Alain de Botton has made me angry: novels and news are not the same thing

Alain de Botton has made me angry. I thought he was supposed to be intelligent, not the sort of person to throw Ill-conceived populist soundbites to the Twitter pack.

Alain de Botton - Impact Hub - Flickr

Alain de Botton, apparently with a luminous snake in his ear. Photo by Impact Hub.

What has made me angry? His glib suggestion on Twitter this morning that human beings are more likely to care about fictional characters in novels than real people in the news:

Novels get us to care about the death of people who never existed; the news often can’t help us care about real people who died yesterday.

He may well be right, but only because of his seemingly careless comparison of two very different beasts.

It’s not the job of news to help us care. News tries to be objective, to give us information impartially. It’s hard to do, but the British press is actually pretty good at it – not least because it is required by law to be duly accurate and impartial. This often means presenting information such that it doesn’t push the viewer into siding with a particular party in the story.

Novelists, on the other hand, have an agenda. They want us to care about their characters and they work incredibly hard to ensure that we do.

But let’s not stop there. What about biographies? Biographers write about real people, and they will often make the reader care about their subject. The same goes for feature writers and anyone whose job is to push our buttons, such as charity copywriters and publicists.

And that’s why I’m angry: Mr de Botton is perfectly intelligent enough to know all of this. It seems, therefore, that he is being deliberately disingenuous: that he is ignoring nuances in presentation while taking full advantage of those nuances for the sake of publicity and ego. He knows full well the difference between objective news and subjective novels, but he also knows that his little crafted soundbite will be lapped up and retweeted hundreds of times by people who trust his word.

Who cares about accuracy when the world believes everything you say?

Politicians’ rose-tinted views of citizenship education are bad for democracy

Politicians of all colours agree that citizenship education is an important part of the curriculum. So why are they so complacent about it vanishing from schools?

Spectacles, rose-tinted. (Ok, ok - you come up with a better picture.)

Spectacles, rose-tinted. (Ok, ok – you come up with a better picture.)

There is renewed interest among politicians for lowering the voting age to 16, and most advocates agree it must be coupled with rigorous citizenship education. In a House of Commons debate on Tuesday, speakers agreed that any lowering of the voting age must be supported by a strong element of citizenship education in schools.

But the current situation is not good enough, said Labour’s Sarah Champion. ‘When I asked young people in my constituency about citizenship education and what they had learned about politics as part of that, some of them in their final year of school replied that they had only three or four sessions in which they had talked about politics in the entirety of their secondary education. Is it any wonder that we are seeing a decline in voting, and that political apathy has become the norm?’

Her colleague, Andy Slaughter, agreed. ‘Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum,’ he said.

However, Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake defended the status quo, arguing that his government’s new citizenship curriculum was already good enough. Not only will citizenship be retained in the national curriculum, he said, it ‘will be strengthened’.

That’s great to hear, but what on earth does it mean?

It’s a very curious statement for him to make, considering the new citizenship curriculum is much smaller and less defined than the previous government’s. And it receives none of the top-level endorsement so enjoyed by more ‘traditional’ curriculum subjects: no ministers have publicly championed their revised citizenship curriculum.

Meanwhile, no-one is scrutinising curriculum delivery anymore (Ofsted inspects the school, not the curriculum). So, with no pressure from outside, schools have little reason to treat citizenship seriously or to fear chastisement for sidelining it. Even in the secondary schools that have not opted out of the national curriculum by becoming academies, they are squeezing out some subjects in favour of others and citizenship is one of the victims. As a result, there is dwindling demand for citizenship teachers and fewer specialists are being trained.

How can anyone in government claim the subject is ‘being strengthened’?

Citizenship is still on the national curriculum, Michael Gove made sure of that. Education minister Elizabeth Truss often replies to parliamentary questions by referring to the citizenship curriculum. Together with support from Labour politicians and over-confident statements from LibDems like Tom Brake, there is clearly cross-party agreement that citizenship is a vital component of education in a modern democracy.

In which case, can we please see fewer rose-tinted views of the citizenship curriculum and instead see concrete plans and positive action to strengthen the subject on the ground in schools.

This post was written for the Citizenship Foundation.

Dear date: I don’t like horror films and I wouldn’t travel the world on my own, but I’m undecided about the sailboat

Great news! Boffins have identified three questions for predicting a lasting relationship, allowing us to avoid fruitless exploratory conversations.

Image: Crossed Fingers 1 by Katie Tegtmeyer

Image: Crossed Fingers 1 by Katie Tegtmeyer

Finding a compatible partner has become much less of a painful trial, reports the Telegraph today. We can now discount people within seconds and rest easy in the knowledge that our chosen partner will last longer than a few uncomfortable pub meals.

Yes, we now know the key questions for predicting a lasting relationship, and there are only three of them:

‘Do you like horror movies?’ ‘Have you ever travelled around another country alone?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?’

If your potential suitor answers the same as you would, you’re in.

We can thank mathematicians from dating site OK Cupid. The boffins (I love the word ‘boffin’, it suggests people who can redefine life but can’t wash their own pants) concocted a ‘compatibility algorithm’ to find the three questions.

Isn’t it great? We can now avoid excruciating conversations by bypassing extraneous topics. Heck, we can skip the preliminaries altogether: just pin the answers to our chests and all anyone need then say is ‘get your coat’.

In fact, I’m experimenting with this tactic virtually. I’ve answered the three questions in my Twitter profile and I’m now waiting for prospectors to come a-calling. I just need to make a decision about that sailboat.

You want me to promote your swimming pool company for no reason? Why, of course!

If you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, you can’t do better than send your pitches to people that clearly have no interest in them or in your business. Like the guide to installing swimming pools that I’ve been asked to push to my teacher readership.

The swimming pool of an East London primary school. (Image by KassandraBay on

The swimming pool of an East London primary school. (Image by KassandraBay on

I work for an educational charity. We work mainly with schools in the UK, helping them with curriculum delivery around politics, law and society. Today, I received this email:

My name is Jason and I run a swimming pool supplies business. Writing is as much a passion of mine, as my business is, and the two often cross paths. I have ghost written a number of articles and have been published in reputed home improvement journals.

I am keen to feature a guest post on you blog as it would do wonders for my portfolio as a writer. I realized it was time I stopped ghost-writing for others and built an online reputation for myself. Here are a few ideas that I feel you will like:

1) How to Replace the Light in Your Pool Without a Hassle

2) Things to Remember When Buying Chemicals for Your Pool

3) Which is better: Propane or Natural Gas Pool Heaters?

4) 10 Tips for Buying Yourself a Really Great Hot Tub

5) Why a Spa at Home Can be a Blessing In Disguise

6) 10 Reasons Why You Should Buy a Robotic Pool Cleaner Today

7) A Guide on Choosing the Right Pool Cleaner

8) Why a Salt Sanitization System is Important for Your Hot Tub/ Spa

9) Helpful Tips on Combating Pool Algae

10) 10 Things You Should do to if You Care for Your Hot Tub

11) How to Install an Above Ground Pool Without a Hassle

12) Which Swimming Pool Filter System Should You Buy?

I would be glad to write an article on any of the above topics and am open to any ideas or suggestions that you might have.

I hope your reply is in the positive, so your readers get the opportunity to benefit from what I have to say.



Well, Jason, I’ll see what I can do. I’m sure many of the poor urban schools we deal with will be grateful to know how to install a swimming pool in their reception area.

Kids are often knocking each other’s lights out, so tips on light replacement could be very handy. I’m not sure we should be encouraging an interest in chemicals though.

I’m told natural gas is already pretty abundant in teen environments, so that may not be an issue either.

And I’m glad you think our blog could ‘do wonders’ for your portfolio because that is, of course, why we’re here. We wouldn’t be fulfilling our charitable objectives if we didn’t promote the arbitrary, unrelated commercial interests of people we’ve never heard of.

So, send me your blog post, by all means. I’ve nothing better to do than reply to you and commission stuff I don’t want. But remember, editorial control rests with me.

The court system is already on the school curriculum, but Michael Gove seems too ashamed of his own work to tell people about it

With new calls for schools to teach about juries, how many people realise it’s in the national curriculum already? Probably very few, as Michael Gove seems embarrassed to talk about his new citizenship lessons.

Yesterday, the Law Commission recommended jail terms for jurors who research their trials on the internet. It also recommended that school students be taught about the role and importance of jury service.

But Michael Gove has already provided space for this in his new 2014 citizenship curriculum. At key stage 3, Gove wants students to learn about ‘the role of law and the legal justice system’; at key stage 4, he wants them also to learn about ‘the operation of courts and tribunals’.

So why doesn’t he say so publicly? As the matter is debated in the national media, why does Michael Gove not wave his hands and shout, ‘it’s okay, I’ve got this one covered!’? After all, he went to some trouble to keep citizenship education in schools: against initial advice to drop the subject completely, he wrote a whole new one instead.

What’s going on? Has he no faith in his own work?

Well, no, apparently not.

In a testimonial on Free the Children’s website, he tells them:

‘You have demonstrated that citizenship – which exists in the National Curriculum in schools, as a dry dusty subject for some, a story about parliaments and votes and procedures, and what a bicameral system’s impact on local government development will be, that’s not what citizenship is.

‘Citizenship is about doing and making a difference and change. And you’ve exemplified here far more effectively than I ever could in a hundred rewrites of the national curriculum what citizenship should mean’.

Wow. Has he really so little faith in his ability to prescribe good educational content that ‘a hundred rewrites’ could never enthuse young people about changing the world? He seems to want English teachers to enliven children to the language, so does he think citizenship teachers have no such skills to complement a vivid curriculum? Or does he avoid mentioning the subject because he’s ashamed of what he’s produced?

His track record isn’t good. Although he supported citizenship education when challenged by David Blunkett in the House of Commons in February, that was before finalising the curriculum that he seems now to be brushing under the Commons carpet. Other than that moment in Parliament and his plaintive admission to Free the Children, we can find no quotes from him about his own citizenship curriculum. (Do let us know if you can do any better!)

Meanwhile, the subject itself is losing ground. According to data from the Joint Council for Qualifications (the new umbrella organisation for awarding bodies), uptake of the short course GCSE has halved and the full course has done little to replace it. Compare this with RE, where the short course has dropped similarly but the full course has shot up in its wake.

As short courses are phased out, schools seem more likely to default to more established subjects: a salutary warning for the relatively new subject of citizenship.

But no-one in government seems to care. Under the previous administration, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency took an annual snapshot of issues related to curriculum delivery. In that way, the Education Secretary kept an eye on the delivery of citizenship education. As far as we know, the current administration is not doing this; the current administration shows no signs of caring how well its curriculum is delivered.

So, is Michael Gove simply crossing his fingers and hoping it will all go away? That free schools and academies, exempt from following the national curriculum, will assume education provision so completely that the national curriculum becomes totally redundant? If so, why on earth did he waste so much time (three years), so much energy and – doubtless – so much money on writing the thing in the first place?

But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume Michael Gove takes pride in his work and believes in the national curriculum that he is introducing into schools.

In which case, he must show a bit of strength and take ownership of his citizenship curriculum. He should be puffing his chest proudly and shouting about it from the rooftops, not rubbishing it on a charity’s website.

And he can start by reminding us that education about jury service – a current hot potato for the society his government is responsible to – fits into his new citizenship curriculum, very neatly.

This post was written for the Citizenship Foundation.