The Week In Radio: Latin lesson that was a touch of class
Thursday 11 March 2010
Even if the Oscar-nominated Brit-flick, An Education, didn't strike a chord with the judges, it certainly struck a chord with me. I went to the school portrayed in the film and I remember the headmistress Ruth Garwood Scott even more fearsomely than Emma Thompson played her, a regally coiffed presence requiring pupils to line up and, amazingly, curtsey as we shook her hand. But that was then, and weirdo etiquette like curtsying is way off the curriculum now, replaced by texting tutorials and domestic violence role-play probably. Yet the question of precisely what children should learn at school is still wide open, according to Anne McElvoy, who is currently engaged in that nightmare modern quest – finding a secondary school for her 11-year-old son.
Unlike other parents, McElvoy has the advantage of being able to put the politicians on the spot, and in A Good School, she did this with wonderful incisiveness. "Is it just me having these problems?" she asked Ed Balls. "I think it's you," he said, because everyone else thought that under Labour, education was better than in recorded history. Even when he wasn't speaking, the figure of our education minister dominated this excellent documentary like the bully at the back of the class. He is anti-Latin, for example, because "very few businesses are asking for it". Which would suggest he thinks business should decide what gets taught in school. "Cui bono?" asked Anne, but if he got her meaning, he certainly wasn't letting on.
There was plenty here to get depressed about, from the new fashion for "lernacy" (don't ask) to the children who think "Winston Churchill is the dog who sells insurance on television", but Balls was by far the most depressing thing, a latter-day Gradgrind whose approach, according to David Wootton, history professor at York University, epitomises Bentham's idea of education to "maximise the benefits out of minimum investment and produce measurable outcomes".
Huge numbers of schoolchildren are giving up physics now, so bad luck if they tried to listen to Monday's Costing the Earth on nuclear fusion. I had to play it back twice and even then it was right at the top of the mind-boggle meter. What I grasped was that we're either a) within a whisker of realising this holy grail of energy that has the potential to save the entire world or b) chasing an expensive folly.
Either way, the images made wonderful listening. Tom Heap visited the Vulcan laser, the world's most powerful laser, which is buried in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside. "This control room looks like some kind of Sixties Dr Evil lair," commented Dr Kate Lancaster, cheerily. Fusion only works at enormously high temperatures – 20 times hotter than the core of the sun – where it turns matter into plasma, which is what the sun ands stars are made of. Co-incidentally, just down the road in the Jet facility at Culham, lives the biggest machine in the world, which looks "like a monstrous Meccano set" and is currently producing "the hottest temperature in the solar system" in an attempt to force particles to fuse.
Of course, like all physics, just when you thought you had grasped it, new problems arose. One is, it takes more energy to create a reaction than is produced. Another that the fusion fuel itself, tritium, is what you find in a hydrogen bomb, a detail that terrifies Greenpeace. Then there's the fact that there's only 20kg of tritium in existence. Oh, and it's going to cost billions, even before we know if it actually works.
Which brings us inevitably to accountants. "There are 300,000 accountants in Britain, which means that, as with rats, you're never less than a few feet from one" was Jolyon Jenkins's winning introduction to A Brief History of Double-Entry Book-Keeping, whose grand premise is that accountancy is no less than the history of civilisation itself. Double-entry book-keeping is at heart, he says, a religious impulse. It started in 14th century Italy because merchants needed to account for themselves to God but by the 19th century it had become an instrument of social control. By dividing up book-keeping, only the top people could understand the whole picture of a business. And now that Britain is overrun with accountants – there are more per capita than in the EU or America – we have become unwittingly engulfed in an "audit culture" by which everything from hospitals to blind dates must be rated and subject to performance indicators. Lucy Kimbell of Oxford University sent friends a form to audit her life, and found them perfectly happy to estimate her financial, social and cultural worth. She thinks our willingness to collude with narrow auditing mechanisms like school league tables is both "fascinating and horrifying". Indeed, you might agree, but just try telling that to Mr Balls.
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