On Education and Utopias

I’m a self-confessed nerd, as unspectacular a confession as that is. That doesn’t mean I always loved going to school because I downright detested it at some points, but that was always due to other issues rather than a hatred of education, which I love whole-heartedly. That’s partially because I’m good at it, and partially because I simply can’t imagine going through life without wanting to absorb all the knowledge I can from everything I encounter. But this isn’t about converting anyone to the wonders of learning – it’s just an attempt to prove that this is more than just the stereotypical embittered teen complaining about the stress of formal education and how ridiculous the system is.

With that kind of upbringing, and since I’m finished with it (though yet to receive my results), it’s easy to look back and argue that it wasn’t that bad after all. Even while I was in the midst of it, trying desperately to memorise 3000 words of literature analysis for an exam the next day, although I felt desperately unable to cope, I still knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. That’s what I find so horribly fascinating and terrible about the whole experience, because I instinctively want to join the chorus of students decrying the unfair standards, the ridiculous nature of the whole system…and yet I can’t help but want to defend it, in part, as well.

I do think there are major issues in the way some things are assessed. The importance placed on the final exams brings a sense of urgency and absolutism that can ruin any learning environment, and most teachers share a hatred of ‘teaching to the test’, because they want their students to learn for the sake of knowledge, for their interest in the subject, or to acquire proficiency in the area, not to pass an exam. It’s an anti-climactic, drab kind of way to sum up the entirety of anything as broad as biology, or history, or literature.

And yet, what on earth is the alternative?

Students love to talk about this supposed ‘better’ systems, the way they do it in this country, in this state, in primary school, in this utopian daydream. But it’s damned difficult to implement their half-expressed ideas, and we do, it seems, need some way of separating those who know things, and those who don’t. That’s essentially what assessment is about – much like championships in a sport, the aim is to find the people who are the best at what they do, which in this case, is learning. And that’s why I feel our current system fails, because it separates out two different products: those who are naturally intelligent, and those who work and work, not to become more intelligent, or more knowledgeable, or better at what they do, but to arbitrarily ‘prove’ that they are intelligent, through a few hours in an exam hall and a lot of memorised answers and rote-learned responses and stoic acceptance of the flawed system that results in a decision to go along with it if it gets them what they need.

Education systems are flawed when they value rote answers over understanding, and when they praise students for intelligence that’s actually hard work, or vice versa, and we need to do our best to ensure our systems work as smoothly as they can by considering every aspect and all possible biases and outside factors. That said, no one will ever like exams, or assessments, or assignments that make them have to think and work hard. It’s documented across the decades, even centuries – de Balzac’s description of lazy students, bright but resentful of having to give evidence of the fact, remains startlingly close to any modern description, as does de Maupaussant’s, these 19th century French intellectuals echoing the complaints of any average 21st century high school student.

But really, most education systems aren’t so awful, because whatever is good about them is likely taken for granted. Any assessment will be biased, obtaining a thorough education without at least a little effort is perhaps impossible and certainly extremely difficult, and we do need some method of figuring out who’s good at what and how good they are. Your marks shouldn’t determine self-worth, and the education system should strive to make them as accurate a reflection as possible of your ability and achievement, but there is no perfect system that suits every single individual and makes school absolutely easy for everyone.

If people want to complain about their education system, I completely understand and will likely join them, as long as they complain about the right things – the way things are assessed, the accuracy of the assessment system, the ultimate goals of the assessment, the value of that assessment in wider society. Whining about how boring essays are and how damn much there is to know about kidneys is understandable, but it won’t achieve anything because humans will always complain about having to do any kind of work and the people who do have the power to change things won’t listen, because they know it won’t matter if we have to write one essay or ten, we’ll whinge just as much. If you want things to change, accept that life will never be perfect, and remember that that applies to school and assessments just as much as anything else.


On Tolerance and Upbringing

How much of your personality is yours and yours alone, and how much is the environment you grew up in?

The wonderful Sylvia Plath wrote all about this many decades before it ever occurred to me, and the basic argument of nature versus nurture has been going on an aeon, with Rousseau throwing his hat in the ring with natural man and civilised man, and Shelley presenting us with nurturing gone awfully wrong, and from that famed literature (and likely from earlier) a thousand other imaginings have sprung up of life without upbringing, of the human without its natural environment, of people set apart from all the little things that shape us and observed, through the magnifying, mystifying lens of fiction.

Clearly, it’s a subject humanity loves to dwell on, and who can blame us? The desire to understand ourselves is perhaps stronger than any other need for comprehension we might encounter, because it seems so logical that if we could only unpick and pull apart the very fabric of our selves, we could so easily see where any errors lie, and cut them out with our sharp little scissors so as to sew ourselves back up all perfectly and know a life devoid of sadness and unnecessary guilt and anger.

I’ve always felt particularly interested in it, like every slightly oddball, introspective kid. Everyone’s upbringing differs slightly, of course, because some parents are stricter, or more traditional, or less well off, or raised differently themselves, but mine had noticeable contrasts, like moving overseas multiple times, that distracted me from the subtler differences for quite a while. It was by no means astounding and indeed sounds quite tame and unexciting typed neatly out for a stranger’s perusal, and yet it was so important an influence on all the actions I make today, and will make for the rest of my life.

I’d like to be able to claim all the fascinating aspects of me as part of my magnificent, unique snowflake self, but that’s naive and unjust. I’m smart, and interesting, and knowledgeable and open-minded because of all the wonderful opportunities I had, even if there was some small genetic predisposition for those traits.

My parents encouraged me to read at every spare moment and my brother and I were willing victims, getting in trouble for staying up late to read as much as any other childish misdemeanour. We were carted around Europe, books in hand, by our eager parents who forced as many cultural experiences as they could find on a shoestring onto our impressionable minds, sometimes all the more memorable for the extreme budget we did them on – how would I forget the cheap, shady-looking ‘hotel’ in Morocco where the beds were all inexplicably damp when we got to our room and the manager brought us new sheets, which, he assured us, had been stripped from his own bed literally moments before?

There’s the obvious things like that, or the way my mother speaks properly and people tease me for calling my parents my mother and father (instead of the more appropriately Aussie ‘Mum and Dad’), but there’s small things too. Like how I just assumed everyone would be conversationally fluent in at least one foreign language. Like how I didn’t know there was any way you could do something other than go to uni after high school. Like how I don’t know how grandfathers love to spoil their granddaughters, because mine both died before I was born.

And each of these is a tiny, tiny part of my life and often hastily overlooked. If we don’t pay attention to the impact of all these infinitesimal occurrences it’s easy to not realise how much the part contributes to the whole, to dismiss them as unimportant. And that in itself doesn’t seem so awful, except that these small differences do change our lives, and change the way we approach our lives. It’s the microagressions we mention when discussing race issues, the constant silent erosion of culture and self that happens one grain of sand at a time, so slow that no one notices, not even the ones it’s happening to.

I don’t mean to preach about sexism and racism and ableism and all the ingrained discrimination in our world that we accept as normal and right because we don’t know a world without it, it simply provides the most common, everyday example. I grew up not believing catcalls were insulting because I grew up in a world where no one would dream of catcalling or wolf-whistling unless it was ironic, or perhaps happening in a movie where the characters might equally end up flying areoplanes out of cathedral tombs and marrying millionaires. Even when I read other people’s accounts, I still thought, secretly, that it all seemed to be a lot of fuss about nothing. It wasn’t til I encountered it myself that I realised why some women hate it so much, live in fear of it as they walk cautiously down the streets I generally run down unafraid of harassment because it’s not part of my life.

My parents raised me in a way that was half-revolutionary and half-old-fashioned so that, thanks to the mix, I turned out reasonably ordinarily. My books included both Asterix and Obelix comics and Jane Eyre*, and I had a diet of old movies that ranged from Francis the Talking Mule to Freaks. My mother defends her decision in showing her eight-year-old daughter a film that ends in the main character having her legs amputated and her hands melted into wing-stubs by righteously outraged carnival freaks because, as she quite fairly points out, the morals are still good and true. The main character is evil and rotten, and the freaks are the good guys, mutilating her only because she treated them as less than human.

I like to think I’m especially tolerant and open-minded, and I like to imagine that I’m inherently smarter or somehow better than people I meet because I know so much more than a lot of them. But if I hadn’t been raised by my parents, who fed knowledge faster than I could digest it, and gave me such a strong moral backbone that they never bothered to shroud in the disguise of social convention, who would I be? Who am I to assume that other people don’t know things because they’re dumb, and not because they weren’t given a dozen books on faeries and history and sent reluctantly to run around crumbling castle walls? Who am I to truly consider someone lesser than me because they’re less tolerant, if they were brought up to truly believe that morality can follow only one path and any deviation from normality is akin to sin?

I don’t really think I have the right. And neither, I imagine, do you.

*Anyone who appreciates humour or Jane Eyre or Victorian literature or any combination of the three should definitely read this lovely, lovely summary of a book which I’ve read 3 times since I was 11 and liked more with each successive re-reading.

On Stereotypes

Once I said to a friend that I’d like to adopt some of the superficial, stereotypical traits of, say, a lesbian – the cropped hair and flannel shirts – so as to more dramatically prove people’s assumptions wrong when they wholly incorrectly labelled me as gay.

He said to me, bemused, ‘You want to act like something you’re not, and then get angry when people think you’re the thing you’re pretending to be?’

I couldn’t figure out why his summary of it seemed so different to my idea, but I realised it later.

‘No,’ I would have said emphatically, indignantly. ‘I never said I’d act like I was gay, and that’s the whole point. People are the sum of their actions, and yet they would have judged me from the inconsequential markers they’ve decided prove my identity, and ignored my actions completely. But you can dress someone in a thousand different costumes and it will still be the things they do that determine who they are.’

Of course, I’m far too attached to my long locks to chop them off to make a point. But it’s the principle of the matter.

On Criticism

Criticism is painful, especially if it comes from someone you admire, but it’s still necessary and vital for all our interactions with the each other and the world around us.

We already talk of the need for feedback in the creative process, and have accepted its importance. We do not assume that the wonderful works of art we have are perfect from the moment of their conception. We know that humans are not, as a rule, perfect, that we are ruled by emotion, blinded by perspective, and sometimes just plain lazy or apathetic. Whether it’s self-criticism or another’s efforts, evaluation of our work is a purifying process, making the bad things good and the good things better, maybe even the best.

So, then, if careful and clear analysis of our creative work is so very necessary, why shouldn’t the same apply to every facet of our lives?

One of the most common traps we find in life is the things we love, whether they are people or concepts. Our role models are role models for a reason: we admire and respect them and we want to be like them. We cling to our chosen ideologies because we support them, we agree with them and we want to follow them. And that’s fine – that’s part of being human, and needing to relate to things and have something to pursue in life. But when we’re so caught up in what we believe and read and hear, it gets harder to remember that our role models are not perfect, as much as we might believe and want them to be. Our ideologies may be theoretically unshakeable but life has always made practicalities less clear-cut.

Overzealous fans are the perfect example of a lack of criticism. Any time a celebrity screws up, a certain number of their fans will flock unhesitatingly to their defense, decrying any opposing voices and asserting the virtues of their idol even if it means insulting others and supporting things which they mightn’t otherwise agree with. This behaviour – this brief abandonment of rationality and personal convictions – is precisely why we need to consciously criticise our lives and actions. Criticism is the very process by which we develop our own principles and morals, by examining those of others, those of the people we love, and comparing them with our own experiences, knowledge and emotions.

The same idea holds true for concepts – it’s great to say you support a cause, to enthusiastically align yourself with some new notion that appeals to your sensibilities. But unless you maintain a certain distance from it, you run the risk yet again of becoming a blind follower, an unquestioning devotee to an idea which might be imperfect. The vast majority of things in the world are, so it’s only logical to assume that whatever it is you’re currently enamoured with is in some way problematic.

That’s why we have to be able to criticise everything we encounter – to recognise the flaws and try and work past them. And I do mean everything, from your friends, to your favourite books, to your own fleeting thoughts. Why does your friend think they can say that? Was that chapter necessary to the story? Was that really a rational reaction?

Criticism doesn’t mean forever playing Devil’s advocate, or tossing away anything with some tiny imperfection. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the flaws, a conscious acceptance that allows us to judge with greater impartiality, though as humans we will always be biased, and to continue towards improvement. There are too many philosophies and interpretations of life and scraps of advice and inspiration to count, and many have merit, many are fantastic and hugely significant to various people, but it is unlikely any are utterly perfect. Criticism becomes the tool that lets us take the best bits of all the concepts and credos and manifestos that appeal to us without being dragged down by the issues, the unwanted parts.

Life may be about exploring new things but a good explorer knows not to plunge into a murky, unknown swamp just because the leader of the party did. It’s downright foolish. It has always been dangerous to believe blindly and shut your mind to other ideas, to any opposing beliefs, but never has it been so easy to cherry-pick your media and blinker yourself to the vastly diverse realities of life as it is now with the ubiquity of the internet and its hundred thousand realities. The artificial nature of internet-based groups filled only with people sharing almost identical beliefs is a poor reflection of real life, which, unfortunately, is what we need to be dealing with. If the world really did function according to our personal principles and beliefs, we wouldn’t be having to deal with all the various issues that do exist.

But sadly, these issues are real. The world isn’t made for us, we just try and fit in around it, and things go wrong all the time. At least when we learn to criticise our own part in it, we understand it a little better.

Comparison to others poisons your happiness. Shhh. Go read a book.

It’s been rather a while.
I thought my last post might have been as long ago as last year, but it seems it was only June. In any case, I haven’t posted as regularly as I once did. And I really think that’s a good thing.

I haven’t written because I’ve been dedicating all that time to a million other things. To friends, family, work, studies, travel, stories, cooking, feminism, walking. There’s a thousand and one things to do in the world – how can anyone ever be bored?

I’ve always struggled with intense jealousy and self-esteem issues, like many, and generally tried to alleviate my problems by writing about them and often sharing it. I can’t say how much it helps. But I keep doing it anyway.

I’m forever slowly building my case against jealousy, finding a tidbit of evidence to put forward in an effort to convince myself that I’m actually quite alright as a human being and it’s reasonable to expect to have friends. Unfortunately, I’m very suspicious of myself.

But I’ve found another little scrap of proof in the past months, which is a variation on the usual theme of ‘Just being happy is absolutely enough to achieve in life,’ in that I’ve spent the past few months doing my utmost best to not stress about being the best and simply doing things I want to do. Baking cakes, reading books, writing in confused and English-peppered French to keep in practice, lying in the sun and practically purring with delight at just sitting and existing, peacefully.

I’ve written a bit, here and there, when I felt like it. But I haven’t forced myself.

And I’ve really had a great time.

How does this relate to jealousy? Well, now, let me continue.

I’m still unhealthily envious of people who seem to have something better than me. Or rather, do something better. Those who speak foreign languages fluently, and those who compete at national levels in sports. The 18 year old on my Facebook who’s apparently launched a new magazine for young people. That one’s hit me the hardest, recently. My jealousy is born, I think, of ambition.

But I know these people, often. I know they’re not always happy. I know I’m not always happy. But doing the things I want to do has made me a lot happier than trying to beat the whole world by doing whatever it is the people I’m jealous of have been doing.

And I suppose that’s the moral of this, ultimately. Your happiness shouldn’t be about other people’s views. It should be about your own personal desires and preferences.

In other words, I’m going to go ice a cake (and admire it, and later eat it), instead of trying to launch a magazine I don’t want to launch.

The value of friendship and the necessarily related qualities required in a friend.

So, friends.

Friends are sometimes ephemeral, sometimes reliable, generally amusing and hopefully sympathetic. Actually, friends can be a lot of surprisingly different things, from truthful and kind and absolutely selfless to manipulative and needy and dishonest. Some might disagree, and say that they’re not really your friend if they’re manipulative and so on, but I usually consider those people to be wrong. Human relationships are odd things – it’s often difficult to understand the varying relationships of the people around you, precisely because they’re so complicated and individual. I’ve had friends I didn’t like much because circumstances dictated we should be friendly. We weren’t close, of course, but in most senses of the word we were friends. We did things together, we laughed, we shared things, and then behind each others’ backs we complained and whined and that was that. We had to be friends, so we were.

I’ve also had friends who I did really like, wonderful, amazing friends, who were nonetheless dishonest or unfeeling or insensitive or careless. In one sense, it’s a little like having a friend who’s really bad at maths. It’s pretty damn irritating that when you go out, she can never get the right change ready or whatever else, but you can deal with it, and try and help them. You don’t just declare them a complete waste of your time. So if you have a friend who’s mostly quite alright, and who you get on with, then sometimes you can just put up with the way they tend to point out flaws or remind you of things you’d rather forget. Obviously you’d be happier if they didn’t do that, but life isn’t about ideal situations. As I’ve said before, it’s about compromise.

I’ve been forced over and over to make new friends because I’m constantly moving around, and I really, truly think I value friendships very highly. In fact, though this could simply be a result of my unfortunate tendency to believe myself superior to others, I think I might often value friendships more highly than the average, random young person. And while I half-jokingly attribute that to wanting to be special, I do think it’s more likely just because of the way I’ve been raised and my own personality. I’m not particularly at ease with large groups of people. I move around all the time, and I want friends who I can talk to 3 months after I last saw them and still have the same or at least a similar relationship with as when I saw them every day. I understand why other people prefer to have many friends, because I observe it around me a lot, and I have no problem with it. That’s wonderful, if that’s what they want and what they have. I just don’t want it for myself. And that means that I also tend to have quite selective criteria when it comes to finding a friend from the masses of humanity that I am forced to engage with, and thus often take rather a while to settle in to a new place, and find myself new friends.

Which leads me, of course, to what those criteria might be.

I don’t pretend to have some careful list detailing the exact attributes I require – that’s obviously quite foolish. But there are many things that I look for – I have to be able to respect them, for one. As I get older, I do seem to be getting more accepting, but I have limits, and while I do my utmost best to never change my treatment of people – it is my aim to be perfectly polite to everyone, unless of course they do something directly rude or cruel – I still don’t think there’s any reason I have to make them my friend and confidantes.

But one of the most important things in a friend, to me, is that they entertain me, and keep me happy. Honestly, as far as I can tell, that’s the main reason we have friends. It’s certainly the main reason have friends. I want people who make me laugh, and stop me from being bored on a 2 hour train trip, and that’s probably how I judge how well I’m friends with people. When we laugh often, and I don’t feel uncomfortable, like I’m faking it, or like I’m overeager for friends, I feel secure in my relationships.

I don’t mind a bit of dishonesty or selfishness. I would far far rather my friends weren’t selfish or dishonest, but I try to be a realist. No one is perfect. I’m not. It would be odd for someone as imperfect as me to always have perfect friends, wouldn’t it? And I’m dishonest sometimes too. I lie because I’m a private person and don’t want to share everything about myself. I imagine my friends do too. Same goes for being selfish, or rude, or insensitive, or lots of other things. Sure, I want  my friends to be honest and kind and sympathetic and selfless and caring and all these positive qualities. But most of all, I want them to make me happy, to make me laugh, to cheer me up when I’m sad. The kind of friends you can enjoy yourself with in imperfect situations, like when it’s raining and everywhere is closed and you end up in the cold wet park but it’s OK, because you’re with your friends and you can laugh about it tomorrow over hot chocolate in the warm.

I want friends who make me laugh.

That’s what I value most.



Have you heard about compromise?

People are often romantics at heart, it seems, because I’m forever hearing about the power of love, and how it’s what keeps the world running. And I don’t deny it – our emotions are what make us keep going, what stop us from deciding nothing is worth this hell. If you love something enough, it gives you the strength to put up with a lot.

But actual life, actual, physical, day-to-day life? Well, compromise is just as important as love. You don’t need to live a life of pure happiness, cavorting in the clouds to a soundtrack of your favourite musicians playing live and inviting you backstage afterwards, to be happy. I’m not saying that that wouldn’t make you ridiculously happy – I can’t really comment, having never experienced it – but I know for a fact that you can be quite deliriously happy without such exaggerated reason to be.

That’s one of the great things about humans. The oddest, most pointless things can make us happy.

Of course, that also goes the other way. Everything that makes you happy can seem stupidly pointless and make you question why you even care. But when you’re not looking at it from underneath, it’s almost magical how we can be made happy so easily.

But back to compromise.

Life is not perfect, and probably never will be. But there are enough good things in it, generally, that we can outweigh the bad. Of course, this means doing something that the human brain makes very hard for us – see the negative and the positive equally, or even slightly tipped to favour the positive, rather than the negative. You’ve got to make yourself look at your life, look at the people and the pets and the trips to your favourite restaurant and that feeling you get on Friday afternoon – and see how all of that makes it easier to get up at 7 every weekday, or find the money for that dental surgery, or give up your evening out to do something you don’t want to.

Otherwise, there’s no way out. All the bad stuff will cast too dark a shadow over what’s good in your life. Compromise is literally essential to not hate everything – and that’s OK. Really, it’s fine. Maybe it’s not what we want, but we can work with it. You might have to buy the top of the range phone or laptop, and have the other one be a bit cheap, but you’ll be able to pay your rent and buy Christmas presents, so it’s OK. It balances. I know some people are a lot poorer or unhappier than the difference between an iPhone 5s and an old iPhone 3, but surely even then, compromise is what gets you through.

All our life is is compromise, sometimes. It’s summer so you don’t have to wear a jacket, but you’ll get sunburned. You can go skiing in winter, but it’s freaking freezing. Eat the second slice of cake and you’ll feel a bit sick, or don’t eat your vegetables and you’ll also feel sick. We have to make choices all the time, and they’re not perfect. You just have to learn to take the best compromise – take the better one, because best isn’t always an option.

This rambling has been brought to you by me sitting in the sunshine and staring at the sky and loving Australia. And being unable to decide whether I’d rather live here or overseas. You know, the usual big problems of life.