A Letter from Talleyrand: ‘Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities’ by Dominic Cummings, aged 39¾

Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings

If Michael Gove can be likened to Napoleon, would that make Dominic Cummings his Talleyrand? (after Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord 1754-1838, Napoleon’s éminence grise.)

The Duke of Wellington once remarked that the battle plans of Napoleon were made of marble, whereas his own were made of little bits of string. Napoleon’s plans were brilliant and effective, as majestic as a triumphal arch. However, they all shared one fatal flaw: if one little bit went wrong then the whole edifice came crashing down. Wellington said that his own battle plans were different: if one string broke, he would merely knot two other strings together and the plan would continue on.

The pdf what Cummings wrote*  has the feel of man attempting to build a Napoleonic battle plan in order to sort out, once and for all, all the tiresome disagreements about educational policy.

And there’s no denying the man has been busy: he has read a lot. An awful lot. From a very wide range of authors. And it’s quite an interesting and eclectic read.

But it also gives the impression of being no more than an energetic exercise in quote mining, and not a dispassionate investigation of the issues. In other words, I strongly suspect that Cummings read so widely in order to find extracts to support his pre-existing views, rather than thoughts or insights to help form or challenge them.

Reading this document, I was put in mind, more than once, of the fictional doctor, Andrey Yefimitch:

“You know, of course,” the doctor went on quietly and deliberately, “that everything in this world is insignificant and uninteresting except the higher spiritual manifestations of the human mind … Consequently the intellect is the only possible source of enjoyment.”

— Anton Chekov, Ward 6

Cummings laments that “less than one percent are well educated in the basics of how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation.” That, though true, is not necessarily a reason for lambasting our current education system as “mediocre at best”. For me, this seems a curious priority.

Sir Isaac Newton was roundly criticised by his contemporaries for lacking a solid theoretical foundation for the infinitesimal calculus: Bishop Berkeley accused him of trafficking in “the ghosts of vanished quantities”. A couple of centuries later, the rigorous** notion of a limit laid that criticism to rest. Now of course it is generally better to understand more rather than less, but would learning about the foundational difficulties of the calculus be the most pressing priority of a 18th Century student of Physics? I would argue no, not necessarily.

For my part, I have thought long and hard about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (in Eugene Wigner’s phrase). I have discussed it with students. I think it’s a fascinating issue, and I adore far-ranging, off-spec discussions of this ilk. But is it an educational priority? Not in my opinion.

Other parts of the pdf seem just plain odd to me:

It would be interesting to collect information on elite intelligence and special forces training programmes (why are some better than others at decisions under pressure and surviving disaster?). E.g. Post-9/11, US special forces (acknowledged and covert) have greatly altered … How does what is regarded as ‘core training’ for such teams vary and how is it changing?

— Cummings, p.98

Interesting, sure. These special forces teams are (I presume) made up of already highly-motivated and highly-capable individuals. Cummings overarching priority always seems to be towards the individuals on far right of the “bell curve” (another Cummings hot topic: see pp.13, 20, 67, 224 and others). He genuinely seems to recoil in fastidious horror at the very concept of being “mediocre”.

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.

–Cummings p.4

Compare with Dr Yefimitch:

Life is a vexatious trap; when a thinking man reaches maturity and attains to full conciousness he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape.

— Anton Chekov, Ward 6

Apparently, Mr Cummings plans to leave the DoE and take up the headship of a Free School. Although I have serious reservations about the Free School programme, I welcome this as an encouraging example of a politician putting his money where his mouth is. And I wish him well. I genuinely do.

However, from my own experience I have to say that I do not think his abstract philosophy will be as reliable a guide for navigating the choppy waters of a headteacher’s life as he believes it will be.

I have quoted from Chekov’s Ward 6 already. This masterful short story is the best description I have ever come across of the result of a collision between a man with an abstract philosophy and real life. In a discussion with a lunatic, Dr Yefimitch proposes that: “There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this [cold, freezing] ward … A man’s peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself.” However, disaster strikes and he is committed to the asylum:

Andrey Yefimitch was even now convinced that there was no difference between his landlady’s house and Ward No. 6, that everything in the world was nonsense and the vanity of vanities. And yet his hands were trembling, his feet were cold, and he was filled with dread…

Now, I am not suggesting that our Dom will end up in an insane asylum, or even cold, hungry and alone. What I suggesting is that since one Free School head of what might be described as “the-how-hard-can-it-be?” tendency has, sadly, already bitten the dust, Mr Cummings may find that running a school (or just being a plain old teacher for that matter) requires far more than is dreamt of in his philosophy.

Unless, that is, he learns to make his plans out of string rather than out of marble…

______________________________________________________

* This joke ©Morecambe and Wise c.1972, as are most of the rest of my jokes
** Now where have I heard that word before?
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