywhere near your experience for misinformed or god-sozzelled. However, this is Australia and I presume you’re in the States?

    Yes. I teach at a small college in the Pacific Northwest.

    Astronomy 101 satisfies a lab science requirement for non science majors. It attracts a lot of students who have been carefully avoiding any exposure to math or science since high school (or earlier). I get couple creationists/astrologers/geomancers/ufologists/anthroposophists/etc. every term.

    Few of the students enroll with much interest in Astronomy. Most finish the class with an improved understanding of what science is, and how it is done. A few might develop real enthusiasm for the subject. A handful pass the class under protest, convinced that the instructor is an ideologue and that the class was an attempt to indoctrinate them into the liberal secular globalist conspiracy. And, one or two will — apparently — take the class just to have pointless arguments about things they don’t want to understand.

    On the first day of class, a couple of terms back I had a student hand me a copy of The View From The Center of the Universe. She was SHOCKED that I’d never heard of Joel Primack. It was, apparently, the text used in the charter school to which she sent her children and, she pointed out, the blurb on the back of the book described Primack as a “a world authority on particle physics” or some such blather. She dropped after she found out there would be arithmetic on the exams.

  76. 76
    Alukonis, metal ninja

    @onychophora

    Aha! Hello! *waves!* I finally finished my grading and turned in all my grades with minimal whining from students. I’m glad to hear you have at least one student that is really digging the evo bio! I love students like that.

    @uri4

    I never really thought about it, but I bet you get a ton of people who don’t understand that astronomy is not the same thing as astrology. Is it fun to crush them?

  77. 77
    onychophora

    @Alukonis

    Ohai! So, I must share the most recent dropping, from an essay about ecology. One ol’ chappie tells me that scientists are unconcerned with human population size in relation to climate change, drought, famine, etc. He bemoans the fact that it should be “front and center” to “ensure we don’t overstep our bounds”, yet alas, in his immortal words, “but it’s not.”

    lolwhut?

  78. 78
    uri4

    Alukonis, metal ninja

    @uri4

    I never really thought about it, but I bet you get a ton of people who don’t understand that astronomy is not the same thing as astrology. Is it fun to crush them?

    I don’t “crush”. On the course documents, and in more than one lecture, I announce that astrology is something different from science, and that it won’t be part of the course. Occasionally I get some push back on this.

    Once, a student gave a defiant presentation on the myth of Orion — prefaced by an explanation that she didn’t care about science. She failed the assignment for disregarding the topic constraints, and she failed the class because she missed nearly every exam question.

    I also had a married couple in class, both avid astrologists, who wrote long, complaining notes to me on every lab — instead of attempting the actual lab exercises. When I pointed out that they might as well stay home, if they weren’t going to participate in the class, they told me I was being “unreasonable”. They also failed the class.

    It really isn’t the superstition that gets me down. Its the innumeracy. Too many of my students cannot populate the variables in a formula to carry out a simple computation. Cannot perform unit conversions. Cannot distinguish speed from distance, length from area, mass from volume. Too many think that they do not need to be able to do these things. Someone failed in their responsibility to these students long before they ever got to my class.

  79. 79
    Alukonis, metal ninja

    @onychophora

    Actually I saw an interesting presentation on how actually finding an unlimited source of cheap energy is one of the worst things you could do for the environment, since humans would just overpopulate unconstrained over everything and crowd out all the other species, due to our bypassing of the food chain by manufactured fertilizer and mass farming techniques (both of plants and raising animals to eat).

    So yeah, Lolwhut indeed, I can assure your student that scientists do think about these things! Maybe he’s upset that scientists aren’t on TV all the time saying “STOP HAVING BABIES YOU GUYS, YOU’LL KILL US ALL!!!”

    @uri4

    I’d consider that crushing. Don’t spoil my fun. I like how she gave you the preface so you knew you didn’t have to take notes on her presentation, haha. Although if I were teaching her I’d probably be trying not to pound my head on the desk in frustration.

    The innumeracy plagues me, too. Dimensional analysis is not hard! Also, a gram is smaller than a kilogram, so you should be able to look at your answer and tell that 57 g is not 57,000 kg. I mean, okay, I’m teaching Americans and they aren’t overly familiar with the metric system, but COME ON.

    I’ve never taken an astronomy class but I wonder, do they have calculus as a pre- or co-requisite? There’s been studies on how taking calculus before general chemistry is an indicator for success, I imagine it would be the same for astronomy as you probably do very similar calculations but with probably more mechanical physics?

  80. 80
    dianne

    Cannot distinguish speed from distance, length from area, mass from volume.

    Oh, dear. Perhaps that explains the screenwriter who thought you could make the Kessel run (or whatever it was) in under 30 parsecs: s/he couldn’t distinguish speed from distance either.

  81. 81
    vaiyt

    Education in these parts is so dismal, I don’t feel like singling history.

    But at least nobody blocked the teaching of evolution. Only now, with the spread of US-influenced Evangelical churches, is real science experiencing a timid pushback.

  82. 82
    uri4

    Alukonis, metal ninja

    I’ve never taken an astronomy class but I wonder, do they have calculus as a pre- or co-requisite? There’s been studies on how taking calculus before general chemistry is an indicator for success, I imagine it would be the same for astronomy as you probably do very similar calculations but with probably more mechanical physics?

    This class, Astronomy 101, is for non-sceince majors. It has no math prereq. We explain to the students that it requires “high school math”, by which we mean the kind of consumer math or tech school math with which a student can graduate from HS.

    The problem, of course, is that grade creep and lowered expectations are features of education at every level, and lots of students leave HS with no arithmetic.

    There are lots of things feeding into this; the nonsense about different “intelligences”, the pernicious “self esteem” foolishness, the execrable treatment of public school teachers in the US… it all conspires against the students ever learning how to learn.

  83. 83
    Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority)

    Crys T, I tend to concur with Louis that you’re reading something into our comments that just ain’t there.

    Oh come on, Marcus & Louis, you can’t make comments like those in #51, #52 & #62, all about how education in the UK like SO TOTALLY DOES TOO cover all those bad things and don’t say it doesn’t, then get all mad because someone thinks that you believe what you’re saying.

    I quoted the national curriculum as evidence of what has, by law, to be taught in schools. I have also been fairly clear (especially at #71) that I don’t claim the NC is perfect nor that it is taught universally as it seems to be intended. I’m an educator, but (as I’ve also made quite clear) History is not my subject, and I’ve been plain that I’m therefore not in any position to do other than present the facts I have, since I can’t judge with any expertise whether the choice of subjects and their balance and relative emphasis is at all controversial to historians. I’m a mathematician, Louis is (IIRC) a chemist, so neither of us claims expertise – and we were both very clear that our educational backgrounds are not typical, so our childhood anecdotes are not representative.

    @Louis:
    “I am also a little disturbed by the “lesser nations” comment, I don’t see that anywhere.”

    Well, Louis, you’ve never spend any time living in Britain as a Spaniard, then. We’re DEFINITELY considered “lesser” by a significant proportion of your population. Along with Southern Europeans in general. It’s especially fun for me, because, having grown up in the US, I have a USian accent & don’t fit the stereotyped Dago physical appearance, so people here think they can air their anti-Southern bigotry at me safely.

    I think Louis was taking offence to what appeared to be the implication that we think of other nations as “lesser”, not claiming that nobody does.

    Also, I’ve never spent time in the UK as a foreigner, but I did spend a fair chunk of my childhood in Brazil and Argentina as a British expat, so I do know what it feels like to be the foreigner. I can tell you 1982 was particularly interesting for my family in Buenos Aires.

    @Marcus:
    “Welsh is significantly easier to learn than English”

    Uhh, I guess it can be for some people, depending on what languages they already speak. Which is true of every other language.

    Actually, I was going by some half remembered facts gleaned from (I think) listening to something on Radio 4 about a recent upsurge in English immigrants to Wales learning Welsh. I had the impression that English is considered a difficult language to learn because it’s such an ugly mongrel of a language that it has a high degree of irregularity, whereas Welsh is far neater. I’d welcome a correction if I’m wrong there.

    “the current contiuation of the decline in monolingual Welsh speakers is liable to be more pragmatic than political”

    As someone who’s devoted the past 15 years to studying language attitudes and language shift, I couldn’t disagree more. And it’s annoying, because this is one of those topics that every social justice activist has to deal with: what the general public considers common sense is simply not the case. And I would love to go into explaining why, but in all honesty, it’s time for me to leave work and my connection at home is currently down. (no, really) I’m sure there’s some brilliant parallel to be drawn using an example taken from feminism or queer theory, but for the life of me, I can’t think of a one right now.

    “The population of England outnumbers that of Wales by around 17 to 1, so learning English is far more useful for a Welsh speaker than learning Welsh is to an English speaker, and I strongly suspect the situation would be similar even if the language hadn’t been persecuted in the past.”

    You know, I can’t think of the exact term for what the above is, so I’ll just go for circular logic: England goes all out to ensure that Welsh is less valuable and is therefore used less, and is therefore less “useful,” and then justifies that by saying that English is more useful. Come on.

    It also assumes that modern-day borders have existed for longer than they actually have. Welsh used to be the language of all Britain well into southern parts of Scotland. English took over as the result of invasion, not because it was more “useful.”

    And the whole “usefulness” issue ignores many of the important reasons why people use and learn languages in the first place.

    Again, you seem to be misinterpreting what I said. I make no claim about the historical reasons why Welsh has declined – in fact, I even say in the very paragraph you quote that “the suppression of Welsh is, as you say, a historical fact”. I was quite careful in my choice of words – I’m making a claim that the current decline in monoglot Welsh speakers can easily be attributed to utility. Welsh is protected by law, and all local government functions and education need to be available in Welsh, but there is no control over the language used in the private sector. This means that there are parts of Wales (Wrexham, for instance) where speaking only Welsh will make your life quite hard, and going outside Wales as a monoglot Welsh speaker is even harder. The converse is not true. Even in the deepest heartlands of Welsh speakers, being a monoglot Anglophone will barely inconvenience you at all, especially if you speak with the correct Welsh accent. The Plaid Cymru website comes in Welsh and English versions. In short, learning English makes life a lot easier for a Welsh speaker. People learn Welsh for all sorts of reasons, but being able to get by in day to day life is not one of them. I’m not talking about why fewer people speak Welsh, I’m talking about why more Welsh speakers learn English.

    As you’re far more aware than I, this tends to be a fairly good way for a language to die. There are a number of local languages in the UK that are in serious decline because the younger speakers simply don’t use them as their main language. I know that when I was a boy in South America, my brothers and I would talk among ourselves in Portuguese or Spanish (or frequently code switch) as those were the languages we used at school all day, and we only spoke to our parents in English. A good friend of mine is a Welsh speaker, and he always speaks to his daughters in Welsh – but his wife is English and they live in Yorkshire, so those girls talk English far more than they do Welsh. I doubt Welsh will die out in the next couple of centuries, but I do think that the days of people who speak only Welsh will soon be gone. The start of the process was one of invasion and brutal suppression, but the end is not.

  84. 84
    Teshi

    I’m (formerly) a teacher in the UK. A primary teacher, but it’s something at least. I partially grew up and was educated in Canada. I don’t think all nationalism is jingoistic.

    *

    Britain is substantially more racist than Canada, especially among people like Stephen Fry who, while they are educated and clearly don’t intend to be racist, do seem to perpetuate rather embarrassing and bizarre stereotypes– particularly of groups who aren’t very prominent in British society (East Asia and South America appear to fair particularly poorly.) This plays out in some atrocious adverts and comments.

    *

    I think racism persists in British schools because there is no emphatic social basis for calm discussion about racism or tolerance in school. At Pharyngula, religious tolerance is seen as giving space to false ideas. I can tell you that in a classroom, that idea plays out in a very, very ugly way. I had to explain emphatically that the government required the children to learn about other people’s religions so they had an accurate picture of the nature of the religion and tradition because they live in a society where there are numerous religions around. They didn’t have to believe it, they just had to learn about it and be respectful of the people who held the beliefs because I feel that religious tolerance in British schools is, at present, considerably more helpful than intolerance, whether I myself am intolerant of religious belief or not!

    I have taught RE to a group of children of mixed beliefs and it was profoundly difficult and unsettling (in some cases, extremely). These children are being raised with dramatically held and mixed beliefs but they don’t talk about them– they can’t. There’s no dialogue established from nursery school that allows children to discuss religion or tradition without it being intended or percieved as an insult. When it starts to become an issue, it’s explosive.

    *

    I do think English primary history is crappy, but mostly because it’s absurd: The Romans, Henry the Eighth (and wives)!, the Blitz. There are schools who don’t teach this, but it’s definitely a common theme.

    Shockingly, this doesn’t actually establish a sense that Scotland exists, or even that the colonies exist! However, I don’t think that the US gets to ride around on its high horse about history. Canada is probably the fairest, but it’s relatively yawnworthy.

    To be fair, I’ve heard that history in Scotland is very much from the Scottish point of view, which given their history of oppression is probably earned– but doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a fair representation of relations.

  85. 85
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    I had the impression that English is considered a difficult language to learn because it’s such an ugly mongrel of a language that it has a high degree of irregularity, whereas Welsh is far neater.

    “Ugly” is a value judgment–as a linguist and a native speaker of English, I find it to be a beautiful and creative language (or more accurately, a language that is used beautifully and creatively), but I find that of every language I’ve studied at just about every level.

    As for “mongrel”, just about every language is a mongrel to some degree (if by “mongrelism” you mean influence from other languages), but I suppose English is more of a mongrel than most. But extended contact with other languages has a tendency to decrease morphological irregularity, and for an Indo-European language English is remarkably simple and regular in its morphology (as a quick reflection on your knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese should confirm). Yes, we do have some vestiges of irregularity in our past tense and past participle forms of the verbs, but for the most part those are fossils of the old Germanic “strong” verb system; also there’s the occasional relic of our old plural formation system (feet, children). On the other hand, we’ve lost most of the IE gender and case system, with just a few relics in the pronouns, and we’ve pretty much shed most of the IE verbal tense/mood system (again, compare English to the Romance languages).

    There are other areas of English that can be devilish to learn–the use of “phrasal verbs” for one; pronunciation for another. Depending on the dialect, English has about a dozen or more vowel sounds (try teaching a Spanish speaker to pronounce “beat” and “bit”), but then we reduce most of our unstressed vowels to schwa, or drop them entirely. And we’ve got some diabolically difficult consonant clusters (e.g., masks). But every language has its areas of complexity, and yet every language can be learned to a high degree of accuracy by the age of 4 or 5. I don’t know enough about Welsh to comment, though I do know that Welsh has a curious system of initial consonant variation that must be tough for non-native speakers to learn. But in any case, the difficulty of learning an L2 depends on a lot of different factors that aren’t very well understood.

    Of course English orthography is another matter entirely; I’d venture to guess that it’s one of, if not the, most difficult alphabet systems in the world for a combination of reasons, including anachronisms, a partially-instituted French system, and a paucity of vowel symbols in the Latin alphabet. But roughly speaking, orthography is to language as number systems are to math.

    tl;dr, I suppose, but this is my passion.

  86. 86
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    including anachronisms archaisms

    I love English, but at times it seems unrequited.

  87. 87
    khms

    But roughly speaking, orthography is to language as number systems are to math.

    No.

    Math doesn’t primarily deal with numbers; it deals with symbols. Numbers are incidental.

    On the other hand, orthography is very much not incidental to language. Or, at least, no more than pronunciation is.

    In school, I had English, French, and Latin as foreign languages, and only English really remained with me, mostly because I had much more reasons to use English than any of the others, and my main interests are not in (natural) languages. However, on thing that plagues my English even a third of a century after school is the almost complete disconnect between English orthography and pronunciation. But then, I grew up with German, which is almost the opposite.

    Another point – something like 90% of the English I take in, and 99% I put out, is written. Orthography incidental? Pull the other one.

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