I wonder if Steven Spielberg is having second thoughts about Bridge of Spies in light of the attack on Paris? Spielberg’s latest film – released this week and tipped for Oscar glossy – is an espionage thriller set at the height of the Cold War with no immediate relevance to the “war” we find ourselves in today. But it contains a strong liberal message about the importance of observing due process when dealing with enemy combatants and prisoners of war.
The hero of Bridge of Spies is James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a straight arrow insurance lawyer who is asked by the American government to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Brooklyn-based artist who’s been caught spying for the Soviets. The reason Donovan’s been asked to do this, explains the man from the New York Bar Association, is that the government wants Abel to be seen to get a fair trial. Donovan has drawn the short straw because he worked as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg Trials, although there’s also a suggestion it’s because he’s not a criminal lawyer and won’t be able to mount a robust defence. (To read more, click here.)
As a graduate student in the Harvard Government Department in the late 1980s, I became slightly jaded about the number of visiting professors who warned about the imminent demise of the West. The thrust of their arguments was nearly always the same. The secular liberal values we cherish, such as freedom of speech and the separation of church and state, won’t survive in the face of growing, religious disenchantment with modernity unless they’re rooted in something more [itals] meaningful [itals] than rational individualism. They were talking about Islamic Fundamentalism, obviously, although sometimes they threw in Christian Fundamentalism as well in order not seem “Orientalist” or “ethnocentric”.
These political scientists were, without exception, left-of-centre and their critique of garden-variety liberalism was usually accompanied by a call for some version of utopian socialism or – its diffusion brand – “communitarianism”. I was a member of a small band of conservatives in the Department and, after the visitors’ words had been warmly received by almost everyone else, one of us would pipe up and ask how long they thought we had left. Ten years? 15? 50? If they were foolish enough to name a date, the follow-up was instantaneous: “Care to make a wager?”
There have been many occasions since then when I’ve regretted that callow reaction, with the terrorist attack in Paris being the latest example. (To read more, click here.)
I’m pleased to announce a new addition to the Young household – a 10-week-old Vizsla. For those unfamiliar with this particular breed of dog, they are Hungarian in origin and when fully grown are about the same size as a Lab. They make good bird dogs – they’re excellent retrievers – but can also double up as household pets. We’ve named him Leo on account of his Leonine colouring.
Caroline says it’s like having a new baby, save for the fact that she isn’t breastfeeding him, and that’s not a joke. For one thing, I had no choice in the matter, just as I wasn’t consulted on the four occasions she decided to get pregnant. She drove up to Wales one morning to “look at” some Vizsla puppies and returned in the evening with Leo under her jacket. (To read more, click here.)
I confess to finding it difficult to get beneath the spin and counter-spin emanating from the pro- and anti-EU camps following David Cameron’s speech this morning setting out his four EU reform demands. The pro camp claim that these are hugely ambitious demands that would fundamentally change Britain’s relationship with EU, while the antis have dismissed them as “meaningless”. “Cameron will get what he’s asking for but since it’s trivial, who cares?” says Dominic Cummings, the director of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. (To read more, click here.)
The research by Cambridge Assessment, published today, looks at whether there’s a correlation between As at A level and degree results and finds that students from state schools with As are more likely to get first class degrees than those from independent schools with the same A level results.
On the face of it, that should make university admissions departments more likely to admit state school applicants, but it may not. (To read more, click here.)
I’ve been doing some thinking recently about the findings of behavioural geneticists and their implications for education policy. For instance, a 2013 study of over 10,000 twins led by Robert Plomin, a leading light in the field, found that GCSE results are nearly 60 per cent heritable. What this means is that genetic differences between children account for almost 60 per cent of the variation in their GCSE results, with shared environmental factors, such as the schools they go to, accounting for less than 40 per cent. One very obvious implication of this research is that we may need to lower our expectations when it comes to the impact schools can make on the underlying rate of social mobility.
But the more I think about this, the more I realise that behavioural geneticists are upending our assumptions in other areas, too. Parenting, for example. Most middle class parents, myself included, believe that how you bring up your children will have a major impact on their life chances. That’s why we spend so much energy on getting them to put down their screens, do their homework, practice the piano, etc. But if you look at some of the biggest determinants of success – IQ, conscientiousness, grit – they are all far more heritable than we like to imagine. Our children’s destinies aren’t set in stone from the moment of conception, but the difference that being a good parent makes is fairly negligible. The one crumb of comfort I’ve been able to dig up is that the ability to give and receive love isn’t very heritable. Perhaps that’s something we can teach our children.
The Kids Company story looks like one of those scandals that’s metastasizing, growing ever more poisonous as more details emerge. Today, we’ve learnt from the National Audit Office that Labour and Conservative ministers were warned on six separate occasions in the last 13 years by civil servants that the charity had questions to answer about the way it was being run and how it was spending its money. Yet that didn’t stop successive governments handing over £46 million of public money in the same time period.
Until now, the issue has been whether the various government departments responsible for this largesse did sufficient due diligence before handing out grants, but it’s beginning to look as though the ministers responsible were aware of the charity’s shortcomings and decided to hand over money nevertheless. To give just one example, Matthew Hancock and Oliver Letwin, two Cabinet Office ministers, decided to award Kids Company a £3 million grant shortly before it collapsed earlier this year in the teeth of objections by their civil servants. Why? (To read more, click here.)
I’m getting a lot of abuse on Twitter for saying that having been a member of the Bullingdon is more of a hindrance than a help in contemporary Britain. My comment was a response to a piece by Charlotte Proudman in the Guardian on Monday that Oxford and Cambridge’s drinking clubs “cement the succession of power and influence in Britain among a narrow elite”.
In response to my claim, numerous people have pointed out that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Mayor of London were all members of the Bullingdon. The problem with this rebuttal is that merely pointing out that Cameron, Osborne and Johnson are successful politicians doesn’t, by itself, prove their membership wasn’t a hindrance. It could be that all the other advantages they enjoyed – high IQ, good education, devoted parents, bags of drive and ambition, etc – combined to overcome the disadvantage of being associated with Oxford’s most notorious student society.
Why do I think it was a handicap? (To read more, click here.)
At the last minute, a friend invited me to a “Distinguished Speakers Dinner” at the Oxford and Cambridge Club earlier this week. The dinner was being hosted by Christ’s College and the speaker was Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries and one of the college’s alumni. His subject was “The arts in education: luxury or necessity?” which is why my friend thought I might be interested. Indeed I was.
There’s an awful lot of bunkum talked about the arts in education and I’m afraid Sir Nicholas’s speech was no exception. Nothing wrong with the overall thrust of his argument – that arts subjects in schools and universities should enjoy parity of esteem with STEM subjects, as well as academic humanities like history and geography – but he exaggerated the extent to which arts subjects have been downgraded since 2010. I should say that Sir Nicholas is hardly an exception in this regard. The view that the arts have been under attack for the past five years, particularly in schools and universities, is ubiquitous across the artistic establishment. It is part-and-parcel of the liberal intelligentsia’s [itals] haut en bas [itals] attitude towards Conservative politicians, whereby they are caricatured as ignorant philistines who lack a cultural “hinterland”.
Sir Nicholas quoted Michael Gove telling him, shortly after he’d become Education Secretary, that he didn’t think the arts should be included in the national curriculum at all. No doubt this was a misunderstanding on Sir Nicholas’s part because when the new national curriculum came into force last year the arts were no less prominent than they were in the old one. I know this because I co-authored a book on the new primary national curriculum called ‘What Every Parent Needs to Know’ and I was responsible for writing the chapters on all the arts subjects, about a third of the total.