Hayek, Popper… and Brexit

I’ve met a fair few libertarians in my travels. Many have cited FA Hayek, the Nobel Prizewinning economist, in support of their ideas. Curious, I read The Road to Serfdom (1944), popular amongst those who advocate market forces. Hayek’s arguments are impressive, but I wasn’t convinced. It was Karl Popper citing with approval a passage in Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960) that prompted me to read more.

Hayek and Popper

Friedrich August von Hayek was born in 1899 into an academic Viennese family. He was related to Ludwig Wittgenstein and strongly influenced by his ideas. Hayek served in the Austro-Hungarian army in WW1, an experience that prompted him to choose an academic career. He joined the London School of Economics in 1931, remaining in the UK after the outbreak of WW2.

Hayek soon gained a formidable reputation as an economist, and The Road to Serfdom was highly influential. But he found himself at odds with John Maynard Keynes and JK Galbraith amongst others, and in 1950 moved to the USA, settling at the University of Chicago. He, Milton Friedman, Frank Knight, Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises and George Stigler founded the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society in 1947.

Contemporaries, both Hayek and Popper were born in Vienna and studied at the University there. Both emigrated from Austria before WW2 and worked at the London School of Economics. They were founder members of the Mont Pelerin Society, and for both, freedom was vitally important – Popper published the two-volume The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945, a year after Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. But their thinking is very different.

Hayek’s model

Hayek’s starting point is individualism and the principles of 18th & 19th century liberalism; in the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty entitled “Why I am not a Conservative” he describes himself as an ‘Old Whig’.

For Hayek, individual freedom (the absence of arbitrary coercion) is a paramount principle. Not only because people don’t like arbitrary coercion, but because maximising individual freedom affords the greatest opportunity for innovation – new technologies, foods, medicines, techniques, trading relationships etc.

The best safeguard against arbitrary coercion is the rule of law; not specific legislation, but rather underlying principles that everyone, including government, is aware of and equally subject to. For Hayek individualism is fundamental, so not surprisingly he considered socialism – for which collectivism is fundamental – to be the arch-enemy of freedom.

The section of The Constitution of Liberty entitled ‘Freedom and the Law’ is stunning in its scope and argumentation. And if you want to explore the downside of socialism, Hayek is your go-to source. It’s when he comes into contact with the real world in ‘The Value of Freedom’ and ‘Freedom in the Welfare State’ – that I feel his reasoning becomes distinctly wobbly.

freedom vs coercion     Hayek admits that complete freedom and a total absence of coercion aren’t possible within a social group. For society to function, some behaviours will be prohibited and others required. But these constraints are similar to those we encounter in the natural world.

safety net vs welfare state     He also recognises the need for a safety net to prevent destitution – that might require public funding. Hayek has two main concerns; that a safety net will introduce the expectation that all should be the same, and that it will become a lever for coercion on the part of government.

equality vs equalisation     Hayek wants everyone to have equal access to the safety net, not for the safety net to evolve into a welfare system that equalises everyone. He doesn’t support the redistribution of wealth, or spending significantly more resources on one group of people rather than others.

market forces vs centralised planning     The assumption that we’re all entitled to the same quality of life results in central planning. But the real world is too complex for central planning to work. People and their circumstances are all different, so fairness in a centrally planned system requires discretionary decisions on the part of administrators, and those can be used to arbitrarily limit the freedom of individuals. His solution to the complexity problem is the market, an impartial function that can respond to any situation. He advocates competition (for goods, housing, jobs) mediated by price.

impartiality     Hayek argues; “And if one way of achieving our ends proves too expensive for us, we are free to try other ways” (Serfdom, p.97). That, I’d suggest, is where his argument collides with reality. Hayek doesn’t appear to have ever met anyone who has run out of ‘other ways’ to try – whose poverty, poor health or complex adverse circumstances mean that they simply can’t bootstrap themselves out of the situation.

Hayek is aware that his model will be tough for some, but doesn’t see market forces as any different to natural ones; “Man has come to hate, and to revolt against, the impersonal forces to which in the past he submitted even though they often frustrated his individual efforts” (Serfdom p.209). What he conveniently overlooks is that throughout history people have revolted against impersonal forces (climate, geography, famine, sickness) and that revolt has been the driver for a great deal of innovation.

socialism and conservatism

For Hayek, socialism with its centralised planning is the antithesis of the kind of world he’d like to see. He points out it led to the totalitarianism of Stalinism, and that Hitler’s rise to power was facilitated by the socialist policies already in place in Germany. Understandably, he’s worried that what he sees as socialist thinking across the political spectrum in the UK will end up with the same outcomes.

Of course that’s not what happened. Not yet anyway. Hayek was right that the post-war worldview would result in successive governments, of the right and the left, centralising power and limiting individual freedom. But I’d argue that those actions are the result, not of socialism, but of a human tendency to want to increase control over our environment and to reduce the amount of information we have to deal with. And any model of society is prone to that tendency.

Hayek touches on this in the chapter ‘Why the Worst Get on Top’ in The Road to Serfdom. Those who are highly motivated to seek power and oversimplify have an advantage over those who aren’t bothered about power and who know complex issues can’t be reduced to a soundbite.

The fact that control-seeking and over-simplification are human tendencies rather than outcomes of a particular political worldview, is important because of those who subscribe to Hayek’s view risk seeing socialism as the enemy of liberty, when in fact the enemy is human behaviour to which they are equally prone.  Margaret Thatcher was heavily influenced by Hayek, but centralised and simplified like there was no tomorrow – including over-simplifying Hayek.

Popper’s model

Popper is also committed to freedom and opposed to arbitrary coercion. But his starting point is reasoning. In Conjectures and Refutations (1963) he systematically compares and contrasts empiricism and intellectualism, and shows how the latter, unfettered by evidence, leads to essentialism, utopianism, then totalitarianism.

abstract principles

Hayek is in his element with abstract principles. But when he comes up against the real world he begins to falter. He acknowledges that the real world and his market model, are complex, messy and sometimes harsh, but believes people will put up with that in order to hang on to an abstract principle of ‘freedom’. This is where Hayek and Popper part company.

For Hayek, freedom is of paramount importance. For Popper, any single paramount abstract principle is problematic. Via a painstaking critique of Plato, Hegel and Marx in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper shows how making abstract principles paramount results in essentialism, utopianism, then totalitarianism.

The world Hayek envisages isn’t a utopia in the way most people would use the word, but it is in the sense Popper uses it – in Hayek’s case an ‘ideal’ world in which individual freedom is prized above everything and impartial market forces (eventually) result in significant benefits for all.

Ironically, Hayek’s model means that despite the impersonal forces of nature and the market applying equally to all, some people through an accident of birth or adverse circumstances are likely to have to be more submissive to those forces than others who happen to be in the right place at the right time with the right opportunities.

Submitting to the impersonal forces, as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, can result in life being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. In Hayek’s model that fate is averted by the minimal safety net, but he doesn’t go into detail. Ironically, his model implies that it’s OK for some people never to escape the safety net because they still have their individual freedom and there are benefits for others collectively from economic advances. Hayek’s approach has been tried in the West for the last three decades. We’re still waiting for the economic benefits to trickle down.  His model has resulted in a few becoming richer, many becoming poorer, and postponing action on pre-existing crises involving raw materials, pollution and ecological catastrophe.

the real world

Popper points out that theoretically possible abstract concepts considered by philosophers and logicians are often impossible in the real world – because the real world is constrained by complex factors that philosophy and logic don’t have to take into account. That doesn’t mean you can’t base a socio-politico-economic system on abstract principles such as individual freedom and the rule of law, but it does mean making an abstract principle paramount will be problematic.

The economist Paul Krugman reportedly observed that Hayek’s ideas were more about politics than economics. A friend commented; “He must be an economist if he uses equations”. I said I hadn’t seen a single equation in either book. The response was “But equations tell you there are variables”. The challenge for most economists tackling the real world is getting all the relevant variables into their equations.   But Hayek doesn’t have that problem because he’s dealing with abstract principles and can include or exclude whatever variables he wishes.

Popper is happy to embrace abstract principles, but is well aware of what happens when they collide with the real world.  At the end of The Open Society and its Enemies: the Spell of Plato, Popper points out that if piecemeal improvements to institutions go wrong, the damage is limited, but if things go wrong with the wholesale changes advocated by utopians, it’s catastrophic (p.172). Abstract principles make great servants but dangerous masters.  As we’re discovering with Brexit.

references

Hayek, FA (1944).  The Road to Serfdom, Routledge.

Hayek FA (1960). The Constitution of Liberty, Routledge.

Popper, K (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 1: The Spell of Plato, Routledge.

Popper, K (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 2: Hegel and Marx, Routledge.

Popper K (1963). Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge.

 

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Rousseauian nonsense revisited

A few days ago Greg Ashman released the proverbial cat amongst the Early Years pigeons with this tweet:

greg gibb

Early Years practitioners were a bit miffed and responded robustly; there were several requests for more detail about the ‘Rousseauian nonsense’. Greg obliged in a blogpost.

He opens with a paragraph on Rousseau’s ‘work of fiction’, Émile. He goes on to contrast guidelines requiring the avoidance of formal teaching in Early Years, with evidence for its efficacy, referring to Geary’s theory of biologically primary and secondary knowledge, and  advocates a balance between play and formal teaching. Many of Greg’s posts are informative and constructive, but this one left me feeling uneasy.  I’ll start with the ‘Rousseauian’ element.

Rousseauian

Émile is indeed a ‘work of fiction’ in that it’s written as a novel – and a rambling, sometimes rather incoherent novel at that. Voltaire was typically scathing. Following its publication, Rousseau’s books were banned in Geneva and France and he went on the run to avoid arrest. Obviously, the strength of this reaction wasn’t simply down to a poor writing style or his advocating following a child’s interests.

What Rousseau challenged in Émile was authoritarianism. He’d grown up in Calvinist Geneva, later converted to Catholicism, and had seen the impact on children who’d been educated under both systems. He’d also seen the children of peasants and artisans, who lacked a formal education but were often more contented and self-assured.

Calvinism and Catholicism both used the idea of original sin to justify a strict approach to child-rearing and education. Rousseau argued that despite sin, Nature remained God’s creation. If God created children to develop in the way they did, it made far more sense for education to go with the child’s God-given nature, than to go against it.

In one section of Émile, “The Creed of the Savoyard Priest”, Rousseau abandons his novelistic approach and tackles Descarte’s model of reason head-on, in an insightful essay setting out the questions about perception, cognition, reasoning, consciousness, truth, free will and the existence of religions, that perplexed the thinkers of his day. It was the only section Voltaire thought worth publishing.

But you’d never know that to read Greg’s impression of ‘Rousseauian’. Instead he highlights a ‘central tension’ in ‘educational progressivism’ where Rousseau acts as a puppet master ostensibly following Emile’s interests whilst manipulating them behind the scenes. That tension exists only if your model of education is that it must be either adult-led or child-led. In Rousseau’s framework, the child needs to learn certain things about the world, but can do so in a way that makes sense to them. There is no tension because the teacher and the child are working together; not either/or, but both/and.

Émile is about a one-to-one education and some teachers would argue that it’s impossible to teach like that in a class of thirty children. It probably would be unworkable in a normative education system that ‘expects’ children to know specific things at a specific age, but Montessori schools have been using this approach successfully for a century, and a variant worked well at the primary I attended in the 1960s – class sizes 16 (5-6s), 24 (7-8s) and 35 (9-11s).  What Greg means by ‘Rousseauian’ is essentially a caricature of what Rousseau was saying.

Nonsense

I agree that there’s a lot of nonsense in education, and Early Years is no exception, but what Greg refers to is an antipathy to ‘formal learning’ embedded in government guidelines, contrary to the evidence supporting ‘formal teaching methods’ in developing the foundations of academic skills.  What he appears to be saying is that Rousseau came up with a daft, inconsistent idea about education, and Early Years teachers are told Rousseau was right, so they should avoid formal learning as it could be harmful.

This is again a caricature. Anyone who’s taught young children will know that a major obstacle to them acquiring academic skills is their immaturity. They have immature visual and auditory discrimination, motor control, impulse control, social skills, and awareness of how the world works. Those skills develop very effectively through play (you can see it happening), and Early Years settings almost invariably use directed play to help all children develop the skills they’ll need. There’s no tension in the play being directed, either via instruction or setting up a particular environment, because what the teacher and children do is complementary.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some early years teachers advocate undirected play and/or feel that any hint of formal learning is harmful, but my guess is they’d be few and far between. Most early years teachers use formal teaching, but it might look different to what Greg envisages. How effective is formal teaching until children can control their arms, legs, fingers, tongue, attention, bowel and bladder?

Criticism of ideas

Greg says his original tweet was ‘criticism of ideas rather than people’, and claims ‘many responses to it were of a personal nature’ implying that he wasn’t entitled to an opinion because he’s not an Early Years teacher. He says he would welcome opinions on secondary maths teaching and if people are wrong, will happily point out why they are wrong. All very reasonable, except that…

  • I’m not clear how “there’s a lot of Rousseauian nonsense in Early Years” is a ‘criticism of ideas’. To me, it looks more like a throwaway comment that indirectly impugns both Rousseau and Early Years teaching without explaining why. Which appears to be a bit ad hominem itself.
  • The responses Greg screenshots don’t question his entitlement to an opinion. Instead they question is his entitlement to sling mud at Early Years teachers without explanation.
  • The responses were pointing out why they thought he, Early Years teacher or not, was wrong.

Greg’s blogpost offered him an opportunity to justify his comment about ‘Rousseauian nonsense’. Turns out it’s based on a caricature of Rousseau and of Early Years teaching, and any complaints about the comment, regardless of their validity, are treated as ad hominem.  Is there any hope for constructive debate?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skipping school: Britain’s invisible kids

This was the title of the Channel 4 Dispatches programme broadcast on Monday this week.  It was about home education and presented by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield.  Ms Longfield called for a complete overhaul of the system relating to home education, but her call was based on some significant misunderstandings of the current legislative framework. There are some key principles that need to be taken into account before any legislative changes are considered.

education should be suitable to the individual child

The Education Act 1996 (s.7) gives parents a duty to cause their child to have a suitable education – suitable to the individual child (s.7 uses the now somewhat archaic ‘he’). That’s important because if the education isn’t suitable to the child as an individual, they are unlikely to learn well.

In contrast, the current education system requires teachers to deliver an education suitable to the average child. Teachers are expected to differentiate their teaching for the many children who are not average, but have little training in doing so. This inherent tension appears to be a major factor in the increasing numbers of home-educated children – all the children who appeared in the documentary had had significant problems with school.

the law treats education and welfare as distinct issues

That’s important because a child could be well educated but at risk of harm, or safe and well but poorly educated.

If it appears that a child is not receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) Education Act 1996), a local authority has powers to make inquiries about the child’s education and to issue a school attendance order if necessary.

If a local authority has reasonable cause to suspect a child is at risk of significant harm (s.47 Children Act 1988), it has powers to make inquiries about the child’s welfare, including entering the home and seeing the child if warranted.

home-educated children who have come to harm have not been invisible

In 2014 the NSPCC published a briefing featuring seven Serious Case Reviews for home-educated children who had come to harm.  I have been unable to find any additional similar Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) prior to this date, so I think it’s fairly safe to conclude that Ms Longfield’s concern that there might be thousands of home-educated children at risk of serious harm might be disproportionate.

In each case, the child in question was previously known to the authorities. Almost 70% of the SCRs’ recommendations related to the failure of the authorities to follow procedures correctly. In five cases, the failure of healthcare services to do so may have contributed directly to the harm experienced by the child.  I’ve blogged about the briefing in detail here.

In Skipping School Ms Longfield highlighted the tragic death of Dylan Seabridge in 2011, and commented that he was ‘all but invisible’. But Dylan’s mother worked at a school in a neighbouring local authority and the Head Teacher had raised concerns about her children in 2007. In 2010 Ceredigion social services considered her vulnerability due to her deteriorating mental health, but didn’t alert the local authority for Pembrokeshire where the family lived.  Fiona Nicholson has documented this case in detail here.

The Seabridge family’s welfare was a welfare matter. The fact that the local authority didn’t have right of entry to the home to check on the children’s education is beside the point. Exactly the same conflation took place prior to the death of Khyra Ishaq, where concerns about the welfare of Khyra and her siblings had been raised by the school she had previously attended, but the local authority complained that education legislation prevented them from seeing the children.

home education and illegal schools are two different things

The boundary between home education and an unregistered school is blurred only because the criteria for school registration are unclear (notably about the number of hours involved), not because home education is on the rise.  Fiona Nicholson has documented this issue in detail too, here.

conclusion

The programme began by attributing the increase in home education to schools ‘off-rolling’ difficult pupils. It concluded by calling for local authorities to have powers to register and monitor home-educated children on the grounds of ‘the rights and best interests of the child’. But if local authorities cannot ensure that their own schools provide a suitable education for those children, where does that leave the rights and best interests of the child?

Local authorities already have powers to intervene if they have concerns about the welfare or education of home-educated children – but are often unclear about what those powers are. That lack of clarity has been a factor in home-educated children coming to harm.

I agree wholeheartedly with Anne Longfield that a good education is vital to children and the wider community, but if schools are failing to provide it, I can’t see how local authorities monitoring the education provided by despairing parents will address the root cause of the problem.

I’ve suggested in response to previous government consultations that if a child is removed from a school roll to be educated at home, their per capita funding be retained by the local authority and ring-fenced to provide resources and advice centres – maybe based at local libraries – to support any families who need it.

Home educated children are not skipping school. Nor are they invisible. And what they and their families need from local authorities is support – not ineffective registration and monitoring.

 

democracy unchained

Conspiracy theories usually turn out to be just that – theories. That doesn’t mean conspiracies don’t happen. Nancy MacLean, a social historian, uncovered one by chance. It’s a big conspiracy with potentially catastrophic consequences for most of us. You can read its well-documented history in her book Democracy in Chains (there’s a review here). This post is about the ideas behind it.

Friedman to Buchanan

Nancy MacLean is William H Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, North Carolina. In 2013, she was researching the use of education vouchers during the somewhat chequered history of public education in Virginia. In Milton Friedman’s papers on the subject, she noticed a couple of footnotes referring to James McGill Buchanan, a Nobel prize-winning economist who’d died earlier that year. MacLean became curious about Buchanan’s contribution and visited the archive of his work at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia, where he’d been based. ‘Archive’ usually means shelves of carefully organised, neatly labelled papers. Instead, Buchanan’s work had simply been stacked in his former office. MacLean started at the door and began to work her way round the room…

Buchanan to Koch

What she first discovered was letters referring to Charles Koch’s investment of millions of dollars in Buchanan’s research centre at GMU, The Center for Study of Public Choice. Koch, a brilliant engineer who became a multi-billionaire via the family’s oil business, wanted a ‘climate of liberty’ in which entrepreneurship could flourish, but that wasn’t likely to happen in a world where entrepreneurs were ‘drastically underappreciated and overcontrolled’ (p.132). Koch wanted to change all that. His financial support of politically conservative research organisations was no secret. What wasn’t clear until MacLean read Buchanan’s papers, was how the organisations that Koch supported were connected, how they influenced the Republican party, or that Buchanan was the missing link.

Calhoun to Buchanan

To understand Buchanan’s views, we need to take a closer look at the ideas held by a man who inspired him. He was John C Calhoun, a contemporary of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, who became 7th Vice President of the United States.

John Calhoun’s grandfather, Patrick, had migrated to Pennsylvania from County Donegal. Calhoun’s father (also Patrick) had settled in South Carolina in the mid-18th century. When the younger Patrick died in 1796, the 14 year-old John found himself in charge of a group of local farms. This interrupted his studies but his brothers eventually paid for him to attend Yale College. He went on to read law, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1810, and by 1824 was a Presidential candidate.

Calhoun was renowned for his robust opinions. He had especially strong views about taxation – taxes were of course a sore point at the time and had been a major factor in the United States declaring independence. What Calhoun objected to was governments having the power to tax wealthy citizens to fund public projects (roads, canals, bridges, schools etc) over which the citizens in question had no direct control. He objected particularly to other groups of less wealthy citizens being able to put pressure collectively on politicians to raise taxes to fund such projects. Calhoun felt the US Constitution didn’t go far enough to prevent the majority limiting the liberty of a minority. MacLean summarises his view as “if something must be sacrificed to square the circle between economic liberty and political liberty, it was political liberty” (p.4).

Calhoun drew attention to a fundamental difficulty with democracy as a political system. Democracy is supposed to defend the liberty of all citizens. But one-person-one-vote means that the majority prevails, and can restrict the liberty of a minority. (Brexit being a case in point.)

It’s easy to see why Calhoun’s ideas appealed to a wealthy minority in the Southern states. MacLean points out that in 1860 two-thirds of Americans with wealth exceeding $100k lived south of the Mason-Dixon line (p.2). Like Calhoun, they saw themselves as self-made men, and objected to governments being able to appropriate their hard-earned cash. What they and Calhoun conveniently overlooked was that most of their wealth had accumulated as a result of the labour of another minority – slaves. The slaves’ contribution was viewed merely another means of production, alongside horses and the cotton gin.

Calhoun’s ideas took a back seat following the defeat of the Confederates at the end of the Civil War, but they were never forgotten in the Southern states, and were revived in the 1950s by the economist James McGill Buchanan.

public choice economics

Buchanan called his field of research public choice economics.  He was particularly interested in government incentives. He’d observed that whatever their political persuasion, governments tend to behave in very similar ways. Buchanan wasn’t an impartial, disinterested academic, but one with a political agenda. He was especially bothered by how organised groups of people could control government policy by threatening not to vote for representatives who didn’t support their demands. And like Calhoun he objected to individuals being taxed to pay for public projects they didn’t necessarily approve of.

Buchanan decided that the only way to stop what he considered to be legally sanctioned gangsterism (p.xxiv) was to dismantle the institutions causing it, and to do so in a way that would make it very difficult to reinstate them in future. Koch had been told that Lenin had written the playbook for social and political change (p.xxviii), and proceeded to take some leaves from that book. He knew his economic and political model would be unpopular, and that change would need to be stealthy, piecemeal and gradual. Buchanan knew how to implement those changes.

change in Chile

Buchanan had the chance to test his plan following a visit to Chile in 1980. Augusto Pinochet, commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army, had declared himself President in 1974 following the military coup during the previous year.  In 1978 he appointed José Piñera as Secretary of Labor and Social Security. Piñera was one of the ‘Chicago Boys’, a group of Chilean economists who’d studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. (Buchanan and Friedman had both studied at Chicago and were contemporaries there from 1946 until Buchanan moved to the University of Virginia).

Piñera’s gift to the Chilean people was ‘the seven modernisations’ (pp.156-7):

  • ban industry-wide unions
  • privatise social security
  • privatise healthcare
  • open agriculture to market forces
  • transform the judiciary
  • limit regulation
  • introduce k-12 school vouchers.

Friedman had visited Chile in 1975, and has since defended his role as an economic adviser to Pinochet. Buchanan visited in 1980, shortly after a purge of ‘politically unreliable’ university teachers. He had been invited to advise on a new national Constitution. Buchanan advocated (p.159):

  • severe restrictions on the power of government
  • no spending without prior taxation
  • a balanced budget
  • an independent central bank
  • new expenses to be approved by a ‘supermajority’ – 2/3 or 5/6.

The stealthiest of Buchanan’s reforms was the apparently innocuous use of fine print. The level of detail of Chile’s Constitution of Liberty (named after Hayek’s book) rendered it ‘virtually unamendable’ (p.161). The Pinochet regime was ousted in 1989, but Michelle Bachelet, elected President in 2013, still struggled to implement the changes she planned due to the Chilean Constitution’s ‘locks and bolts’ (p.168).

For Charles Koch, Buchanan not only leant academic weight to his mission, but had figured out a way of bringing about the kind of world Koch envisaged. In 1997 Koch supported the James Buchanan Center at George Mason with a gift of $10m.   It’s important to note at this point that we’re not talking here about ideas that are merely ‘right wing’. Buchanan didn’t want a right wing takeover; he wanted to demolish the institutions integral to liberal democracies.  His plan for doing just that was implemented in Chile and according to MacLean, is currently being rolled out for the rest of us.  MacLean tells the compelling and well-documented story in Democracy in Chains. What intrigued me is why Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas had such appeal.

the appeal of ideas

The logical outcome of Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas is a plutocracy – control by the wealthy. It’s been argued that the USA had become a plutocracy after the ‘Gilded Age’ following the Civil War, when a handful of very wealthy men had considerable influence in the Senate.  It was a phenomenon that greatly exercised President Theodore Roosevelt – who used antitrust legislation to break up the largest corporations.

38_00392

A related outcome is oligarchy – control in the hands of a few. Robert Michels, a German economist who eventually joined Mussolini’s fascist party, argued that oligarchy was the natural outcome of any large organisation, because only a few people involved could possibly have access to all the information they needed to run it. Michels called this outcome an ‘iron law’ and pointed out that many ostensibly democratic institutions were in fact oligarchies.   Plutocracies and oligarchies might be the natural outcomes of human societies but a description isn’t a prescription.

Human beings have a tendency to lie, cheat, steal and fight each other, but such behaviour is seriously detrimental to us, so we have laws to limit it. And it was problems with oligarchy that resulted in the first recorded democracy in ancient Athens. Democracy is by no means problem-free, but as Churchill is reputed to have said “Democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others.” Democratic institutions are swimming against the tide of natural outcomes, so are in a constant struggle to find the checks and balances to keep democratic systems democratic.

It’s easy to see why Calhoun’s ideas appealed to wealthy plantation owners, and Buchanan’s appealed to wealthy business owners. What’s puzzling is why anyone would consider those ideas a suitable foundation for a political/economic system. After all, slaves are rarely happy about being slaves, even if the alternative is begging on the streets. And the poor don’t usually like being poor – especially if they’re being kept poor by the wealthy. History demonstrates that oligarchies and plutocracies aren’t sustainable and usually end in tears, often those of the plutocrats and oligarchs as well as everybody else. So why did Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas catch on amongst the political/economic movers and shakers?

I think there are several reasons, all to do with the way human cognition works. Over millennia, our brains have developed default cognitive strategies that maximise our chances of survival. If faced with an immediate threat to life or limb, we don’t have time to gather all relevant information, work through decisions logically and systematically, and weigh up the possible outcomes. We stand a much better chance of surviving if we process only information that’s immediately relevant, take the first decision that makes sense, and prioritise our own interests.

The problem with these strategies is that they are default strategies. They’re the ones we tend to use first and fast and that result in plausible – and often premature – conclusions. And they’re the opposite of the strategies needed for long-term, sustainable political and economic planning. Here are some of the default strategies key features:

cognitive load

Our working memories can handle only a small amount of information at any one time; we have a low cognitive load. That protects us from being overwhelmed by information and paralysed by choice. But when dealing with complex matters like public policy, it means we have to make a conscious effort to consider all relevant information, not just the first three bits that spring to mind.

incomplete information

Due to the limitations of cognitive load, we make many decisions based on incomplete information. The planters represented by Calhoun  liked the Athenian idea of direct democracy – citizens voting on every decision, with women, children, slaves, freed slaves and foreigners excluded. But the fledgling American republic was trying an experiment; a representative democracy with a broader franchise. No one could have known at the time how that would pan out.

prioritising self-interest

If we’re making decisions based on incomplete information, even the most altruistic of us have more information about ourselves than about others, so our own interests tend to carry more weight.

ingroups and outgroups

First noted by Henri Tajfel when researching social identity, people tend to identify with others whom they perceive as like them (ingroup), and differentiate themselves from people they perceive as different (outgroup). Outgroups are often viewed as more homogeneous than they actually are, and are often viewed negatively.

aversion to loss

People prefer avoiding a loss to making a gain of equivalent value. Representative egalitarian democracies that redistribute wealth do result in significant losses for slave owning planters or billionaire businessmen. Their aversion to prospective losses despite their considerable wealth isn’t surprising.  Even if the plantation owners and billionaires were the most compassionate, altruistic and public-spirited persons imaginable, they would still have to work at not focussing on a few issues only, seeing other demographic groups as negative ‘others’, and seeing their contribution to the common good as a loss.

Calhoun and Buchanan

I think we can cut Calhoun a bit of slack because neither he nor anyone else could have predicted how the American experiment with representative democracy would pan out.  Buchanan is a different matter.  He would have been aware of the plutocracy that emerged from the Gilded Age, the need for Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust legislation and the Wall Street crash – its impact mitigated by Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal.  But his interpretation of events wasn’t the orthodox one.

Although Calhoun and Buchanan paid considerable attention to detail, they paid less attention to the framework within which they were working. Although ostensibly concerned about the tyranny of the majority, their focus was on the threat a representative democracy represented to the wealth and property of a small number of individuals, and on the risks of corruption and freeloading by government officials.  What they glossed over was the contribution to the wealth of individuals made by the slaves and the poor, the misery caused by slavery and poverty, and corruption and freeloading in non-democratic governments.

Liberal democracies are by no means problem-free, but the last 200 years shows they’ve had better outcomes overall than plutocracies and oligarchies. Dismantling the democratic institutions that limit corruption and offer protection to the most vulnerable is likely to have catastrophic consequences. But if Nancy MacLean is right, dismantling democratic institutions is exactly what Buchanan’s followers are intent on doing.

reference

MacLean, N (2017).  Democracy in Chains:  The deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America. Penguin.

acknowledgement

Cartoon by By Joseph Ferdinand Keppler – http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/artifact/Ga_Cartoon/Ga_cartoon_38_00392.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24889994

life as a lobster

Jordan Peterson is a controversial figure. He’s made some provocative statements in interviews and discussions. And inconsistent ones. One inconsistency was in his (in)famous interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54, on the subject of the gender pay gap. Peterson says it doesn’t exist (5m45s). Later, when Newman refers to his comment, he denies that’s what he said. He should, of course, have said that’s not what he meant. But then he adds “Because I’m very, very, very careful with my words” (8m27s).  Verbal slips are easy to make. I guessed Peterson might be more careful in his writing, and might present a clearer picture of his worldview. So I read 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

The rules emerged from Peterson’s experience as a clinical psychologist and had proved popular on the Quora website. Each rule gets a chapter in the book, explaining its rationale. Peterson’s worldview is grounded in ancient myths that have stood the test of time and resonate with us today. Fundamental, for him, is the yin-yang principle; the interdependence of two opposite forces, notably order/chaos and masculine/feminine. He’s also intrigued by the account in the book of Genesis of chaos, order, man, woman and the consequences of sin.

lobster life

Peterson draws further support for his philosophical framework from comparative zoology – in the form of lobsters. Lobsters are crustaceans, an ancient sub-phylum believed to have arisen around 350m years ago. Male lobsters compete for territory using aggressive displays and sometimes fights, resulting in a social dominance hierarchy. Female lobsters choose dominant male lobsters to mate with, so high status lobsters get the best territory and “all the girls”. A lobster’s social status is mediated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter with a role in the human nervous system. In lobsters and humans, social status correlates positively with serotonin levels.

What this means for Peterson, is that biology determines culture. “…the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism…communism…the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy – that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence…There is little more natural than culture. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.” (p.14)

If lobsters and humans exhibit dominance hierarchies mediated by serotonin, Peterson reasons, the dominance hierarchy must be what drives their behaviour and its outcomes. “There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain… It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society… If you’re number one… you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.” (p.15)

Note that Peterson is not talking to lobsters here – in the next paragraph he refers to the “verbal tricks and strategies” available to high status females. But in Peterson’s model serotonin doesn’t result in the disorder of unfettered competition; it leads to order because high status humans in whom “the serotonin flows freely“, are “confident and calm, standing tall and straight. You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.” (p.17)

The passages I’ve quoted are in the chapter about Rule 1: Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back. Peterson’s argument is essentially that Nature is Nature and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better. The argument is a persuasive one. But the evidence Peterson marshals for it is highly selective. What he doesn’t say is as important as what he does say. Let’s start with serotonin.

serotonin

Serotonin is far more ancient than lobsters. It’s made by all bilateral animals, which first appeared around 550m years ago. It’s also found in many plants and some species of amoeba. Most of those organisms don’t have dominance hierarchies. That’s because serotonin’s role is primarily to mediate the perception of resources – usually food. It’s no accident that most human serotonin is produced in the gut, where it regulates intestinal movement. In the brain, the serotonin pathway works in concert with dopamine pathway that mediates reward. It’s only a couple of short steps in neurological terms, to associate food with territory, then territory with social dominance signals. So it’s not surprising that neurologically more complex animals have made that connection.

male and female

Then there’s male and female. Peterson claims “when we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-animal world, we used categories that had originally evolved to represent the pre-human animal social world. …Our most basic category – as old, in some sense as the sexual act itself – appears to be that of sex, make and female. We appear to have taken that primordial knowledge of structured, creative opposition and begun to interpret everything through its lens.” (p.40, Peterson’s emphasis.)

Peterson assumes that if a category distinction is used by an entire species, or by several species, it must be ‘inbuilt’. This is a risky assumption. It was what zoologists assumed about imprinting (newly hatched birds following their mother/other conspecific/primary carer) until Konrad Lorenz discovered they would follow his wading boots if they were the first thing the hatchlings saw. And there’s been a heated dispute for decades over whether the structure of language is hardwired or constructed or both, but you’d never know from Peterson’s account that there is any biological evidence suggesting that the male/female categories, (as opposed to male/female biological characteristics) might be constructed rather than inbuilt.

He overlooks research showing that infants construct categories from the features of things in their environment such as sounds (e.g. Kuhn, 2004) or objects (e.g. Rakison & Oakes, 2008). The research shows that categories develop as the children’s knowledge of the environment increases. This suggests that if young animals are surrounded by conspecifics that generally show sexual dimorphism, they will start to form the categories male/female. It doesn’t follow that there are no alternatives. On the contrary, some crustaceans are hermaphrodites and parthenogenesis (producing viable, but unfertilised eggs) is not uncommon. Similarly, although sexual dimorphism is typical of human beings, there’s a range of biological variations on that theme in homo sapiens.

Peterson also conflates sex with gender. Sex is a set of biological characteristics. Gender is a social construct. Biology largely determines sex. It plays an important role in determining gender, but many other factors come into play.  Peterson doesn’t have much time for social constructs, which is odd, because that’s what myths are.

myths

Peterson’s focus is on order/chaos and masculine/feminine; order is inherently masculine (“the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine” p.40) and chaos, presumably, inherently feminine. There are many other opposites in life of course; pleasure/pain, loss/gain, activity/rest etc. But pleasure, gain and rest don’t feature much in Peterson’s world. We’re told “life is suffering” (pp.161, 227) and reminded that it’s “nasty, brutish and short” (p.177). There are many references to the fall of Adam and Eve, Cain’s resentment and murder of his brother, and the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.

Peterson says myths are “moral in their intent, rather than descriptive” (p.xxvii). For him “the great stories of the past” have “more to do with developing character in the face of suffering than with happiness” (p.xxvii). He can’t seem to decide whether his worldview is prescriptive or descriptive; whether it’s about what life should be like, or what it is like.  On the one hand, he can’t emphasise enough the grim factual realities of life – “life is suffering” and “dominance hierarchies are older than trees“. On the other hand, he blithely ignores facts about serotonin, crustacean reproduction, and human cognition that don’t support his model.

And despite citing considerable evidence showing that lobster dominance hierarchies hinge on whichever lobsters are more physically powerful, he denies Jacques Derrida’s claim that power is a prime determinant of human social status on the grounds that … it shouldn’t be. “In well-functioning societies, competence, not power is a prime determiner of status” (p.313). Wasn’t that Derrida’s point – that few societies are well-functioning?

For Peterson, “life is suffering” and the way to deal with that is “to stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open” (p.27). I understand why he wouldn’t advocate untrammelled hedonism as a guiding principle, but in reality life is more of a mixed bag. Once our basic needs are met we don’t spend all our time fighting over who gets first dibs on resources or mates; we sing, dance, tell stories, play games, solve problems and make stuff. We often do those things very well, to our enjoyment and the benefit of others.

Nor do people usually select mates by behaving like lobsters. It might feel like women get to do all the choosing if you’re a young man with low social status living in North America, but for much of human history, women have rarely had much choice about anything. One mate selection strategy popular with top human lobsters was droit du seigneur. Not popular with anyone else, however, so most communities make other arrangements.

conclusion

Much of what Peterson says is true, and most of his 12 rules are sensible, in principle at least. His arguments are plausible and convincingly made. But although his worldview is based on evidence, it’s based on only some evidence. He doesn’t consider evidence that doesn’t support his hypotheses.

He plays to the disappointment, resentment and fears of young white, North American males.  Their feelings might be real, and might need attending to, but that doesn’t make them normative. Peterson’s entire worldview appears to be constructed around how tough it is to be one of them.

His worldview is also internally contradictory. He points out “Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. That sentence should be written in capital letters. Every person is unique – and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability. Period.” (p.316)

Absolutely.  So where does that leave Peterson’s sweeping generalisations? Maybe he needs to be more careful with his words.

references

Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.

Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

biologically primary and secondary knowledge?

David Geary is an evolutionary psychologist who developed the concept of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge, popular with some teachers. I’ve previously critiqued Geary’s ideas as he set them out in a chapter entitled Educating the Evolved Mind. One teacher responded by suggesting I read Geary’s The Origin of Mind because it explained his ideas in more detail. So I did.

Geary’s theory

If I’ve understood correctly, Geary’s argument goes like this:

The human body and brain have evolved over time in response to environmental pressures ranging from climate and diet through to social interaction. For Geary, social interaction is a key driver of evolved brain structures because social interactions can increase the resources available to individuals.

Environmental pressures have resulted in the evolution of brain ‘modules’ specialising in processing certain types of information, such as language or facial features. Information is processed by the modules rapidly, automatically and implicitly, resulting in heuristics (rules of thumb) characteristic of the ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics that form the default patterns for the way we think. But we are also capable of flexible thought that overrides those default patterns. The flexibility is due to the highly plastic frontal areas of our brain responsible for intelligence. Geary refers to the thinking using the evolved modules as biologically primary, and that involving the plastic frontal areas as biologically secondary.

Chapters 2 & 3 of The Origin of Mind offer a clear, coherent account of Darwinian and hominid evolution respectively. They’d make a great resource for teachers. But when Geary moves on to cognition his model begins to get a little shaky – because it rests on several assumptions.

Theories about evolution of the brain are inevitably speculative because brain tissue decomposes and the fossil record is incomplete. Theories about brain function also involve speculation because our knowledge about how brains work is incomplete. There’s broad agreement on the general principles, but some hypotheses have generated what Geary calls ‘hot debate’. Despite acknowledging the debates, Geary’s model is built on assumptions about which side of the debate is correct. The assumptions involve the modularity of the brain, folk systems, intelligence, and motivation-to-control.

modularity

The general principle of modularity – that there are specific areas of the brain dedicated to processing specific types of information – is not in question. What is less clear is how specialised the modules are. For example, the fusiform face area (FFA) specialises in processing information about faces. But not just faces. It has also been shown to process information about cars, birds, butterflies, chess pieces, Digimon, and novel items called greebles. This raises the question of whether the FFA evolved to process information about faces as such (the Face Specific Hypothesis), or to process information about objects requiring fine-grained discrimination (the Expertise Hypothesis). Geary comes down on the Faces side of the debate on the grounds that the FFA does not “generally respond to other types of objects … that do not have facelike features, except in individuals with inherent sociocognitive deficits, such as autism” (p.141). Geary is entitled to his view, but that’s not the only hotly debated interpretation of the evidence.

folk systems

The general principle of ‘folk’ systems – evolved forms of thought that result from information being processed rapidly, automatically and implicitly – is also not in question. Geary admits it’s unclear whether the research is “best understood in terms of inherent modular constraints, or as the result of general learning mechanisms” but comes down on the side of children’s thinking being the result of “inherent modular systems”.  I couldn’t find a reference to Eleanor Rosch’s prototype theory developed in the 1970s, which explains folk categories in terms of general learning mechanisms. And it’s regrettable that Rakison & Oakes’ 2008 review of research into how children form categories (that also lends weight to the general learning mechanisms hypothesis) wasn’t published until three years after The Origin of Mind. I don’t know whether either would have prompted Geary to amend his theory.

intelligence

In 1904 Charles Spearman published a review of attempts to measure intellectual ability. He concluded that the correlations between various specific abilities indicated “that there really exists a something that we may provisionally term “General Sensory Discrimination” and similarly a “General Intelligence”” (Spearman p.272).

It’s worth looking at what the specific abilities included. Spearman ranks (p. 276) in order of their correlation with ‘General Intelligence’, performance in: Classics, Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination, French, Cleverness, English, Mathematics, Pitch Discrimination among the uncultured, Music, Light Discrimination and Weight Discrimination.

So, measures of school performance turned out to be good predictors of school performance. The measures of school performance correlated strongly with ‘General Intelligence’ – a construct derived from… the measures of school performance. This tautology wasn’t lost on other psychologists and Spearman’s conclusions received considerable criticism. As Edwin Boring pointed out in 1923, ‘intelligence’ is defined by the content of ‘intelligence’ tests. The correlations between specific abilities and the predictive power of intelligence tests are well-established. What’s contentious is whether they indicate the existence of an underlying ‘general mental ability’.

Geary says the idea that children’s intellectual functioning can be improved is ‘hotly debated’ (p.295). But he appears to look right past the even hotter debate that’s raged since Spearman’s work was published, about whether the construct general intellectual ability (g) actually represents ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. Geary assumes it does, and also accepts Cattell’s later constructs crystallised and fluid intelligence without question.

Clearly some people are more ‘intelligent’ than others, so the idea of g initially appears valid. But ‘intelligence’ is, ironically, a ‘folk’ construct. It’s a label we apply to a set of loosely defined characteristics – a useful shorthand descriptive term. It doesn’t follow that ‘intelligence’ is a biologically determined ‘something’ that ‘really exists’.

motivation-to-control

The motivation to control relationships, events and resources is a key part of Geary’s theory. He argues that motivation-to-control is an evolved disposition (inherent in the way people think) that manifests itself most clearly in the behaviour of despots – who seek to maximise their control of resources. Curiously, in referring to despots, Geary cites a paper by Herb Simon (Simon, 1990) on altruism (a notoriously knotty problem for evolution researchers). Geary describes an equally successful alternative strategy to despotism, not as altruism but as “adherence to [social] laws and mores”, even though the evidence suggests altruism is an evolved disposition, not merely a behaviour.

Altruism calls into question the control part of the motivation-to-control hypothesis. Many people have a tendency to behave in ways that increase their control of resources, but many tend to collaborate and co-operate instead, strategies that increase individual access to resources, despite reducing individual control over them. The altruism debate is another that’s been going on for decades, but you wouldn’t know that to read Geary.

Then there’s the motivation part. Like ‘intelligence’, ‘motivation’ is a label for a loosely defined bunch of factors that provide incentives for behaviour. ‘Motivation’ is a useful label. But again it doesn’t follow that ‘motivation’ is ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. The biological mechanisms involved in the motivation to eat or drink are unlikely to be the same as those involved in wanting to marry the boss’s daughter or improve on our personal best for the half-marathon. The first two examples are likely to increase our access to resources; whether they increase our control over them will depend on the circumstances. Geary doesn’t explain the biological mechanism involved.

biologically primary and secondary knowledge

In The Origin of Mind, Geary touches on the idea of biologically primary and secondary competencies and abilities but doesn’t go into detail about their implications for education. Instead, he illustrates the principle by referring to the controlled problem solving used by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in tackling the problem of how different species had arisen.

Geary says that such problem solving requires the inhibition of ‘heuristic-based folk systems’ (p.197), and repeatedly proposes (pp.188, 311, 331, 332) that the prior knowledge of scientific pioneers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace “arose from evolved folk biological systems…as elaborated by associated academic learning” (p.188). He cites as evidence the assumptions resulting from religious belief made by anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen (p.187), and Wallace’s reference to an ‘Overruling Intelligence’ being behind natural selection (p.83). But this proposal is problematic, for three reasons:

The first problem is that some ‘evolved’ folk knowledge is explicit, not implicit. Belief in a deity is undoubtedly folk knowledge; societies all over the world have come up with variations on the concept. But the folk knowledge about religious beliefs is usually culturally transmitted to children, rather than generated by them spontaneously.

Another difficulty is that thinkers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace had a tendency to be born into scholarly families, so their starting point, even as young children, would not have been merely ‘folk biological systems’. And each of the above had the advantage of previous researchers having already reduced the problem space.

A third challenge is that heuristics aren’t exclusively biologically primary; they can be learned, as Geary points out, via biologically secondary knowledge (p.185).

So if biologically primary knowledge sometimes involves explicit instruction, and biologically secondary knowledge can result in the development of fast, automatic, implicit heuristics, how can we tell which type of knowledge is which?

use of evidence

Geary accepts contentious constructs such as motivation, intelligence and personality (p.319) without question. And he appears to have a rather unique take on concepts such as bounded rationality (p.172), satisficing (p.173) and schemata (p.186).

In addition, Geary’s evidence is not always contentious; sometimes it’s his conclusions that are tenuous. For example, he predicts that if social competition were a driving force during evolution, “a burning desire to master algebra or Newtonian physics will not be universal or even common. Surveys of the attitudes and preferences of American schoolchildren support this prediction and indicate that they value achievement in sports … much more than achievement in any academic area” (pp.334-5), citing a 1993 paper by Eccles et al. The ‘surveys’ were two studies, the ‘American schoolchildren’ 865 elementary school students, the ‘attitudes and preferences’ competence beliefs and task values, and the ‘academic areas’ math, reading and music. Responses show some statistically significant differences. Geary appears to overegg the evidential pudding somewhat, and to completely look past the possibility that there might be culturally transmitted factors involved.

conclusion

I find Geary’s model perplexing. Most of the key links in it – brain evolution, brain modularity, the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking, motivation and intelligence – involve highly contentious hypotheses.  Geary mentions the ‘hot debates’ but doesn’t go into detail. He simply comes down on one side of the debate and builds his model on the assumption that that side is correct.

He appears to have developed an overarching model of cognition and learning and squeezed the evidence into it, rather than building the model according to the evidence. The problem with the second approach of course, is that if the evidence is inconclusive, you can’t develop an overarching model of cognition and learning without it being highly speculative.

What also perplexes me about Geary’s model is its purpose. Teachers have been aware of the difference between implicit and explicit learning (even if they didn’t call it that) for centuries. It’s useful for them to know about brain evolution and modularity and the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking etc. But teachers can usually spot whether children are learning something apparently effortlessly (implicitly) or whether they need step-by-step (explicit) instruction. That’s essentially why teachers exist. Why do they need yet another speculative educational model?

references

Eccles, J., Wigfield, A., Harold, R.D.,  & Blumenfeld, P. (1993). Age and gender differences in children’s self‐and task perceptions during elementary school, Child Development, 64, 830-847.

Gauthier, I., Tarr, M.J., Anderson, A.W., Skudlarski, P. & Gore, J.C.  (1999). Activation of the middle fusiform ‘face area’ increases with expertise in recognizing novel objects, Nature Neuroscience, 2, 568-573.

Rakison, D.H.  & Oakes L.M. (eds) (2008). Early Category and Concept Development.  Oxford University Press.

Simon, H.A. (1990). A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism. Science, 250, 1665-1668.

Spearman, C.  (1904).  ‘General Intelligence’ objectively determined and measured.  The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.

 

 

Home education: the consultation

I’ve just submitted my response to the government consultation on home education (closes 2 July). The consultation documents (a call for evidence, and proposed guidance for local authorities and for parents) are the most poorly drafted I’ve ever seen. Home education is an obscure area of the law. Here’s why I’m interested…and why you should be too.

it’s confusing

Home education is described as ‘elective’ because parents choose it. There wasn’t much choice in our case. One kid wasn’t well enough to continue attending school, but the local authority (said it) couldn’t provide home tuition because the consultant couldn’t give a date for return to school. School provision for the other fell apart after the school’s brilliant SENCO left and we couldn’t find a nearby suitable alternative.

When we started home-educating, the LA offered a visit from an ‘adviser’. I accepted – I did have a few SEN questions.  But the ‘adviser’ said he couldn’t advise because home education was my responsibility; his job was to assess the suitability of my provision. He arranged for a colleague with SEN experience to visit. The colleague was willing to advise, but his advice contradicted that of the occupational therapist. I didn’t accept any more home visits.

My local authority isn’t the only one confused about its duties towards home-educated children. At least two sets of government guidelines have been issued to clarify LA obligations, the most recent in 2007. In 2009, the then Labour government commissioned a review of elective home education by Graham Badman, newly appointed chair of Haringey Local Children’s Safeguarding Board in the wake of the Baby P tragedy. (I’ve blogged about the political background to the Badman review here.)

it’s the law

The current legislative model for home education starts with an education suitable for the individual child. Parents have a legal duty to cause their child to have such an education (s.7 Education Act 1996) – wherever it takes place. LAs should make enquiries ‘if it appears’ a child isn’t receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) EA 1996), and must make arrangements for identifying children not receiving a suitable education (s.436A EA 1996).

In other words, parents are assumed to be complying with the law unless there is evidence indicating they might not be, at which point the LA can take action. This model is commonly applied in respect of other legal duties for individuals (e.g. taxation, vehicle registration). It’s not watertight – no model is – but it’s the most effective approach we’ve found to date.

Graham Badman’s conceptual model of the legislative framework was different. He saw home education as requiring a ‘balance’ between the parent’s and the child’s rights. But parents don’t have a ‘right’ to home educate, they have a duty to provide a suitable education. And legislation has to take into account the interests of different parties within the existing legislative framework, not to ‘balance’ rights regardless of the framework.

Badman’s conceptual model was way off the mark, but at least he explained it, and his recommendations were internally consistent with it, even if they were at odds with the legislative framework. The new proposals are all over the place.

why consult?

The consultation was prompted by “lacunae or shortcomings in the current legislation which have been drawn to the department’s attention by local authorities and by local children’s safeguarding boards” (2.3)*, i.e. organisations experiencing ‘confusion’ (2.3e), being involved in frequent disputes with parents (5.4), and for whom the previous guidelines had to be written. Despite very diverse views about legislation amongst home-educating families, there’s no indication they were involved in framing the consultation documents.

Local authorities’ main concerns are:

  • Home-educated children being radicalised.
  • Children attending unregistered schools under the guise of being home-educated.
  • LAs being unable to identify children not receiving a suitable education unless they know the identities of home-educated children, can find out whether or not a child’s education is suitable, and can monitor it regularly.
  • Home-educated children might be at risk of harm.
  • Some parents “willing and able to be fined repeatedly can continue unsatisfactory provision of home education indefinitely” (L6.20).

The focus of the consultation documents is on compiling registers of children and the sanctions that can be imposed on parents who don’t co-operate with the local authority, rather than on how best to ensure all children get the suitable education defined in law.

Proposals for change include;

  • compulsory registration of home-educated children
  • regular monitoring
  • LAs should have access to the child
  • LAs should know the views of the child about home education
  • not receiving a suitable education constituting a safeguarding issue.

The first three proposals have long been on the LAs’ wishlist because LAs believe those measures will pick up children not receiving a suitable education or at risk of harm. There is no evidence to support that belief. In fact, any evidence was noticeable by its absence from the consultation documents.

absence of evidence

Local authorities frequently see the majority of children getting a perfectly adequate (often very good) education in schools. They rarely see the substantial number who end up not attending school, in pupil referral units (PRUs), or being educated at home.

They also see a very small number of shockingly memorable cases of children educated at home who are neglected or abused. What they don’t see is the large number of home-educated children who get a perfectly adequate (often very good) education at home, and are completely safe and well.

I can’t find figures for the number of school attendance orders issued by local authorities – which suggests it’s very small. Fewer than 0.4% of home educated children had child protection plans in 2009 (see the parliamentary exchange about that here ). And in none of the cases of neglect or abuse cited as examples of the risk to home-educated children, have the children been previously unknown to the authorities. In fact, in several of the cases cited by the NSPCC, the failure of the authorities to follow procedures properly contributed to the harm experienced by the child.

If you don’t have evidence of the extent of a perceived problem, or of the effectiveness of your proposed solutions, your argument is based on speculation, and speculation knows no bounds. As a consequence, the consultation documents:

  1. cherry-pick human rights

States that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or are party to the European Convention on Human Rights must have regard to all the Articles when they legislate – not just those that support recommendations governments happen to think are a good idea. The Articles about a private family life weren’t mentioned.

  1. ignore legislative principles

Even when human rights conventions were a mere twinkle in the eyes of politicians and lawyers, UK law enshrined principles such as the presumption of innocence, protection from undue state intervention, and reliance on evidence. The consultation documents blithely ignore all three.

  1. change the wording of the legislation

Some legislation is cited inaccurately in a way that changes its meaning e.g Part V Children Act 1989 (L7.8) – the ‘reasonable cause’ threshold.

  1. extend the original scope of the legislation

For example, the duty to make arrangements to identify children not receiving a suitable education (s.436A EA 1996), is turned into a duty to find out whether or not a child is receiving a suitable education, exceeding the ‘if it appears’ limitation imposed by s.437(1).

  1. cite irrelevant legislation

For example in L9.4c, s.13 EA 1996 (availability of primary and secondary education) and s.175 EA 2002 (general duty to promote and safeguard children’s welfare). Some legislation is referred to despite being described as irrelevant e.g. s.17A Children Act 1989 (L10.2).

  1. conflate education and safeguarding

Despite warning against conflating education and safeguarding, which are distinct issues in law, section 7 of the guidance for LAs and section 5 of the guidance for parents proceed to do precisely that. These very muddled sections appear to be the result of LAs wanting a way to deal with the small number of parents mentioned in L6.20.

  1. assume average is normative

Requirements and advice for schools are cited despite being irrelevant to home-educated children e.g. L9.4. Children vary widely – they are not departures from the ‘average’ (L9.4e).

  1. focus on bureaucracy

The focus of the law is on an education suitable for the individual child. The focus of the consultation, in contrast, is on compiling a register of children not receiving an education suitable to the average child, and on compliance by local authorities and parents.

  1. offer sanctions not support

The consultation emphasises sanctions that can be imposed on parents who fail to co-operate with LAs. Significantly it does not propose a statutory duty for local authorities to provide advice and support for home educating families. This calls into question the claim that children receiving a suitable education is a local authority’s chief concern.

take home lessons

Whoever drafted the 2007 EHE Guidelines understood the legislation, its purpose and the principles behind it. The current consultation documents appear to have been drafted by someone who sees legislation as being about people’s views; and whoever cites the most pieces of legislation bearing a superficial resemblance to their view, wins.

For many children, home education is their last shot at getting a suitable education. If there’s evidence that home education is causing them significant problems, let’s see it. If there’s evidence to support the proposed changes to the law, let’s see that too. And consult on that, not whatever local authorities think would make their lives easier regardless of the impact it might have on local families.

If the Department for Education can produce consultation documents as poor as these in respect of home education, they can do it for other areas of education too.  Parents of children with SEND, beware!

 

*References in brackets are to the consultation document. References prefixed L are the proposed guidance for LAs.