James Tooley battles bureaucritis

Sometimes, going about your normal life, your attention gets grabbed by a flurry of activity that disturbs the ambient rhythms around you. I’m sure you have experienced such things. It was such for me in the case of James Tooley and his book The Beautiful Tree.

The book describes how Tooley assembled evidence that annihilated the received wisdom, espoused by the clerisy, concerning the provision of education. I am not an educationist but I do study the clerisy. They are a species urgently in need of study. I immediately bought a copy of the book, and reading it persuaded me to go hunting for a speech by Tooley.

This speech appears to have been ‘topped’. It is not unusual. Those who post such videos often edit out messy openings in order to clean up the final product. I study messy openings, so the practice robs me of data, but I commend clean bald ones, so the practice provides me with examples to uphold. This, whether Tooley or the video editors made it, is a lovely bald opening.

At 01:32 there is an interesting incident. Tooley, with that excellent opening, appears to have hump nerves subjected under his heel and by now should be on a roll; yet he gets stuck, searching for the word ‘reconcile’ (and he never finds it). This is a classic nerve symptom, stress having a fiendish ability to diminish our capacity for thinking on our feet. Usually when I see such as this I know immediately what the problem is and what to do about it, yet without speaking with him I am at a loss as to what is going on. There are nerves there which shouldn’t be, not with a speaker as good as this.

And good he is! He has spurned the lectern and is shooting from the hip like a proper speaker. He is not using his few slides as signposts: he proves that when one of them appears out of sequence and he adjusts accordingly. His slides serve him, not the other way around. Using slides as signposts is a cheating trick used by those whose memorised structure is not good enough to stand on its own. His structure is very strong, which is why his message is so coherent. His evident passion for the message reinforces the coherence. He’s doing everything right.

His spurning of the lectern has an amusing byproduct. By stepping to the side he is now standing immediately in front of a reverend father who appears to be chairing the event. Not only is the father now masked, but because he has slightly tinted spectacles and we can’t see his eyes, he seems to be asleep at one point. Then he gives the lie to that by laughing.

The speech is very good, and clearly conveys the message that the world’s poorest – yes, the world’s poorest – are educated privately, not for want of state free schools but because the private schools are better. I invite you to re-read that sentence and let it sink in.

That is heretical to the clerisy. But then the clerisy is infected by an ailment I call bureaucritis. Bureaucritis is a viciously virulent, internationally metastatic, form of tunnel vision. Every proposition Tooley makes they dismiss out of hand, and progressively more aggressively.

Private schools for the very poorest don’t exist: yes they do, I’ve found thousands and here are the data. They’re useless: they out-perform the state schools and here are the data. The teachers aren’t qualified: I refer you to my previous answer. And so it goes on.

If a matter as huge as the world’s education of the poorest can be termed a microcosm, it is a microcosm of many of the social and political ills that afflict the world. Bureaucritic clerisy, sincere and well-meaning – though woefully misguided, are pathologically incapable of thinking outside their tiny box. The clerisy are learned but stupid. The reason is clearly explained by the great Thomas Sowell when he writes that decisions should never be left to those who pay no price for being wrong. The clerisy pay no price for being wrong, because their employment is invariably feather-bedded and their only measure of rightness is whether their bureaucritic peers agree with them.

Great speech. Great message. Admirable man. Important lesson.

Alex Newman rises above his errors.

On 2 November the Heartland Institute, streamed live a talk by Alex Newman which he titled Crimes of the Educators. This is also the title of a book he co-authored with the late Samuel Blumenfeld. If you follow the book’s link to Amazon you will find an exceptional stream of positive reviews.

Lennie Jarratt does the introduction, and deserves a medal. This video was originally live-streamed, which is not that much different from being on TV. Broadcasters are ruled by the clock, and this broadcast has started late. For two-and-three-quarter minutes he takes his audience on a tour of the Institute and its works, delivering a laudable commercial even on the room in which the audience is seated. At 2:45 he finally announces that the speaker has arrived.

This is every speaker’s nightmare, and I put my trainees through it – just keep talking till something over which you have no control happens. In fact I suspect that the speaker had actually arrived before Jarratt began, but Jarratt was giving him a chance to compose himself and load his deck of slides. Nevertheless I tip my hat to him on a sterling piece of filling-in. Newman actually begins speaking at 3:36 and finishes at 34:36, the rest being Q&A.

Half-a-minute into his talk we are faced with his having committed the first of two fundamental speaker’s errors. His slides are smothered in verbiage, and are therefore in constant competition with him for the audience’s attention. Someone needs to take him aside and educate him on this.

(Mind you: simultaneously I find myself tipping my hat to the Heartland Institute whose staging of events and whose attendant technology I have had need in the past to criticise. The split-screening that they use for showing both the speaker and his slides is truly excellent.)

The other fundamental error begins as a suspicion in my mind, and is later confirmed by the speaker. This half-hour talk is a cut-down of a longer one. This is a classic mistake: always start with a short talk and expand when necessary – never the other way around. I could keep you here for hours, explaining the principles behind this rule, but I’ll spare you.

So there he is, rather hyper having rushed here from his last engagement because these book-promotion schedules are notoriously tight, struggling to cut a longer presentation down (and do it on the hoof), working with far too many slides and far too many words on each one.  And yet…

He makes a reasonable fist of it, helped by his being a natural communicator and also having a very powerful message.

I have to admit that for the first few minutes I had him down as a loony conspiracy-theorist, but his documented statistics concerning levels of literacy more than a hundred years ago compared with today shook me to the core. Education standards in the USA really do seem to have travelled southwards at a frightening pace, and a great deal of what he describes is echoed in the UK. Furthermore you do not need conjecture to find deliberate intent on the part of the architects of this trend because that again is documented.

Why does this theme keep cropping up in the activities of unaccountable intellectuals? They embark on noble-sounding projects which always end in tears, but not being accountable they are free to plough on with their ghastly mistakes. The one academic discipline they either do not study, or they studiously ignore, is history. How else would they never learn? How else would they ruin whole societies with their well-meaning but imbecilic ideas?

Or are they really well-meaning? Do we need to examine motives? When you see destruction on this level, that the rest of us could not have achieved more effectively if we’d tried, you have to give space to the possibility that they tried.

As a speech this is abysmally badly composed, but the importance of the message contrives to over-ride that. As often happens on this blog I find myself itching both to read the book and to take this man on one side for a few hours to teach him how to apply his message to this medium.

Jamie Oliver had a good teacher.

In February 2010 Jamie Oliver delivered a TED talk in Long Beach, California, on a theme that has obsessed him for many years, healthy eating.

Bald opening! It’s just a single sentence, so – although arresting – it hardly qualifies as a James Bond film opening, but who cares? His opening sentence preceded his introduction of himself. In a sense he grabbed our hand before shaking it. This is an excellent start, and sets the bar high for this talk.

He carries a sheaf of cards in his hand. He gestures with them, fiddles with them, slaps them occasionally, and does everything except read from them. I suspect that they contain a few prompts and are there purely for their presence to reduce his stress. I can’t fault this. He shoots everything from the hip.

Oliver has been presenting TV programmes for many years, and the nature of those programmes is such that he has had a lot of practice at shooting from the hip. There are plenty of people for whom that sentence is just as true, but who – when placed on a speaking platform – stick a script on the lectern, their thumb in their mouth, and wear an invisible but unmistakeable caption that says “prat”. There is a reason: a camera lens is not the same as an auditorium full of people; and making the transition requires the application or more effort than they could be bothered to spare.

At 1:20 he plays the audience by requesting a show of hands. The exercise has essentially no value other than making them feel involved. He does nothing with the information, but it was a good thing to do. This keeps getting better.

He produces a graph that shows that obesity kills several times as many people as guns, yet we all know that it generates a fraction of the media outrage. He plays the Brit-lecturing-the-yanks card well, and with enough charm to harvest laughs with it. He works a good visual episode in which he tips a wheelbarrow full of sugar onto the stage. It represents, for the average American child’s five year education period, the sugar consumption from flavoured milk alone. He deploys periodic claptraps, gets the required applause for most of them; and for the few that fail to bring forth fruit he doesn’t dwell but pushes on. He presents gratifyingly short video clips that pithily illustrate points he is making. This whole thing is beautifully put together, and skilfully delivered.

We may quarrel with some of his assertions: we may sit and think, “yes, but…” and many probably will. That is what discourse is for. For my part I have moments when I wince a little, because I have developed an allergy to busybody social policing in all its guises. But I am relieved that he never quite calls for the cold, dead hand of official bureaucracy to get involved. He seems less anti-bad-habits than pro-good-habits, and that is a saving grace – urging people to put pressure on industry, the retail sector, educators and themselves to learn to do better. Consumer power is preferable to social police.

Now I must replace my rhetor hat…

Whoever taught Jamie Oliver to speak this well, I salute them. Could it have been Jamie Oliver?