Whether we like it or not, the global human community is hurtling towards a contentious, chaotic, painful collapse… unless we can “see sense” in time and belatedly adopt policies which are capable of fundamentally stabilising human reasoning and interaction. One might suppose that enough people would recognise the signs of this terminal implosion… to take a last ditch stand in favour of reason and caring in human affairs, a moment for the diaspora of the young-minded and far-sighted to come together… to regroup, and re-think what the whole human project has been about. But at present there is no suggestion of any such movement. The closest we come to it is Extinction Rebellion, a cadre of exceptionally nervous people determined —by the intensity of their panic— to “do something” about global warming.
Global warming is only one of several severe existential crises which are looming large, e.g. burgeoning fraud, burgeoning substance abuse, over-use of anti-biotics, oceanic pollution… but the most serious of all is mental extinction. The human race evolved as homo sapiens, and we became a potent source of physical sophistication and progress… but we seem to have perversely, systematically, rejected the ‘sapiens’ aspiration for most of the last hundred years.
Apathy and lack-of-interest seem to be the common response to any <<call to rethinking arms>> such as that outlined above. Almost everyone is theory-phobic. To think that theory is not relevant to human happiness is itself a sign —by its mere existence— that we are already a long way down the slippery slope towards mental extinction. Thinking is essential to human wellbeing. A ‘theory’ is no more than an essential outline map, which you obviously need when exploring tricky areas. Not to see this is idiotic. It is now clear that we have been grossly under-practising and neglecting all kinds of theory for the last 100 years.
To make matters considerably worse, we are reaping the results of an educational experiment which started in the 1980s called ‘managerialism’. Managerialism does not just mean that the bosses calling the shots in schools are determined to manage their schools using the hard-nosed skills they learnt with their MBAs. It means that these bosses are trying to operate schools using “cognitive science” —a hard-nosed, simplistic pseudo-science, which started with Dr Pavlov and his experiments training dogs. Initially this group of bossy people called themselves ‘behaviorists’. They had the notion that all human behaviour consisted merely of responses to stimuli. This left no room for the idea of ‘mind’, and they initially went round saying that minds did not exist (sic) —that a ‘mind’ was no more than an imagined ‘ghost in the machine’! They had evidently internalised the bossy way of life —shout at people —in a potent way— and they will do things!
In football most pundits draw a clear distinction between ‘thoughtful, quality’ players who <<use their brains>> before passing the ball, and those who simply react. The most likely explanation for this blind-eyed notion that all human life is stimulus-reactive, is that the behaviorists themselves were predominantly stimulus-reactive people. They didn’t admit it, of course, because who would listen to their story, if they admitted that they didn’t set much store by thinking (=using their minds)? After the arrival of the digital computer around 1960 they realised that they were out on a limb… and that their best course was to start calling themselves ‘cognitive scientists’. This was self-chosen. They hadn’t reached a point where they were “recognised” by the Royal Society or the US Academy of Sciences (as representing a bona fide new ‘science’, there was no hope of that). They gained their backing instead from applying their methods in dog-eat-dog commercial marketing, mainly in the USA. Some of their extra-crude psychology “worked” in business settings, like selling soap as aggressively as possible. In such circles they could call themselves “scientists” and get away with it.
Why the educated mandarins at the DfE and their counterparts in other countries fell for the agenda of these pseudo-scientists, is a mystery of the first order. If anything it shows that good judgment and civilised reasoning was in already in an bad shape in the early 1980s. It has to be said, though, that these pseudo-scientists have operated with streetwise nous. They have never let the fact become public knowledge that they have finessed training methods in schools for educational methods. Teachers have become trainers. A training regime doesn’t ask questions about whether the student understands or not: the teaching is regarded as having “succeeded” when the students can go through the right motions. These trainers don’t recognise anything called ‘understanding’. Thus the teaching they promote is “no nonsense” teaching, which insists that the items learnt are distinct, cut-and-dried and measurable, i.e. hard-and- bitty. They have to be “learnt” (memorised) by the students: which means that the students have learnt how to tick the right boxes. The ticks are then counted, and these trainers have “hard numbers” (candidates’ marks) to hand to boost their questionable credibility.
As a result, they have managed to dazzle and retain the support of a critical mass of gullible business leaders, moguls, politicians, and administrators. Their so-called “skills” approach has palpably not worked. Ever since the early 1980s there has been perpetual chorus of complaints from parents, employers and university dons —to the effect that the school-leavers are under-educated: some have not even acquired the “basic skills”. So the trainers have failed by their own yardstick.
But from the beginning their streetwise nous has kicked-in, and they have managed to project confidence in their wretched regimes. Those who control “education” for the democratic constituency have apparently never even considered the possibility that it has all been a disastrous mistake. It appears that the hard-nosed attitudes of the managerialist trainers have resonated with a lot of influential fellow managers in the state sector and corporate business. They are people who judge the success of an enterprise by looking at the numbers, not by looking at whether the outcomes are valid. (In this case ‘validity’ would mean that the minds of the school leavers had been visibly energised and their vision enlarged by the thousands of hours of classroom work they have undergone.) Unfortunately crude numbers produced by a crude procedure do not guarantee validity: they guarantee nothing, and in this case there is the side-effect that these memorisation procedures clutter and stultify mind, and, if anything, de-energise it.
Students’ minds have been reduced to a standstill by countless hours of mind-destroying memorisation. They were told to do everything in their power to learn just those things which would translate into marks in the exam. This is not education. Rather it is anti-education, because it builds up an aversion to genuine learning, thinking about things, understanding things, acquiring judgment and rationality.
Breaking this vicious circle would be a good way to bring about a last stand, a stand capable of turning round the outlook of the human race: from despondency to hope.
But how can we break this unholy circle?
It will be necessary to marshal a body of expert opinion to expose this disastrous 40-year “educational” confidence trick. But marshalling such a body is almost impossible in today’s spaced-out, apathetic, theory-phobic atmosphere. Trying to use philosophy to re-establish a culture of logical clarity and reason, is like trying to use PR to rescue the bad name that PR has acquired as a by-product of its own shameless subversions. Today ‘philosophy’ is, sadly, a word which no longer signals crystal-clear thinking: often rather the reverse.
A starting-point of blue-chip credibility is needed. There is probably only one area where such credibility might be established —by technical feats in mathematics. This is why the companion website to this blog is mathsforrenewingreason,com. We may need exceptional efforts in both areas simultaneously to stage a turning point where the human race can face up to thinking constructively about the urgency of its own survival.
CHRISTOPHER ORMELL July 1st 2022