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My leg is somewhat like the chair I sit in: they are both constituted by atomic particles; they both occupy space-time; they are both to the East of Ireland. How interesting are these similarities? Not very.

Yesterday I wrote about the generalisation of the model of human decision-making operative in neo-classical economics to too many other areas of life, so that the vast majority of human behaviour is understood in terms of self-interested rational agency. We have lived, as Adam Curtis has pointed out, with the yoke of this generalised individualistic model for about thirty years now.

But I also made the point that because we can’t cope with too much complexity, we are wont to indulge in such generalising for the sake of preserving a sense of effective agency – a sense of being able to get a handle on things and change them, rather than being baffled and alienated by their labyrinthine intricacies.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was fascinated by the webs of interrelated language-games that are similar in interesting ways, yet subtly different. For example, ascribing pain to myself is like ascribing pain to somebody else, but it is not identical – when I ascribe pain to myself I can’t really be mistaken, wheras I can about ascribing a pain to you.

If we try to understand ascribing a pain first-personally on the model of third-person ascription, we get strange phrases like ‘I know I’m in pain’, which implies that I could ‘not know I’m in pain’, and that is obviously a little absurd. Similarly, if we try to think of ascribing pain to somebody else on the model of ascribing it to ourselves, we come to the conclusion that we can never know if anybody else is in pain, because we can never feel someone else’s pain. And that is patently absurd also.

Wittgenstein thought that if we carefully unpicked similarities that had been taken by philosophers to be identities, or similarities that weren’t pertinent or interesting, we could get out of the mental cramps that philosohpy seems to engender: statements like ‘I can never know if another person is in pain’ would be exposed as the absurdities we take them to be. And then we could all get on with other, more interesting, stuff.

Wittgenstein never drew up a normative model of how we should live as he hated the idea of prescriptive philosophy. But if we can draw a lesson from his attack on crude conflations of similarities, and subtle unpackings of differences, it would be something along the lines of encouraging polymathism – something I suggested in yesterday’s post was a good thing. Except given modernity, I don’t think polymathism is the right word – the world is too complex for knowledge of everything. Rather, we need to encourage something like the practice of judgement – poly-skilledness, to coin an ugly phrase.

So much of our lives are bound up with imitating and seeing similarities between things (think of learning all the different uses of the word ‘game’ for example), that there is always a danger of conflation and reduction. But by the same token, seeing similarities between things (discerning and imitating common patterns) is absolutely central to human learning and behaviour.

The point about ‘poly-skilledness’ is this: if we want to avoid the rock of too much complexity and the hard place of conflation and reduction, we somehow need to make a bigger space in our culture for the careful practice of judgement. We need to encourage individuals who can see the similarities between things and draw out general principles, in order to stave off the debilitating effect of too much complexity. But we also need those individuals to be able to see the subtle differences between things, to hesitate over conflating similarites as identities. And the way to encourage individuals like that, in this modern complex world, is to train them in core transferrable competencies, and in how to apply those competencies to different subject areas. And that is pretty much what the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum seeks to do.


Yesterday, Daniel Finkelstein took up two suggestions for educational reform. The first, from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, was that kids should spend a lot more time at school in order to improve skills in core subjects like mathematics. But also, given the book’s aim to give an account of the production of geniuses (the account is roughly, that geniuses are not produced by individual exceptionalism, but by sheer hard work and support), the suggestion was that kids spend more time at school in order that there be more geniuses. The second, from the Chief Executive of the RSA Matthew Taylor, in his blog, was that kids spend less time at school; that older kids in their final year of schooling have one day a week where they supervise themselves in independent study.

Finkelstein suggested that because these ideas contradict one another, there must be something at fault. That turns out to be ‘survivor bias’ – both Gladwell and Taylor are guilty of focussing on the cases that support their idea and ignoring the (perhaps numerous) cases where the idea has not been borne out by reality. So for every pupil that thrives on longer or shorter hours spent at school, there will perhaps be fifty that don’t. In other words, both ideas are vouchsafed by pointing to the cases of success and ignoring  the cases of failure. We resolve the contradiction then, by saying that one idea serves some people better, and the other some other people better.

Finkelstein goes on to suggest, that in light of this, we keep an open mind about what does and doesn’t work in education. I have no problem with that. But I feel that survivor bias is differently weighted with regard to Gladwell and Taylor’s ideas.

First, we need to take into account the degree of behavioural adjustment each idea requires. A school in New York with long hours might work if it draws on super apirational parents and their expectations. Or it might work culturally in China and Korea for various reasons I don’t feel competent to comment on. But it might be a disaster in many other (say) parts of America and the UK. Conversely, the suggestion that kids in their final year spend one day unsupervised requires far less behavioural adjustment. The wider culture it is being introduced to already values self-reliance, so the suggestion is not alien. But perhaps more important, it is only one day a week in the final year. If it doesn’t work for some kids, it only doesn’t work for them for one year of their schooling.

Second, the Gladwell idea presumes the idea of education is to produce really smart kids. Which of course it is. But long hours slogging in a classroom produces a particular kind of smartness – kids who are really good at maths. Are we sure that is a powerful enough reason to massively change the education system? Won’t there be cons as well as pros to such a change?

Finally, Taylor’s suggestion is in response to pressures such as demographic change and lack of resources to fund public services. Thus it has other reasons in its favour than mere educationalist dogma. Gladwell responds to pressures also: the apparent falling behind Asia of the North Atlantic world. I’m not going to comment on which pressure is more powerful, but in analysing the merits of each idea we should at least take the distinct kinds of pressure into account.