Manhattan Institute

Boris’s Brain

Dominic Cummings’s vision for twenty-first-century education

The rise of Boris Johnson to leadership of Britain has drawn attention to his top strategist, Dominic Cummings, the director of the 2016 Brexit campaign. As Johnson’s chief advisor, Cummings is effectively the CEO of the British government. His priority is to take the country out of the European Union—deal or no—but it remains to be seen how long he’ll be in No. 10 after the political and economic chaos that is sure to ensue. With a general election all but inevitable in the coming months, Johnson will likely do everything he can to keep Cummings close.

Though it’s difficult to characterize Dominic Cummings as a politician, he is an influential thinker, with strong views on how government should be run. In 2013, he self-published Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities, a synthesis of scientific speculation, meditations on government failure, and public policy. Its basic thesis is that the world is changing, but Western politics aren’t keeping up; the questions posed by artificial intelligence, climate change, and the rise of China call for twenty-first-century answers. “We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling,” he writes—leaders “who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project.” Education has been static for centuries, but our societies have radically transformed. “Mathematicians, scientists and entrepreneurs are almost totally shut out of vital decisions,” and one result is a political class incapable of thinking coherently about the future.

Cummings studies history but reserves his greatest admiration for its disruptors: George Mueller, Sun Tzu, and Otto von Bismarck, to name a few. He twice refers to Dostoyevsky’s famous quip that “revolution must necessarily begin with atheism,” interpreting it as a call to reject all received authority. And there can be no greater examples of such authority than Great Britain’s elite schools and universities, including the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics degree at Oxford that has been a rite of passage for countless prime ministers. Many of these institutions have been around longer than the Church of England and, according to Cummings, specialize in training people who think inside the box.

Cummings wants Britain to train grand synthesizers and problem solvers, not regurgitators of fact, and he adopts physicist Murray Gell-Mann’s term “Odyssean education” to describe his preferred pedagogical approach. His first recommendations are to bring computer programming into primary schools and to make applied math compulsory at university. This should be coupled with comprehensive teaching of evolutionary biology, physics, and psychology. “Established political philosophies,” Cummings argues, simply “cannot cope with evolutionary epistemology, either in biology or economics.” Citing Michael Oakeshott, Adam Smith, Fredrich Nietzsche, and Francis Fukuyama, he claims that “all groups”—conservatives, neoconservatives, socialists, liberals, and libertarians—“generally reject evolutionary biology as a basis for understanding human nature,” because “the Left fears that an evolved universal human nature undermines the idea of equality,” while the “Right fears that it undermines the idea of responsibility.” Since we can now “look inside our minds,” he contends, “the basis for Descartes’ Ghost in the Machine, Locke’s Blank Slate, and Rousseau’s Noble Savage” have been undermined. We know that free people form markets, and we know that markets can create wealth in a positive-sum game. But we also know that markets create complex problems of their own, and that our current economic doctrines are too simple to address these problems.

Cummings’s perspective has some similarities with that of Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur-turned-candidate for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination. Yang’s campaign slogan—“not left, not right, but forward”—appeals to post-partisan Silicon Valley-oriented futurists, including Elon Musk, Eric Weinstein, and Jack Dorsey. Cummings and Yang share a contempt for elites who refuse to engage with the voting public. Cummings’s recommended reading list—found at the end of his treatise—includes James Frayne’s Meet the People, a call on politicians and corporate leaders to get out of their bubbles and talk more with constituents and customers. And Yang’s own book is called The War on Normal People, which argues that America’s politicians have forgotten about the ordinary worker. While both Yang and Cummings embrace a modern market economy, driven by technological innovation and automation, both are aware that technocratic management of such an economy alienates ordinary voters from the democratic process.

Nowhere is this alienation more evident than in the rising income gap between those with different educational levels. Cummings writes that “technology encourages ‘winner takes all’ markets in which a tiny number deemed ‘the best’ get most of the rewards.” He continues, “since the mid-1980s, the weekly wages of those without a high school diploma or with just a high school diploma have fallen while wages of those with the best education have risen”—a disparity that only stands to widen. The same concern has led Yang to advocate a Universal Basic Income, which would guarantee a fixed monthly wage to every American; Cummings has expressed sympathy with the same idea.        

For Cummings, educational policies should account for differences in children’s natural abilities. He cites geneticist Robert Plomin, who argues that intelligence and inborn personality traits are so strongly determinative that we ought to shuttle kids into clear career paths on the basis of these facts alone. Yet while it is reasonable to suggest that some kids would be better off learning a trade than pursuing higher education, any further implications are dubious at best. There’s no solid evidence that we can predict social outcomes based on genetics, or even determine IQ objectively, and past attempts to pretend otherwise have led to disastrous exercises in racial eugenics. Singing the praises of science is one thing, but overselling contested data in order to delegitimize social mobility is another.

Nevertheless, Cummings’s educational manifesto deserves attention, and some of his ideas could transform Britain’s education system for the better. While writing the book in 2013, Cummings was an advisor to Michael Gove at the Department for Education, and they began putting the ideas into action—teaching coding in schools, strengthening state education standards, and encouraging greater collaboration among disciplines. Now that he’s effectively running No. 10, Cummings may be offered the opportunity to continue that project. And if one answer to the crisis of democratic representation is educating more capable, scientifically literate representatives, we could do worse than consult his Odyssean blueprint.

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