Thursday, April 30, 2009

Talking About His Generation...

Something is going on in Nick Cohen's world, and if I knew what it was, well, any cunning foxes who are professors of cunning at Oxford University should look out!

I think our Nick may have written the perfect column. It's complete nonsense from start to finish. It doesn't get a fact right. And yet it's quite plausible.

One of the things Nick has mastered is vagueness. When exactly was 'early on' in the last US election? (The links in the article don't work on Nick's site or on the Evening Standard.) I thought that Barack Obama rose to national prominence with his 2004 Democratic Convention speech. The motto of US politics is, to paraphrase David Mamet and Alec Baldwin, 'Always be Campaigning.' It never stops.

But gosh, who would have thought that a speech delivered well would be an improvement on the written word?

If people talk of "rhetoric" these days, they mean it as an insult. "That's just rhetoric," they say, implying that the speaker is a snake-oil salesman.


I think that's a post-Enlightenment division between appeals to facts and appeals to emotion. (Actually, that's unfair to the Middle Ages. There's always been such a division.) And yes, appeals to emotion rather than facts should to treated carefully (or simply ignored).

The view that oratory is phoney is a thoroughly modern one...


Webster's definition of hypocrite: Middle English ypocrite, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin hypocrita, from Greek hypokrit─ôs actor, hypocrite, from hypokrinesthai. A hypocrite is a phoney and an actor is an orator. No, Nick's right. It never occurred to Sophocles or Shakespeare that their characters may not be telling the truth. That started with ... ooh, Beckett, perhaps, Osbourne ... Pinter! Lying, in a made-up story, absolutely unheard of!

As I'm sure I've said before Nick and I have several things in common. We're much the same age; we're middle-class and had radical-ish parents. Where we really radically differ is that I believe there is nothing new under the sun (apart from my belief that pretty much everything is technologically determined, and technology throws up new freedoms) against Nick's seeming belief that societies change but through some internal political churning.

Sir Jim Rose, a former head of Ofsted who is reviewing language teaching for the Government, says that employers have told him of job applicants who cannot talk confidently on the telephone or hold a formal conversation.


Sir Jim Rose should read Anthony Powell; I can think of at least one character who went to Eton (unnamed in the series, but pretty obvious) and couldn't do either of those.

I'm of the generation that went to school in the 60s. There was a future Labour MSP in the year above me. We didn't do so badly.

He knows what the ancient Greeks knew, but our generation forgot: words are weapons, and if you deprive the young of the ability to use them, you leave them defenceless.


When I was at school, we were encouraged to ask and answer questions. I'm reasonably (hello commenters!) familiar with the history of education. Socrates: free drink (wine with water), open Q&A. Everything since to about 1940: teacher/lecturer talks, then walks. Pupils/students take notes, go home. Yes Nick, young Shakespeare, W who crawled so willingly to school was taught language just so he could overthrow the government, and kids in the 1960s weren't, lest they try. You nailed that one mate.

But there's something going on with Nick. Someone has been depriving the young of the ability to use words. But who? how? Did Fritzl really get about that much? Hasn't Nick read, say, George Orwell's essay (dare I say, "well known essay"?) Politics and the English Language, which specifically attacks university educated writers of not using words properly. Everything went wrong in the 60s. Except of course the things that didn't.

20 Comments:

Blogger Larry Teabag said...

The view that oratory is phoney is a thoroughly modern one...He should tell Aristophanes.

5/01/2009 05:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

"schools from the 1960s onwards abandoning the teaching of debating and public speaking"

"emancipating children by encouraging them to do their own thing and reject elitist rules"

"no serious student of English believes that the old rules against split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions were anything more than dogmas"

I'm not sure this even refers to as few as two completely separate things. And I remember Colin MacCabe (well-off Marxist English professor and all-round folk devil) saying in about 1981 that children should be taught language competence in their own idiolect but should also be taught Standard English and RP, since failure to do so would disadvantage working-class kids. Obviously Nick wasn't writing back then, but it's hard to imagine he'd have been in favour.

5/01/2009 07:02:00 AM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

Pleased to see he used the EZLN slogan "words are our weapons".

Sir Jim Rose, a former head of Ofsted who is reviewing language teaching for the Government, says that employers have told him of job applicants who cannot talk confidently on the telephone or hold a formal conversation.this is one of those things (like some university graduates not being good at spelling) which education experts are always discovering, and by which they appear to have a limitless capacity to be surprised.

5/01/2009 08:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir Jim Rose, a former head of Ofsted who is reviewing language teaching for the Government, says that employers have told him of job applicants who cannot talk confidently on the telephone or hold a formal conversation.So are we talking social skills, shy people or the inability to make like Mark Antony (a speaker whom Shakespeare shows as being not averse to the odd porkie)?

word verification: 'ennonima' (a miscellany of anonymous comments?)

[redpesto]

5/01/2009 09:16:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Just to note that my comprehensive school won the local heat of a national schools debating competition in about 1982, long after it had been abandoned.

I wonder how many secondary moderns taught debating and public speaking? I suggest "none".

(At this point I usually insert some mordant comment about the discussion of education usually being characterised by ignorance.)

5/01/2009 09:31:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

It's a thinly-veiled rant against 'modern teaching methods' again, isn't it? Inspired by this nonsense:

The view that oratory is phoney is a thoroughly modern oneI haven't really to anything to add to the above examples from Shakespeare, Greek etc. Nick's just made that up. Or does he genuinely think, as redpesto points out, that Shakespeare wanted us to think that Mark Antony was wholly admirable in Julius Caesar? That Marlowe thought Tamburlaine's gift for rhetoric was a-ok? etc etc.

Quite frankly i'm not sure Cohen even knows what he wants. He seems to think that schools should teach oratory and rhetoric, but how you do that without resorting to the kind of rote-learning of rules which even he seems to recoil from is really open to question. Debating clubs maybe, but as EJH says these exist as it is. It's very hard to examine all students on public speaking as well - those who are naturally nervous will always come off worse.

Nick didn't really watch the US elections very carefully either, did he? e know that he supported McCain on the basis of a childish anecdote, and that he loved Palin while even the loons at HP Sauce were recoiling from her and in this piece, as well as that bizarre 'early on', we also get this:

Pupils in inner-city schools seem as far away as it is possible to be from the glamorous Obama campaign while remaining on the same planet.his campaign only really looks glamorous if you take the victory speech as exemplary of the style of the thing. Obama won because of the grass-roots organisation of his campaign, which he honed as a community organiser in inner-city Chicago. Michelle Obama visited an inner-London school when she was here.

5/01/2009 10:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Lobby Ludd said...

For what it's worth, all my children have had to give 'presentations' at first, middle and senior school and at university. They also receive 'feedback' on said 'presentations'. I don't think this is unusual.

Whether this amounts in NC's (or anybody's) estimation to teaching rhetoric or oratory I don't know. But it does look like speaking in public to me.

5/01/2009 05:59:00 PM  
Blogger andrew said...

The educational movements of the Sixties..[blah, blah, blah,]...the results for children from modest backgrounds have been disastrous.FFS. It's almost Mel P. I can't wait until he discovers 'Cultural Marxism'.

FWIW my presentation would begin: "Nick Cohen was, is and always will be an idiot"

5/01/2009 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

The view that oratory is phoney is a thoroughly modern one...Obviously nobody told Plato.

When I did a GCSE in English you had to do an (examined) presentation. I don't think that's changed. There's a lot more emphasis these days on, um, presentation skills. Incidentally, this is also true of many degree courses.

I think Nick's losing it. Its one thing to talk crap on subjects most people know nothing about, but most people know what their kids are doing at school...

5/01/2009 09:58:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Also perhaps worth noting that Nick Cohen is a dreadful public speaker. As are most of the Decents actually.

And how much 'defence' would the skill of ortory give children? I'd be happier with a bunch of future politicians who were crap speakers but said sensible things, than people like Blair who had decent public speaking skills but rarely actually said anything.

employers have told him of job applicants who cannot talk confidently on the telephone.
I am really fed up of these 'an unquantifiable amount of anonymous employers have said X to someone trying to reform education therefore it proves something about the education system' claims. Kids nowadays spend just as much time on the phone as they used to, and rhetoric lessons won't change their telephone manner.

The piece is all over the place, it looks suspiciously like a(nother) modified press release to me. I'm only surprised he didn't try to claim that 1960s educational reform was postmodern...

5/02/2009 08:46:00 AM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

Re this "The educational movements of the Sixties thought they were emancipating children by encouraging them to do their own thing and reject elitist rules."

The point is that "educational movements of the sixties" were subsumed by mainstream teaching as they were so useful.

Re "public speaking". It also depends on what form of medium is being discussed. A great example of a senior politician showing the inability to handle modern communication was bumbling Brown on you tube.

5/02/2009 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

And how much 'defence' would the skill of ortory give children? Indeed; as Alex says, one of the greatest British orators of the last fifty years was Arthur Scargill and look where it got him.

5/02/2009 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger andrew said...

george galloway: powerful orator and massive twat.

5/02/2009 04:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll see you Galloway, and raise you a king pair of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock

[redpesto]

5/02/2009 08:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Foot's no orator. Foot's a polemicist.

[And Guilty Men is _goood_]

Chris Williams

5/02/2009 11:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Gingsters Pork Pie said...

which specifically attacks university educated writers of not using words properly.

I know it's childish of me to point this out, and I am sorry.

5/03/2009 08:47:00 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Today's Obs: Cohen says that pandemic flu is a real risk, but still believes that 1970s database systems didn't allocate 2 bytes for years. Even though the documentation for entirely open source things like Python, which can have had no commercial motivation, gives chapter and verse on Y2K issues. Sigh.

Clothes for Chaps, however, does a rather good article about kids testifying in court. Perhaps because he actually did some reporting for this one rather than just shooting his mouth off.

5/03/2009 09:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

still believes that 1970s database systems didn't allocate 2 bytes for yearsSigh indeed. I remember, in my third programming job, people thought I was crazy to insist on using eight-digit dates. That would have been 1987.

We may have underestimated the resilience of systems - human systems most of all - but no way in hell did we overestimate the scale of the problem. But did you notice, Nick introduced his Y2K nay-sayer as "one of the few computer specialists to speak out about the tens of billions wasted on protecting IT systems against the phantom menace of the millennium bug" - and the important words here are the first six. I mean, maybe Dr Finkelstein was in the minority because the majority were all, um... greedy, and, and carried along by fashionable ideas, and, er... can we get a dig at Adam Curtis in here somewhere?... but surely a simpler explanation is that he was in the minority because he was wrong. (Course, the minority represented by people like Ed Yourdon - who moved to New Mexico so as to be out in the country when the machine stopped - were wrong too. The curve has two tails.)

5/03/2009 09:59:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Y2K not a problem [1] because it was, um, largely fixed. Sigh. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

[1] Actually you still occasionally read about Y2K problems cropping up.

5/06/2009 10:44:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

eah, Y2K was a real problem. Was hyped up a bit but as you say the reason why it didn't have a bigger impact was because people fixed it in advance.

I thought Cohen was meant ot be fairly hot on things like this, given the Euston Manifesto's commitment to Open Source... maybe he was at the bar when that bit ot drafted.

5/06/2009 10:54:00 AM  

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