Saturday, 18 March 2017

Quacks Like a Duck: NZ's Education Debate Moves On (at Last)


Pisa has been in the Herald again... this time to attack the practice of streaming. In fact, it's a bit broader than this because the Herald seems to want to make a big conversation given that their headlines are "Dumbing Down a Generation" and "Streaming a Weapon of Maths Destruction".

As you might expect, the Herald says a lot of the easy and boring stuff everyone says. There's the old line about league tables (not officially published) and there are references to international comparisons. However, in truth, the focus is NZ's decline relative to NZ. That's new and very good to see (well, in truth, it is old news but whatever). Similarly, the focus on streaming suggests that they want to move the questions away from NCEA (although, naturally, it does get some criticism). There was also some stuff I didn't know, like:
But our gaps in reading and maths [best versus worst performers] have narrowed because our top students have slipped more than our bottom students. Our bottom 10th actually scored higher in maths in 2015 than in 2012, while our top 10th's scores dropped.
or, and I here preserve their surprise, there is this:
Surprisingly, Australia and New Zealand are the eighth and ninth most equal OECD countries on the Pisa index of socio-economic status, based on parents' education and occupations and their books and other possessions in the home.
However, on that last point, they do follow up with what we already knew about resilience:
So our wide gaps in 15-year-old achievement are not because our students start less equal than others; they are because our schools are less effective at closing the gaps that students start with.
So, on the whole, a lot better than much of their education coverage but there are some things I would like to quickly talk about... these were remarks made by a Warwick Elley (described as an Emeritus Professor of Education by himself here... not sure of where, though, possibly Canterbury) in the context of Anglosphere Education policy changes, manifest here in NCEA and National Standards.

The First Thing
Focused teachers narrowly on teaching what is tested (only reading, writing and maths in the case of national standards), so students are flummoxed when faced with Pisa's tests of broader knowledge and skills;
I think Elley distinguishes this from a later point on the grounds that this is pedagogical. However, I am not sure and if the issue is pedagogical then the solution, too, is surely pedagogical. That is, the solution is to teach differently and talk about stuff that may or may not be on the test or is, in fact, just related. I know some teachers do this... which is why my economics teacher once talked about comparative advantage even though that wasn't an idea in our assessment. The trouble is that it's not just pedagogical in the sense that teachers are listeners and fall prey to the "Is this examined?" trap? Maybe, in that sense, the issue is the assessment... in which case this is really no different at all to the third thing.

The Second Thing
Encouraged schools to steer weaker students into easier NCEA subjects that they can pass, such as statistics instead of algebra, so they can't cope with Pisa's harder questions;
On the other hand, maybe different is okay.

I took calculus at school, rather than statistics, and can't tell you that I ever had any easier internals than the two we did that year. The externals were definitely harder but I don't think they were particularly good preparation for university maths. Maybe it was because maths is poorly taught via lectures. Maybe it is because the word problems don't translate well to the way maths is taught at Auckland. Maybe I just ignored certain signs... and was able to ignore difficulties in certain areas because the same marks could be obtained via other aspects of the standards. Who knows?

But what this does is beg an interesting question... does Pisa actually assess what we care about? It's important, we have decided, that pupils know certain things. Do we lack ambition or just have different social priorities to Pisa? I can say that I definitely don't want to live in a world where pupils are convinced that a valid response to a regression model is 78.5% of statistics are made up on the spot. If the alternative is that they have to use trial and error to figure out how much fencing they can afford, I can live with that. On the other hand, I don't think that this is a trade-off we're actually faced with. Both are teachable.

I think the more concerning idea is like what happened in drama in year eleven. Based on our term two exams, some of the year was told to not do one of the external standards. That kind of channelling is more concerning because it means we might teach both statistical reports and algebra but the pupil only learns one of them as they're only assessed on one (the apparently easier stats stuff). And when pupils do this of their own accord (the SNA problem I've mentioned before) we see that the issues are deeply ingrained. Punishment is probably the only option here. (What of the psychological impacts of failure? Or is learning to fail something we don't do enough of?)

The Third Thing
Broken up subjects into small chunks for NCEA credits, rather than helping students achieve the deep understanding that comes from seeing the big picture;
I call this standards-as-silos. Basically, what I learn in AS 1.1 is irrelevant to AS 1.4, even if both are in the same subject, taught in the same school. The exceptions are rare and happen when the research standard (1.1 etc.) and the writing standard (1.2) are dovetailed in history. Maybe there are other exceptions. I... don't really know them... possibly things are generally more subtle and unconscious.

I think breaking things up into standards is broadly equivalent to breaking things up into concepts. The trouble is that sometimes these concepts (not the same as small chunks) relate to things that need to be integrated a bit more. Indeed, I would like to see a world where we try and get candidates to synthesise pretty much everything they know (hopefully I'll elaborate on this soon)... like scholarship on steroids.

What we can do, in the meantime, is develop an common assessment task, like that one external maths internal, that is done just after the exam break at a special end of year week of school-time (it's a long holiday, dammit). What would happen is that for each subject, some question (or questions) is (are) posed that require(s) tying together, over a couple hours (and in a communal fashion, like a history internal, where appropriate), the strands individually part of the various standards. It wouldn't be graded like a normal external but it would be marked... meaning feedback is provided and the thing would be be returned later on in January (after/with the scholarship results?). Attempting it (i.e. one of five or six versions for each course*) would be necessary for counting the credits from the subject towards the level certificate and it would have a credit value attached too, but this wouldn't really be the point. The main thing is that pupils do it and try hard on it without making it a make or break thing. That is hard but we ought to try.

*This means you can have schools sort out the timetable so that it works for them rather than having to have another exam timetable.

The Fourth Thing
Allowed our top students to relax as soon as they reach the standards or gain 80 NCEA credits, instead of stretching them to achieve their full potential;
You know, the SNA problem is really nasty. On one hand, what it means is that the above is bollocks. If people just relaxed, getting some NAs or whatever because you already have Excellence wouldn't happen. Indeed, in principle, the SNA problem arises because the candidate hasn't already got an Exellence endorsement because, believe it or not, but getting 50 credits at E out of 80, 70, 60 or however many internal credits a candidate has available is actually a lot more difficult than doing so from 160, 140, 120 or whatever credits all up. That is to say, only for candidates with massively internal assessment (i.e. none of the "traditional" subjects) does NCEA allow this. On the other hand, the SNA problem is indicative of a failure to stretch... that's obvious.

Now, the other part of this thing is a repackaged version of "four grades isn't enough to motivate people" that further misunderstands how NCEA works. The standard is achieved... he's telling us that top pupils aren't motivated to do better than achieved. I think that is bollocks. If you're a top pupil with no excellences? Sorry, you're not a top pupil. Come back when you walk, talk and quack like a duck. Heh, ducks. See... that's funny.

The Fifth Thing
Intensified competition between schools, so the best schools attract the best teachers and students at the cost of declining quality in other schools.
Yeah... I don't have anything "quick" to say about this. No, wait, I do... I agree wholeheartedly with this link between competition and quality... but I don't pretend to know which changes are responsible for this bent in NZ.

The Last Thing

Here we'll move on from Elley's comments and talk about streaming:
The reason [less streaming is associated with better Pisa scores] is not hard to see. Streaming predetermines children's performance, removing challenges they might have faced in a class of mixed ability, foreclosing the possibility they might be a late improver, permanently lowering, or raising, their confidence in themselves.
Basically, ask yourself if you're okay with the reason that drugged-up drop-out Joe doesn't become a physicist is that ten years earlier he was in the stream that was never asked the extension question, "Why isn't Pluto a planet"? I'm not okay with that and if you are I rather suspect you should get yourself checked for an empathy disorder... which is, on reflection, the sort of phrase that suggests I should too but I feel it needs to be said, implications be damned.

That being said, I did think I had talked about streaming on this blog before and that I'd been fairly positive about it. When I think about streaming as I experienced it, I have fond memories, basically. Indeed, there are two models. One of which I feel is defensible, the other of which I feel is practicable and hence that is why it is done.

Model One

When I was at primary school we had, every year, reading groups and often also maths groups. In each group we got (slightly? substantially?) different work to the other groups, with the work being aimed at our level. Basically, this means you could have some sort of general lesson on the mat or wherever and then you could split everyone up and teach in contained units. In other words, there is no such thing as aiming at the middle (see: either article) because each group creates a pool of variation around however many teaching levels the teacher deems appropriate.

In principle, of course, there is no reason why the groups couldn't be formed and collapsed as necessary. The way I think about it is that learning and teaching are two different things. And to extend those who need it, the isolated groups work well and to help those who need more help, the groups are great then too. The groups can be teaching and learning instruments. In practice, of course, groups are going to be fluid and possibly even aspirational. In year four a friend of mine and I tried quite hard to move up a maths group... he made it, I didn't. And in year six, I sat close enough to the front to be able to pay at least some attention to the teaching of the maths group above us. But, obviously, these are formed groups... our friend Joe is only going to hear about Pluto if everyone gets the extension material or if he's close enough to someone who has got it. We can do this by collapsing the groups.

The collapsed state of these semi-informal instruments is why I would defend this model. We can have four tables with six people sitting at them, right? That's 24 pupils altogether. That sounds like a realistically sized and set up classroom, right? And you can see how if we have four pupils in the top group, it's possible that when we're not treating them as a group that we can have them at a different table each... allowing them to help their fellows or just plain exposing their work to the same. Obviously it is important to do both things... have the formed groups for extension/assistance and the collapsed groups for learning, communication and co-operation.

Model Two

This strikes me as the kind of streaming most relevant to the discussion at hand: the 28 "brightest" pupils, then the next 28 and then the third 28 and then all the way down to the end of the ranking. I liked this as it worked out for me. My stream consisted of people behaviourally and intellectually akin to myself, which made things better for me and for our teachers. However, this was obviously at the cost of having mixed ability classrooms with mixed ability work... with the exception of the handful of upwardly mobile people that our school eventually deemed needed movement. And, in truth, after the third lot of 28 the school just jumbled everyone in together excluding the people who needed the absolute most help (the cabbage stream as I am sure everyone knows it by, even though, now, it seems most cruel a designation... obviously in the real world the label was "development" not cabbage officially). Basically... um, I can't really comment on how varied the abilities really were being isolated in my advanced class... and by year eleven where streams broadly ceased due to new subjects, seating plans seem childish... so one hopes that a friend group is mixed ability.


This is a difficult post to wrap up. I have sort of left the streaming bit, probably the most interesting thing, unresolved. That is, thus, one of the conclusions I need to write here. On the other hand, combining the various parts of this post into a coherent piece without basically going, "No, bad Elley" is challenging because, you know, that's not how it was written. All the same, I think the title gives us some room to at least start thinking about what the above means.

As I noted in the introduction, when we've tried to talk about education in NZ, it has traditionally boiled down to "Bad NCEA"... often with the hilarious suggestion we adopt a system indistinguishable from NCEA (see any Herald comments section ever). And when we try to talk about Pisa specifically the same goes: actually interesting stuff is sidelined in favour of ideological anti-NCEA remarks and hysterical reactions to movement up and down a dubiously constructed ladder. But here we have a debate about what it is we're doing that is focussed on an improvement, at least implicitly: let's get rid of streaming.

On reflection, the truth is very simple: it's hard to defend streaming. A lot of work needs to go into disputing the conclusions that the OECD has come to about streaming, and theoretically speaking one only finds reasons to dislike streaming. But streaming is very much something that forms a core part of NZ's educational experience. It doesn't happen like it does in Germany with gymnasia and the like, but it does happen in its own way. And the reason is really easy to understand: it's practical. It is so much easier to find clusters of similar abilities and teach to that cluster than it is to jumble everyone in together. But, at the same time, it is also apparent that we could cluster within a jumble. I know that my socks are a mess when I pull them out of the dryer... but I can work with the result if I pair them up, or even lump them into the various models (e.g. stripey, plain, grey). It sounds stupid, but it is pretty much the same idea if we imagine my socks as being one classroom and your socks another. Yet, the analogy ultimately fails because while no-one wants odd socks, collapsing the in-class groups is fundamental. Otherwise, we just have a less practical version of macro-streaming. In short, it will walk like a duck, quack like a duck and look like a duck... but we'll tell ourselves we've solved streaming.

NCEA is also something we should worry about thinking we're solved. Elley's point of view seems hysterical and I think that it's important to temper it with a more reasonable outlook. However, it remains that there are real concerns with NCEA. I increasingly find myself sympathising with those who would critique its insular standards-as-silos approach. And, despite what I said just above, 50 credits seems too low a level to award excellence or merit. I think it needs to go up to 60. And the SNA problem continues to get no media attention... but four years out of school by the end of this year means that I no longer have my finger to NCEA's pulse... it may be they've done something about it. Yet, it stretches all credibility to ask us to believe that top pupils lack all intrinsic motivation to do well: that an A just rolls off their backs, like water. This was why I questioned most strongly Elley's characterisation. But, on the whole, an honest analysis would favour NCEA... recalling the curriculum is the issue if we are teaching too much statistics and not enough algebra: not NCEA.

I don't know what a mature education debate looks like. I don't think one exists. It seems to me, in whatever country, education debates are ideologically fraught... this is particularly true if we think about the US and like it or not, discourse is informed by what we have convinced ourselves we're interested in watching. But I feel like we've at least come close today to this mythical form. It seems far too much to ask that it continues, but one can at least hope, that it is not one's own contribution that causes the regression. However, I feel like an NCEA-educated citizen would be able to identify the features of this blog that lend that last sentence its distinctly hollow ring. And that's a good thing. The curriculum that NCEA assesses may well teach maths poorly, but it theoretically imbues its pupil with the knowledge its society needs it to have. The knowledge, for instance, that is useful for a citizen of a democratic age in a modern state. We can't lose sight of that. We can't forget that maybe Pisa and its like don't have goals that necessarily correspond with what we need. But maybe that's just me. Although, I think, a mature debate recognises these kinds of contexts. And I think the Herald's just shown signs of wiping the sleep from their eyes.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Hone Harawira and Housing

Earlier this evening, the Debating Society hosted a political debate featuring the leaders of several minor parties and some random Chris MPs from National and Labour (okay, Chris Hipkins isn't that random).

Things probably went pretty much how they were expected to go. Turns out most of our MPs are ex-druggies and one wonders how many were lying to be interesting... the question one thinks is begged is: how many have ever smoked? That'd be interesting to know. In any case, apart from one ugly moment where things got out of hand between Harawira and Chris Bishop (the National Chris) it was mostly a civil debate where the participants were good natured and open to discussion (even if we did start late).

Thing is, I cant quite remember how the ugly moment played out. I think it started when Bishop's approach to condemning Harawira's views on housing basically boiled down to "lol, racist". If that's correct, it then took a personal turn (including reference to the infamous Paris trip). Anyway, the housing stuff is what matters (in some sense, being able to recognise MPs is indicative of a failure of party politics and, thus, a failure of government). Sadly, my note taking skills aren't perfect but this is what I wrote with respect to Harawira's approach to Auckland's rents being too high:
  • Make immigrants buy new homes [by which I mean, Harawira means build new homes].
  • Limit speculators to a set number of properties [five was the number mentioned].
  • Tax them properly [so they don't sit on houses].
We can, for completeness, compare Bishop's (earlier) comments (to the same question) which were rambling and "not answery" but we eventually managed to get enough sense out of him that I managed to write:
  • Housing market = failed market... broken system [this was the coherent beginning].
  • RMA supply changes [the eventual sense].
The other parties, in case you think you need to know, basically said "build more houses" although Hipkins trotted out Labour's standard xenophobic-racist spectrum views on speculators and Maramara Fox (Maori) blamed council in part. But the question is (I will, in a forthcoming post, explain why Labour's policy is so) whether or not Harawira's policy really is racist? Was Bishop lazy or did he have some kind of point? I must say that, as ever, ACT (David Seymour) and National had to bear the standard of responsibility in this era. Shame about their other ideas, really. But I digress we are here to discuss Harawira's Three Elements.

User Pays Immigrant Housing

In some ways this is a really old-fashioned model of immigration. Time was you set up a company, bought up some land and then brought over some investors (immigrants) who discovered you sort of hadn't really made clear exactly when and by whom their houses would be built. But that's probably not what we're talking about here, which is a big issue.

However, we do need to fair to Harawira here. The impression I got was that Harawira was sitting there and thinking about the discussion that had already happened. Which is, of course, why he started with something like (not a real quote): "If the problem is 26,000 immigrants, then..." That is, contrary to Bishop's claims, Harawira wasn't really blaming immigrants as such rather he formulated a solution that, in truth, ran wild with the reasons why immigration is a good idea (i..e extra demand = more derived demand = extra jobs = great for everyone) from the assumption someone else had put on the table (the 26,000 thing). Of course, the formulation rather assumes that the issue at heart is immigrants. But, the intellectually honest answer (with the time to think that our friend Bishop due to the medium didn't have) is that if this policy is racist it must be judged for its effects rather than the contextually so explained away origins. What would they be?

Basically, I think this would be a disaster. Immigration is a good thing (see: that nutshell argument). However, what would happen is that you essentially price immigrants out of the picture. This is particularly true if we look at immigrants we kind of have a moral duty to "import" (this is what happens when you go around trying to make your own little NZ Empire in the Pacific... as a dominion of the British Empire)... or, more generally, anyone for whom the "push" matters more than the "pull". New Zealand and Auckland is worse off for the absence of immigrants and we are worse off when we bring in immigrants in ways which don't allow them to be at home in and add to what NZ culture is. If you've ever complained about echo chambers, you have complained about restrictive immigration policies... but did you notice? This is, incidentally, a broader issue with user pays systems and it's why I have characterised the (apparently ad hoc) "policy" as a user pays approach to immigration and housing. Basically, when you institute a user pays approach you raise the costs borne by the individual and thus basically make it very difficult for those of limited means to access, invariably, vital services. This is a problem with how GPs work in NZ.

The thing is the above historical note makes things a bit interesting. We could, in theory, set up some sort of company or entity which people wanting to immigrate to New Zealand could make contributions to. In theory, our entity would be able to do things at scale and would definitely be able to start thinking about building denser living environments. Peter Thiel is one of NZ's most controversial citizens but even those individuals as wealthy as he aren't going to be building the types of housing that we actually want (e.g. tower blocks, terraced homes). That is, if  (and it is a very big if) we assume that immigrants would keep coming in, they'd be building socially undesirable homes of the type vaguely affordable to a single household. So, really, this "solution" would just be exacerbating the problems. Compounding this is that we have developers build their own infrastructure in the first place to induce a modicum of co-ordination to exist. As doing that raises the costs for the new home builder the infrastructure is already built only where we want the houses, which incentivises development aligned with our plans (i.e. co-ordination). Or, at least, that's a theory. And it's a socially and morally responsible conception that Harawira would have us just ignore.

In the final reckoning, then, Harawira's policy is racist because its effect is to remove immigrants. It's not racist for blaming immigrants for the housing crisis because, in the circumstances of tonight's debate, it didn't do that. (If he repeats it tomorrow then Bishop has a point.) It's racist because it's unlikely that the sort of NZ Company style entities required to avoid preclusion of immigration would arise. It's also unlikely to provide an actual solution because it doesn't really build housing... it builds sprawl. But it's critically just one of the three things I noticed Harawira talk about.

Limiting Speculators

Ooh... this one is interesting.

As I understood Harawira, he would restrict both Johnny Foreigner and Citizen Thiel (i.e. citizens) from owning more than, say, five investment properties. He could have meant just a restriction for Johnny Foreigner but I just have a feeling that he didn't, so we'll work with the responsible conception. Citizen Thiel could have been restricted in theory but that would be the most interesting policy ever... giving random people with no connection to the country whatsoever privileges that they'd lose on gaining a political connection is way out of the ordinary. That is, we can ignore that possibility. Anyway, onwards.

Working from our assumption (as described above), the problem I have here is principled on one hand and theoretically practical on the other. As a matter of principle, I am uncomfortable from precluding myself from ever have six investment policies. I don't think it's a good idea, as in socially useful, for myself to ever acquire such a portfolio but I feel like I should have the choice to be bad. You know? And, of course, if I remove the choice, I am going to be removing the incentives to encourage investment in new properties... after all if when I go up to six I get fined or jailed or whatever, I am going to have a lot more uncertainty and caution when I make decisions about how to use my money. That's not a good thing if we want investment money for the right kind of properties. I have to say... I agree with any analysis that suggests it is ultimately more effective to encourage people to do the right thing than it is to hope they do the right thing if we stop them from doing one kind of bad thing. (Probably cheaper too.)

I must note that investors don't know how a property will pan out when they're making their decisions. That is, I've got to be really sure Development 6 will make me more money than any of my five existing developments/properties to go ahead... as I lose the revenue from whichever one I am forced to sell. Do you see how that is a problem?

Taxing Investors Properly

My man.

This, right here, is the way to go. Through working with our tax policies (and regulatory environment... so the RMA does have some part to play here) we're best able to encourage the development of denser housing forms. We're also able to manipulate the economic environment so that flipping houses loses its appeal and leaving properties vacant in the hopes of capital gains becomes unattractive. We want a tax set-up which makes building a block of flats look so damn good that you ignore buying that Double Grammar zone property on the cheap. If this has the side-effect of basically meaning you don't pay taxes if you build such properties... I'm okay with that right now (we can fix it later on once we're not in shortage). It's definitely better than encouraging the perverse fraud perpetrated by our government where your ghost-inhabited investment properties don't generate you income.


Harawira didn't really explain how the tax package would work/what it would look like but that's okay. The main thing, in a debate, is that we see how a party thinks. The specific policy prescriptions, in some sense, come later on. This is one more reason why Bishop ought to have given Harawira some more slack. It is also why I made the distinction between offering the User Pays system tonight and tomorrow. But, most importantly, it is why I have stayed up and written this. It is absolutely critical that I do my bit to try and head off any turn of the debate to areas it shouldn't go. If I don't I make it so much more likely that we create a new normal where it becomes just another thing to make it practically impossible to become a citizen. Just another thing to prevent NZers with permanent residency from being able to participate in their government. Just another thing for the foreign to be construed as the crux of all our ills. Just another thing... And, sure, I've got next to no power... for Christ's sake, I write for a blog that has no readers. But I still have to try. And that, I think, is to end this discussion on the note that Patrick Gower began the debate: we have to trust that our institutions are able to work, which means I have to trust that I have a voice.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Vanity Fair

Early last year, not long after I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath (which I really liked) or possibly just after I finished Ivanhoe (which was pretty good) as I don't recall the order in which I read them, I began to re-read Vanity Fair. Yesterday I finished my re-read.

This re-read took the better part of (or more than; I don't remember the timeline well) a year for one very simple reason: I felt that I was too busy to read the book. You might recall that I had this to say in Why I Won't Take Five Courses Again (which was written towards the end of the semester):
This semester, though, has been insane. I have felt like a pebble in a can that’s been kicked down the stairs. Each time I stop working on something, I am immediately working on something else. Stage III just wants more in some unidentifiable sense and Stage III definitely needs more.
And months before that I had written in the comments of a Minding the Campus post:
I’ve been re-reading Vanity Fair (having recently finished Ivanhoe and The Grapes of Wrath for the first time), and I have to say, the time thing is a really big problem given that I have probably have close to or more than a hundred pages of course readings a week and my continued attempts to sustain an expansive television habit. Consequentially, even I who has far fewer time commitments than the vast majority of students resorted to the old “all night essay” trick.
I mention all this because it's important to recognise, as I attempt a spoiler-filled review of Vanity Fair, that my rereading of the book was accompanied by a massive layoff (a winter break, if you will) where I read lots of other things (almost all chapters here and there as part of history courses, but at the start of this year I also reread 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a short introduction to biological anthropology) but not Vanity Fair. I have also recently re-read the TV Tropes page for the novel and the Great Writer's magazine series' bit about it (this magazine, incidentally, was the only reason why I initially read it sometime prior to the end of 2011).

Is it any Good?

The simple answer is: yes. The longer answer is that the fifth seventh or so of what is a very long book (my edition runs to damn near 600 pages or something) drags a bit because that's where the story gets bogged down in a world that doesn't exist any more. Well, that's okay in the sense that the whole book was then and is now historical fiction (it was written some decades after it was set), but where the "Am Rhein" stuff at the end represents a Germany very different to our Germany (or, indeed, that of 1980 which was also an era of multiple Germanies) and that is no problem, in the fifth seventh things work differently.

One of the things that drew my teen-aged self to Vanity Fair was its description as satire. And, it is true, Vanity Fair is satirical and it probably shows the potential of satire to say so much more about human life than any metaphorical symbol-fest ever can just as clearly as, say, Discworld. The issue is that in the fifth seventh, the satirical nature of the text leads to very intricate descriptions of a type of lifestyle which now looks and behaves very differently. That is to say, unlike the original audience, we don't recognise the major players in the book's actors and everything is analogous. In other words, I found this section much harder to get through than the rest. It is also illustrates well why I chucked in the word probably just now... I fear it very easy to mistake Vanity Fair for an historical novel, rather than something that still has something to say now.

However, my year eleven self, as I recall things, was disappointed with Vanity Fair. As I was reading it recently I recall thinking "Why was I disappointed?" In fact, it got to the point where I was wondering whether or not I should take another crack at my (pre-2011) abandoned read of Moby-Dick. Now I think it's because I allowed the fifth seventh to dominate. Or, maybe, if I read it again in another six years I'd find the fifth seventh just as absorbing as the earlier parts.

So, What is it About?

In a simple sense, it's about Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and her progression through Vanity Fair (i.e. it has a central metaphor). In a more complicated sense, as was noted in one of those two aforementioned sources, it is also about Amelia Sedley. Neither character, we are assured, is a hero or a heroine. Becky must surely be an ancestor of Francis Urquhart and Amelia is dull, poor judge of character obsessed with an imagined portrait of her husband... Becky's would-be lover (although, at the time, Becky was also married). There are, of course other characters.

When we think about William Dobbin we are confronted with a character who shows us that the reason Vanity Fair has no hero is simply because Thackeray had very high standards. Amelia's great flaw is that she doesn't recognise what is about other people and, consequently, has an unhealthy relationship with herself. Dobbin, of course, is physically flawed but more importantly his great flaw is a life-long pursuit of Amelia... not in the sense that this was dishonourable, indeed, he was hardly "in-pursuit" and did more than any other person to ensure Amelia married George (his best friend, but his motives were all about Amelia's fragile emotional state). The issue with Dobbin is, like Amelia and like Rawdon, intellectual. He knows, somewhere, that Emmy is flawed but does not recognise this. Thus, Dobbin, too, ends up with an unhealthy self-relationship.

Rawdon Crawley is an interesting character but, like Dobbin, essentially disappears from the novel as a character when he takes up a post as a colonial governor (in a poor, inhospitable, climate). In fact, this disappearance is far more extreme than Dobbin's vanishing act when he was in India (as a soldier)... all we know for sure is that he sends over money to his wife (Becky). But Rawdon is stupid. Not in the way that Amelia is stupid, she doesn't, in truth, seem to fit in anywhere, but in the sense that Rawdon is fine in the company of a certain kind of man... men like him, basically. He gambles, too, and duels. But, like Dobbin, is essentially honourable... although far more pragmatic (things don't sit well with him, but they persist in sitting; Dobbin's greater discipline avoids Rawdon's gift for poor situations). And, like Dobbin, both are much closer to their children (one apiece) than they are to their wives... although Becky makes for a terrible mother. Unlike, Dobbin, however, Rawdon is intimate with Vanity Fair until his governorship. That is to say, he participates actively in the world of the Image... this being made easier by having quit the army not long after Waterloo. (But Image, that is Vanity Fair, has its form in the regiments, too, but Dobbin ignores this.)

The only other real contender for a hero would be Joseph (Jos) Sedley... Amelia's brother. However, our fat friend is prone to exaggeration and cowardice. Thus it is that Waterloo Sedley exists... although the man fled Brussels (unlike the original George Osborne, Amelia's husband, or Dobbin or Rawdon... i.e. all the other men of his generation and approximate standing in the novel... he was not even a soldier, let alone a participant in the battle; George, of course, died there). It must also be said that Jos shares his sister's ability to judge characters... which is why the novel ends with the implication that Becky arranged his demise. But even if we were to accept that our standards of heroes are quite different, Jos really does spend the majority of his time at work... which is to say, in India. At least when he is around, Jos plays the game... he was a man obsessed with Image.

What about Themes?

Well, I have no idea what the "experts" say but I would argue that the major theme is Image and What People Do To Have It. Hence, people "cut" each other by not acknowledging acquaintances (generally for fear of association) and attempt to live well on nothing a year (this involves debt... and now I think about it, Rawdon's selective honour... but with the right Image people don't follow up). And, of course, marriage is an important thing. Marrying the right people matters and marrying the wrong people can lead to even dead war heroes being estranged from their fathers (death does not fix your problems). But this pursuit of Image is, I feel, shown as a vanity (well, duh). Which probably explains this definition of Vanity Fair:
The world regarded as a place of frivolity and idle amusement (originally with reference to Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress").
There are other ideas, of course. They'e often related.

For instance, Old Osborne (Amelia's father-in-law) totally refuses to help about Old Sedley (Amelia's father) when his fortune turns. In year eleven I interpreted this as being something along the lines of forgetting where you come from. But, of course, to aid Old Sedley would be to compromise one's own Image. It is, naturally, fine to buy his wine at the creditor's auction of Sedley's former possessions... but not fine to reveal the origin of this wine when you get round to drinking it a decade later.

The flaws of all the various characters let us think about what it means to be a gentleman, for example. What are the qualities of goodness and decency, do we think, that Thackeray posits? It is clear that physical fitness and courage matter... but it is equally important to be intelligent and honourable as it is to look right. Poor parenting is not cool and fatherly affection important. From Dobbin's example we conclude that gossip is rank bad form, but it is decent to privately harbour feelings for people. Yet, he is flawed, like Old Sedley, for not knowing when it is time to, by analogy, type "gg" (for Good Game) and resign. Or, maybe, this is what I think... for doesn't the Great Writer's magazine describe Thackeray as a describer rather than a moraliser? He put down Truth and left the meaning to the reader. Or something like that.

I think, when we consider the Marquis of Steyne and the general appeal of Becky, that it is entirely possible that Thackeray also had something to say about position in Vanity Fair. I suggest here that we are invited to think that the reason Becky had her periods of success in Vanity Fair (the metaphor and the book) is that she had qualities that people desired but which were lacking among those of Image. And at the end, one hears of George Osborne the younger being paired with his neighbour... who preferred her cousin (Rawdon Crawley the younger).


I already alluded to House of Cards, but in truth that's a fairly superficial comparison in the sense that it simply takes two characters who know what they want and how to get it and notes that they share these features. I feel like a comparison should be a bit more meaningful, but, in truth, I feel like we could spend all day talking about various organised crime leaders looking for that respectability they lack, but that's all I can think about.

On a meta level, definitely compare and contrast Discword. Not only are they both satirical works but they both have narrators with known voices. Ivanhoe does too, actually. And Jane the Virgin's narrator definitely fits in the "I will not disfigure my characters" mould.


Should you read Vanity Fair? Yes. Do you need to read it? No. In fact, there are only three things you need to read to understand the gamut of humanity... and I hope to write that up later on.