Notes from the Trail: Back to Mother England

Instead of wandering the links at La Estancia de Cafayate or heading out on the back of my horse Charming, last week my daughter and I hopped on a plane to England in order for her to interview with colleges.

England remains a bit of a contradiction to me.

On the one hand, there are few countries that approach their traditions with more gravitas.

On the other, England has greatly succeeded at becoming the cultural melting pot of the sort sociologists dream about. For example, it is not at all unusual to see an archetypal English gentleman, tweed jacket and all, dining out with his African or Middle Eastern wife and brood.

In fact, walking down the British street—in our case, last week those streets were located in parts of London and Oxford—Arabs, Asians, and Africans were apparent in abundance. In addition to those obviously from “elsewhere,” it is also quite revealing how often, when greeting a British-appearing individual in pretty much any position of retail service, the response comes heavily flavored with one of the Eastern European dialects.

On the educational front, we visited five colleges and, with maybe one exception, the majority of the student body did not spring from British loins.

While I got a subtle sense that some educators are not so keen on the way the proverbial bookworm has turned, such reservations are mitigated by the fact that international students pay a hefty premium over British students. And it became abundantly clear as we bounced from college to college that selling the patina of a “proper” British education is now a serious business… and business is booming.

Though not thrilled on those occasions when my gaze wanders over to the right side of the menu, I think the British educational system—at least at the “A” levels where my daughter will be focused—is superior to the US system.

That’s because, unlike the US system, which mandates a generalist education—math, history, more math, English, gender studies, whatever—in England the A-level student selects three or four specific subjects they want to focus on, and, other than some optional ancillary activities, that is the curriculum they follow for the final two years before University. Plus, the menu of offerings in many of the institutions, especially in a town such as Oxford, is extensive, with something for every interest and inclination.

Once the student has selected their topics, they go deep with them—in self-studies, small classrooms, and one-on-one tutoring.

As a consequence, instead of graduating with a little knowledge about a lot of topics, much of which will shortly thereafter fade into ignorance, a British student with any degree of intellectual ardor graduates with a firm intellectual footing on topics they are passionate about.

In my opinion, this approach results in several highly valuable outcomes.

First, it teaches the student how to learn in depth. Which is to say, how to formulate hypotheses and test those hypotheses. How to form arguments and then communicate those arguments in depth.

Secondly, it gives the student confidence because, per my comments a second ago, they actually become quite learned in one or more subjects.

Third, it teaches them to think. Will in-depth knowledge of the classics make you ready for a job in business? Actually, maybe. That’s because over the course of your studies you will have learned to view things in multiple dimensions, to peel back the blankets on every situation you are confronted with. In short, to think deeply.

So, call me a fan. And while the tuition and related expenses at the better schools will make your eyes water, what better possible use of your money can there be than teaching your child to think deeply?

In any event, going back to my opening comments, even a casual observer will note that the British Empire, though officially DOA, actually collapsed upon itself, leaving citizens from all the many former colonies compressed in the English isles.

While this has somewhat upended the notion of what it is to be British, to my way of thinking Britain 2.0 provides a useful example to hold up when confronted by the vehemently anti-immigration crowd. Sure, parts of the place look like a scene out of Blade Runner, and there are definitely “no go” zones for white British folks (just as there are in the US). And I do dread the inevitability of another strike by the insane Islamists in the country.

But those are the exceptions and not the rule. For the most part, Britain is an example that people with shared ideals can live and work side by side. It adds spice to life there, including very agreeable culinary diversification.

A final note. While I am sure there are numerous approaches to finding the right school in England for your child (or grandchild), we worked with a consultancy/tutoring firm called Bonas MacFarlane (bonasmacfarlane.co.uk/). A truly wonderful team helped my daughter not only pick out a school that suited her interests, but then prepared her for the assessments required by the school she was ultimately accepted into.

Dark Web

Whilst on the London-bound plane, I watched a documentary titled, Inside the Dark Web (topdocumentaryfilms.com/inside-dark-web/). Up to that point, the Dark Web was something with which I was only lightly familiar. (If you click that link, you, too, can watch the video for free.)

In the introductory segments, the producers explain why the Dark Web has become increasingly relevant and even necessary for anyone who cares a wit about their privacy.

Specifically, using the tracking software on your mobile phone and various apps, cross referenced against your search behavior and, increasingly, highly sensitive triangulation using Wi-Fi nodes around the world, your precise moves—and worse, your intentions—are now tracked, analyzed, and sold in real time… 24/7.

In the case of the Wi-Fi nodes, the triangulation occurs thanks to the proliferation of devices constantly sending out “I am here” messages to which your portable devices merrily reply, “And so am I!”
That is just the beginning, because the meta data created by these interactions is then crunched by computational heavyweights and sold over and over, with the Wi-Fi data (among others) being used to append your name and particulars to the data, making it all the more valuable.

The Dark Web, inspired by a scientist named David Chaum, defeats this constant tracking by scrambling your data up with that of others, ultimately resulting in pretty good anonymity.

In any event, after watching this documentary, I was shocked but not surprised when, at the end of our first day of wandering around schools in London, the ad shown here popped up in my browser.

Mind you, at no point in the day did I search for a school, but we did, of course, visit a couple. I don’t know where, or specifically how, along the path the computers were able to sort out we were visiting colleges, or that the college was not in our home jurisdiction, but they did.

Be afraid, be very afraid, because this stuff is still in its infancy. And if you think the commercial outfits are using this stuff aggressively, what do you think the governmental players are up to?

If you have a friend who fearlessly sends you emails advocating rising up against the Leviathan (we all have one of those), rest assured you and he (“shes” rarely engage in such fantasies) are linked with electronic handcuffs for the rest of your time on Earth.

One possible solution is provided by the TOR network, which stands for The Onion Router (I learned from the documentary) and which Chaum’s work laid the foundations for. It is apparently slow but effective at masking your online activities. Now, all you have to do is to turn on the airplane mode on your cell phone and hope for the best, though I think that probably won’t actually cut off the data stream. So, leave your cell phone at home.

In the end, there is little real hope of avoiding the 24/7 surveillance… except maybe if you live in a quaint and somewhat backward little town in the Argentine outback—but even those enclaves will fall in time.

And with apologies for the somewhat rambling nature of today’s musings, I will sign off from where I sit, under the big tree in the courtyard of the Hotel Molinos. Next stop is the Colome Bodega where together with an old friend from high school and a new friend recently arrived in La Estancia, I will enjoy a lunch on the patio accompanied with, I am sure, a chilled bottle of fresh Torrontés.

Until next time… be well!

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