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Manipulation in Education

There is a fundamental power asymmetry in education. Teachers understand what they are teaching, learners do not. Learners, by definition, cannot have a full appreciation of what they are about to learn, of its value and of how it will change them. If they did, they would not be in the position of learners. The only way you can ignore this is if you are mislead into accepting the banking metaphor of education (education as information transmission, teachers as content providers, students as receptacles to be filled).

One implication of this power asymmetry is that the authority and responsibility of the teacher cannot be abdicated. Students should not be left to ‘decide for themselves’. Sure, students can pursue their own path of inquiry, but teachers should be there to persuade and guide them. For a teacher to pretend that they are letting students ‘make up their own minds’ is simply a denial of their role, an obfuscation. Of course it is important that people can decide for themselves, but students’ autonomy is not icreased by a lack of teacher manipulation of their choices. All our choices are conditioned by our past, our environment and by other people. Free choices are still conditioned choices.

A discussion of this in relation to the morality of manipulation is provided by Buss, S. (2005). Valuing Autonomy and Respecting Persons: Manipulation, Seduction, and the Basis of Moral Constraints. Ethics, 115(2), 195-235. doi: 10.1086/426304. Buss only touches on the topic of education in a footnote (no. 71) but the implications of the general argument for education are clear: we cannot avoid affecting other people, manipulation without informed consent of their free chocies is inevitable, and so we cannot pretend that it is possible for teachers to avoid making choices for their students, or that full informed consent of students in the content of their education is desirable or possible.

politics sheffield systems

Small Worlds, article in Now Then

Now Then is an independent Sheffield-based arts and community magazine. They are monthly, good chaps and have an out of date website. It is part of the Opus Productions media empire. For the first issue of the magazine, last year, I wrote them an article about something that has interested me for a long time: small worlds. Specifically I’d been thinking about social networks and what the Watts and Strogatz small-world result had to tell us about them. The article is now here, should you wish to read it. It is pretty upbeat. I think if I had more room and less inclination to try to be positive I would include something about how we tend to organise our social worlds so that it seems, from the ‘ground-level’, that we are talking to everyone important, but in actually fact we are ignoring — completely estranged from — most of the people we are physically close to, insulated in comforting small worlds.

See also bridging and bonding social capital, ‘60 Million People You’d Never Talk To Voting For Other Guy’, We Live in Small Worlds

links People I know

A journey to the Sinking Lands

Dan Box is travelling to Carteret, a set of island in the south pacific. This year the islands are being evacuated due to sea-level rises. You can read about his trip and the world’s first climate change refugees at

politics quotes

Colonising the future

Sociological and political attention to what is actually happening on the ground has invariably located the causes of hunger not in an absolute scarcity but in socially-generated scarcity arising from imbalances of power that deny people access to food and water…However such is the power of “scarcity” to colonise the future that even those who, quite properly, locate today’s scarcities in political conflict, frequently crumble when confronted with projections of future population growth, setting aside the insights of political economy in favour of Malthusian metaphors that emphasise numbers over power relations as the explanation for future shortages. In doing so, they grant Malthusianism an explanatory power that they would actively deny it when applied to the present and the past. Instead of the past being a guide to
future action, the future (implausibly) becomes a guide to the present…Yet future crises are likely to be rooted in the same dynamics in which they are rooted today…If society wants to prepare for future resource crises, it would therefore be more prudent to look to the present rather than to some theoretical Malthusian model of the future. The future will grow out of the present, not out of society suddenly turning Malthusian. The better way of dealing with “future crisis” is not imagining a future Malthusian world which bears no relationship to what exists now or ever has existed, and then imagining how to stave off that hypothetical Malthusian world, but rather dealing with current scarcities now on the realistic assumption that what causes scarcity today is going to go on causing scarcity in the future

From “Scarcity” as Political Strategy Reflections on Three Hanging Children by Nicholas Hildyard, paper presented at “Scarcity and the Politics of Allocation” conference, Institute of Development Studies, University of Brighton, UK, 6-7 June 2005 (thanks Josie!)


Complaint response from BBC about DEC gaza appeal

To: tom [at]

Thank you for your e-mail.

We note your disappointment at our decision not to broadcast an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee to raise funds for Gaza.

We decided not to broadcast the DEC’s public appeal because we wished to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of covering a continuing news story where issues of responsibility for civilian suffering and distress are intrinsic to the story and remain highly contentious. We also could not be confident that the aid resulting from audience donations could reach those it was intended for at a time of a fragile ceasefire and sporadic border access. We will of course continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza.

The BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson has therefore explained the decision in more detail in a number of television and radio broadcasts and online at our Editors’ blog. Please follow the link to read his explanation in full:

Please be assured that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact us.


BBC Complaints