My Power of Language post last week, Precision Tools, referred to the recent James MacTaggart Lecture given in Edinburgh by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. The lecture is, I understand, a keynote of the television industry’s year and Schmidt is the first non-TV professional to deliver it. His most uncomfortable message, though, came not from Schmidt the outsider to TV, but from Schmidt the foreigner to the UK.
“Over the past century,” he said, “the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths.”
First a definition or two. The OED defines polymath as “A person of great or varied learning; a person acquainted with many fields of study; an accomplished scholar” and polymathy as “Great or varied learning; acquaintance with many branches of knowledge”.
Next a word of explanation. I’m writing this post to contribute to an online discussion amongst RSA Fellows, in response to the question “What can the RSA do about it?”; but I’m interested in any and all answers to the wider question, “What can we do about it?”.
Schmidt’s first concern is over the polarity and mutual exclusion of arts and science. He says: “First you need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges.”
“Second,” he says, “you need to get better at growing big companies. …If you don’t address this, then the UK will continue to be where inventions are born – but not bred for long-term success.”
Most of his lecture is specific to the media industry, though he does make some useful points about innovation and copyright law which have a wider relevance. More on that later. For now I want to focus on his comment about polymaths and what is says about UK society – and most importantly, what we can do about it.
It seems to me that we need to consider three aspects – education; public policy; and the media themselves. I’d like to offer some initial thoughts about all three, and ask for comments from those who are more closely involved in each field than I.
Looking closely at what Schmidt says, his point is not actually that we produce too few polymaths, but that we produce too few scientists and engineers. His concern is that IT teaching in schools is about “user” skills, not computer programming or coding skills. (I touched on this point in Precision Tools, and on the effect it has had on the way society works.) Niall Ferguson has said that the most widespread language in the world is not English but mathematics – and our schoolchildren lag far behind those of the Far East in their mathematical skills.
I know far less than I would like to about the RSA Academy, but there would seem to be an opportunity here for any school that chose to take it up.
I don’t know whether Schmidt checked the OED before giving his speech, but there is also a question inherent in the definition of polymath: the question of ‘great or varied learning’. Is innovation better served by breadth or depth in education? I remember the transition to sixth form as a fantastic moment, as the point at which I started to learn how to think and work and research in depth–all the skills I needed at university and subsequently. I don’t believe we would be well served by increasing the number of subjects people study at A-level. But should our schools be encouraging A-level students to mix arts, humanities and sciences more freely? What effect would this have on the calibre of science applicants to university? And what effect would it have on the non-scientist’s appreciation of science in later life?
Schmidt does not mention the other trend in education in recent decades–the compulsion to help everyone to succeed. Universal success is an admirable goal, but it has an awkward side-effect: if everyone must succeed, the greatest achievements risk being devalued.
A question, therefore: how can we make sure we are placing a proper valuation on the very highest achievers? – whilst still celebrating the significant achievements of those who have perhaps overcome great obstacles in order to accomplish anything at all (which says as much about character as the other says about attainment)?
For Schmidt this is about three things–promoting innovation and helping small businesses grow into big businesses; copyright law; and regulation. He also says, “You need to get smarter about how to bridge the divide between public and commercial sectors”.
Several of his points strike a chord. When I started up LaMIS I was faced with any number of sources of advice, from banks to Business Link to a plethora of government schemes. Schmidt acknowledges that “the UK does a great job at backing small firms and cottage industries”. But do we support the next stage of growth? Schmidt says not. He says we sell out to foreign owners.
Equally, LaMIS gave me experience of the divide between public and commercial sectors, and of issues around copyright law. There is certainly room for a much less hidebound, more innovative attitude in both these areas. Schmidt wants our government to “put innovation front and centre of their regulatory strategy” and he is quite right.
As for regulation, we need to think very carefully about our attitude to risk. As a society I submit that we are becoming more and more risk-averse, particularly in the public sector and our other large institutions such as banks. There is no question but that this stifles innovation.
We also seem to apply a blunt instrument to risk. We have developed a whole vast industry to manage the risks of everyday life–everything from crossing the road to building a skyscraper. Regulation is a major part of that industry. Risk management is all about doing the same things repeatedly, as safely as possible. It is about avoiding careless mistakes (crossing the road without looking; dropping a girder on your mate’s head) and deliberate wrongdoing (skimping on the foundations; fraud).
Yet too often the same tool is applied to the risks of innovation–risks that are by definition about doing something new and untried; not the risk of careless mistakes or deliberate wrongdoing, but the risk that a good new idea, executed with competence, flair and vision, might fail. There is no real innovation without risk.
So how can we support and encourage the taking of intelligent, visionary risk? Is this an area where the Glory of Failure project could perhaps offer some insight?
We cannot make much progress on this issue without asking some tough questions of the media–and of ourselves, about the influence and control we have chosen to give them over our society. There are those who say that the media are symptomatic of many of the problems of society, not causative: I beg to differ. At the very least, they magnify and exacerbate those problems.
In his speech, Schmidt congratulated the UK television industry on the calibre of its programming. But his view of the media is entirely market-driven, a matter of supply and demand: the industry will provide what its consumers want. This view is simplistic at best–and, frankly, irresponsible and destructive at worst.
Consider the example of reality TV. Big Brother is the case in point of this ‘supply-and-demand’ kind of programming, and has become popular out of all proportion to the quality or value of its content. Its influence and effect have spread from TV to the mainstream publishing industry, which focuses on celebrity content to the exclusion of higher-quality writing.
So what? people say. It’s only entertainment.
Er, no, it isn’t. It is contributing directly to the shallowing of thought and the lowering of aspiration. On Radio 4 last week Polly Toynbee said that, if you ask many working-class families about achieving their aspirations, the answer will often involve winning the lottery or appearing on a reality TV show–that education and hard work are not seen as a route to success.
(By Toynbee’s own evidence, it is not that education doesn’t provide that route to success; she cited the outstanding work of BSix 6th Form College in Hackney and Cockermouth School in Cumbria as examples. It is that education and hard work aren’t seen by many as providing that route, nor valued accordingly. Gordon Ramsay once spent a weekend coaching and mentoring a young chef whose ‘aspiration’ was to have his own TV show–yet when he paid a surprise visit six weeks later, the young man had reverted to all his old, lazy habits.)
Or consider the question of literacy and articulacy which I discuss in Precision Tools. Social media have given many people a voice, but they have lowered the bar in respect of what many other people are saying, or are capable of saying, with that voice. I’ve written elsewhere about “the culture of soundbites and instant gratification“; it is sad to see the extent to which the media slope their collective shoulders and deny any “duty of linguistic care” (as Lindsay Johns puts it).
Consider, too, another unpleasant trend in some quarters of the media–the default description of anyone who does their utmost to support and encourage their children to aspire and achieve, who does whatever it takes to give their children opportunities and to ensure that they make the most of them, as “pushy middle-class parents”. It’s hardly a label that will reward the hard work and dedication of either the parents or the children.
Which brings us back to the question: What can we do to nurture our polymaths, and to allow them to achieve the great things that we require of them?
Answers, please, on the postcard below.