Saturday, 25 April 2015

A student and a tutor

An attractive female student went to see her tutor about a course she was struggling with. She knocked on the door, and he answered.

"Dr Smith, I really need to pass your course, and I would do anything ..... anything whatsoever ...... to pass."

Now you probably think you know where this is going. Of course I am going somewhere different.

Dr Smith looked at her, noted that Lucy was both attractive and moderately intelligent, but who had been enjoying university life rather too much, and not doing as well as she should have been in her course work.

"Lucy," he said. "I have 4 pieces of advice for you. Firstly, never offer anything unless you know precisely what it is that you are offering. Secondly, most things in life that you work for are better than those handed to you on a plate. And thirdly, don't be a cliche. Now get out."

She left his office quickly, and was almost at the coffee shop when she realised that he hadn't made sense. She was just about to return and ask him about it, when the answer hit her - she was reasonably clever after all. As she realised, she got a coffee from the shop, and returned to her room to study.

I am sure that you understand this, seeing as all those who read my blog are wise and intelligent people, but I have to explain it because I want to make a point.

The core point that Lucy realised is that Dr Smith had only made 3 points explicitly, despite offering 4 pieces of advice. Of course, this was the 4th piece - that people sometimes lie, that you cannot always trust people. So what did this mean in the context? Well, he could have taken advantage of her - or, considering his first piece of advice, insisted she do something highly publicly humiliating - and then not given her the pass she asked for. That was a lesson in itself, but there was more.

The comment about the cliche was a reference to the response you might have expected. It was a pointer to say that the thing she needed to do was actually work. The point is that if he had simply told her this, she would probably have dismissed it, but because she had to work it through, because she had to work to find the answer, she understood it better. That was the real message he wanted to teach her, and she learnt it because she had to work a little bit to get there.

Of course, the story is just made up. We all know that tutors are not that perceptive, and students don't get these sorts of lessons so quickly. Or something. But the point is there - people learn more by doing than by being taught.

I am tempted here to give some examples of how this applies, but I am sure you can all find better examples, more appropriate ones. I am not dismissing book-learning, but I am suggesting that simply reading things in books is not "learning". learning is something you only get if you work for it, fight for it, struggle to get it, understand because you have engaged with it. I am currently working for my advanced driving test, and I realise that many of the things I have learnt in some 30 years of driving have been learnt the hard way. But it means that I am now a better driver, having learnt not from someone teaching me, but from my own experience.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Quantum Confession

I have recently finished reading this book by Stephen Oram, and it is a very good read, a good story, a challenging book to read and make you think. If you haven't read it, this post may contain spoilers.

There are some aspects of it that I struggled with, which are not problems with the story as such, merely the characterisation of the two sides - the libertarians and the absolutionists. In one sense, this is simply because they are both characterised in emphatic terms, as extremes. What is more, because of the conflict between them, their positions tend to become more extreme. The problem is that I wanted to see which side I would be on, given a division of this nature, and I am not sure.

The faith communities are generally on the absolutionist side, because they stand for absolute truths, even though they differ greatly in what these truths are. They are united solely in opposition to the libertarians, by the fact that they all hold to some form of absolute truth. The problem I have with this is that I, and others who would be broadly on the side of the faith communities would not subscribe to this absolutionist position. I do not believe that there is an "absolute truth" that we are seeking to understand and learn. I believe that we are called to seek truth in all sorts of ways and all sorts of places. If you want, truth is like food and drink - I want and need to keep eating and drinking, some of which will be great, some will not, but I just need to have more and different. There is never a time when I would say "I have had the best meal possible, so I don;t need any more". My faith is about seeking for, searching out truth wherever it is, not to find some "absolute truth" that exists somewhere, any more than I eat in the hope of finding "the perfect meal".

So would I sit on the other side, the libertarians? Well not as they are portrayed, because there is one situation where a doctor refuses to suggest a treatment, because it is not his job to tell the relatives what to do. They are expected to research into the various treatments and identify what they would like the doctor to do. But this is not libertarianism, this is something else - this is a doctor failing to use his skills and expertise to help guide relatives. Actually, I am all for doctors not proscribing treatment, and to be honest, they don't for this sort of serious condition tell relatives what to do. They do outline options, give pros and cons, outline any particular issues that treatments might have, and suggest what they consider, in their professional opinion to be the best route to take. That is what I expect of professionals (medical or otherwise).

So I would not be on the side of those who refuse to offer advice when they have appropriate knowledge. Of course, I also wouldn't be on the side of professionals who dictate rather than discuss. The problem with most of those on the libertarian side is that they are not supporting freedom of thought, they are eroding trust. They erode trust in medical professionals who refuse to use their knowledge. They erode trust in friends and families, because they break the bonds of respect (however loose they are) - both ways, where parents deny any responsibilities they might be considered to have, and children refuse to accept their parents conditions. This breakdown in trust, rather than a rejection of absolute truth, causes people to breakdown.

I have a real problem with the equating of "removing trust" with "rejecting absolute truth", because they are different. In fact, because I don't accept a universal truth, I need to trust people - not with everything, but with being honest and open with me. It is more important to me that we can discuss and explore with openness, and not with some hidden purpose behind it. What is more, if you remove trust, people will move towards a breakdown, because you remove hope, you remove any sense of purpose. You do not recover from this by giving them absolute truth - you recover from this by caring for people.

None of this actually takes away from a good read, but it does give a challenge to the more absolutionist approaches of churches (in particular, but not exclusively). The choice is not between an absolute truth and any truth goes. The choice is, as the book tries to show, who you allow to define truth for you. Do you accept someone telling you "this is truth, accept or or not", or someone saying "believe whatever you want", or do you accept someone saying "find truth wherever"?

Friday, 3 April 2015


Nurse is a short series by Paul Whitehouse, a dark comedy with Esther Coles as a community mental health nurse, visiting a range of her patients (mostly played by Whitehouse). I was both intrigued and worried by this, knowing that Whitehouse is a talented character actor, that he can define different characters well; but also that making fun of mental health issues is an easy target, and not actually that funny.

What really struck me early on was that there was an interesting interplay between Nurse Liz and her patients - in some ways, her patients are more together than she is, to an extent because she has to pretend to be OK, whereas her patients don't have to. The question that it asks me again and again is Who is the one with problems? The answer is everyone, the nurse, the patients, those people like Lorrie's neighbour Maurice who is not one of Liz's patients, but maybe he should be.

What was interesting was that there was humour in the series - and it was not making fun of those who were ill. It was sometimes seeing the humour in their situations, and often the target was nurse Liz herself. Ray the forgotten rock star, who talks about all of his past glories, to put off the moment when he needs an injection in his behind, is funny and poignant. There is something of Les McQueen from The League of Gentlemen, but more nuanced, less cynical. Graham is hugely overweight, but the jokes are not AT his weight problem, but as much at those (like his mother) who pamper to his food desires. If anyone is the butt of jokes in these sketches, it is his mother, not Graham himself.

There was a sense in some of the storylines, of progress, development, a sense that there was progress happening. In the final episode this week, some of these were resolved - in various ways. Graham got out of bed and walked a little - no miracles, but important progress. Ray had nothing to say in his last meeting, his silent depression a reflection of him acknowledging his problems. And yet there is the Alzheimer's sufferer who is really no better at the end than at the beginning - her son, who is Liz's actual patient, may have had enough.

As a whole, I think the series was very sensitive to those with mental health problems. It was funny, in a rather dark way, and I would put a trigger warning on it for those with mental health issues. Not everyone would find it funny, some would consider it offensive. I am not dismissing these views, all I am saying is that for me, it was insightful. Rather than laughing at at people with mental health problems, the series as a whole did identify some of the issues that they face, some of the challenges that mental health problems cause for individuals. For me, Ray - that chatty, outgoing star who ends up unable to say anything, was perfect, and someone who (in some ways) I relate to. That is the reality for many - including myself - of depression.

So, despite some reservations, I think Paul Whitehouse has done something very good, very positive. Well done.