All entries for August 2010

August 26, 2010

On faith schools

We’re going to talk about faith schools now, because I said I would. Again, I’m left-wing atheist liberal. You probably know my general opinion. This blog was inspired by the Dawkins documentary Faith School Menace last week and it’ll be of no surprise to you to know that I agree with him entirely. The arguments are straight-forward: it’s not okay to indoctrinate kids basically. I won’t repeat all that hear, instead I’d like to offer a few different angles on this.

Children are not property
There was a bit in that documentary where, frankly, Dawkins didn’t go far enough. One of his interviewees asked him if he thought a parent had the right choose how their child is educated. Dawkins skirted around the question. I wanted him to blow the guy’s argument to bits and say ‘no’.

I had it in my head when I was coming up with this piece that I’d point out that even if you home-school a child, you have to follow the National Curriculum and teach a child certain key things. You can’t teach them 1+1=3, so why should we choose what religious education they get. That seemed obvious. Then I did some research. Turns out you can teach whatever you want. The law just has a woolly rule that you have to provide your child with an education “suitable to their age, ability and aptitude”.

I was genuinely shocked and appalled by this. A parent can opt to home-school a kid, teach him anything they make up, and not have him sit any GCSEs. Yes, if you home-school, you don’t have to do GCSEs. Which basically means parents have the totally legal option to make their kid entirely unemployable for the rest of their lives. That’s abuse. I imagine that most of us would agree that this would be awful, and that any education also didn’t teach a child basic skills like maths, reading and writing should be a crime. But it’s not. That’s plain wrong. Parents shouldn’t have the right to choose their child’s education. Children are not the property of their parents. Parents will inevitably have a huge influence on their children in everything from religion through to social values and all sorts. Education, school… that should be the one area where we’re on an even playing field. Sure, if you can afford it get better teachers at a private school, or if you must send them to a faith school where they associate with children of the same faith and the non-educational parts of school (assembly, etc) are in-line with your religion. But the syllabus should be the same for everyone. You wouldn’t want schools to be able to choose to teach that 1+1=3 in Maths, so don’t let them choose what to teach in Religious Education either. And if we can’t reach a compromise on the syllabus for RE, then drop it entirely. Let parents deal with that and replace it with Philosophy. It’s not that important anyway.

If you want to raise a child in a given religion there’s nothing that can be done to stop you. But by ensuring that all our children are educated with the same material to the same level, we can hopefully give them enough knowledge to decide for themselves if they really believe in that religion when they’re older. Removing that level playing field of basic education should be a crime.

Selection is either right or wrong, you can’t have it both ways

I hate hypocrisy. I’m a hypocrite myself too, but that’s okay because… Anyway. I went to a single-sex grammar school. If you don’t know what a grammar school is, it’s a selective secondary school with an entrance exam, but once you get it, it’s totally free. Like a private school that only has scholarships. There’s not many of them left these days, as Labour were hugely against them and even the Tories don’t want to bring them back.

Now I mostly benefitted from that experience. I think grammar schools are good. They’re not perfect: it certainly left me socially stunted when it came to liaising with the opposite sex, and it took years to get past that. Some would say I still haven’t, but it turns out the combination of being in your mid-twenties, taking up stand-up comedy and blurring the boundaries between yourself and your on-stage character means that ‘creepy’ somehow metamorphasises in to ‘quirky’. Someone called me ‘a bit of a character’ the other week. Point being, grammar schools have their ups and downs, but if you’re going to argue that we shouldn’t have them as selection is wrong, and goes against the principle of a common education for all, then how can you possibly argue that faith school are okay?

A school’s primary function is to educate. Yes, it serves secondary functions in a child’s general development, but it’s main purpose is as a learning institution. Grammar schools select pupils based on their aptitude for learning. It chooses those that learn quicker to better cater for their educational needs. There is an unfair element to that but it makes logical sense. Schools educate, so we select kids based on their ability to be educated.

The Labour government would have us think that that is wrong. While at the same time, encouraging selection based on the religion of the child’s parents. There’s a vague argument for that somewhere. In assembly and such religion comes in to play and religion is a small part of a child’s school life. But it’s tiny compared to the actual process of learning. Yet selecting based on a preference for that tiny little bit of school life is okay. Selecting on the basis of the whole rest of it is somehow wrong.

Again, I can see the argument against grammar schools. I can see the argument for faith schools. I can’t possibly see how you can hold both at the same time. Either it’s okay for schools to select their pupils (on any metric other than geographic location), in which case aptitude for learning is surely the first thing you’d go for, or education should be equal for all and selection is always wrong, in which case there’s no justification for faith schools at all.

Faith schools are racist

Controversial one last then. There are now a few Muslim faith schools dotted around the place. There’s been a bit of consternation about it but mostly they’ve gone ahead with little opposition. The reason for this is that no Muslim faith school has yet topped the local school league tables. This will happen eventually, and when it does the Daily Mail will go insane. “How dare they?” they will ask, “How dare they stop our white Christian kids attending the best school in the area!”

See, the thing about Catholic, CofE and other Christian denominational faith schools is that, to white person, they’re all much of a muchness. I don’t like the system, but I’m no fool. If I’m living in an area where a faith school is the place my child will get the best all-round education, then I’ll play the system. The Dawkins documentary had an interesting fact: 30% of schools are faith schools, 3% of people regularly go to Church. Lots of people are playing the system. As a white, middle-class male, I can do that. It doesn’t matter the denomination, any Christian school and I can just start turning up at the local Church a few years before. My general engagement with religious matters, the fact that I’ve studied the Bible so I can be confident in my atheism, that all actually means that I can probably fake it better than the family that self-identify as Christian but only go to church twice a year and don’t really think about it too much. Being able to engage the priest in a complex religious discussion is more likely to get you noticed and your kid a recommendation than someone that just shows their face.

But like I say, I can do that, because I’m white. And because I’m an atheist that doesn’t have to worry about making my god angry by switching religion. Your average Muslim family can’t do that. Partly because religion is often so tightly ingrained in their culture that they can’t just switch, partly because they don’t want to, and partly because even if they did, they’d probably be regarded with suspicion and face accusations of converting just to get their kids in to the good CofE school. And those accusations would probably come from the white parents doing the exact same thing.

The white non-practicing-christian middle-class mostly ignore this, as there’s no shoe on the other foot. No Muslim faith school is the best school in the area yet. So they don’t have to worry. When that does happen, it’ll raise some interesting questions. In theory religion is something you choose, in practice it’s often something you’re born in to.

August 24, 2010

On the "Ground Zero Mosque

Given you’re probably aware that my liberal leanings are so pronounced that I almost fall over, you may be surprised to hear that I’m against any plans to build a Mosque at Ground Zero.

Let’s get one thing clear before you run off in disgust: the thing you’re reading about and seeing in the news, the thing being referred to as the “Ground Zero Mosque” is in no way a plan to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. The media are trying to pull the whole “piracy is theft” thing on us again. Namely, saying something so many times in the hope that that will simply make it true, while ignoring a few small things like the definitions of the actual words they’re using. In this case it’s a) not at Ground Zero, and b) not a Mosque. It’s a few blocks away and it’s a Muslim community centre.

I’d hope you already know this, and for the record, I have no trouble with that whatsoever. But.

When I first read the story, I had a different reaction. Like most people, for a few seconds, I thought the headlines were true. And the idea annoyed and upset me. Some liberal commentators have taken the whole “even if this story were real, it still wouldn’t matter” approach. Yes it would.

I’m going to say it now, a new rule that we should adopt that I think is pretty fair: if someone commits an atrocity in the name of your religion, you don’t get to build a holy site right next to the place it happened. Now I know the people that did it don’t represent your views, I know you’d never do anything like that, you’re a sane person that actually reads your holy book and obeys the whole “do no harm” principle that they’re all based around. But they’re your people, they’re part of your religion and it’s down to you to evangelise and preach and talk some sense in to them. Stop trying to convert us agnostics and atheists. Sort yourselves out first. Honestly you have to convince us that a god exists at all first, them you just need to convince that said god meant something slightly different. And where your religion is being abused by people of power, you need to fight against it and stamp it out. If you’re part of a religion which preaches evangelism at all (and that’s 95% of them) then that’s your job.

I actually see the appeal of the Catholic system here, by the way. There’s one guy that has a direct line to God and everything he says is treated as God’s own word. It’s pretty handy, as if anyone does anything bad in the name of Catholicism, he can just say that God told him they were evil and going to hell and aren’t real Catholics. He won’t, of course, as the church only elects utterly gutless cretins that are too scared to condemn people for kiddy-fiddling let alone wake up one morning and go “hey guys, God says condoms are okay now.” Still, it’d be an awesome system if it worked.

I’m not attacking Islam here by the way. At least, not exclusively. No holy buildings on the sites of atrocities. So no Catholic Churches near primary schools (and certainly no Catholic schools but that’s a whole other blog), no Synagogues near paediatrics wards (ritual circumcision is an atrocity) and no Scientology centres near filming locations used for Battlefield: Earth.

That’s perfectly reasonable to me. Those of us that aren’t religious don’t want to be reminded of what people did in your name. By all means, keep your faith and practice it wherever you want, just don’t build monuments to it that the rest of us have to look at right next to where someone killed a few thousand people in your name.

On the other hand, if you want to build a centre devoted to building community bonds between your religion and the local people a few blocks down the road, then have at it.

August 10, 2010

Sherlock Episode 3 Review

Well apparently I’m alone in thinking the third episode of Sherlock was down there with the second and not up there with the first, so let’s explain why.

We’ll start with plot. Sherlock solves five different cases in about fifteen minutes each. As such, none of them get to room to breathe or to make you think about them. It’s all far too rushed and it kills one of the great appeals of the show: the slowly unraveling mystery. Of course, there’s an overall mystery going on too: who is setting up all these cases for Sherlock to solve? Well it’s Moriarty. Of course it is, the show’s only been going two episodes and in both of those it’s revealed that he’s behind both the cases. Plus he’s basically the only recurring villain in Sherlock Holmes ‘mythology’ so, no suspense there then. I mean if it’d turned out to be LeStrade behind it all then I might have been surprised.

Still, we don’t know who Moriarty is, perhaps they’ll surprise us there. Oh, it’s some guy we met for five minutes earlier in the episode. That’s… disappointing. I mean, there were so many more interesting possibilities: I really thought it’d be Watson’s girlfriend at first. A female Moriarty would have been a wonderful curve-ball, and might help explain why she was still with Watson after being tied to a chair and nearly killed by a giant crossbow on their first date. I mean, I’ve known girls that were in to bondage but I find, as a rule, that bringing an evil Chinese circus in to the bedroom tends to send them running. Alas any chance of it being her was ruined when the blind woman said he had such a soft voice. And erm… can someone explain why she was shot at that point? The case was solved, Moriarty was going to let her go like the others, so she could have told them all about his voice after they’d rescued her. Unless he was going to have someone keep a sniper aimed at her all episode, which may have been awkward when they took her to the police station. Either he was always going to kill her as she’d heard his voice (in which case, Holmes figuring that out and then leaving her to die would have been ten times more interesting) or he was going to let the information about his voice out the minute he talked to her.
Who else could Moriarty have been? I personally loved the idea, hinted at in the first episode, that he was Holmes schizophrenic other side, that he was setting the crimes up for himself to solve. That, would have been a twist, and one that could have been dragged out a long while: you could have Holmes and Moriarty meet and later explain it was all in his head, Fight Club style. But that’s ruined now, as Watson interacted with Moriarty too so it’s out.

Oh and the Watson-is-Moriarty fake-out was a nice idea. But did they have to Watson act quite so unconvincing and have the jacket be quite so bulky. Odd complaint, I know he wouldn’t be, but it’d been more fun if we’d actually have been fooled for a few seconds. I also can’t help but think they failed in making the best use of the Watson-taken-captive concept. It was made clear that Holmes didn’t actually care about the victims, but would he have been more interested and involved in solving the case if Watson was the one covered in explosives? Well we don’t find out, as there’s no case for Holmes to solve in this instance.

Moriarty could have been LeStrade. Hell, it could have been the grumpy forensics guy who from the first episode who made more of an impression in his five minutes of screen-time than gay boyfriend did. There’s one other possibility of course. Moriarty could have been Stephen Fry. By which I mean to say, the big reveal could have been the actor that was playing him. It’s cheating, of course, it takes the reveal out of the plot and puts it in the showbiz gossip column, but still I could have forgiven a lot if, in that last scene, someone awesome would have turned up. But no, it’s that guy that was in John Adams. He’s awful. Not his fault, it’s the direction I’m sure, but it’s so over-the-top it jars you out of any sense of realism that’s been built up for this modern take on Holmes. He’s a cackling Bond villain. At least when the holographic Moriarty became sentient in Star Trek: The Next Generation he didn’t try and playfully bum Jean-Luc Picard.

So in conclusion: no suspense over who’s behind the crimes, no suspense over who Moriarty is, and no big reveal on who the actor playing Moriarty is. Still, how will Holmes catch Moriarty? There’s plot there to be sure, no? Err, no. He asks him to meet up on an internet forum. Moriarty, so cautious he’s only spoke to Holmes through other people so far, and killed someone for mentioning the tone of his voice, turns up.

Rest of the plot then?

Oh god that fight scene. On the one hand, it was utter genius. The rapid-cut, flashing-lights cacophonous fight scene that’s impossible to follow has become Hollywood’s calling card of late. See any of the new Batman films or the Bourne films. I hate it, it gives me a headache, I can’t wait till we get past it. In Sherlock, it was genius, as they added an (admittedly far-fetched) plot-based reason as to why the scene looked that way. So on that basis, it’s a brilliant parody. The problem with parody though, is if you’re doing it well enough, you take on the annoying aspects of the thing you’re parodying. This just went on too long. I went from thinking it was brilliant to wanting it to end as soon as possible. Before I got a headache.

And the ending. Not only was it a cliffhanger, but it was, I’m fairly sure, a Spooks cliffhanger. By that, I mean I’ll be shocked as hell if the next series (which hasn’t even been commissioned yet) picks up here and shows us exactly what happens. No, the next series will start in the middle of a case, Holmes or Watson will have some unexplained injury (maybe Watson is using the walking stick again) and there will be some dialogue to briefly explain what happened. If we’re very lucky, we might get a quick flashback. And Moriarty won’t turn up again until the season finale.

So what we get is a 90-minute story with no pay-off of any kind. No reveal, no twist, and they might just have got away with that had there been an ending to the episode, some closure, either plot-wise or for the characters emotionally. But instead the whole thing ends in the middle of the final scene, with no room for a coda.

Despite all that it’s still one of the better things on TV, and certainly one of the better things the BBC have done in the past ten years. But compared to that first episode it’s woefully mediocre. Can Moffat write all of them next time please?

In conclusion, this episode was like the worst sex I ever had: to rushed, no big pay-off, an awkward fight in the middle, and at the end Graham Norton turns up and ruins it.

I give it 5 out of 17.

August 06, 2010

On Sherlock

I’ve been trying to pick apart why that first episode of the new BBC drama Sherlock was a lot better than the second. The obvious answer of course: the writer of the first episode was better. The more sophisticated answer… well let’s see.

The truth is I found the first hour of the second episode of Sherlock rather enjoyable. But then it all went a bit wrong. Let’s start at the end. The big finale to the first episode was a battle of wits between Holmes and the villain of the piece. Holmes has been introduced to us as this master observer, and so he gets tested a psychological game of bluff and double bluff with the killer. It’s all nonsense of course. If he was that desperate to know if he’d chosen correctly he could have just taken the pill to the lab after. More to the point, you’d think with all that knowledge in his head he’d have seen The Princess Bride too. Still, it’s tense while it lasts and while it’s easy to take it for granted on first viewing, it’s not until you see that second episode that you realise how rare that sort of thing is: a high budget crime drama where the finale is two people matching wits, rather than some big action scene. It’s Pemberton getting a confession from someone in the box, rather than the killer being shot dead in a raid. In fact, in that first episode, the one action scene stood out like a sore thumb: the chase through London was a bit silly and utterly at odds with the tone of the rest of the episode. But even then, it managed to incorporate something new (Holmes’ head-GPS) and serve the development of the characters (Watson dumping the stick) if not the plot.

The second episode is back to more familiar territory. It ends with Holmes saving the day by winning a gunfight and rescuing the girl at the last second. Really? Oh sure, they try to dress it up with a bit of talking to show that Holmes is using his brains “the bullet’s will ricochet” but when it comes down to it he may as well have said “let the girl go, you’re surrounded by armed bastards”.
It’s a shame as that first hour was great. Okay, the killer being a gymnast was a bit far fetched but still, the mystery was interesting. But then out of nowhere “oh it’s an evil circus troop what done it”. Of course it is. I don’t know how closely this episode was based on the original Conan Doyle story, but “evil Chinese circus group” is one of those elements that really needed updating. Assuming of course, that we want to keep the series grounded in reality, and not veer off in to the slightly dodgy latter-day Holmes stories and the very dodgy spin offs that throw in supernatural stuff. Who knows, maybe this week’s episode will see Watson hit a zombie with an urn. As he faded in to old age, Conan Doyle believed in faeries.:

They could have gone a lot more gritty. Make them drug dealers, make the lost heirloom some blood diamonds, get Naomi Campbell to guest star… okay maybe not… but still the episode really needed updating. And the possibilities could have been really interesting. Say they were human traffickers. And the one smuggler let a girl escape on purpose. The treasure is the girl. The cover is that they’re a Facebook game development group doing market research. Okay maybe not that last bit. Although.

Instead we got that interminably long scene where we just watch a circus trick. Except it’s not even impressive as it’s in a piece of fiction so it’s not real. I thought she was going to ask for a volunteer from the audience so there was at least a mild bit of peril for a character we’ve met before but no, the scene just ends. They may as well have flashed up a big sign saying “did you get that? we’re going to be using that weight-based harpoon thing later!” Because what we really needed was to basically seen that scene twice. Everything from that point onwards is just a bit silly. Remember at the point last week where Holmes considers risking suicide just to prove himself right? Well at that point this week he’s in a gunfight with an evil Chinese circus. Oh dear.

Let’s hope the final episode gets it right.

August 2010

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