In part 1 the author argued that “Seriously awful governments” should be ranked alongside global warming, mass extinction, conflict and economic inequality that now threaten all our lives and those of our fellow creatures. In part 2 he focuses on education.
The flaws in our learning
One reason why our government (and most governments in the history of the world) usually fall far short of what’s needed, and often indeed become forces of destruction, is that the leading figures within them and most of their closest supporters are badly educated. To be sure, their education is often of the most expensive kind. Rishi Sunak spent his formative years at Winchester and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, George Osborne and goodness knows how many more went to Eton. All of the above (plus the state school educated Michael Gove, Theresa May and Liz Truss) went on to Oxford University.
There they all studied subjects that are traditionally known as ‘humanities’. Cameron read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and so did Liz Truss, who later in her mercifully ephemeral premiership employed her dubious talents to trash the British economy with a zeal that was wondrous to behold. Gove read English.
Rees-Mogg read history and went on to write The Victorians: Twelve Titans who Forged Britain (2019) – which was variously described in the national press as “staggeringly silly”, “morally repellent”, “plodding, laborious, humourless and barely readable”, “bad, boring and mind‑bogglingly banal”. Still, said the historian Kathryn Hughes, “At least we know The Victorians isn’t ghost written, since no self-respecting freelancer would dare ask for payment for such rotten prose”. But I haven’t read Rees-Mogg’s master work so I couldn’t possibly comment.
Johnson read Classics, which was traditionally supposed to provide the firmest possible grounding for a leader, drawing as it does on the wisdom of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, and of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and indeed of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. The most prominent of the classics-educated politicians before him (albeit at Cambridge rather than Oxford) was Enoch Powell. He it was who in an infamous speech at a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on 20 April 1968 gave voice to the fear of an alleged constituent that:
“ … in Britain within 15 or 20 years … the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”
Indeed, said Powell,
“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
The Roman in question was Virgil, who coined the expression in the Aeneid. There’s nothing like a classical reference to give the illusion of wisdom. The solution to the pending alien coup, suggested Powell, is:
“ … simple and rational: by stopping, or virtually stopping, further inflow, and by promoting the maximum outflow. Both answers are part of the official policy of the Conservative Party.”
And indeed, more than 50 years later, they still are. The Conservatives are nothing if not consistent. At least in their general outlook on life. Day to day, especially under Sunak, they change like the weather.
Read science? Me?
None of the above government panjandrums read science. Indeed, as the government’s former scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told the Covid inquiry in November 2023, the prime minister was clearly “bamboozled” by the models that described the likely spread of the virus. And this, we might reasonably feel, was a drawback since the likely spread of the virus was a crucial issue, to be addressed through the science and maths of epidemiology, and Johnson was in charge of strategy. Neither apparently did he or his immediate colleagues see fit to consult the scientists when Sunak decided to encourage us all to eat out.
Absolutely not, though, am I suggesting that science can provide the complete answer to all the world’s problems, any more than a grounding in neoliberal economics can do, or classics, or theology, or even English literature (although the latter may well be the broadest and best of the bunch). After all, Thatcher read chemistry (at Oxford). Too much faith in science leads to ‘scientism’ – the belief that only science is worth taking seriously. Scientism in turn leads on to ‘uncritical technophilia’ – the belief that high tech (the kind of technology that’s rooted in scientific theory) and only high tech can solve the world’s problems.
In recent years this has encouraged the belief among many of the world’s most influential people, including Bill Gates and at least two former presidents of the Royal Society, that humanity can be fed only by high-tech industrial farming, including GMOs, and that anyone who says otherwise is an idiot and a dangerous dissident. Yet in 50 years of research and hype GM technology has produced no new food crops that are of unequivocal value to humanity – or none that could not have been produced without it, given the right support.
The high-tech hype has helped to sweep aside many thousands (probably millions) of the small farms worldwide that in practice provide the food for most of humanity, and could be far more productive than they are if only (like the high-tech companies) they had financial support backed by sympathetic legislation.
I do suggest though that all formal education should at least provide some serious grounding in science – but would add that science education itself needs radical reform. For science should not, as is now so often the case, be taught primarily or exclusively simply as the source of high tech, and technology should not, as now, be seen primarily or exclusively as a way to ‘compete’ in the global market and to maximize short-term wealth.
Indeed, science should be taught primarily as an aesthetic and indeed a spiritual pursuit. Its role is not simply to control nature as Francis Bacon unfortunately suggested at the start of the 17th century. It is to help us to appreciate life and the universe more fully; to see how wondrous and indeed miraculous they really are; and to live more harmoniously with our fellow creatures and indeed with the Earth. Albert Einstein clearly felt much the same and to too did many of the other greats, from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace to Niels Bohr. The great pioneer scientists of the 17th century including Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and John Ray saw science as an insight into the mind of God.
A grounding in philosophy
And – crucially – science should never be taught without the philosophy of science. That is, science is showing us how wondrous the physical universe and all that’s in it really are, and showing us too what can be achieved when reason and imagination work together. But the philosophy of science is needed too to point out the limitations of science, and hence the folly and hubris of scientism and all that follows from it.
Similarly, economics should never be taught without a grounding in moral philosophy, to ask what is right, and why; and in ecology, to help us gear the economy to the realities of the physical world. Emphatically we should not, as now, see economics simply as the pursuit of ever-increasing material ‘growth’. That way of thinking leads to injustice and misery and is obviously self-defeating in a finite world.
Moral philosophy, too, needs reform. In particular moral philosophers need to face up to David Hume’s assertion in the 18th century that morality in the end is rooted in feelings. It’s feelings – attitude – that need to be cultivated. Morality that is merely ‘secular’ and arithmetical, as in Jeremy Bentham’s “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, just will not do. Especially in this neoliberal age in which happiness is equated with material wealth (meaning that ‘good’ is seen to be whatever makes some people rich).
Time to re-think
Overall we need to re-think everything we do and take for granted – and, essentially, to re-think everything in the light of everything else; and we need to devise an education to reflect that need. The basic curriculum that all humanity now needs should on the one hand focus on the minutiae of life that really matter – including or especially the intricacies of farming and cooking. But it should also take the widest possible view of the world and its problems and all our endeavours should be rooted in the bedrock principles of morality (which asks what is right) and ecology (which asks what is necessary and possible).
Finally we need to acknowledge that all our biggest and most important ideas, whether of aesthetics or religion or moral philosophy or indeed of science, are rooted, in the end, in the uncertainties of metaphysics – the essential foundation of all deep thought which alas, as a formal discipline, has gone missing. All too obviously, a few years’ training or indeed indoctrination in (neoliberal) economics or in purely materialistic science or in the musings of ancient poets and philosophers, or even in the joys and insights of the world’s great literature, just will not do.
I expand these thoughts in my latest book The Great Re-Think (Pari Publishing 2021), and further still in my website www.colintudge.com. Please take a look at the website and help to expand the thesis. The essential search for better attitudes and modus operandi must be a collective exercise – true democracy in action.
Comments please to [email protected]