Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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2/11/14: can't have it every which way

As faithful readers will know I've been to North West Uganda on two separate occasions, and I have to say I just love it there.  People are fantastic, warm and welcoming, the classes I ran went down very well, attending church was just amazing.

Particularly, I'm aware that the way I live my life and the way the people I meet live theirs are poles apart.  So my lifestyle prioritises my job - I have a clear track record to demonstrate that I am prepared to move wherever the job I want takes me.  And with the job comes a reasonably comfortable income, pension plan, health insurance, air conditioned flat, car, etc. etc.  As far as I can make out - and I'm somewhat wary of speaking on behalf of other people - their lifestyle prioritises community life, family, corporate activity, continuity with their predecessors.  I'm almost sure that they would regard my lifestyle - in terms of living it themselves - with the same fascinated horror as I regard theirs.

On a number of occasions since I've been out here the fact that I come from a country with health care which is free at the point of delivery and a social security system has come up in conversation.  Almost always this is regarded, in my experience, as an unmitigated good.  But, I say, hold on a minute!  In one sense it is great that in the UK we can turn to the state when we need medical care, lose our jobs, etc.  But this comes at the expense of corporate responsibility, of working together, leading to social fragmentation.  Is this really better than being in North West Uganda, where the clear expectation is that one should be helping each other in times of need, in effect as a small scale informal insurance scheme.  As and when my turn comes to need help I better have a track record of helping others!

In a similar vein, as a PhD student I read somebody else's thesis which was set in a village in the Peruvian jungle.  There was a primary school there which theoretically all children of the appropriate age attended, necessarily in the medium of Spanish even though that was never spoken locally.  Children who did well at primary school could go on to the 'local' secondary school which was three days' boat ride away - and if they were successful there, the choice then was to return to the village to take jobs which did not necessitate that level of education, or to leave the village and set up home somewhere else.  There are choices here to be made.  Bu there's a problem.  You can't have individual choice and collective choice simultaneously here.  The freedom of academically bright youngsters to leave the village diminishes the village which is left behind.

To take another example, I had very mixed feelings when Joanna Lumley was campaigning on behalf of the Gurkhas to be able to stay in the UK on retirement.  Actually, I have very mixed feelings about the whole notion of Gurkha soldiers in the British army.  Is it really in Nepal's interest that the brightest and strongest should leave the country to fight in a foreign army?  Or that to do so should be the aspiration of so many young men that there are well over 100 applicants to every 1 place?  How are the other 99 supposed to feel as they continue to live their lives in their home country having been deprived of their dream?

Not quite sure where I'm going with all this, I suppose it's the kind of conundrum which has been preying on my mind in trying to make sense of my experiences out here.  Also, the principle of collective responsibility, of the sins of the fathers being visited on the children is very much a Biblical principle, not least in the book of Ezekiel which is where I am right now.  Of course, in one sense this is necessarily the case: if, for example, the breadwinner of a household is sent to prison, then this will have clear negative effects on the rest of the family, financial and emotional being but two of them.

So, I think I'll leave it there for this week.  If I've provoked any thoughts or reactions, please do send a comment, it's always a joy to get one which isn't SPAM!

6 Comments to 2/11/14: can't have it every which way:

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Peter Tennant on 08 November 2014 13:25
Interesting Geoff, just wondering if your thoughts have similarities to the juxtaposition of Socialism (the focus on humans as part of a collective whole) and Capitalism (the focus on humans as individual beings)? What do you think, Pete
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Geoff on 09 November 2014 08:14
Thanks Pete, yes, I think you can put the points I am making in terms of classic left-wing / right-wing politics - although that's broken down now somewhat in the UK at least, back in the days of Michael Foot versus Margaret Thatcher the policy differences were very clear! Both have their up and their downsides - and, as I put it in the title, you can't have it every which way. Thanks once again, Geoff


Carolyn on 08 November 2014 16:29
Hi Geoff, you refer to the Social Security system and say that this comes at the expense of corporate responsibility. I agree that this can be the case in practice. However, the principle of the welfare state is the ultimate example of corporate responsibility; everyone contributes and everyone gains. This is what Owen Jones keeps pointing out. He's very keen that all should be involved at every level, giving and taking. So, although at first sight it seems unfair that the rich should be given bus passes etc. it is right in principle that all should give and all should gain. That way no one can say, 'I'm not getting anything out of this so I don't want to contribute.'At the same time, it's a good principle for everyone to pay tax, (cheerfully and thankfully) however small the amount. In this way we would not have social fragmentation as we would be genuinely 'in it together'. Well, in my ideal world anyway!
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Geoff on 09 November 2014 08:20
Thank you for contributing, Carolyn, it's interesting to read what you're saying. I suppose my response would be that there is a clear difference between corporate responsibility in a North West Ugandan village context, in which people know each other, giving when somebody in the village has a particular need on the one hand, and corporate responsibility as administered by the Government where the whole thing become depersonalised. I agree with your point about eg. all OAPs gettting bus passes but for other reasons - means testing is expensive and it also carries the danger of excluding those in need. See you at Christmas, Geoff


Susan Short on 19 November 2014 19:55
Hi Geoff - interesting discussion! I would just like to add some thoughts about the notion of corporate responsibility becoming "depersonalised" if administered by a government (rather than by neighbours in a small community, for example). I wonder whether we need to know "personally" the good that our contributions (through tax etc) are doing. In my ideal world (to use Carolyn's phrase) we would indeed give cheerfully and thankfully to the communal pot which would be shared out in the most efficient way to those in need, and I wouldn't feel it necessary or indeed always desirable to know who exactly is benefiting at any given moment; less still whether they were "deserving"! Of course mutual support in a small community is a great thing, but we live in a community of millions and "Who is my neighbour?" springs to mind... If I plant a forest of trees I won't personally be around to see them grow tall - thank God that hasn't stopped people planting trees. On another note, one of the most memorable training days I attended as a teacher was run by David Wells, who is currently Director for Parish Formation in the Catholic Diocese of Plymouth. He spoke very powerfully about how as teachers we can invest so much in children and young people without appearing to get any return on our "investment". Then years later as an adult, that pupil remembers something we said or did (in a good way!)and our investment bears fruit... Anyway, it's late and I am probably rambling now, but I just thought I'd comment. Thanks for all the interesting blog posts which I do catch up on whenever I can. Susan
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Geoff on 22 November 2014 01:15
Great to hear from you, Susan, thank you for contributing. Is it possible to have best of both worlds, ie. the consistency of provision which doing things on a large scale can bring, and a sense of purpose in giving (ie. paying taxes)? I'm inclined to the view that there are choices to be made here, but am open to having my mind changed! The point about growing trees is an interesting one, conversely, I have previously heard problems with governing bodies of international schools when parents are only around for a short period of time and not wanting their school fees spent on projects for which their children would not see the benefit. Possibly catch up with you over the Christmas period, in any eventuality, trust all is well, Geoff

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