Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Why Germany needs 5 flags

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I said in a recent post that it seemed but short steps from saying that German car-makers cheat, to saying that German business cheats, and that Germany cheats.  In other words, that Germany risks letting its criminal car companies represent the nation's morals in the world.  You see a VW on the road: you see a symbol of Germans cheating the public.

The risk seems high, and there is now awareness of the umbilical link between the German government and its car-makers.   There was a striking cartoon in Thüringer Allgemeine while we were in Erfurt which showed 5 German flags behind the podium where an official government statement was to be made.  Each black, red and yellow flag showed the logo of a different car company.

The Times reported last week in a piece on the forthcoming German federal election:

"People are unhappy about the collusion between carmakers, their readiness to dodge diesel emission standards, their proximity to government and the pervasive suspicion of establishment cover-ups.  Germans are rightly proud of their cars and they understandably hate cheats.  Now something is going awry.  The economy is doing quite well, which should give fair wind to an incumbent government, but voters worry that their teenage children are being exploited in their apprenticeships and traineeships.  Unpaid overtime, a demand from some employers that the youngest in the workforce turn up two hours earlier than everyone else, also rankles.  The German engine is not purring as it should."

Tomorrow, I'll have a piece on Schadenfreude, Bildung and Beer.


A German Ozymandias

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We visited another fine museum on our trip.  Eschewing the sculpture, china, and old masters available in Dresden's partially-restored splendour, we went to the suburbs and visited the Bundeswehr's Museum of Military History.  This was not the eccentric choice it might appear.

There are two parts to the building: an arsenal built in 1877 and an wedge-shaped extension completed in 2011 that slices through it.  We were told that the light and shadow effects produced by the wedge "symbolise the eventful military history of Germany", and that the exhibitions confront "the visitor with his or her own potential for aggression and shows violence as a historical, cultural, and anthropological phenomenon".   Well, maybe – but it works – and we did not have enough time to explore it in full.

The extension focuses on issues such as War and Memory, War and Suffering, Language and the Military, Politics and the use of Force, Protection and Destruction, War and Play, and Fashion and the Military.  The older part is a more conventional chronological journey: the Late Middle Ages to 1914, the Age of World Wars, and 1945 to the Present.

Two artefacts stood out for me.  The first was a wrecked toy that had been found in the rubble of Dresden in 1945.  It was a toy tank that would spit out sparks when run along the ground.  The second was  an almost completely corroded typewriter that was found in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin: one of many such machines used to issue orders and seal fates – a quotidian instrument of death and ruination in the 1000-year plan.  It seemed a fitting tribute, and Ozymandias came to mind:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear –
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

The Germans do this reflective, honest, soul-searching of their past rather well.  In addition to the museums we went to, there's also the Documentation Centre in Nuremberg or the Topography of Terror in Berlin, and that's not counting the many Holocaust memorials, concentration camp memorials, or smaller civic museums, such as the one in Cologne that I'm most familiar with.  There is, of course, much soul-searching that still needs doing, but that applies to most of us on way or another.  Monday's post will be about why Germany now needs 5 versions of its national flag.


The Fuller Life

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As I sat in a splendid and rather Rococo coffee house in old Weimar – which cannot have seen better days any time lately – I was struck by the range of turmoil that this city has seen over the last 80 years.  Someone born in 1937 and who'd never left the district would have seen National Socialist pomp and brutality, and then been rescued by American 80th Infantry and 6th Armoured Divisions, only to be swiftly handed over the the Soviets as a result of the Yalta agreement.  Our 80-year old would likely have missed the compulsory viewing of the Buchenwald concentration camp insisted on by the Americans, and also any personal Russian reprisals for her assumed association with Nazism.  She'd then have had 40 years in the DDR to ponder her good fortune.  In 1989 she got her freedom from tyranny, only to be quickly swallowed whole by the EU and its political grandstanding and ambitions.

All the regimes and ideologies she has been subjected to over 80 years have been offering variants of what Kipling termed, the Fuller Life.  Maybe the EU, the first to offer a blend of both the Gods of the copybook headings and the Gods of the marketplace (mediated by the self-serving demigods of the Commission) will serve our 80-year old well in her remaining days.

Maybe ... .  Tomorrow there will be reflections of a trip to the German Army's Museum of Military History, with the aid of a bit of Shelley.


Not quite a Horst Wessel sort of moment

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Eating quietly in a restaurant in Erfurt's Fischmarkt, our peace was disturbed by the arrival of 29 assorted Swedes who variously shuffled and stumbled their way into the building.  They were accompanied by a be-blazered, didactic-type who, once latecomers had been assembled and counted, proceeded to lecture the gathered throng.  He did this reasonably quietly, so the peace was not much disturbed.  However, when he'd done, they all stood up and began to sing very loudly.  It did not sound like a song about how great Germany is; more likely it was relief that they'd finally done with bildung for the day.

This cannot have been the first time Erfurt's taverns had experienced such a thing.  The 1930s in particular were a time of singing and matching, particularly by the  Sturmabteilung (Brownshirts) who sang the Horst-Wessel-Lied (Die Fahne hoch) to provoke local communists into attacks; of course, they usually obliged.

Whilst a mass of elderly, culturally-incentive Swedish tourists are not a National Socialist rabble, and they didn't set out to provoke a riot, they were only really aware of themselves and took no notice of their surroundings.  It was not a great display of European-togetherness.  We drank up our wonderful black pilsner and moved on to the much quieter streets.

But is this sudden bursting into song catching?  I only ask because we experienced two other outpourings in Dresden.  One was a (the collective noun escapes me) of Chinese children, all decked out in blue and white, who suddenly burst into song at the behest of their elderly leader; the other was a group of orthodox Jewish boys who did the same in front of what I thought was a fairly secular wall.  The latter are, of course, about as far from Horst Wessel as you can get.  Where will all this end?

All this is probably a bit unfair, of course.  The British have been marauding and carousing round the continent for 800 years or so, often with the help of strong drink; no doubt we shall continue this tradition even after Brexit.  Tomorrow it will be musings on the Fuller Life in one of Weimar's fine cafés.



Just so that VW could lie to the public

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When I wrote this ...

Just so that VW could lie to the public

... on the wall sticker in the Gedenk und Bildungsstätte Centre in Erfurt, my wife said "That makes you sound like a communist".  Maybe so, but I have been outraged by what VW did in cheating both the EU's emissions tests, and the public.  Outraged, but not surprised, as Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

And what became of VW's shame and guilt?  Not very much it seems.  The Americans, who discovered the problem, did at least wallop them round the shareholder wallet, but the British, Germans and EU seem to worry about damaging the economy if too much punishment is dolled out.  And VW are not alone, the EU recently fined German and other European companies — responsible for making for 90% of all trucks across on the continent — €3 billion for price collusion and other misdemeanours over a 14-year period.    And now we know that EU competition authorities are investigating VW, BMW and Daimler over collusion by secret technology working groups dating from the 1990s.  Der Speigel alleges that the three groups colluded over the use of insufficient amounts of an additive that neutralises diesel emissions.  All this begins to look like a shared institutional willingness to cheat in their (and the German) interest.  The sector accounts for 20% of German industrial income, employs 800,000 people and is a visible German presence on most foreign streets.

It is a short step from saying: German car-makers cheat, to saying German business cheats, and then that Germany cheats, and I know there is considerable concern in Germany about this possibility.  It's something I'll return to.  Tomorrow, however, it's time for a curious story of Swedish cultural excess in Erfurt.


VW Goddamn

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This is the first of a number of posts about my Summer visit to south-eastern Germany.

The highlight of my trip to Germany was not the wonderful black pilsner I found, or the glories of a grandchild developing language skills, but a visit to the Gedenk und Bildungsstätte (Memorial and Education) Centre in Erfurt, a rather fine old town in south-east Germany where Luther was a monk.

The Gedenk und Bildungsstätte Centre commemorates oppression, bravery and triumph during the German socialist dictatorship between 1949 and 1989.  The building in which the Centre is situated was the remand prison run by the DDR's Ministry of State Security (the Stasi).  Over 5000 people were held there by the Stasi for not being willing to make a contribution to building the new Jerusalem on the regime's terms.

On the face of it, it's a nice-looking building, all warm red brick and fine detail, and the modern glass and steel, ground-floor entrance does not give the grim game away.  It's only when you get to the start of the museum on the second floor and walked round a corner that you realise that you're in a prison: the remand cells and interrogation rooms stretch out down a forbidding corridor.  Up to that point, owing to a lack of detailed info in English, I'd assumed it was a rather conventional museum; not so.

The second floor was about conditions in the remand prison, and why people were incarcerated there; the first floor was about the workings of the dictatorship that held its malign sway for 40 years; and the ground floor was about how the house of cards came tumbling down when it became clear that Red Army tanks wouldn't be turning up to keep the regime's old men in power.  People's human stories were at the centre of it all, and it was hard not to be moved by such courage in the face of seeming overwhelming odds.

But the odds eventually shifted with, at first, hundreds on the streets, and then thousands, and finally many hundreds of thousands all across the country, but especially in the south-east, in and around Leipzig, Erfurt and Dresden.  It was good to see a country facing up to its past in this way.  Over a beer afterwards, I wondered about the UK and slavery, and whether we have yet really faced up to that awful legacy.  We certainly like to remember the likes of William Wilberforce and Hannah Moore, and tell good stories about abolition; but it seems we're less ready to remember all the profits we made from its misery.  All that's for another blog sometime.

The final wall of the Gedenk und Bildungsstätte Centre was a chance to write a message.  I wrote this:

All this effort – and for what?  So that VW could lie to the public.

This is a theme I shall return to tomorrow.


Mrs M's cunning strategy

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I've written before about Mrs M's hold on the German people, and to understand modern Germany, I think it's helpful to recall the idea of the panopticon.

As you know, the original panopticon was the brainchild, we're told, of Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher social theorist.  Its design enabled all the inmates of an institution (say, a poorhouse) to be observed by one individual without their knowing whether they were actually being watched at any particular time.  Although impossible for any watcher actually to observe everyone, knowing it might be happening meant that it was wise to ensure it was, thus constantly controlling behaviour.

A classic design is a circular structure with an inspection house at its centre.  Bentham is said to have thought that the idea was equally applicable to asylums, hospitals and schools, as well as (most obviously) to prisons.  I'd have added universities at least as far as staff are concerned.  Bentham is said to have described the Panopticon prison as "a mill for grinding rogues honest".

Now, Germany is quite obviously not one giant physical panopticon with Mrs M at its centre.  How she works her controlling magic is much more subtle, and we might look to Michel Foucault for an explanation.  Building on Bentham's idea of the panopticon Foucault thought about disciplinary mechanisms rather than physical structures.  He wrote in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison:

"A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation [...] He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribed in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

I'll be off to Germany again next month to see how Mrs M is doing and how the experiment is going.  Meanwhile, it's time for a period of quiet reflection.


Pearson and the architects of tomorrow’s world

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This is the front page of what Pearson has to say about its global learning programme:

The Global Learning Programme (GLP) is a funded programme of support that’s helping teachers in primary, secondary and special schools to deliver effective teaching and learning about development and global issues at Key Stages 2 and 3.  Over 5500 schools now using support provided by the Global Learning Programme.  Together with free curriculum support, resources, training and funding, the Global Learning Programme (GLP) is building a national network of like-minded schools committed to equipping their students to make a positive contribution to a globalised world.  Thousands of GLP schools across the country are already experiencing the positive impact that global learning can have on pupils’ engagement, knowledge, skills and values.  Global education makes the learning more relevant and interesting for pupils, and so it contributes to their enthusiasm for learning.

The GLP supports teachers to help pupils learn about the challenges our world faces and think critically about issues such as poverty, inequality and sustainability. It helps pupils make sense of the world in which they live and understand their role in a global society.  By using global learning to enrich the curriculum, GLP schools are finding that global learning is helping to develop critical thinking skills, promote SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural development), and foster values such as respect and empathy.

A recent Ofsted School Inspection Update notes that, as the GLP ‘maps onto the four Ofsted core judgements and to SMSC’, schools on the programme should be able ‘to set out how the GLP is contributing to their provision and outcomes for pupils’. Highlighted positively in inspection reports, global learning is reported as contributing to the enjoyment and learning of pupils in GLP schools – reinforcing their curriculum knowledge and understanding.  "Students’ outstanding spiritual, moral social and cultural development has been enhanced by the strong international links that have been well established. They are very well prepared for their role as citizens of modern Britain." [Extract from the March 2015 Polesworth School Ofsted report]

Following the launch of the Global Goals and the World’s Largest Lesson, schools across England are building on the excitement of this vital initiative focused on commitment to world change by joining the Global Learning Programme (GLP).

Oddly, there's no mention of ESD.  However, if you delve deeper, you find this gets a mention in their 2020 sustainability plan "Read about how the Global Learning Programme is teaching children about sustainable development", although this seems to under-sell what they say they are doing.  For example, their sustainability report for 2016 says:

"Today’s learners will be the architects of tomorrow’s world.  It is imperative that we foster a generation of informed global citizens who understand global issues such as poverty, inequality, and climate change, and think about their role in making society more sustainable.  A better understanding of these issues can drive lifestyle and career choices that impact future generations to come.  There is rising demand from educators for the integration of sustainable development topics into content, courses, and curricula.  By integrating sustainability-related content into our products, we can explore new market opportunities while making a direct contribution to Sustainable Development Goal 4.7 (to promote sustainable development education) and inspiring the next generation to create the world they want."

But is this "integration of sustainable development topics into content, courses, and curricula", what UNESCO knows as ESD?   It sounds unlikely, although sensible.

And then there's: "Today’s learners will be the architects of tomorrow’s world".  Well, up to a point Lord Copper.  Surely it's global giants such as Pearson that really see themselves in the architecture business.



What would Wordsworth have said?

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It's well known that William W was against the railways, but what would he have made of UNESCO making the English Lake District a World heritage Site?  We'll never know, but that's ok because we've got George Monbiot.  He wrote an impassioned article in the Guardian when the announcement came.  This begins quietly enough:

Everything that has gone wrong with conservation is exemplified by this decision: the cowardice, the grovelling, the blandishments, the falsehoods. The way conservation groups rolled over is shameful, but also familiar. They did nothing to prevent the Lake District, England’s largest and most spectacular national park, from being officially designated a Beatrix Potter-themed sheep museum.

It continued ...

On Sunday, the UN agency Unesco granted the Lake District world heritage status. This, according to the report on which the decision was based, will correct an “imbalance” between “natural values” and “the cultural values of farming practices”.  The entire high fells have been reduced by sheep to a treeless waste of cropped turf whose monotony is relieved only by erosion gullies, exposed soil and bare rock.  Almost all the bird, mammal and insect species you might expect to find in a national park are suppressed or absent, and 75% of wildlife sites are in an unfavourable condition. So you could be forgiven for thinking that the balance should be tilted back towards nature.  Oh no: apparently it’s “the cultural values and benefits of the farming activities” that have been neglected.

Given that sheep-worship is the official religion in the Lake District, and that sheep exist here only because of lashings of public money (hill farming is sustained entirely through subsidies), it’s not easy to see what more can be done. But world heritage status will make attempts to defend our natural heritage much harder. It will be used to block efforts to reduce grazing pressure, protect the soil and bring back trees.

The Lake District’s new designation is based on a fairytale with great cultural power. For 3,000 years this story has presented sheep farming as the seat of innocence and purity; an Arcadian refuge from the corruption of the city, an idyll in perfect harmony with the natural world.

The reality couldn’t be more different. Sheep farming is now characterised by land consolidation, subsidy harvesting, ranching on a scale that looks more like Argentina than anything Wordsworth would have recognised, quad bikes, steel barns and absentee ownership. But the myths persist, and they blind us to some brutal realities.

Sheep, by nibbling out tree seedlings and other edible species, are a fully automated system for ecological destruction. They cleanse the land of almost all wildlife. In the UK they occupy some 4m hectares of our uplands. Compare this to the built environment (houses, factories, offices, roads, railways, airports, even parks and gardens) that covers 1.7m hectares. Yet this vast area, which is roughly equivalent to all our arable land, produces around 1.2% of our food (probably a good deal less, as the figure includes lamb from lowland farms). Our infertile uplands, including most of our national parks, would be better used to protect and restore the wonders of the living world. If we are to spend £3bn a year of public money, it should be deployed for ecological restoration rather than destruction. But the cultural power of this industry is so great that hardly anyone dares challenge it.

In trying to contest the bid for world heritage status, I found myself almost alone: only a handful of independent ecologists spoke out. Privately, major conservation groups might have expressed misgivings, but in public they not only failed to oppose this attack on everything they claim to defend: they actually put their names to it. The National Trust, the RSPB, the Lake District national park authority and Cumbria Wildlife Trust are members of the partnership that petitioned for world heritage status. These turkeys not only voted for Christmas; they canvassed for it.

It’s not hard to see why. There’s a tangible atmosphere of fear in the Lake District: any environmental group that speaks out knows it will be Thorneythwaited. In other words, it will be treated as the National Trust was when it bought a farm at Thorneythwaite, in Borrowdale, without the farmhouse. This seeded the suspicion (sadly baseless) that it intended to remove the sheep.

If there was a fault, it surely lay with the seller, who had split the house from the land, rather than the buyer. But the national media, taking its cue from the sheep farmers it fetishises, subscribed to this concocted controversy and lambasted the National Trust. Its chastisement stands as a ghastly warning to anyone who questions the holy cult. But appeasement only empowers your opponents. What makes the collaboration of these groups so grisly is that the British conservation movement began in the Lake District. It is here that the circle has been closed, with the comprehensive betrayal of its own legacy.

The Lake District partnership commissioned its economic evaluation from a company called Rebanks Consulting. It is owned and run by James Rebanks, a Lake District sheep farmer. He was paid £30,000, in effect, to promote his own industry’s interests. The bid was riddled with errors and omissions: the claim that the park is in “good physical condition”, that the relationship between sheep and wildlife is “harmonious”, that farming there is “wholly authentic in terms of … its traditions, techniques and management systems”. Leaving the European Union – on which, through subsidies, sheep farming is wholly reliant – wasn’t mentioned.

These fables passed unchallenged into Unesco’s own report. Some were even compounded: Unesco’s consultants claimed that while overgrazing damaged wildlife “in the past”, it has now been “corrected”. It doesn’t say how, because no such thing has occurred. Even the bid documents acknowledged that sheep numbers in the Lake District have risen by 9% in four years, leading to “issues such as overgrazing”.

I tried to warn Unesco, but everyone I wrote to passed the buck to someone else (on my website I detail the comical ways in which I was fobbed off). I discovered that accountability, transparency and public engagement are alien concepts: Unesco is a black box. Without the support of NGOs, my efforts were bound to fail. Groups such as the National Trust, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts publish pungent reports documenting the rapid loss of wildlife and ecosystems, but they have failed to mobilise their vast memberships in defence of the living world. On the contrary, they bamboozle their members through their display boards and pamphlets, describing devastated landscapes as “wild” and “unspoilt”, and even celebrating cutting, burning and grazing, which are the major causes of environmental destruction.

The culture of deference in the countryside afflicts almost everyone. Those who own and farm the land are treated as heroes, while anyone who challenges them is denounced as an “extremist”: this is what Eric Robson, who presents Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4, called me on Monday, for raising objections. Our national parks are wiped clean, our natural heritage erased for the sake of an ersatz farm fantasy. And there is nowhere to turn.

I've quoted this in full because it's such a fine polemic, but also because I think am coming to agree with the main premise of its argument.  I was born not far from all this devastation and occasionally re-visit these barren uplands we like to see as beautiful.  Of course, I'm more likely these days to be seen on the Wiltshire downs which are greener but similarly sheep-affected.

Here are  few thoughts of my own on the Lakeland sheep issue – from 2014.


About FACE

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LEAF [ Linking Environment And Farming ] recently merged with (that is, acquired) FACE [ Farming And Countryside Education ], although you'd not know this from a look at the front pages of its website, or at the board of directors, none of whom has an education background (although one is a primary school governor).  And try putting FACE into their website's search field to see really how Faceless LEAF has become.

FACE does get a passing reference in the 5 year strategy, although only because of the acquisition.  That said, the strategy does say this:

"Leading a collaborative approach within the industry for better public engagement and education among consumers, children and young people"

and, under Building public respect for farming, LEAF says:

"We will drive a confident, yet visionary approach to build farming’s respect, trust and understanding among consumers, children and young people.  Working with others, we will continue to develop strong strategic alliances within the farming and education sectors building on our inspiring education and public engagement activities.  These include LEAF Open Farm Sunday, LEAF Open Farm School Days, Countryside Classroom, Speak Out, LEAF Virtual Farm Walk, Schools' Resources, and inspiring projects.  We will also identify novel and effective techniques to improve public understanding and trust in food, farming and the environment."

It's clear from this that, although FACE seems to have vanished, not all its activities have.  Whether they will be quite the same (or rather more corporate) remains to be seen.  I hope LEAF understands that building public respect for anything requires an educational approach, and not just a communications effort.  As NAEE notes today, there's a chance in September to see how all this is working out.