Measuring our humanity

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Living offers almost daily changes in perspective. From its beginning, life seems endless; from its end, the blink of an eye. One moment, the Janjaweed, al-Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq appear to be the greatest evil we have to face. The next moment, and one shrug of the Earth's shoulders shows them up for what they are: bit-part players in dealing random death; not even a footnote in the history of mankind.

Like everyone else, I watched my television, appalled, over the Christmas and New Year holidays. The shaky amateur videos seemed to show a modest wave breaking among the palms, but it just kept on coming. Thereafter, the nightly show of horrors followed much the same pattern, and the tide of deaths rose exponentially. One night we saw the flattened remnants of a city; mud and debris devoid of life except for a lost dog. The next night, sea currents had cast up a host of bloated, undignified dead, awaiting masked troops and bulldozed graves.

A vision of utter lifelessness had been replaced by images of appalling, agonised mortality; modern-day echoes of the Peninsular War atrocities captured in Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra, or, almost 140 years later, footage from the liberation of Auschwitz.

Closer to home, the Government promptly contributed pound;15 million for tsunami relief, just a fraction less than the United States. In one night, 600,000 individual citizens put up the same amount; 600,000 pound;25 votes for our shared humanity. A change of perspective. The Government raised its offer to pound;50 million and we all pressed on to match it.

The Benfield Grieg centre for hazard research at London university offered yet another perspective. Yes, this was a big tremor; big enough, as one tectonic plate jolted beneath another, to perceptibly lessen the diameter of the Earth, quicken its rotation and infinitesimally shorten its day. We may require an extra "leap second" to correct the atomic clocks.

But as seismic events go, it was no cataclysmic one-off. Consider the explosion of the volcano Krakatoa in what is now Indonesia in 1883, whose resulting 30 metre high tsunami killed a wildly under-reported 36,000 people; whose five cubic miles of ejected rock and ash blanketed the land over an area of 300,000 square miles and caused brilliantly-coloured sunsets worldwide for years.

Consider the Benfield Grieg centre's quietly insistent warnings of water leaking into the magma chamber beneath volcanic La Palma in the Canary Islands. When pressure is sufficient, any eruption could trigger an explosion just like Krakatoa. The only questions are when and how. Worst case? The resulting monstrous landslide and tsunami would obliterate the cities of America's eastern seaboard and devastate Europe's margin, quite apart from bringing catastrophe to countless midwinter flights to the sun.

This business of multiple perspectives does have a bearing on the smaller questions of daily life. For example, just before Christmas my perspective was questioned by representatives of the providers of learning programmes for people with disabilities. I had said that around half of the programmes were inadequate to meet learners' needs. The providers said this was a generalisation and, quite rightly, that some of their members do a great job. In one sense, to offer any percentage, or any pattern of occurrences, generalises and will offend those who are exceptions to the rule. In another sense, most people seemed to agree with me that it is deplorable that such a large proportion of vulnerable people are offered poor service.

A matter of perspective, and a matter too, perhaps, of kindness on my part, to find a way of presenting the facts in a way which balances better the seriousness of the situation for the people concerned against the imperative to improve and the efforts required by those who have to make it happen.

For me, the most poignant moment of all that coverage of the Indian Ocean disaster was provided by a young woman reporter from Channel 4 News. She was speaking to a man who had been away working in the Middle East and had returned to Indonesia to find his whole family killed. She said: "I'm so sorry". He turned to her with a look of utter devastation and said: "What can I do?" Tragedy was for one instant transcended by complete human understanding and sympathy.

In the end, that is the essence of the Adult Learning Inspectorate's trade.

We are in the business of offering different perspectives, without the taint of self-interest or factionalism or too close a connection with officialdom. We are here to celebrate achievement or to nail shortcomings, according to a consensus about what is acceptable and what is not. And we have a duty to make sure that consensus is as explicit as possible through its publication in the common inspection framework. Our business is to judge, but to judge from a perspective of connectedness with those who are judged. Perspective does not mean disengagement.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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