Where are the ethics in Cummings’ Odyssean education?

Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s special advisor, has penned a 237-page Jerry Maguire-style memo, a few weeks before leaving office, which outlines his vision for England and Wales to become a sort of ‘school to the world’, much as Pericles suggested Athens should be.

I’m impressed by Cummings’ cognitive surplus, and the sheer range of his references, from Mendel to Kahnemann, from Thucydides to Nate Silver. The memo covers everything from Big Data to darknets, from ABMs to RCTs, and sometimes reads like the sort of breathless brain-dump of someone who’s stayed up all night watching TED talks on Red Bull.

The memo has grabbed headlines for its criticism of teachers – most of whom are ‘inevitably’ mediocre, according to Cummings, though I think by ‘mediocre’ he just means ‘average’, which is statistically true. It must be annoying for teachers to be constantly criticised by non-teachers like Cummings, but his criticisms are more structural than personal. And he may have a point that our system is being blighted by an acceptance of low standards – we’re now 21st out of 24 OECD countries for literacy and numeracy, and the only country where standards have stalled in the last 40 years.

Beneath the noise, Cumming’s broader suggestion is that we need to develop what he calls ‘Odyssean education’,  a term coined by Nobel-prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann to mean a synthesis of the Apollonian skill of rationality with the Dionysian skill of intuition. An Odyssean education would, Cummings says, combine the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities.

Odysseus possessed both rationality and artistic intuition, apparently

This all sounds good to me – I’ve also argued that our education system needs to be broader, needs to specialize less early (I’d prefer the International Baccelaureate to A Levels for this reason) and, at degree level, it needs to be closer to the Scottish or American liberal arts model, perhaps with science majors expected also to take courses in the humanities, and vice versa. I also love the idea of finding a synthesis between the Apollonian and the Dionysian – in a way, that’s what I’m trying to do, having written one book on cognitive therapy and Socratic philosophy (the Apollonian) I’m now researching another on ecstatic experiences (the Dionysian).

My problem with Dominic’s vision, however, is that it’s entirely Apollonian. It’s entirely scientific, rationalistic and technocratic in its focus, without any Dionysiac sense of the value of the arts or religion, or indeed of emotions, beliefs, values, narratives, myths and meaning.

Look, for example, at the seven bold goals that he thinks the education system should fix:

1. Maths and complexity. Solve the Millennium Problems, better prediction of complex networks.
2. Energy and space. Ubiquitous cheap energy and opening space for science and commerce.
3. Physics and computation. Exploration beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, better materials and computers, digital fabrication, and quantum computation.
4. Biological engineering. Understanding the biological basis of personality and cognition, personalised medicine, and computational and synthetic biology.
5. Mind and machine. Quantitative models of the mind and machine intelligence applications.
6. The scientific method, education, training and decisions. Nielsen’s vision of decentralised coordination of expertise and data-driven intelligence (‘a scientific social web that directs scientists’ attention where it is most valuable’); more ambitious and scientifically tested personalised education; training and tools that measurably improve decisions (e.g. ABMs).
7. Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes. Replacements for failed economic ideas and traditional political philosophies; new institutions (e.g. new civil service systems and international institutions, a UK DARPA and TALPIOT (non-military), decentralised health services).

The ideal product of Cummings’ education system would be a computer

Noble aims all of them, but these are all technocratic problems that would be best solved by a super-computer. Indeed, after reading Dominic’s paper, with its 100 pages of complex systems analysis, one imagines the ideal product of his education system would also be a computer, without any messy human emotions clouding its rational analysis.

There is no sense of the value of emotions as motivators for learning, as there is in education theorists like, say, Aristotle or John Stuart Mill. What is an education system without the emotions of wonder, play, tragedy and joy? Nor is there a sense of the need for meanings, myths, and narratives as motivators of human beings – which happens to be the arts and humanities’ strong point.

There is a great deal of genuflecting to American technologists and social scientists (this is typical of our political class, which tends to keel over in awe at any American idea, no matter how faddish) and no mention of our world-leading strength in theatre, movies, art, music, literature, design and computer graphics. We hear a lot about foreign science academies, but there is no mention of the BRIT school, for example, which has managed to produce several of the top-selling artists worldwide in the last decade. The omission suggests this government really doesn’t get the value of English and Welsh arts – neither their value to our economy, nor to our spiritual health as a society, nor for engaging young people and making learning fun.

More fundamentally, there is a yawning meaning-gap at the heart of his vision. It’s a Weberian, technocratic vision of education, dedicated to the smooth and efficient running of the machine, without any clear articulation of what the machine is for, what education is for, what indeed life is for.

Cummings might say that asking what the system is for is teleological thinking, and therefore bad. Plato and Aristotle were guilty of this sort of primitive teleology, he says. The great leap forward into modernity is to abandon teleology, and embrace Darwinian evolutionary thinking. But at least Plato and Aristotle had a clear idea of what the moral goal of their education should be, and what sort of character values it should produce in young people.

Cummings, by contrast, puts his entire faith in scientific thinking. Science and the market have disenchanted the world, led us out from superstitious belief-systems like religion and into godless complex market technocracies. Yet, crucially, he admits that science has ‘not produced ‘a rational basis for morality’.’ So we find ourselves in a complex machine without a morality.  We find yourself in what Weber described as a ‘polar night of icy darkness’ – without God, without myths, without meanings or values, even without emotions – simply a machine running on without a driver.

Clearly there is a meanings gap in this vision of education and life. It is an entirely Apollonian system – a system of rational technocratic control or, in neurobollocks terminology, a system dominated by left-brain-hemisphere thinking. To become a truly Odyssean system, it would need to bring in the right-brain hemisphere, the domain of intuition, emotion, the arts, narrative and myth.  Cummings has half the system right – he’s just missed out the other half.

Look back to Periclean Athens – it had both the Apollonian rationality of Thucydides, Hippocrates and Socrates, and also the Dionsyiac insight of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Agathon, Pindar, and the cults of Eleusis and Dionysus. Athens managed to find a fragile Odyssean balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or between the sciences and the arts and humanities. Perhaps we can too.

Comments:

  • LarryW says:

    I’ve scanned, not read, and certainly not absorbed Cumming’s paper, but I too marvel and the breadth of his references. But one problem in his paper stands out. Like those before him, his mistaken baiting of heritability of intelligence is not only wrong, but actually goes against his ultimate conclusions. He is very specific in damning the elite, the rich and powerful in their basic incapacity to make even mediocre decisions. Yet, it is just those folks who have received advanced degrees, score high on IQ tests, and university entrance exams. That is, the continuing failure of institutions are caused by just those folks with high IQ, not those at the lower end of the spectrum. These high IQ folks have not receive any math or science training, and are likely incapable of learning this material, but it is just the tests he claims critical in showing heritability of intelligence that has placed high IQ incompetents into positions of power. Perhaps we need better tests?

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  • Philip Crooks says:

    Just one thing Cummings quotes Steve Jobs, sorry cannot remember the exact quote. Roughly teachers are bad and schools should be open eleven months a year from 9 till 6.
    Would you take advice about your sex life from a eunuch?
    I am sick of people like Cummings telling me how to do my job.
    If he wrote an article about how to fly a 747 the first thing a pilot would say is how many hours do you have on it. We should say the same.

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