An Interview with Colin Hannaford: On the Riots in Britain – Perspectives from Belgium

Aug 18, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

When and where

I am writing this in quiet, tidy, and extremely wealthy Belgium, which, incidentally, has been without a political government for over nine months. There have been no riots here; but by the time this interview is published it is possible that there have been further riots in Britain. Given the encouragement afforded by television reports, it is possible that similar events may have happened in other countries.

It is also possible that the general response of most people to these events – shock, outrage, indignation, disgust – will have prevented any more from occurring.

Since either is possible, the more interesting question is your second.


Why are these riots occurring and why at this point?


Some years ago, I made a fumbled attempt to warn a young ethics class against taking drugs. They were all aged about fifteen and they greeted my effort to play the adult with them with scarcely concealed scorn and amusement.

They knew far more about drugs than I did. They explained that all kinds of drug were freely available in the nearest town. If any of them wanted any, they only needed to contact a runner for the gang controlling the drug market in their corner of town.

Often a much younger boy, the runner would know the price, would take their money, and would return with their request within the hour. Being young, he might still be arrested, but would be safe from any further punishment. He could be back on his street corner within days.

Thus began my education. Drugs produced more money for the gang than any of its members could possibly earn in regular employment. There was no lack of social mobility. For them upward social mobility meant moving up the ladder of demand and supply. The only real necessity was to ensure that every gang member was more frightened of losing the respect of the other “gangstas” than of any other consequence, including a prison sentence. This was regarded as a kind of obligatory sabbatical: the counselling that came with it, also gratis, as a joke.

As outlaws, the rest of society, whether or not also customers, they regarded with absolute contempt for being obedient to the laws over which they have control, whilst feeling even more contempt for the police – the ‘feds’ – especially if any of the police were taking drugs themselves, or bribes.

A feature of the latest events is that some will forcefully argue the relative morality of their business. They do not accept that what they are doing is wrong, far less that it is evil. What is so different, they will ask, in what we do to profit from our few hundred customers from the behaviour of the bankers who take their grotesque bonuses whilst destroying companies and ruining millions of lives?

This is hard to answer. There is sickness at the lower levels of our societies: that is, at their level; but it is also to be found in the middle, where they find their most reliable customers, and much of the same is evident higher still. It is very easy to react with demands that the first be rooted out, whilst shrugging one’s shoulders at financial shenanigans as being the incorrigible consequences of ‘market forces’ for which no-one at all can be held responsible.

None of this behaviour is natural. For many years, I have been a voice crying in the wilderness – another Jeremiah warning of disaster to come – insisting that virtually all the social and moral dysfunction of our societies is a direct consequence of the cruelty and stupidity practised on our children in schools. It is this that needs to be changed.

Meanwhile, a simple explanation of why a few dozen gangs in a few British cities suddenly decided to smash their way into their favourite electronic, food and liquor stores, and thus onto the front pages of the international press is rather easier.

The nearly universal possession of cell phones now make it possible for ten or twenty young villains to gather within minutes at any given location, to smash into a chosen store, to grab the loot and scoot.

The suckers who are attracted by the noise and the violence are left to fight the police. The target operation is virtually a zero risk. It is made even more exciting by seeing buildings burn. Who would not find that exciting: to burn down your very own department store!

Belonging to a gang is already means being an outlaw. It is occasionally necessary for the gang to demonstrate its control of its turf, and therefore its control of its supply and its customers.

This can be achieved in a number of ways, up to an including murder, but this newly found ability to show its contempt, both for the police and the docile but hypocritical society that police are supposed to protect, is especially exciting: particularly when simply wearing hoods and masks make it far less likely that anyone will be identified.

So what if a few stupids get hurt! So what if a few shops are destroyed and a few buildings burn! People should be grateful to us for waking them up. This is no more than your banks have done. Forgive them, forgive us!”




As an historian of a highly moralistic bent Arnold Toynbee was famous for by blaming the collapse of past civilisations on their leaders’ failure to respond to social problems: even as they became increasingly pressing and damaging.

Civilisations, he famously wrote, die from suicide, not murder. I doubt that an historian used to dealing with major wars and catastrophes would regard a few riots as important enough even to be noticed.

If he were alive today, I believe he could be persuaded that Britain and America are jointly committing suicide by ignoring the poisoning and the moral crippling of the majority of their children whilst they are still in school.


British – but also American – education


There are many differences in our two countries’ approach to children’s education. But in both Britain and America, as of course in most other Western countries, two subjects are regarded as fundamental to any curriculum: the first is to learn the reading and the writing of the national language; the second is to learn, first arithmetic, then mathematics.

The dogma by which both our countries, as well as others, are systematically poisoning our children was first announced ninety years ago by a Swiss gentleman called Jean Piaget. He was perfectly very serious, but was unfortunately not very careful. His idea, although obviously wrong, even now is never seriously challenged. Probably this is because it allows the majority of teachers to continue to behave as a source of pure wisdom: although, generally, they are not.

Far less agreeable, but also possible, is that the result is intended.

Beginning in the early 1920s M. Piaget announced that education can be treated as a science. He became, all at once, an educational and scientific messiah!

His idea swept through Europe, then Britain, then America. Its attractions were obvious. Teachers could call themselves scientists. Universities could appoint new professors. Their new professors could do research, scientific research! They could write books, explaining why M. Piaget’s idea must save Western civilisation. For ninety years they have collected funds, done their research, written books, set their exams, qualified millions of students. Has education improved? They must collect more funds and do more research.

Piaget died in 1980. Unfortunately, no-one noticed, or was prepared to notice, his most serious mistake until after he died.

He had declared that that all children of the same age have the same degree of one kind of intelligence. Previously he had been an expert on snails, water snails. Then he moved on to study his own children. Then he wrote nine books. There was, he continued to insist, only one kind of intelligence: and all children of the same age have the same amount.


In 1983, a Harvard scientist called Dr Howard Gardner announced that he found children to have at least seven kinds of intelligence.

He called them intra-personal and inter-personal (how we get on with ourselves and with others); kinaesthetic (how we move); linguistic (how we speak); logical (how we connect); musical (if we can sing); spatial (how we visualize).

In contrast to Piaget, Gardner declared that children of the same age possess different degrees of these seven kinds of intelligence and that all seven (now he says there are nine) develop at different rates. He is still being furiously attacked for his ‘unscientific’ temerity.

Every parent knows this is true. Every brother and every sister knows it is true. In fact, virtually everyone must have some inkling of sense that this must be true. Nevertheless, in most schools classes are still filled by age.

Consider the usual result.

Thirty or more youngsters of about the same age are tipped altogether into one class. This is actually not so disastrous. Disastrous is what happens next.

Their teacher then tries to treat them as if they all have the same degree of one kind of intelligence, and as if they must all respond in the same way.

This is clearly nonsense. This does not work. These youngsters are constantly being required to declare they understand the teacher’s instruction, when they – and usually also their teacher – knows they do not.

This usually the reason why most young people dislike mathematics lessons. It is also the reason why so very few succeed in mathematics: and why, as a result, our industries need to import mathematicians from other countries. All this, together with several other kinds of damage, is entirely avoidable: unless, I have already suggested, it serves another purpose.


The Divisions


My epiphany occurred after I had been teaching mathematics for about almost ten years. I am a competent instructor. My pupils were achieving excellent grades. I realised, however, that my competence as an instructor was responsible for the appearance of three distinct divisions in my pupils.

If my instruction has this effect, so too would the instruction of tens of thousands of other mathematics teachers world-wide. We, together, would uniquely affect our societies, also world-wide.

Division One will appear first. They are the fraction of the class, usually just a few, who really do comprehend the instruction as it is given. At first the others may ask them for help. Soon they will find themselves disliked: called swots, nerds, teacher’s pets. They respond in turn by believing the others are lazy or stupid, in any case that they deserve to fail. They become selfish. I imagine that as adults they are likely to believe that only they have a natural right to rule; that the purpose of politics is to keep them in control, whilst they enjoy their own choice careers.

Division Two, invariably the majority, are the youngsters who are not able to comprehend instruction as it is given. They cannot really keep up, but they can obey and they can copy, from the teacher, and from each other. They learn never to admit not to understand. If they do, their teacher will be obviously irritated; their classmates will tell them they are stupid. It soon begins to seem that their school expects to them not only to be dishonest, but to be successfully dishonest. As adults they will believe in the rule of the majority – in democracy therefore, which is good – but they will tend to select politicians to be their representatives who appear to be like themselves: either not very ambitious, not very bright; or, to the contrary, clearly slickly deceptive, but, they may suppose, on their side.

Division Three are the pupils who have never been able properly to understand, or obey, or to copy, well enough, even to appear to succeed. Constantly humiliated, they begin to try to disrupt they lessons. Eventually they will hate all authority, distrust everyone. As adults they are likely to find themselves unemployed, even unemployable, and pushed even further down the social scale by immigrants taking work they believe they should have. They are the powder waiting to explode.

What you have asked me to explain, I have now explained. The gangs in our town and our cities recruit almost exclusively from Division Three. This is where they get pay-back for the years of humiliation and rejection by authority, by the nerds and the herd.

As our societies become ever more fractured, the social, and the moral and the political divisions being created our schools become ever wider and ever more dangerous.

As Groucho Marx might have said, chewing on his cigar and elbowing Professor Toynbee aside: “Brother, the worst just ain’t happened yet!”


What question have you not asked?


You haven’t asked me how to stop the poisoning our youngsters.

This is more difficult than you might suppose. Whilst anyone might imagine from our politicians that they are more than anxious to improve the return on the billions being poured into our schools, it begins to appear that , if they care, no-one really cares enough: and even that, for some very strange and perverse reason, the people who could stop it happening – and they could make a beginning, quite easily, nationally and within a year – do not want to stop it from happening.

They should hear Marx – and read Arnold Toynbee.

About a month ago I had dinner with a highly intelligent senior Chinese diplomat who told me that for the major part of its three to four thousand year history China has been the most wealthy and powerful nation in the world – and intends to be the richest and most powerful once again.

He also told me of the extreme resentment felt by the typical Chinese for the West and that they will support this ambition whatever the cost. We cannot afford to go on poisoning our own wells as I have described above.


Best regards,


Colin Hannaford.


17th August 2011.

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