Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Invisible Academies (Chapter 1)

Invisible Academies


In that greatest of Empires, a new Secretary of State for Education had been appointed. Her knowledge of the glorious purpose of Education could be in little doubt. Her commitment to the infallible logic of the Curriculum was as certain as the rotation of the stars above the imperial palace; her sensitivity to the deep poignancy of Schooling for everyone from the Emperor himself to the lowliest of his subjects an inevitable outcome of her own learning. Yet the trajectory of a mandarin's progress to such high office can only be achieved at a cost - the wider one's field of view, the harder it is to perceive the details. What a lever gains in power, it must lose in subtlety. This lesson, the new Secretary of State had never forgotten. Now, surveying her conspectus, she yearned for the unattainable: the five-year plan of an Academy in such and such a city, the performance management documents for a teacher of maths in such and such an Academy, the workbook of a student in the third row in such and such a class. 

Chapter 1 - A Commission

It was almost by chance that they met. Almost, because chance had no part to play in the Emperor's dominions. Banished from this most rational realm, it remained only by clinging to the weaker instincts of all but the most disciplined subjects. It hung around in their uselessly consuming dreams. It clung to their unproductive subconscious thoughts. It preyed on new and complex situtations, always ready to pounce from the shadows to supplant superstition for faith. The Secretary for Education herself was, on this occasion, nearly seduced by its simple narrative. Her training and lifelong devotion to the Empire allowed her to overcome herself and recognise the intentionality of their meeting. We can all find solace in her temporary weakness, and may all find inspiration in her self-mastery.

A visitor from a land beyond even the Emperor's towering aspirations, here he sat at her table, engrossed as well he might be by the lavish entertainment put on for his delegation. Yet he may never have been there. A classroom teacher, he had been picked by lot to accompany the deputation. His mission, it transpired throughout the evening, was to learn all he could of the Empire's education system. From curriculum to pedagogy, from structure to agency, he was tasked with reporting how the Empire prepared its children for the future so unassailably well. He was woefully unqualified for the task, but his Head of State hoped less to transform the lot of their students than to boost the morale of their teachers.

Luck, hope, naked deviousness and outright envy. She balked at every detail of his account and pitied the people of his barbaric homeland, but never betrayed her diplomatic smile. She found him charming, in a child-like way. Though she did not tell him so, she too may not have been there that night. Her presence was, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Only her recent promotion had made her feel compelled to attend. As the uncomfortable notion of chance retreated from her mind, she marvelled at the Emperor's omnipotence that had brought them together, and vowed to make the most of the opportunity.

"You will have access to all of the Empire's Academies."

"Thank you, Your Excellency, but I will need to see no more than a few. The Curriculum being equal in all, my interest will be in seeing it applied in different contexts - urban and rural, coastal and peripheral, rich and deprived."

She let pass the notion of deprivation. She was certain he spoke guilelessly and meant no insult.

"The Curriculum is indeed equal in all Academies, but equality and uniformity are not the same. Each Academy has its own, notwithstanding an element of franchising."

"Each has its own Curriculum? How can this be? How can equality be assured? And who can be licensing a curriculum, if not the Emperor or his Ministers?"

The nature of his task was only beginning to dawn on him. She held back an admixture of feelings that amounted to nothing more than condescension, and which she resented in herself.

"You may be thinking in terms of equality of outcome. The Emperor in his wisdom offers all equality of opportunity." She paused, noting the puzzlement of his expression. "It is therefore fitting that his most successful subjects should be free to develop and deliver curricula that honour him and his infallible principles. The noble task of the Ministry is to ensure that standards are upheld. You will also have access to all Ministers, Commissioners and Inspectors as you desire."

Questions rose in his mind like a tide, but he knew better than to open the floodgates. He would have much to observe and much to learn. For now, he thanked her profusely for her hospitality.

"There is something you can do for me."

"Yes, Your Excellency?"

"I would like you to report back to me with your observations."

The cold breath of censorship caressed the back of his neck. She sensed it in his eyes.

"Don't worry," she laughed. "My intention is quite the opposite of what you fear."

He relaxed visibly.

"It will be my pleasure to share my observations with you, Your Excellency."

"I am glad. A fresh perspective can be... Gratifying."

He noted the hesitation. Conversation with her was like chess. He was enjoying it deeply, and was glad there would be more occasions to do it. For now, as they took their leave of each other, neither of them could be in any doubt that he had exposed a weakness in her game, though she never betrayed her diplomatic smile.

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