Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Education
Last night I was at the Institute of Economic Affairs for the launch of James Tooley’s remarkable book, Imprisoned in India: Corruption and Extortion in the World’s Largest Democracy.
Here are a few of the photos I took of him, talking about this book:
James Tooley is the guy who roams the earth, seeking out freelance educational enterprises, and also setting up several of his own. But then, he fell foul of India’s criminal justice bureaucracy, and got imprisoned for a while. Scary. And then he wrote a book about it. I have only read the bit at the end, because I wanted to know that James Tooley was okay. I of course intend to read the rest, and then do my bit to plug it.
Judging by last night’s performance, James is fine. But he is also haunted by the knowledge that many other victims of the same corrupt system are not as lucky, if that’s the word, as he was.
Both were effusive about the book, more than they had to be, if you get my drift.
The Q and A focussed, inevitably, on what is to be done, about the vast scale of the corruption in India. The mood of the room, although packed, was grim. My feeling is: you start by telling the story. You start by writing books like this one.
And the rest of us start by reading them.
Just heard an announcer on London Live TV pronounce Persephone as “Percy Phone”. It should be Per Seffany, in case you also are not sure. Y(oung) P(eople) T(hese) D(ays). They just don’t have the Classics.
Well, for some, maybe they are. But not for many. Like I said, they’re a business.
Further evidence: University of North Dakota Offers Class on Starting Your Own Drone Business.
Further confirmation. My TV screen takes a while to warm up, so I often leave it on and just switch off the sound. And a moment ago, while listening to the radio, I was also watching daytime TV silently selling quite complicated looking drones at giveaway prices. A lot of money got poured into these things, to sell at around five hundred quid, in the highstreet, to people, to play around with. But these drones were today on sale for less than fifty. As individual things to have, they just haven’t caught on.
See also: 3D printers. Also not toys.
I’ve already given you Rod Green’s Dangereuse. Here’s another, longer bit from his book about Magna Carta, a bit which he entitled “Boys and Men” (pp. 61-66) I was especially struck by the part near the end, about people who could pronounce Latin words but who didn’t know what they meant. Sounds horribly familiar:
Not so long ago, it was widely assumed that the concept of “childhood” simply didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The view was that the kind of life led by a modern child - where good health, play and education experienced as part of a loving family environment is seen as the norm - was in stark contrast to the lives of children 800 years ago, who were treated as a burden to be tolerated until they were old enough to be of some use.
Recent research, however, shows that this may not have been entirely the case. Studies of toys from the period have shown that children were encouraged to play. The toys may have been homemade in many cases, but models of mounted knights made out of metal would have been bought or specially commissioned, showing that some parents cared enough about their children’s play time to lavish gifts on them.
Children do not feature prominently in illustrated manuscripts, paintings or tapestries doing anything more than emulating their parents, but in some cases they can be seen playing games like tag or “king of the castle” and riding on hobby-horses. They were, it seems, encouraged to play and enjoy an active childhood, although their lives were set on a predetermined course at an early age.
In the early thirteenth century, a child surviving the first year of life had a reasonable chance of fighting off disease long enough to acquire the strength needed to survive in the harsh and unhygienic medieval world. In fact, 25 per cent of those born to wealthy parents and up to 50 per cent of those born to the poor did not. A whole host of infectious
diseases for which we now have myriad names would then simply have been classed as “fever” or “food poisoning”. Life expectancy was only around 30 years, although anyone from the ruling classes who made it, strong and healthy, to the age of 21, might well have had another 40 years to look forward to. In the fourteenth century, the Black Death was to reduce life expectancy dramatically.
In the days of King John, however, a fit young boy born into a noble family could expect to live in his parents’ grand house or castle until he was about seven years old. He would then be sent off to live in another castle, most likely in the house of a nobleman a rung or two up the feudal ladder from his own parents, perhaps even in one of the king’s
Here he would serve first as a page, running errands and generally waiting on the lords and ladies of the household. However, he would also learn how a large house functioned and how people interacted with one another, as well as learning about customs and proper manners. He might also be taught how to read and understand Latin and, if it were not already his native tongue, the version of French spoken by the Norman nobility.
A young boy would also learn how to ride and, if he showed promise, he might, when he was around 14 years old, become apprenticed to a knight as a squire. They had to train hard to learn the art of combat, which included lifting heavy stones to build muscle, throwing the javelin, fighting with a quarterstaff, archery, wrestling, acrobatics and sword fighting. Swordsmanship was taught using a blunted sword and a buckler, a small shield the size of a pot lid. This trained the would-be knight how to parry sword thrusts and how to use his shield as an offensive weapon without the novice having to start off with a full-sized, cumbersome shield. Similarly, the blunted sword was used against heavily padded protective layers, although the dull blade could still inflict painful wounds.
The squire would learn how to clean and prepare the knight’s armour and weapons, although major repairs had to be undertaken by a blacksmith or armourer. He would also need to help his knight put on his armour, which meant more than simply helping him to dress - the various elements of the heavy steel all had to be strapped into place in the correct sequence to make sure that they overlapped and allowed for movement in the right way.
This, of course, meant that the squire went with his knight to compete in tournaments. He would eventually get the chance to compete in his own right, even before he became a knight, as there were special contests organized solely for squires.
Whether a squire lived in his knight’s house, or whether he lived in a baron’s castle where landless knights also lived as part of the baron’s permanent military force, he would have regular chores to perform, which would include acting as a servant when his masters sat down to eat. Squires were expected, for example, to learn the correct way to carve meat at the table.
The squire’s apprenticeship would last until he was around 21 years of age, at which point he might expect to be knighted himself. However, he might want to avoid that happening - a squire could be made a knight either by his local lord or by the king, but it wasn’t an honour that everyone could afford. The squire’s family, whom he may have visited only a couple of times a year since he was sent away as a seven-year-old, would have to pay for the costly armour, weapons and warhorse that a knight required, as well as funding any forays he might make to tournaments far and wide. Being a knight could be prohibitively expensive, especially if a second, third or fourth son, who might not inherit any part of his father’s estate when he died (the bulk of property often being bequeathed to the first-born).
Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a growing “middle class” of merchants, tradesmen and professionals, particularly in the new cities and busy ports. Trade with continental Europe had expanded enormously since the Norman Conquest, although Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs are known to have traded extensively with partners as far away as Russia. Clauses 41 and 42 of Magna Carta make special mention of such merchants.
The son of a merchant would live an entirely different life from that of a boy born into the nobility. From a very young age, he would learn about the family business, in order to play a full part as soon as he was old enough. A boy might also become apprenticed to another merchant or tradesman, a privilege for which his family would have to pay, and be sent away from home to live with his new master.
Merchants, especially those dealing in foreign trade, had to be able to speak and read Latin, which was the international language of commerce, the legal profession and the Church. The sons of the middle classes learned Latin either through private tuition or at one of the new schools that were beginning to appear.
Merchants donated money to set up schools in the most important trading towns and boys would be sent to school to learn arithmetic and Latin grammar, the institutions becoming known as grammar schools. The schools were allied to a particular trade, making them private schools, although fee-paying schools would later be established that were open to anyone who could pay, such establishments being termed “public” schools.
There would have been few if any books in schools. These were hugely expensive, hand-written items - the first printed books didn’t begin appearing until the mid-fifteenth century. Boys learned their lessons verbally, repeating their Latin phrases time and time again, and earning themselves a beating if they got anything wrong.
Some might learn mathematics or become proficient in the use of an abacus, but few would continue their formal education beyond a basic level or contemplate attending one of the new universities.
As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford University had been growing in stature since the latter part of the eleventh century and the colleges of Cambridge University can trace their history back to around the same time.
Peasants, still by far and away the largest portion of the population, could not afford to send their sons to school. A peasant boy was expected to do chores as soon as he was old enough to learn how to feed chickens or help to herd livestock. When he was strong enough, he would help with the back-breaking work in the fields and perhaps spend some time working in the local landowner’s house or castle, if such was required by the terms of his family’s tenure.
The Church played a major role in everyone’s lives and even the most lowly peasants attended church on a regular basis. However, all services were conducted in Latin, so most people couldn’t understand what was being said - sometimes not even the priest. Despite being the most educated man in the village, while the priest might be able to pronounce written Latin, the chances are he did not understand it. For a lucky few, a well-educated priest might teach boys how to read, but even as late as the fourteenth century it has been estimated that 8 out of 10 adults in England were unable even to spell their own names.
The Evolution of Everything, pp. 181-184:
Evolutionary reform of education is happening. James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, has catalogued - ‘discovered’ might be a better word - the fact that the poorest slums of cities, and the remotest villages, in countries such as India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and even China abound in low-cost private schools. He first began studying this phenomenon for the World Bank in 2000 in Hyderabad in India, and has more recently followed it through Africa. In the cramped and sewage-infested slums of the old city of Hyderabad he stumbled upon an association of five hundred private schools catering to the poor. In one of them, the Peace High School, he found doorless classrooms with unglazed windows and stained walls, where children of rickshaw-pullers and day labourers paid sixty to a hundred rupees a month (about 90p-£1.50), depending on age, for their education. Yet the quality of the education was impressive. In another, St Maaz High School, he found a charismatic head teacher with mathematical flair who in twenty years had built up a school with nearly a thousand students, taught by a group of largely unqualified (but often graduate) teachers, on three rented sites, from which he made a reasonable profit. State schools existed, with state-certificated teachers in them, but many of Hyderabad’s parents were exasperated by the poor quality of the education they provided, and many of the private-school teachers were exasperated by the poor quality of the teacher training. ‘Government teacher training,’ one told Tooley, ‘is like learning to swim without ever going near a swimming pool.’
When Tooley told these stories to his colleagues at the World Bank, he was told that he had uncovered examples of businessmen ripping off the poor, or that most of the private schools were creaming off the wealthier parents in a district, which was bad for those left behind. But this proved demonstrably untrue: the Peace High School in Hyderabad gave concessions, or even free tuition, to the children of extremely poor and illiterate people: one parent was a cleaner in a mosque earning less than £10 a month. Why would such people send their children to private schools rather than to the free state schools, which provided uniforms, books and even some free food? Because, Tooley was told by parents, in the state schools teachers did not show up, or taught badly when they did. He visited some state schools and confirmed the truth of these allegations.
Tooley soon realised that the existence of these low-cost private schools in poor neighbourhoods was not unknown, but that it was largely ignored by the establishment, which continued to argue that only an expansion of state education could help the poor. The inadequate state of public education in low-income countries is well recognised; but the answer that everybody agrees on is more money, rather than a different approach. Amartya Sen, for instance, called for more government spending and dismissed private education as the preserve of the elite, while elsewhere in the same paper admitting that the poor were increasingly sending their children to private schools, ‘especially in areas where public schools are in bad shape’. This bad shape, he thought, was due to the siphoning off of the vocal middle classes by private schools - rather than the fact that teachers were accountable to bureaucrats, and not to parents. Yet the poor were deserting the state sector at least as much as the middle class. The lesson that schooling can be encouraged to emerge from below was ignored in favour of the theory that it must be imposed from above.
India was just the start for Tooley. He visited country after country, always being assured that there were no low-cost private schools there, always finding the opposite. In Ghana he found a teacher who had built up a school with four branches teaching 3,400 children, charging $50 a term, with scholarships for those who could not afford it. In Somaliland he found a city with no water supply, paved roads or street lights, but two private schools for every state one. In Lagos, where government officials and the representatives of Western aid agencies all but denied the existence of low-cost private schools, he found that 75 per cent of all schoolchildren in the poor areas of Lagos state were in private schools, many not registered with the government. In all the areas he visited, both urban and rural, in India and Africa, Tooley found that low-cost private schools enrolled more students than state schools, and that people were spending 5-10 per cent of their earnings on educating their children. When he asked a British government aid agency official why his agency could not consider supporting these schools with loans instead of pouring money into the official educational bureaucracy in Ghana, he was told that money could not go to for-profit institutions.
Suppose you are the parent of a child in a Lagos slum. The teacher at the school she attends is often absent, frequently asleep during lessons, and provides a poor standard when awake. This being a public-sector school, however, withdrawing your child goes unnoticed. Your only other redress is to complain to the teacher’s boss, who is a distant official in a part of the city you do not often visit; or you can wait for the next election and vote for a politician who will appoint officials who will do a better job of sending inspectors to check on the attendance and quality of teachers, and then do something about it. Good luck with that. A World Bank report cited by Tooley states despairingly that pay-for-performance cannot work in public-sector schools, and ‘dysfunctional bureaucracies cascade into a morass of corruption, as upward payments from those at lower levels buy good assignments or ratings from superiors’.
If your teacher is in a private, for-profit school, however, and you withdraw your child, then the owner of the school will quickly feel the effect in his pocket, and the bad teacher will be fired. In a free system the parent, the consumer, is the boss. Tooley found that private-school proprietors constantly monitor their teachers and follow up parents’ complaints. His team visited classrooms in various parts of India and Africa, and found teachers actually teaching in fewer of the government classrooms they visited than in private classrooms – sometimes little more than half as many. Despite having no public funds or aid money, the unrecognised private schools had better facilities such as toilets, electricity and blackboards. Their pupils also get better results, especially in English and mathematics.
Libertarian Home needs an intro for Mark Littlewood, for a publication they’re doing. Here is a quick profile of Littlewood by me, which I hope may be of some use to LH.
Mark Littlewood is the Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs. There was a time, not so long ago, when the IEA seemed doomed to obscurity or worse. But Littlewood has put in place and now leads a strong team of free market activists, strong on both the academic and media fronts, thus raising the profile of free market ideas both now and in the longer term future.
That may suffice, but here is more, if needed, of a slightly more personal sort.
Of particular note is Littlewood’s appointment of Stephen Davies and Christiana Hambro, in the area of student and young academic outreach. (Stephen Davies addressed Libertarian Home not long after his IEA appointment.)
When Littlewood was first appointed, I was not optimistic about the IEA, but then I heard him speak about his new job, and I became much more hopeful about the IEA’s future. That optimism has not abated.
Hope that helps and is not too late.
Former colleagues reveal how, despite his slight figure, Milne had a remarkable habit of refusing to give way in corridors. Over several years, his fellow journalists grew tired of his insistence that oncoming co-workers make way for him. Eventually, one snapped, telling his desk, “I’m not going to do it again. Next time he plays chicken with me, I’m not going to get out of the way.” The whole office waited for the inevitable confrontation. Soon enough, it happened. As Milne walked down a corridor, the six-foot colleague approached from the other direction. They smashed into each other, sending Milne flying, along with the papers he was carrying. “Seumas was in shock,” recalls an onlooker. “No one had ever done that to him before. He expected people to show deference to him.
I still remember a collision of this sort, half a century ago now, that I once inflicted upon an equally impolite person, when we were both at Marlborough. The IP was in the habit of pulling rank on me when we were walking in opposite directions along a certain very narrow footpath, the IP making no effort whatsoever to in any way get out of my way, me having to do all the avoiding. So, one day, I didn’t do any avoiding, and me being shorter than him, I walked my head straight into his chin. I knew the collision was coming but he didn’t, so he got the worst of it. Nothing he could say or do, no matter how vehement, was going to change the fact that he got what he deserved and that we both knew it.
It’s amazing how much of the trouble in the world is caused by male human animals disagreeing with one another about their relative importance in the world.
Yes, I’ve been continuing to photo taxis with adverts. Here are half a dozen of the most recent such snaps.
First up, further proof, if you need it, that the internet has not abolished television. People still like to be passively entertained, surprise surprise. But the internet is in the process of swallowing television, so that they end up being the same thing:
Next, become an accountant! Note how they include the word “taxi” in the advertised website, presumably to see whether advertising on taxis is worth it. Note to LSBF: I have no plans to become an accountant.
Note also the Big Things picture of London, something I always like to show pictures of here, and note also how out of date this picture is. No Cheesegrater, for a start:
Next up, a taxi advertising a book. I do not remember seeing this before, although I’m sure it has happened before:
Next, Discover America. I thought it already had been:
Visit a beach. I didn’t crop this photo at all, because I like how I tracked the taxi and its advert, and got the background all blurry, and I want you to see all that blurriness. Nice contrast between that and the bright colours of the advert. A little bit of summer in the grey old February of London:
Finally, a snap I took last night, in the Earls Court area. And now we’re back in the exciting world of accountancy, this time in the form of its Beautiful accounting software:
As you can see, it was pitch dark by the time I took this. But give my Lumix FZ200 even a sliver of artificial light and something solid to focus on, and it does okay, I think. A decade ago, that photo would have been an unusable mess.
I am finding that taxi advertising changes very fast these days. All of the above photos, apart from the one with the beaches, was of an advert I had not noticed before.
Which means that in future years, these taxi photos will have period value, because the adverts will have changed over and over again with the passing of only a handful of years.
Six years ago I submitted a paper for a panel, “On the Absence of Absences” that was to be part of an academic conference later that year - in August 2010. Then, and now, I had no idea what the phrase “absence of absences” meant. The description provided by the panel organizers, printed below, did not help. The summary, or abstract of the proposed paper - was pure gibberish, as you can see below. I tried, as best I could within the limits of my own vocabulary, to write something that had many big words but which made no sense whatsoever. I not only wanted to see if I could fool the panel organizers and get my paper accepted, I also wanted to pull the curtain on the absurd pretentions of some segments of academic life. To my astonishment, the two panel organizers - both American sociologists - accepted my proposal and invited me to join them at the annual international conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science to be held that year in Tokyo.
I wonder what Hemingway would have made of “On the Absence of Absences”. (Hemingway, for those not inclined to follow links, is a programme to make your writing clearer.)
Presumably someone has also written a program which churns out this kind of drivel automatically. Google google.
The creators of the automatic nonsense generator, Jeremy Stribling, Dan Aguayo and Maxwell Krohn, have made the SCIgen program free to download. And scientists have been using it in their droves.
At the moment, this sort of drivel just marches on. This is because people who oppose the drivel have to convince the drivellers to stop, which is hard. And, being opposed to drivel, they usually have better things to do with their time. The trick is somehow to reverse the burden of proof, to put the drivellers in the position, en masse, of having to convince the rest of us that their drivel is not drivel. At that point, they find that they have no friends, only public contempt. Everybody, including them, thinks that it is drivel. And nobody thinks it worth bothering to even try to prove otherwise.
This is weird. When I did a posting at Samizdata called My 2015 in pictures, I intended to include a picture I took of one of my meetings last year, the one at which Aiden Gregg spoke. But, although I talked about it, I didn’t actually include the picture. Rather humiliatingly, nobody noticed, or if they did notice, they didn’t care, or if they did care, not enough to complain.
So here is that picture:
I have also added it to that Samizdata posting, which absolutely nobody at all will notice. But, get it right, eh?
I think I got this picture by standing on a chair.
I mention all this now because I have another of these meetings, the first of this year, tomorrow evening. Speaker: Professor Tim Evans (also mentioned in that Samizdata posting), talking about Jeremy Corbyn and all that. Turnout looks like being just right, with the room comfortably as opposed to uncomfortably full. Luckily the seating arrangements have been improving.
Here, for good measure, is the photo I took of Tim when he gave his Inaugural Professional Lecture at Middlesex University, last summer, and which was also included in that Samizdata posting:
Not being accustomed to the ways of Academe, that get-up makes Tim look, to me, like he is in a very trad production of Wagner’s Mastersingers.
From Rob Fisher, who knows my interest in 3D printing, incoming email entitled:
It’s no longer a rare feat to 3D print blood vessels. Printing vessels that act like the real deal, however, has been tricky… until now. Lawrence Livermore researchers have successfully 3D printed blood vessels that deliver nutrients and self-assemble like they would in a human body. The key is to print an initial structure out of cells and other organic material, and then to augment it with bio ink and other body-friendly materials. With enough time, everything joins up and behaves naturally.
Right now, the actual structures don’t bear much resemblance to what you’d find in a person - you get a “spaghetti bowl” of vessels. Scientists hope to organize these vessels the way they exist in nature, though. If that happens, you could one day see artificial tissue samples and even transplants that are about as realistic as you can get.
A while back, I worked out that 3D printing was going to be just as huge as everyone is saying, but that it was not going to get “domestic”, in the manner of like black-and-white laser printers for instance, in the foreseeable future (with the possible exception of certain kinds of food preparation). 3D printing is a vast range of specialist manufacturing techniques, and it will, for that foreseeable future, be used by people who already make specialist stuff by other and clumsier means, or who would like to make particular specialist stuff for the first time, of the sort that only 3D printing can do. See the quoted verbiage above.
This is why I receive emails from Google about failing 3D printing companies along with other emails about successful 3D printing activities, mostly by already existing companies. 3D printing is best done by people who already know a hell of a lot about something else, which they can then get 3D printed. Like: blood vessels.
The principle economic consequence of 3D printing will be to provide an abundance of jobs for people everywhere, but especially among the workers of the rich world, who, during the last few decades, have been famously deprived of many of their jobs by the workers of the poor world.
Prediction/guess. Because of things like 3D printing, schools in the rich world will soon become (are already becoming?) a bit more successful, back towards what they were like in the 1950s. This is because, as in the 1950s, there will again be an economic future for everyone in the rich countries, the way there has not been for the last few decades. For the last few decades, in the rich countries, only the geeks (in computers) and the alpha-male super-jocks (in such things as financial services (and in a tiny few cases in sports)) and posh kids (whose parents motivate them to work hard no matter what (this is a circular definition (posh kids are the ones motivated by their parents))) have had proper futures to look forward to. (These three categories overlap.) Accordingly, they have been the only ones paying proper attention in school. The rest have not been able to see enough point to it.
My spell of education blogging taught me, among many things, that when it comes to schools being successful, teacher quality is absolutely not the only variable. Good teachers can get bad results, if the kids just can’t doing with it. Bad teachers can preside over good results, if parents and helpers-out, paid or unpaid, after regular school supply good supplementary teaching, or if the kids were highly motivated and determined to learn despite their crappy teachers.
The one exception to the rule about 3D printers not becoming meaningfully domestic is that they have a big future as educational toys, training kids to go into the bouncing-back manufacturing sector.
Fascinating point made in this piece at Libertarian Home by Simon Gibbs, about how and how not to educate computer programmers:
I am skeptical of whether formal education teaches programming, or whether programming is an innate aptitude. My computer science education is certainly a part of what made me a good programmer and I have met very good people who have retrained from other industries and become successful programmers. I have also met people who have had years of training and still lack the fundamental skill of breaking a process down into steps, despite passing various exams and tests. I graduated with such people and not with dramatically higher grades either. Formal education seems ill suited to capture, transmit, and assess the nuances of this particular skill. The ease with which code is plagiarised is one factor, as is the process of mugging up for exams, but the real problem is that the skill itself is a form of implicit knowledge which you cannot simply write down.
Further, learning to program is not an easy process. It is damned hard and no single resource or bootcamp or whatever will help you navigate a route by which you can deliver value. You have to get there on your own and that is, by definition, not something that anyone else can easily help with.
I can remember that, when I education-blogged, the above rumination was the kind of thing I would seize upon.
What Gibbs says sounds like the point that I have recently been making, generally and in particular in connection with this book (about PR (by another friend of mine (Alex Singleton))), that learning how to do something like play the violin (or do PR (or computer programming)) is fundamentally different from merely reading a book about how to play the violin (or reading a book like this one about how to do PR). Most people will never be able to play the violin well (or do PR well), no matter how much else they are able to learn about playing the violin (or doing PR). By writing a mere book about how to do PR, Singleton has not given away his personal-professional crown jewels by teaching thousands of others how to replace him. On the contrary, his crown jewels are his “innate aptitude” (honed by much practising) for combining and deploying all the PR techniques he knows of and knows how to do, when solving a PR problem. He has turned himself into a PR industry go-to media guru (which means he gets to advertise himself free) and made himself even more employable, in a kind of PR positive feedback loop. After all, the better Singleton is at doing his own PR the better he’ll probably be at doing yours.
Gibbs also makes it very clear that he reckons himself to be a good programmer, in a way that many rivals, clever in all sorts of other ways, will never be. He too does some good PR for himself, even though it’s incidental to the main point of his piece. To learn which, read it in full, by clicking on the link at the top of this posting.
I have begun reading Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything. Early signs: brilliant. I especially liked this bit (pp. 7-10), about modern ideas in the ancient world:
A ‘skyhook’ is an imaginary device for hanging an object from the sky. The word originated in a sarcastic remark by a frustrated pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the First World War, when told to stay in the same place for an hour: ‘This machine is not fitted with skyhooks,’ he replied. The philosopher Daniel Dennett used the skyhook as a metaphor for the argument that life shows evidence of an intelligent designer. He contrasted skyhooks with cranes - the first impose a solution, explanation or plan on the world from on high; the second allow solutions, explanations or patterns to emerge from the ground up, as natural selection does.
The history of Western thought is dominated by skyhooks, by devices for explaining the world as the outcome of design and planning. Plato said that society worked by imitating a designed cosmic order, a belief in which should be coercively enforced. Aristotle said that you should look for inherent principles of intentionality and development - souls - within matter. Homer said gods decided the outcome of battles. St Paul said that you should behave morally because Jesus told you so. Mohamed said you should obey God’s word as transmitted through the Koran. Luther said that your fate was in God’s hands. Hobbes said that social order came from a monarch, or what he called ‘Leviathan’ - the state. Kant said morality transcended human experience. Nietzsche said that strong leaders made for good societies. Marx said that the state was the means of delivering economic and social progress. Again and again, we have told ourselves that there is a top-down description of the world, and a top-down prescription by which we should live.
But there is another stream of thought that has tried and usually failed to break through. Perhaps its earliest exponent was Epicurus, a Greek philosopher about whom we know very little. From what later writers said about his writings, we know that he was born in 341 BC and thought (as far as we can tell) that the physical world, the living world, human society and the morality by which we live all emerged as spontaneous phenomena, requiring no divine intervention nor a benign monarch or nanny state to explain them. As interpreted by his followers, Epicurus believed, following another Greek philosopher, Dernocritus, that the world consisted not of lots of special substances including spirits and humours, but simply of two kinds of thing: voids and atoms. Everything, said Epicurus, is made of invisibly small and indestructible atoms, separated by voids; the atoms obey the laws of nature and every phenomenon is the result of natural causes. This was a startlingly prescient conclusion for the fourth century BC.
Unfortunately Epicurus’s writings did not survive. But three hundred years later, his ideas were revived and explored in a lengthy, eloquent and unfinished poem, De Rerum Natura (Of the Nature of Things), by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, who probably died in mid-stanza around 49 BC, just as dictatorship was looming in Rome. Around this time, in Gustave Flaubert’s words, ‘when the gods had ceased to be, and Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius when man stood alone’. Exaggerated maybe, but free thinking was at least more possible then than before or after. Lucretius was more subversive, open-minded and far-seeing than either of those politicians (Cicero admired, but disagreed with, him). His poem rejects all magic, mysticism, superstition, religion and myth. It sticks to an unalloyed empiricism.
As the Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt has documented, a bald list of the propositions Lucretius advances in the unfinished 7,400 hexameters of De Rerum Natura could serve as an agenda for modernity. He anticipated modern physics by arguing that everything is made of different combinations of a limited set of invisible particles, moving in a void. He grasped the current idea that the universe has no creator, Providence is a fantasy and there is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance. He foreshadowed Darwin in suggesting that nature ceaselessly experiments, and those creatures that can adapt and reproduce will thrive. He was with modern philosophers and historians in suggesting that the universe was not created for or about human beings, that we are not special, and there was no Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty in the distant past, but only a primitive battle for survival. He was like modern atheists in arguing that the soul dies, there is no afterlife, all organised religions are superstitious delusions and invariably cruel, and angels, demons or ghosts do not exist. In his ethics he thought the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
Thanks largely to Greenblatt’s marvellous book The Swerve, I have only recently come to know Lucretius, and to appreciate the extent to which I am, and always have been without knowing it, a Lucretian/Epicurean. Reading his poem in A.E. Stallings’s beautiful translation in my sixth decade is to be left fuming at my educators. How could they have made me waste all those years at school plodding through the tedious platitudes and pedestrian prose of Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, when they could have been telling me about Lucretius instead, or as well? Even Virgil was writing partly in reaction to Lucretius, keen to re-establish respect for gods, rulers and top-down ideas in general. Lucretius’s notion of the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances - which the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana called the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon - has been one of the persistent themes of my own writing. It is the central idea behind not just physics and chemistry, but evolution, ecology and economics too. Had the Christians not suppressed Lucretius, we would surely have discovered Darwinism centuries before we did.
I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism. And very good it is. Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:
After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal. Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism. Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.
Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control. Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run. Nor was Owen a political revolutionary. What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work. Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.
Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve. Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.
Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester. Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year. Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill. He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time). However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.
Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits. New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families. It was most necessary for orphans. Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands. David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well. By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.
Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.
The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire. According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit. But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.
Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop. Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.
At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer. One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.
As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.
Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical. John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”
Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”
Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia. Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.
Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose. Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan. He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.
Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success. Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”
New Harmony soon started to fall apart. Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all. A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.
The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare. When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate. (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)
After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.
One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.
The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories. He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism. Mexico demurred. Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures. He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year. Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product. The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices. The labour exchanges collapsed too.
Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:
Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.
Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground. One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.
Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world. Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.
I just sat down to do a BMdotcom posting, about some strange disruption inflicted earlier this evening upon the Royal College of Music by the London premiere of the new James Bond movie. While composing this posting, I realised that it would do nicely for Samizdata, so there it went. I don’t do nearly enough for Samizdata these days.
The posting was based on something that Goddaughter 2 (now a student at the RCM) told me. And she also told me something else, this time not disturbing or of any public significance, but merely rather entertaining.
GD2 now inhabits a big building, full of rooms occupied by her and her fellow students. Lots of rooms. Lots of doors. All the doors looking like each other.
So, one of the ladies in a nearby room to GD2 has a boyfriend staying the night. Boyfriend needs a piss. Being a relaxed sort of individual, he strolls to the toilet, naked. It is deep into the night, and he expects not to encounter anyone, and he does not, at first. But then, problem. Which door is the door to the room of his lady friend? He does not remember. About four different wrong doors are opened, complete with people behind them, most of whom were surprised but amused, before the correct door is found.
If this was a movie, that would only have been the beginning of the mayhem and the reactions to being woken up by a naked man at the door would have been far more extreme than they actually were. But for me, this was mayhem enough to be very entertaining. Boyfriend wasn’t bothered. Like I say, a relaxed sort of individual. And no harm at all came of this little nocturnal drama. Just a mildly entertaining blog posting, or so I hope.