Being respectful should not require silence!

Protesters against and supporters of President Xi stand shoulder to shoulder in London. Could this scene be replicated in Beijing?

Protesters against and supporters of President Xi stand shoulder to shoulder in London. Could this scene be replicated in Beijing?

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” 
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

 

For many years now I have had the privilege of travelling to work with teachers and researchers in many parts of the world. Sharing ideas with colleagues and sometimes wrestling to interpret these in different cultural contexts has been a great privilege, and has afforded me opportunities to see how other people live, work and try to make sense of the world. Amidst all this, I hope that the experience has taught me to be respectful of other societies and to be prepared to engage in critical discussions whilst making an effort to understand a broad range of motivations and contexts.

The British media today is dominated by reports of the visit to the country by China’s President Xi Jinping. Yesterday he was afforded all the pomp and ceremony in which this country excels. State banquets, an audience with the Queen, an opportunity to address the UK Parliament and a ride along the mall in a carriage more suited to a performance of Cinderella than to the streets of twenty first century London. Unsurprisingly the President’s visit has divided the nation, with those who are in favour of accepting potentially high levels of investment from China into the development of UK infrastructure, juxtaposed with others who believe that we should not be welcoming a dictatorial leader who has overseen increased human rights atrocities in his country.

I have visited several parts of China on a number of occasions and over the past fifteen years have made a number of good friends and colleagues in the country. I have also worked with some outstanding Chinese students who are now making a significant contribution to education back in their homeland. These valued contacts have often afforded me kind hospitality in their country and sometimes in their homes. As with others from around the world, they are proud of their country with its rich history and traditions, though in private many are also critical of the many injustices that they see as characterising modern day China.

China is a vast country and I cannot claim to have seen much of its broad spread. However, I have seen enough to form some idea of the rich diversity within its peoples and culture. As well as Han Chinese colleagues in the East of China and Beijing, I have enjoyed time with friends in the Muslim Uygher communities in Xinjiang Province, and recognise that not all citizens of this vast country have the same interpretation of what it means to be Chinese. I am quite sure that my brief visits to China have shaped much of my thinking about the kind of society that has been created in this diverse part of the world. These thoughts have been very much to the forefront of my mind as I have watched the red carpet treatment given to President Xi Jinping following his arrival in London.

It seems to me that when visitors come to the UK, whoever they are, we should ensure that they receive a warm welcome and that they are made comfortable. Inevitably if they are a Head of State we would expect that they should be granted access to those in positions of responsibility and leadership in the country. However, if we are welcoming visitors as friends, as was implied by both the Prime Minister Mr Cameron, and by President Xi Jinping in speeches yesterday, we should expect that a frank exchange of views, as is common between friends might ensue.

Yesterday in the Guardian newspaper there was an interesting article written by the exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian whose excellent books Stick Out Your Tongue, and The Noodle Maker won international praise. Having been at the receiving end of Chinese Government oppression over a number of years he is fully justified in making a number of observations about how President Xi Jinping’s visit will be reported in China. Emphasising the dangers of being critical of the administration in the country, Ma Jian writes:-

“The message from the Chinese tyrants to their subjects will be clear: if the queen of the UK, the oldest democracy in the world, lavishes your president with such respect and approbation, then what right have you to criticise him?”

Freedom of speech is something which was hard won and is now treasured in many of the world’s great democracies, including the UK. Ma Jian has every right to voice his opposition to Chinese Government oppression, and it is to the credit of the UK Government that he has been made welcome as a resident of this country and is provided with a platform from which to express his opinions. Sadly there are many other Chinese nationals who are in a similar position to Ma Jian and find that whilst their work and ideas are appreciated and indeed honoured outside of China, they face imprisonment and torture if they express themselves within their own country. The artist Ai Wei Wei has received many plaudits for his exhibition currently to be seen at Royal Academy in London, the Nobel Prize winning writer Liu Xiaobo is currently being held as a political prisoner in Jinzhou, Liaoning, whilst his work is honoured in most parts of the world, and the lawyer Xu Zhiyong founder of the Chinese New Citizens’ Movement which has campaigned for the rights of Chinese citizens is similarly incarcerated. These individuals and many thousands of others who, being less well known have escaped the attention of the western media, do not appear to have a voice in the current negotiations being conducted between the UK Government and the Chinese President.

Unlike some who have written in the British press or appeared in interviews on the radio, I do not believe that we should have refused President Xi Jinping entry to the country. However, if as Mr Cameron suggests, there are opportunities for strengthening bonds between the governments of two countries, I would hope that he provides the kind of critical friendship that in recognition of those values of human rights and social justice that are often said to characterise the UK, enables him to express his abhorrence of the repression and ill-treatment of those who voice opinions contrary to those of the totalitarian regime that administers China.

Having been lavishly entertained at Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament President Xi Jinping may now be in need of a day of leisure. If so, he could do far worse than visiting the Royal Academy to see the work of his fellow countryman Ai Wei Wei. I suspect that this is an unlikely scenario as it would demand a willingness to engage in a learning experience that could be in danger of broadening his perspectives.

 

This man’s education could be put to better use!

 

This is a well written document, presumably produced by someone who has received an education but would prefer to keep others in ignorance. What is to be gained?

This is a well written document, presumably produced by someone who has received an education but would prefer to keep others in ignorance. What is to be gained?

 

It requires an educated person to construct a document, which takes account of good grammar and spelling. It is an even greater achievement to do so in what may be the writer’s second or even third language. Generally speaking when an individual has attained this level of proficiency it is, at least in part, because they have received the support of a teacher.

The above image of a document was given to me this morning by a friend from Pakistan. It had been pushed under the door of an acquaintance in Karachi who has had a long standing commitment to the education of children in that city. As an advocate of education this person has always treated children as individuals deserving of an education, regardless of their nationality, religion, class, gender or caste. This is an attitude that many of us would see as being founded upon human rights and social justice; qualities that we expect to see in educated people, but it would appear that others disagree.

Leaving aside for the moment the rather obtuse sentiments expressed in this leaflet, one of the first things that struck me about it was that it is quite well written. The English language has been used to good effect (even if this is being applied for  nefarious purposes), with reasonable grammar and consistent spelling. It most certainly could not have been written by someone who had not received a formal education. I am making an assumption here that the first language of the writer is not English and that they are more likely to be familiar with Urdu,  Sindhi or possibly Pashtun, and that English could well be their second or third language. I am also interested to note that they have made a decision to write this text in English, presumably in the belief that it is a communication aimed at  other educated individuals.

Having read this embittered diatribe I find myself wondering what is to be gained by denying educational opportunities to others, similar to those that the author has clearly experienced in the past. If he (it is almost certainly a man) wishes to challenge the introduction of western cultural values, he is of course quite entitled to do so. There are many debates taking place regularly around the world about the loss of national and regional identity, and these are often stimulating and well informed. I most certainly support those individuals who believe that the protection of local languages, the preservation of regional heritage and arts, and the fair representation of national histories should be given a priority. Like many others who have engaged in the debate, I have a concern that the English language has become too dominant and is a force for restricting the opportunities of those who are unable to receive tuition in its use. Though I presume that this latter issue is of no concern to the writer of this misconceived missive.

Attempts to stifle debate are usually made by those who feel that they are losing the argument. They betray the insecurities and inadequacies of the author. The messages conveyed in this text are intended to frighten, and to deny the rights of others to have their voices heard. I would suggest that anonymously pushing this leaflet under the doors of individuals who are committed to ensuring that children receive a well balanced liberal education is likely to have the opposite effect. Copies of this narrow minded text are already being circulated and held up as an example of the misrepresentation of the tenets of Islam, and a misguided action by an ill-informed, ignorant and faceless individual.

I am pleased that the writer of this sad text has  gained some benefits from his education. He has obviously acquired the skills of expression, even if he lacks the individuality and critical thinking that could make him into a more interesting author. The threats contained within this document will be abhorrent to the vast majority of people in Pakistan. I hope that the purveyor of this sick note, full of despicable hatred, may find the time to reflect on the efforts made by his teachers on his behalf. They clearly did a good job in terms of his English language abilities. I also hope that if he has children they may experience an education that is truly inclusive, and promotes understanding, respect and tolerance. The kind of education that I imagine most of the schools targeted by this leaflet are determined to provide. Long may they thrive.

 

A flickering light gives hope for education

 

Those of us who can assert that education is not a crime are the fortunate ones.

Those of us who can assert that education is not a crime are the fortunate ones.

“They can destroy books and computers, or they can imprison people.

They can confiscate property and shut down classes.

But they can’t confiscate education.

They can’t end the love of learning, love of teaching”

Supporter of the Bahai Institute of Higher Education, in exile

Is education a right or a privilege? What happens when individuals or groups of people are denied access to education? To what lengths will people go in order to obtain an education, or to ensure that others do not gain access to learning? These questions, and other similar points of debate were the focus of a discussion held yesterday evening at the University of Northampton.

The debate around these fundamental issues was provoked by the showing of a film “To Light a Candle” made by the Iranian journalist and film maker Maziar Bahari, whose other films include Of Shame and Coffins (2000) and Along Came a Spider (2003). He has also been involved in the production of television documentaries, including programmes for Channel 4 and the BBC in the UK. Bahari is not unfamiliar with controversy and oppression having spent time in an Iranian prison accused of anti-state activity after filming and publicising “illegal demonstrations” and “illegal gatherings” in Tehran. “To Light a Candle” is certainly unlikely to enhance his popularity amongst the current rulers of Iran as it continues Bahari’s theme of recording oppression and denial of human rights.

“To Light a Candle” tells the story of the Bahai community in Iran and their struggle to obtain education and fair employment. The Bahai’is are a significant minority religious group within Iran, where their faith was originally founded in the nineteenth century. Ever since their foundation, during the time of the Ottoman Empire they have faced persecution, but they have always resisted this oppression through determined non-violent resistance.

In modern day Iran Bahai’is are forbidden access to higher education and are not allowed to teach in universities. Some of those who have sought a university education elsewhere and have returned to Iran have been denied the right to practice their professions, and the degrees that they have obtained from well-established universities have not been recognised within the country. One of many examples of this level of persecution is the story of Faran Hesami who graduated in 2003 with a Master’s degree in Educational Counselling from the University of Ottawa, Canada. On her return to Iran, where she hoped to work for the benefit of her local community Faran Hesami was arrested and tried and informed that her degree was illegal, and therefore she had been practicing as a counsellor illegally. The court sentenced her to four years imprisonment.

“To Light a Candle” is in many respects a depressing film, and not surprisingly, those of us watching, representing many different nationalities, cultures and a range of secular and religious beliefs, were horrified at the level of oppression depicted. Everyone present at the showing of this film had benefitted from education from primary school days through to university, and there was a general consensus that our experiences left us better equipped to make a contribution to the countries from which we come. Whilst the sense of injustice around the room was palpable, there was however, one aspect of this film that gave everyone present hope that things will be better in the future. On several occasions individuals from the Bahai community shown in the film demonstrated their commitment to obtaining an education and their preparedness to go to great lengths to assert this right. The point was strongly made, that whilst it is possible to deny access to universities or libraries, to destroy learning materials and resources, and to attempt to stop people learning together, determined individuals will find ways of circumventing legislation and oppression and will continue to learn.

Within Iran students and academics, supported by many Iranians who are not of the Bahai faith have organised themselves to create the Bahai Institute of Higher Education (BIHE). Through this underground movement classes are organised and qualifications obtained. Though the Iranian authorities do not recognise this institute or its awards, the organisers of this movement persist and are continuing to assert the right to education. Academics from around the world have supported this movement by giving their time to teach courses at the BIHE at a distance through internet links and the production of teaching materials. The film showed professors from Canada and the United States of America engaging with students on a range of courses and enabling them to have access to high quality teaching.

The showing of this film to a small audience enabled those present to reassert their commitment to the concept of education for all. Many of the students present have been involved in researching and debating aspects of inclusive education over the past few years, and their tutors in some instances for far longer. Discussions about the exclusion of children from education because of disability, poverty, caste or conflict have been a regular feature of the work of those present. This film added a new dimension to our attempts to understand the impact of exclusion and the importance of  gaining a holistic view of the meaning of inclusion.

The courage of individuals, who are struggling in the face of danger to obtain an education, should encourage all of us who have opportunities to learn in freedom alongside our peers and colleagues, to value what we have. The overwhelming view within the room was that education is indeed a right, but that perhaps those of us who have had educational opportunities should recognised how privileged we are, by comparison to others who live under oppressive regimes. Whilst members of the Bahai community in Iran and others around the world continue to be denied their right to education, it will be essential that those of us who do have the freedom to learn continue to debate these issues, and bring them to the attention of others.

Education is Not A crime, is a movement campaigning to bring the denial of education to the Bahai community to wider attention. You can find details at:-

http://www.educationisnotacrime.me/

To see a trailer for the film “To Light a Candle” go to:-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7aE27GyMMo

 

 

New Year’s resolution (or should that be revolution?)

A new year begins. What will it bring to the lives of children?

A new year begins. What will it bring to the lives of children?

I like to think that I am by nature an optimist. I tend to believe that problems exist to be confronted, and that people are generally good and willing to work together to improve the lives of others. But having said this, I must confess that I find that the newspapers at the end of one year and the beginning of the next can sometimes dent my otherwise sunny disposition. In many ways it would be a good idea to steer clear of the journalistic harbingers of doom for a few days, at least until the depressing review of the old year and predictions for the new are well out of the way. However, I think there may be a different way of dealing with the woebegone soothsayers of newsprint, so long as we are prepared to recognise that their apocalyptic auguries are not necessarily reliable, and  are entirely dependent upon the inactivity of every individual who can make a difference.

I long ago gave up on on making New Year’s resolutions. It seems to me that most of these were generally destined to be forgotten or discarded by mid-January, and that those which were maintained were often of no real substance or consequence. Here again the media do not help by informing us  of the new year pledges made by numerous “celebrities” as if their virtuous intent was something  with which we should be amazed. (Am I the only one for whom the term “celebrity” often refers to someone of whom I have never heard? – perhaps I should get out more!). However, the notion that we should occasionally stop and reflect upon our own situation, and that which  affects the lives of others, is of itself, no bad thing, and perhaps an indicator that we might do this more often. Whilst New Year appears to have been hijacked as a time for such activity, there is, of course, no reason why we shouldn’t undertake such cerebration at any time.

UNESCO have just issued a document titled Sustainable Development Begins With Education, which provides exactly the kind of reflection that I have in mind. I must admit that I almost put this document to one side, fearing that alongside the many other year end doom mongers, this might just push me over the edge. Fortunately I overcame my latent cowardice and found within this document a number of affirming statements, which whilst bold in their assertion, are founded upon evidence presented in a series of helpful vignettes. In a piece as short as this I cannot possibly do justice to the UNESCO document, neither can I highlight all of the statements made. But I can present examples here, along with a suggestion that may hopefully have more credence than most superficial New Year’s resolutions. The UNESCO document highlights examples of how:

  • Education prevents the transmission of poverty between generations.
  • Equity and inclusion in education are crucial for enabling the best possible learning outcomes.
  • Education helps women have a voice.
  • Equitable education service delivery is critical to tackle the roots of discontent in cities.
  • Education helps reduce political corruption.

As stated, each of these statements is accompanied by brief examples to illustrate the truths that they contain.

UNESCO suggest that the knowledge that education has an impact upon these, and other issues, should help to spur policy makers and professionals forward to create the conditions that enable progress to be made.

I suppose it might be said that everything suggested here is obvious, and that the people who read this blog are those who would share such sentiments, and already have a commitment to support the moves that would promote change. This is quite true, but maybe this is because of the limited way in which we conduct our professional conversations and actions.

Here then is the suggestion that I promised above. I suspect that on issues of education, equity, poverty and social justice many of us spend most of our time talking to other like-minded individuals. This is in part a result of the professional and personal circles in which we rotate and the fact that most of us belong to the tut-tutting classes who express our concerns for the state of the world. So perhaps we need to rethink our own behaviours and to consider the ways in which we commune with those who are less aware of the issues facing children, and the possible consequences of taking affirmative action on behalf of education. Maybe we need to find those channels, which far from preaching to the converted, may lead us to sup with the devil and increase his (or her) awareness of the difficulties faced by many children and the important role that education can play in improving their lives. After all, it is not individuals like you that are inhibiting progress, but it may well be others who are less aware or prefer to remain in ignorance of those issues that you are attempting to address every day in your classrooms, or elsewhere in your life.

For those of us working in academic institutions, this might present many new challenges. We are expected to attend the conferences, publish papers, write books and give lectures to those who are already likely to give us a sympathetic hearing. We may therefore need to find new means of communicating with those who may be less inclined to hear and more oppositional in terms of the ideas we wish to express. Such activity may afford us new learning opportunities and help us to become better informed in addressing those issues for which we claim to carry a torch.

I am not suggesting that I have the answer to how we might move forward. All suggestions for how such a task may be confronted will be gratefully received. Maybe we can review progress at the end of 2015.

A VERY HAPPY, PEACEFUL AND SUCCESSFUL NEW YEAR TO ALL FRIENDS

A copy of the UNESCO document Sustainable Development Begins With Education can be read at

http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002305/230508e.pdf

 

 

 

Thanks for your example

Lauren Bacall - a star of the screen with a commitment to social justice

Lauren Bacall – a star of the screen with a commitment to social justice

I promised to return, so here I am again. A few weeks break afford a welcome opportunity for recharging the batteries and to prepare for the coming challenges of another academic year. Pedalling gently across France, taking in the stunning landscapes of the Limousin, Creuse, Massif Central and Burgundy, it is easy to leave behind the everyday aspects of a working life and become distanced from the realities of the world. However, from time to time I feel the need to keep in touch with the real world, and the occasional opportunity to read an English newspaper can be welcome.

This year two sad announcements were covered with equal attention in both the French and English press, and gave me reason to reflect on what I knew of two distinguished actors, whose deaths were announced whilst we were enjoying our cycle tour. The first of these, Lauren Bacall will, I suspect be remembered largely for the roles that she played opposite the man who was to become her husband, Humphrey Bogart. Her debut in To Have and Have Not, and later appearances in Key Largo and The Big Sleep, made her one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood.

A second obituary to Richard Attenborough, the British film actor and director followed very soon after the announcement of the demise of Lauren Bacall. Attenborough who came to prominence in films such as Brighton Rock, The Great Escape and 10 Rillington Place will probably be best remembered for his direction of Gandhi, the epic film of the life of the Mahatma.

The obituary sections of newspapers are often interesting for  providing a short résumé of the lives of distinguished individuals, but these two particular actors had more in common than their engagement with the cinema. In the 1940s Lauren Bacall, along with her husband Humphrey Bogart established the Committee for the First Amendment in an attempt to counter attack the witch-hunt conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy on a number of Hollywood actors and other members of the artistic community, by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She put her career in Jeopardy by standing up for the right of individuals to hold political beliefs and express ideas that were in opposition to those of prominent individuals in the government of the day.

 

Richard Attenborough. admired and portrayed the lives of those committed to social justice and lived his life by their example.

Richard Attenborough. admired and portrayed the lives of those committed to social justice and lived his life by their example.

Richard Attenborough, greatly influenced by his upbringing by parents who devoted their lives to the service of others, committed much of his life to the promotion of social justice. He made great personal sacrifices and took significant financial risks for more than twenty years in order to bring the life story of Gandhi, whose philosophy of non-violence had so moved him, to the screen. He followed this project by making the film Cry Freedom which drew attention to the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa and highlighted the horrors surrounding the death of Steve Biko. Attenborough in his personal life dedicated much of his time to supporting charitable trusts and causes both in the UK and wider afield.

The lives of Lauren Bacall and Richard Attenborough are probably viewed by most as having been associated with privilege and wealth. This interpretation is certainly valid. But of equal importance was the commitment that they made to work for social justice and to improve the lives of those who are oppressed or disadvantaged, and especially individuals and communities that have been subjected to prejudice. I am sure that the films that Bacall and Attenborough made will be entertaining and informing audiences well into the future. I hope that they will also be remembered for the example they set by demonstrating that whatever role we play in life, we can all play a part in working towards improving the lives of others.