The Reading Room at the British Museum

Recently read (13 – 20 April): On tensions

This week’s collection of stories, articles, and news explores some of the tensions that we negotiate daily: tensions between the value of religious belief and value (and cost!) of education; tensions between empirical facts and strongly held convictions; tensions between creating new ideas and reproducing ideas of proven worth; tensions between visions of higher education that foster a questioning attitude and those that encourage conformity; and of course, tensions between competing academic institutions.   

Sharia, loans and the academe

With university tuition fees already at the upper limit of what might be considered affordable, and given the proposals to increase them even further, prospective students seem to have no choice but take a student loan. For students with an Islamic background, however, this might be a problem, as Sharia law prohibits loans involving the payment of interest. Some weeks ago, the British government put forward a proposal for financing the studies of Islamic students through a fund to which graduates would contribute after they began to earn money. Open consultation for the proposal closes on 12 June 2014, and people interested in participating might want to read the views of 1st Ethical, an Islamic advocacy group.

I do not consider myself to be particularly well informed in either financial affairs or matters of faith, but I must profess my concern about both a faith system and a legal framework that effectively prevents people from receiving the best education that they can. The views of one student, quoted in the Independent, seem particularly apt:

My religion has to be more of a priority to me than my education. It’s a real shame, because just a couple of years ago [when fees were lower] I could afford to go to university without a loan. There is no way I could pay the amount needed now, coming from a low-income background.

More to read: Some time ago, there was a report in Times Higher Education about crowdfunding, as an alternative means to raise funds for tuition fees.

‘You can prove anything with facts, can’t you?’

Some readers may be aware of Russ Mayne’s remarkable talk in this year’s IATEFL, where he attacked various forms of “pseudosience” that are plaguing English Language Teaching. Russ, who is also the man behind Evidence Based EFL, has written a reflective piece for ELT Jam, where he ponders about the impact of his talk. Here’s an extract:

In 2012, after writing a piece about learning styles,  I had a naïve notion that that would be the end of learning styles. That I, a lowly blogger, had put a stake through the heart of learning styles and killed the beast once and for all. Somehow, in my mind,  everyone would just stop using them; after all,  the evidence  says they don’t work. A year or so later I came across a blog post by Scott Thornbury saying the same thing and quoting some of the same research. It was dated 2010! His blog is viewed by way more people than my article and yet learning styles were still going strong. How could this be? I then came across Guardian articles talking about the lack of evidence  for learning styles, like this one in 2006 and this in 2004. The Guardian is viewed by way more people than Thornbury’s website. Do you see where I’m going with this? (Read on)

Plagiarism: even children know better

Science 2.0 reports on an interesting piece of research, which looked into young children’s perceptions of plagiarism. In the study, 3- to 6-year-old children from the US, Mexico and China were shown videos of puppets involved in various acts of intellectual theft, and asked to rate this behaviour. On the whole, the children (particularly those who were older, were critical of plagiarism), despite small cultural attitudinal variations. According to Kristina Olsen, the lead researcher:

Sometimes copying is good; for example, when we learn to write, we all learn this is how you make an A, so that’s not considered plagiarism,” Olson said. “That may be confusing to children, because sometimes we tell them to come up with novel ideas but other times they’re supposed to copy. It’s interesting to think about how kids are sorting that out.

Professor nearly loses his job due to MOOC

[A]nd you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free“, according to John 8:32. This, however, does not seem to be the case with a Ebrahim Afsah, associate professor of public international law at the University of Copenhagen, who developed and taught a MOOC titled Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World. According to this story in Times Higher Education, Afseh faced serious reputational and physical risks, on account of the content of the course he had created. The former risks involved the threat of being fired due to the controversy the course had generated. On the latter, the story reports that:

On a recent trip to Iran, Professor Afsah continued, he had a “nice friendly chat, for four hours, with the Iranian secret service”, who knew everything about his Mooc and wanted to talk about it in a little more detail. “If you want to touch the hornets’ nest you need to be prepared for the repercussions,” he told delegates.

One cannot help thinking that the professor would not have attracted such attention unless he had been doing a very fine job.

Caltech students’ epic prank

A good university education is not just about the ability to generate controversy, and the resilience to stand by ones’ beliefs; it is also about creativity, as illustrated in the story that follows. But first, some context: there appears to be an ongoing prank war between Caltech and MIT, two of California’s most prestigious HE institutions. This year, a group of Caltech students visited an MIT open day, and posing as MIT students offered visitors 800 very special coffee mugs . PasadenaNow describes what happened:

A team of thirteen Caltech undergrads traveled to MIT’s Campus Preview Weekend last Thursday to mug the rival institute’s annual “pre-frosh” gathering of hundreds of students and parents touring the Massachusetts institute. How? With a lovely parting gift—800 prank coffee mugs. When cool, the mugs read, “MIT the Institute of Technology,” and when filled with a hot beverage, they turned orange to read, “Caltech the HOTTER Institute of Technology” along with a palm tree.


As noted in the introduction, the common theme shared by these stories is ‘tension’ between competing perspectives. One may be forgiven for trying to reduce such tensions to questions of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’, ‘correct’ vs ‘wrong’: for instance, the evidence-based perspective that Russ Mayne invokes seems seems much more intuitively appealing than the beliefs of the lay people, and there is a similar appeal to the narrative of maintaining academic integrity rather than conforming to threats by the powers-that-be.

However, I would like to put forward a different way of viewing such tensions. It seems to me that whether involved in ‘serious’ considerations like relating to truth and power, or in reflections about how far to stray from the roots of one’s thinking, or even in trivial matters like relating to one’s competitors, the tensions surrounding our personal stance function like a crucible. Through their existence, they invite us to reflect critically and creatively, they command us to make a stand or to take action, and they hold us accountable for our decisions. The challenge, then, for those of us involved in moulding minds might not be so much one of resolving such tensions, a task which often seems intractable, but rather one of heightening awareness  and promoting engagement with them.

Image credit: © ceridwen [CC BY-SA]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s