12 Oct 2013

Gove adviser: School failure could cause ‘showers of blood’

It is one of several radical claims about education in an essay by the education secretary’s adviser Dominic Cummings, published last night. Here are the rest.

School children (Getty)

Dominic Cummings is described as the Education Secretary’s most influential adviser, at the heart of policy since 2011, but in a dense 250-page essay published last night he describes British education as “between awful and mediocre”.

He also suggests that the Department of Education should be ruthlessly cut down in size.

Mr Cummings only has a couple more months in office before he leaves government, but he has been at the heart of the education secretary’s team since 2011 after Gove specially lobbied to bring him in.

Here are 10 other radical statements from the text Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities written in August 2013, and published last night by the Guardian.

1. People leave education unable to understand complex systems.

“In England, few are well-trained in the basics of extended writing or mathematical and scientific modelling and problem-solving.”

2. This may lead to the world ending in “showers of blood”.

“The consequences are increasingly dangerous as markets, science and technology disrupt all existing institutions and traditions, and enhance the dangerous potential of our evolved nature to inflict huge physical destruction and to manipulate the feelings and ideas of many people (including, sometimes particularly, the best educated) through ‘information operations’.

“Our fragile civilisation is vulnerable to large shocks and a continuation of traditional human politics as it was during 6 million years of hominid evolution – an attempt to secure in-group cohesion, prosperity and strength in order to dominate or destroy nearby out-groups in competition for scarce resources – could kill billions. We need big changes to schools, universities, and political and other institutions for their own sake and to help us limit harm done by those who, entangled with trends described below, pursue dreams of military glory, ‘that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.'”

We need big changes to schools, universities and other institutions to help us limit harm done by those who pursue dreams of military glory, ‘that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.’ Dominic Cummings

3. Elite universities damage our future leaders.

“Generally, they are badly (or narrowly) educated and trained (even elite universities offer courses that are thought to prepare future political decision-makers but are clearly inadequate and in some ways damaging) […]

“Most politicians, officials, and advisers operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgement), and little experience in well-managed complex organisations.”

4. How should the nation’s elite be educated instead? Like this:

“Universities should develop alternatives to Politics, Philosophy, and Economics such as Ancient and Modern History, Physics for Future Presidents, and Programming. We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling, who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project.”

5. Other people shouldn’t even go to university at all and are wasting everybody’s time.

“Many of those now attending university courses in the UK and USA are wasting their time, and their own and taxpayers’ money, and would be better off in jobs or work-based training. In many third-rate HE institutions, there is a large amount of ‘social science’ work (in economics, anthropology, sociology, literary theory, and so on) of questionable value both from an intellectual perspective and from the perspective of the students’ job prospects.”

6. Education should train synthesisers not specialists.

The nation’s children should be trained in seven fields roughly corresponding to subjects like maths, biology, physics, robots, with humanities bundled into one, called: “political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes”. Mr Cummings would also like students to study “the biological basis of personality”. He hopes these changes would give the nation’s children “a cool Thucydidean courage to face reality including their own errors”.

7. Young people face a future working for middle-aged mediocrities, or unemployment.

“This essay is aimed mainly at 15-25 year-olds and those interested in more ambitious education and training for them. Not only are most of them forced into mediocre education but they are also then forced into dysfunctional institutions where many face awful choices: either conform to the patterns set by middle-aged mediocrities (don’t pursue excellence, don’t challenge bosses’ errors, and so on) or soon be despised and unemployed.”

8. Actually he (Mr Cummings) doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“This paper is very crude and written by someone with no relevant expertise in any subject except politics – it is a bad version of something I wish I had been given aged 15, prompted partly by thinking, after reading about the Russian Kolmogorov schools, ‘we need some schools like that… what would the pupils study?'”

9. Institutions should be more like ant colonies.

“Ant colonies and the immune system are good examples of complex nonlinear systems with ’emergent properties’ and self-organisation.”

Institutions could learn from this, suggests Mr Cummings as, like the body or an ant hive, we cannot know in advance all the threats we will face so have to be resilient rather than pre-designed.

10. Genes are more important than teaching.

“Another field of research that has big potential to inform education policy and improve education is genetics though it remains ignored in current debates outside a tiny group.

“When it is not ignored, it is often misunderstood, both by those such as Malcolm Gladwell (who wrongly downplayed the importance of genes) and by those who wish to use genetics to justify the view that ‘they are doomed by their genes’. However, it is likely that public debate will have to stop ignoring the subject within the next decade.

“This paper (Science, 23/4/2010) shows how good teachers improve reading standards for all but this means that the variance that remains is more due to genetic differences. This leads to a conclusion almost completely at odds with prevailing conventional wisdom.”

Read the full 250 page essay here