Until now, Dominic Cummings has been little known outside Westminster, where he is spoken of as a brilliant, mercurial and Svengali-like special adviser to Michael Gove. But the engineered leak of his departing advice to his minister – an extended essay entitled Some Thoughts on Educational and Political Priorities – has brought his name onto the comment pages of the national newspapers.
The main charge against him is that he has exaggerated the influence of genetic inheritance on a child’s educational outcomes, a criticism he strongly denies. It is unfortunate, however, that the debate on Cummings’ essay has been reduced to this time worn issue because its intellectual range is wide and stimulating.
The author certainly doesn’t wear his learning lightly, but his intellectual exhibitionism is nonetheless rewarding, as it opens a window onto what animates Gove’s political agenda – an agenda which has perhaps more drive and energy than any other part of modern Conservatism (indeed it could be argued that it is the only part of the modern Conservative project which has any real political momentum).
Cummings sets out the case for an integrative ‘Odyssean’ education, a term he borrows from the physicist Murray Gell-Mann to describe an exacting synthesis of maths and the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities, into ‘crude, trans-disciplinary thinking’. He is excoriating about the education of the broad mass of the population in modern democracies, but reserves his most acidic criticism for the elites whose world he inhabits: MPs, civil servants and journalists. ‘Most politicians, officials, and advisers,’ he writes, ‘operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgment) and little experience in well-managed complex organisations. The skills, and approach to problems, of our best mathematicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs are almost totally shut out of vital decisions. We do not have a problem with “too much cynicism” – we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much.’
If this thesis sounds familiar, it is because it is largely a version of CP Snow’s famous Two Cultures argument that British education and intellectual life in the 1950s had become damagingly divided between scientists and their literary counterparts. Cummings simply substitutes politicians and the bureaucratic class for Snow’s literary intellectuals and gives the whole thing an Asian pivot by extolling the virtues of a rigorously trained leadership class servicing a project of national advancement. It is, as an academic friend of mine remarked, ‘CP Snow in Singapore’.
As it happens, Cummings is more selective in his interests than his sketch of an Odyssean education would imply. His essay is chiefly preoccupied with mathematics and computer science, evolutionary biology and military strategy, and he has clearly digested modern complexity economics. This is an impressive range, and one that is vastly wider than one would normally encounter in Westminster. But he has little of value to say on contemporary political economy and social science, and his treatment of political philosophy is cursory. Unsurprisingly for one of his outlook and false modesty, Cummings regards Nietzsche as the last philosopher of any note worth reading. (As far as I can see, Carl Schmitt doesn’t make an appearance in the essay, but if any political theory best typifies Gove’s conviction politics, it is Schmitt’s decisionism.) Cummings’ Odyssean learning is perhaps best thought of as a Renaissance education shorn of its civic humanism and democratic potential, with a reductivist bias towards mathematics and the natural sciences.
What is the political purpose of this project? The ostensible goal is to make Britain ‘the school of the world’, that is, ‘the leading country for education and science’. But that is an instrumental goal in service of a deeper objective, namely to secure a ‘fragile civilisation’ from the existential threats of global warfare, economic cataclysm and deepening resource conflict. Cummings is a prophet of dystopia – humanity’s evolution predisposes us to group conflict, and our mastery of technology enables self-destruction. His essay is replete with military allusions and metaphors, while his interests in the history of warfare, genetics and computer science lend it a Cold War sensibility and sci-fi tone. It is Robert Heinlein at the Gates of Salamis.
Nonetheless, the essay has flashes of penetrating insight which illuminate how Team Gove sees the world. In a telling phrase, he notes that there is ‘constant panic, but little urgency’ in modern government. If Gove’s tenure has been marked by anything it is urgency. He is impatient with the protocols of modern bureaucracy, dismissive of social partnership and disdainful of professional opinion. Cummings’ essay gives as good an introduction as one will get to the Govean style of governing and the imperatives driving it. And, just like Gove, Cumming has a Janus-faced vision for public services: at once highly centralist, bordering on authoritarian, and at the same time Hayekian in its belief in the virtues of distributing information, decision-making and risk across a plenitude of social actors. While not a conservative in the Burkean mould, Gove tempers his radicalism with an appreciation of the importance of stable, liberal social order within which evolutionary change can occur.
Like Gove, Cummings is Eurosceptic to his core. The European project is airily dismissed and there is little but disdain for most contemporary European thought. The very expanse of his intellect also reveals where the conservative mind has become closed. His reference points are for the most part Anglospheric.
For all that, Cummings’ essay demonstrates how Gove has been able to pin the English left onto the defensive on education policy. As a secretary of state, he has taken world-class standards in education from a rhetorical phrase to a serious concern of policymaking. His blindspots are many and varied, and his centralism is truly Napoleonic, but he has forced education debate onto new territory. Above all, he has given conservatism a national project in education, which previously it lacked. The ‘global race’ is an organising narrative which Gove has been able to translate into a set of policies, some of which at least have popular appeal. If Labour wants an alternative story of national renewal for its ‘race to the top’ then it too will have to develop an account of the fundamental purposes of education, where innovation and energy can be harnessed to improve standards in our schools and colleges, and how English education can be reorganised. If nothing else, Cummings’ essay is a useful spur to these tasks. Having got Labour back in the game, Tristram Hunt would do well to reflect on the challenges it poses.