Sunday, 15 September 2013

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Syria?

The Syrian problem is not unique. One only has to look at Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa ( to see that it is far from being the sole regime in the region that does not respect the human rights of those who have to live under its jurisdiction.

By now, we should all have learnt that trying to solve the problem of arbitrary rule with arbitrary intervention is morally flawed and politically unsustainable.

There are two questions that need to be considered: (a) what type of transgression within a country’s own borders is to be recognized as warranting external intervention; and (b) what type of intervention should be sanctioned without it adding to the suffering of the people concerned.

With the first question, the current answer appears to focus on the use of chemical weapons in killing civilians in Syria. But historically, we know that those powers leading interventions in the Middle East have often shifted their position. At one end of the foreign policy spectrum, being suspected of possessing weapons of mass destruction (Iraq), or harbouring terrorist groups (Afghanistan), would justify armed intervention. At the other end, having nuclear weapons, as well as being reported for violation of Palestinians’ human rights (Israel), or carrying out tortures and arbitrary detention (Saudi Arabia), do not seem to raise too many diplomatic eyebrows. In between these two poles, attempts at developing nuclear capability anywhere else in the region (e.g., Iran) might stir calls for an attack, while failures to keep a tight lid on a disgruntled populace (Egypt, Libya) might lead to pressures to concede to regime change (such pressures being largely absent when those regimes were far more effective with their oppression).

As for the second question, for a long time it was simply ignored. The establishment seemed to assume that bombing any ‘transgressing’ regime into submission was the one and only option for intervention. The fact that the collateral damage from repeated bombings and combat escalation would lead to thousands of civilians being killed and millions being made refugees, would hardly feature in policy discussion.

Both questions must be satisfactorily answered if a real solution is to be found. If the force deployed against a country, which is accused of using force illegitimately, is not to become illegitimate itself, then it must have a defensible and consistent rationale. If the claim that one is concerned with saving innocent lives is not to turn out to be hypocritically hollow, the interventionist ‘cure’ must not destroy more lives than it would actually save.

We hope the American-Russian diplomatic collaboration will produce a solution that removes deadly chemical weapons, ends the civil war, and ensures Syrians are no longer subject to repression and arbitrary arrests.

Is that likely to happen? Both America and Russian are major exporters of arms to the Middle East, and they share an interest in removing chemical weapons and the immensely negative publicity associated with them from the scene. They can then return to doing arms business as usual. There may be a truce here and there in the civil war. But for a truly democratic system to take root and for human rights to be genuinely safeguarded for all, America and Russia would have to stop viewing Syria, and indeed every other country in the Middle East, as mere pawns in advancing their own plutocratic/oligarchic interests, and start prioritising the spread of social and political justice across the entire region.

Arab Spring? More likely, another winter of discontent.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Teacher

Producing exam-hardened individuals to serve the needs of employers has become the be-all and end-all of contemporary education.

But is the exclusive focus on the ability to pass tests in short bursts really helpful to employers, let alone those being tested or the wider society?

Education is ultimately about the kind of people we want to bring up as our fellow citizens. It is indeed important they develop some competence in serving the needs of others so that others will in turn reciprocate by contributing to the meeting of their needs. It is equally important they develop their capacity to find meaning and lead a fulfilling life themselves. Neither of these goals can be realised if we institutionalise a narrow range of skills and tests as the only ones that matter in evaluating the worth of a human being.

Instead of accepting the dominant frame that presents the teacher’s role as that of the factory worker churning out standard components (as well as quite a few spare parts) for the corporate machine, educators concerned with the overall development of those in our charge – in schools, universities, or adult learning – should persist with aiding students in pursuit of their long-term wellbeing.

In spite of the dominant dogma, which stigmatises failures in raising pass rates as disastrous and condemns success in raising pass rates as lowering standards, it is vital to recognise the value of promoting a better understanding of cooperative interactions, opportunities to cultivate diverse human potential, causes of injustice and exploitation, and ways to access cultural enrichment.

To reduce people into categories of good, average and poor exam-takers, and use that differentiation to segregate them into the well-rewarded and the marginalised, is to betray the purpose of education.

It is of course difficult to challenge the prevailing model of education when it is an integral part of our increasingly plutocratic socio-political system. But resistance is most needed precisely when the threat is most difficult to dislodge.

If you too reject the notion that education is about cheering on a few natural born sprinters, and you believe in helping all to run the long distance obstacle course for self-development, then share your thoughts with other like-minded teachers. You may at times feel isolated, but in this struggle you are not alone.