Category Archives: education

the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the global technocratic takeover w/ Alison McDowell

Alison McDowell is an activist, writer and researcher who has carefully studied and documented the working parts of the World Economic Forum’s declared “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) and the commensurate global takeover of industries and public policies by the central banks, multinational corporations, big tech technocrats and billionaire-funded foundations:

“In this world that’s coming there will be a tiny group of billionaires, there will be a cohort of people who are the data analysts that run the dashboards, and manage the people that run the dashboards; and they will be essentially oppressing people. Their job will be to manage the oppression. And then there will be everybody else who will be the oppressed. As a parent, I don’t want to aspire for my kid to succeed by being in a position to be the oppressor.

“And I don’t mean to say we haven’t always lived in this situation where the privileged have been in positions of enacting certain levels of oppression. But it will be increasingly brutal and increasingly automated. And I think the mental health impact of that on everyone is going to be devastating.

“So, I’m just trying to think through, how do we build a world with no badges, with real knowledge, with reciprocity, in which the resources of the earth and the community are shared in ways that support humane relationships? And, you know, maybe humans are not that good at that – maybe I should just like throw it in with the robots. But, I just don’t want to be with the robots!”

[from 27:30 mins in Part 3]

Embedded below is an extended interview with Alison McDowell conducted by Jason Bosch in Philadelphia on May 17th 2020. Divided into five wide-ranging sections, I have tried (as far as it is possible) to provide a concise overview and guide to the topics covered in each.


Part 1: The revolution will not be funded

Alison McDowell got interested in researching the whole topic of global technocratic takeover and 4IR because of the privatisation of schools in her local area. With time on her hands she decided to follow the money. The trail quickly led to Bill Gates and other billionaire philanthropists and associated foundations that operate behind a vast network of often well-meaning groups including NGOs.

In this first part she discusses how the billionaire class has a long-term plan for our futures that involves the commodification of humanity as data, the automation of labour, programmable money, and the management of global systemic poverty. She points out that this whole agenda for building a post-war cybernetic world has never actually been hidden but now emerges as an entirely open conspiracy.

Specifically, McDowell believes that Social Impact Bonds (SIB) and Human Capital Bonds (HUCAP) are being introduced to enable a soft system of slavery that will operate though Blockchain or alternative ‘distributive ledger technologies’ (DLT) in parallel with digital identity eventually linked up under schemes of Universal Basic Income (UBI). She believes the approach has been taylor-made to appeal to the American mindset, and anticipates little to no resistance will come from the middle classes.

Reflecting upon how far this agenda has recently been advanced, she asks rhetorically: “what kind of world are we creating that you have to have two full-time parents working two jobs to sustain a family so that your kid can be on a surveillance play table for Goldman Sachs?”


Part 2: We don’t need no stinking smart badges!

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is a concept advanced by the World Economic Forum. This envisioned future is fully digital. The Internet of Things (IoT) will increasingly enable us to interact with the world with everything digitally mediated through electronic sensors. New virtual environments will then be built around artificial intelligence with increasing use of biometric surveillance, synthetic biology and bioengineering as well as robots and automation. Already we have manifestations of digital work such as platform labour, telepresence, avatars, synthetic humans and humanoid robots.

In this second part, Alison McDowell talks about how the Fourth Industrial Revolution marks a seismic shift that will bring about our dispossession from the world and a wholesale clearing of the commons to the point that ultimately people will no longer have autonomy over their bodies or their mental states. In the near future, besides implementing UBI to keep a lid on things, a rising technocratic state is set to employ predictive analytics alongside automated policing with robot dogs and weaponised drones.

One of the great pioneers in this field and the father of cybernetics was Norbert Wiener who once claimed “as objects of scientific inquiry, humans do not differ from machines”. However later in life, Wiener became more critical and sounded the alarm on the dangers of ‘human systems engineering’ declaring for instance: “Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor”.


Part 3: People are not impact investment commodities

Getting to grips with a slippery lexicon surrounding Human Capital Bonds (HUCAP) and related financial structures can be tricky: “Oh, it’s not a ‘Social Impact Bond’, it’s ‘Pay for Success’; or it’s not Pay for Success, it’s a Social Impact Partnership.”. But the essential premise of this human capital financialised system moving forward is that based on ‘equations’ created by esteemed academic institutions and think tanks (e.g. the Heckman equation), it becomes possible ‘to cost out’ negative externalities.

So, for instance, what does it cost to incarcerate you? Or to provide special education? And what’s the cost of you being depressed and unfit to work? By analysing in this way, all social programmes will have money attached to them on the basis that pre-emptively we can fix someone (who may never yet have been incarcerated, identified as needing special education, or diagnosed with depression) by profiling them to determine the potentiality of these harmful outcomes – reminiscent of a pre-crime scenario – in order that ‘a cost offset’ can then be generated. i.e., if it’s going to cost society this much to fix you when you’ve been broken, then instead we can make a saving if just a fraction of that cost is required to fix you pre-emptively. It’s ‘in the space between’ where the new investment entities will negotiate a profit, and public-private partnerships and benefit corporations are instrumental in this system.

Since everything is about virtualising life and social relations and uploading it as data on a ‘dashboard’, it is important to understand who these dashboard entities actually are. And one of biggest players is Salesforce and Marc Benioff; there’s also Microsoft and Steve Ballmer.

Coming back to the new lexicon, Alison McDowell describes how “closing a gap” more literally means merging data from separate entry points in order to provide modes for engineering human and community behaviours via these ‘dashboards’. And she explains how this approach creates two immediate problems: first, once you generate a global market around tackling any problem (by “gap closing”) – say for instance, poverty management – then you also create a disincentive to stop the gap completely, because if the gap is ever fully closed, the original source of the market is eliminated and the game is over. Moreover, in what eventually becomes a securitised investment environment, there will be some players who will actually bet against each particular solution working! Bottom line: to make the game profitable, the logic of the market dictates that we always keep some amount of poverty (or other problem) in order to manage it.

Currently, finance to seed these kinds of schemes is derived from governments through taxation. So what will happen in future presuming large numbers are made redundant (due to automation of labour) and there’s less tax revenue to draw on? Well, there are already proposed alternatives to bypass government altogether. Alison McDowell puts it this way: “An investor can invest in an evidence-based programme with a performance-based contract in a non-profit, and if they achieve it they can be paid back by a foundation”.

Thus, corporations with parallel foundations will be able to maintain what she calls “the human capital battery system”: for example, Hewlett-Packard – and this is just conceptual at this point – may decide to invest in an early childhood intervention predicated on data where Hewlett-Parkard tablets, products, devices, wearable technology, brainwave headbands, etc are used to collect the data, with the aim of managing behaviour to make the kids jump through the correct hoops and hit a target they need to reach. And if this is achieved then they are paid back by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Or perhaps the Dell corporation is paid by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Or Microsoft by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In this way the corporations can just circulate their own capital and ‘philanthropic capital’ round and round and round.


Part 4: We’re already living in a debt-financed matrix

The pharmaceutical giant Moderna that in January 2016 “entered a global health project framework agreement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to advance mRNA-based development projects for various infectious diseases” also describes its own mRNA medicines as “the software of life”. Is this statement to be taken at face value, or should we regard it as nothing more than commercial blurb and hype: if we take it seriously, then shouldn’t we consider the possible ramifications: do we actually want to become genetically modified organisms?

On a related issue, Microsoft in collaboration with the University of Washington are now in the process of developing molecular-level read and write technologies built from DNA to boost storage capacity for digital information! And how concerned should we be about advances in RFID tracking or quantum-dot tattoos and upcoming nanotechnological developments including ‘smart dust’ by DARPA? Do we actually want to live in a QR code world?

Moreover, what are the inherent physical dangers of the new ‘smart’ technologies? The rollout of 5G technology had been so rapid that it has involved the circumvention of the precautionary principle. Latent dangers to human health are one problem, but what happens if this or future technology such as GMO and geoengineering irrevocably harms the ecosystem including adversely impacting our soils and even pollinators? Will we have to grow all our food hydroponically, aeroponically, and in labs?

Meanwhile, the overarching goal of this new model society with its financialisation of the commons, globalised data collection and mass surveillance is finally to isolate people and extract as much data as possible: “so when they talk about project-based learning, which sounds great, they don’t say oh, but it’s in a VR headset and you’re going to be in North Dakota collaborating with a person in New Mexico…”

The trouble is, Alison McDowell says, “The role of the media – the mainstream media, the social media and even the alternative media – is to have people not look at the thing. Because if we all looked at the thing and we saw it with clarity… we would be an incredible threat to what’s coming. And so we’re in the process of being managed though these platforms.”

She adds: “It feels like decisions are being made beyond the reach of the people, and that there isn’t space to weigh the possible risks against the consequences of the decisions as a whole community… You hear a lot about ‘Blockchain is trust’, like we’ve really eroded trust. Trust in our government; trust in one another; trust in the facts: like we have very little trust until these tech people sweep in with ‘Blockchain is your trust’.

“But if we lived in a world where we respected one another and we had authentic empathy towards one another, I think we could have more robust conversations about risks and benefits of how to deal with what’s unfolding. But that’s not how it’s happening and it’s not meant to happen that way.

“Clearly what’s happening is there are playbooks that are rolling out: region one does this; region two does that; it’s a very structured response – it’s not organic, it’s not like one community decides to do things a certain way, for the most part with community input.

“For me that is what is meaningful… people should have the right of free association, of their lives and their labour, and they should have an ability to have some control over that, and what their future is – presuming again, you’re not harming other people in the process. And we’re not there with this situation.”


Part 5: Heads we lose, tails they win!

‘Lifelong learning’ is another great idea, but what will it mean in reality for most of us? What if it entails just perpetual re-skilling for a global gig economy; i.e., to be constantly remade simply in order to function as human capital within an ever-shrinking labour market?

Trapped in such a system, and compelled to chase jobs that, as work becomes fully automated, are continually disappearing, will bring only misery and immiseration, desperation and destitution. But still it’s a game, one that necessitates continual retraining; and all the while, the hedge funds will be betting on the re-skilling part with ‘success metrics’ based on your pursuit and acquisition of the next badge – which means educational accreditation by compliance – rather than on enhanced employment prospects and a guaranteed income:

“You hear ‘eds and meds’ and you think we want a bunch of teachers and healthcare workers, right? That’s an economy of ‘eds an meds’. No, I’m pretty sure what they mean is we are to be processed by ‘eds and meds’. We’re not the processors, we’re the product. We will be managed as chronically ill people. We will be managed as chronically under-employed people through the educational systems that are being set up, through digital platforms and through digital systems that are telemedicine, and also teletherapy.”

In a future when labour is redundant, people will also be profiled from very early age and then encouraged to pursue directed pathways. Alison McDowell draws attention to the so-called “Dear Hillary” letter sent by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) on November 11th 1992, in which he laid out plans “to remold the entire American system” into “a seamless web that literally extends from cradle to grave and is the same system for everyone”, coordinated by “a system of labor market boards at the local, state and federal levels” where curriculum and “job matching” will be handled by counsellors “accessing the integrated computer-based program.”

This planned workforce development model was proposed explicitly to better serve the interests of the US Chamber of Commerce. In lockstep, there has since been a bipartisan adoption of the Swiss Apprenticeship Model, which means limited options allocated on the basis of regional determinations, with emphasis on STEM pathways that will in turn enable the advancement of Fourth Industrial Revolution goals.

Which brings us to the ‘Sharable Content Object Reference Model’, aka SCORM, and to the related ‘Experience Application Programming Interface’ or ‘Tin Can API’ or simply xAPI; the next level in e-learning software that records and tracks all types of learning experience. Functioning as a web service, xAPI enables users to upload statements in the form “subject verb object” and thus essentially reduces education to: “I did this”. I read this book. I accomplished this level in the martial arts game. I caught three fish and I took a picture of it and uploaded the picture. Every experience is accordingly reduced to fit this same box of “subject verb object”.

Alison McDowell believes that the plan is to link these xAPIs directly to Ethereumsmart contracts’ both for payment processing and credentialing – I went to the rock climbing wall. I got certified that I got to the top. All of which then goes into your ‘learning locker’ and so the climbing centre gets paid, as your data is tracked and as the investor who is investing in your physical education also gets paid. And last (but not least), it’s all put on the ledger and so it’s all ‘very trusting’ and very ‘transparent’ as we operate like pawns inside a video game world!

Alison McDowell says: “This is being imposed by an anti-life, engineering, militarised force across the world. This isn’t US versus China. This is us in solidarity with the Uighurs, in solidarity with the Palestinians, in solidarity with the families in Boa Vista, families of North Philadelphia, the people who are being dispossessed off their lands in India. We’re all in this together against this system that would seek to reduce our lives to fit in the ‘I did this’ box to profit hedge funds.

“And knowing some of the hedge funds are betting against us. Betting against our health. Betting against our education. Betting against our well-being. Betting against our housing. Betting against all of it. They will say that they’re just betting for us, but for every person betting for us, there’s somebody else betting against us.”

Heads we lose, tails they win!


Final thoughts: How do we resist?

The technocratic goal, Alison McDowell says, is to reframe liberation as “we can sell ourselves”, and so by getting really good at personal branding we will be enabled to come out ahead of our neighbours. If we wish to resist this dog-eat-dog culture then we need to act in solidarity and, more specifically, we must oppose the introduction of digital identity systems, and the implementation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that comes with the installation of 5G:

“We don’t need a world where humans are redundant. And we need to understand this not in a partisan way and not in a nationalist way. Right now, it is the masses of humanity against the billionaires.”

She says: “This system is coming after all people and we have a lot to learn from people who have been resisting these systems of domination for years and years. We need to stand in solidarity with one another and we need to understand that our struggle is the struggle of people around the world.

“And I’m sitting here as someone who has the benefit of mostly owning a home, having somewhat stable employment, but I can see where this is heading, and where this is heading is towards anti-life. So I think if we can be very clear about that – and I’m appealing to all the people who care for liberation and who care for the vulnerable among us… to put peaceful hearts forward in a very insistent and direct way and to challenge these authorities because I believe that our spirits together are very powerful things.

“I’m under no impression that it’s going to be some quick resolution – if it were we wouldn’t be addressing the actual problem – because this problem is tied to the doctrine of discovery and is at least 400 years or more in the making; so it’s not a quick fix. But, it’s the work that has to be done.”

Click here to visit Alison McDowell’s official website Wrench in the Gears.


Additional: What Silicon Valley has planned for public education

The following presentation by Alison McDowell entitled “Future Ready Schools: What Silicon Valley Has Planned for Public Education” was recorded on March 25th, 2017 at the Lake City Library in Seattle, Washington:


Filed under analysis & opinion, drones, education, financial derivatives, mass surveillance, police state

lessons in nonsense

The following article is Chapter Seven of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.


 Tis strange how like a very dunce,
Man, with his bumps upon his sconce,
Has lived so long, and yet no knowledge he
Has had, till lately, of Phrenology—
A science that by simple dint of
Head-combing he should find a hint of,
When scratching o’er those little pole-hills
The faculties throw up like mole hills.

Thomas Hood1


I am a teacher and so people often ask if like teaching, and sometimes I say I do, but then at other times I tell them I don’t. That’s work basically, except for an exceptional few who truly love, as opposed to merely tolerate, all aspects of the work they have to do. Having said that, teaching is a suitable occupation for me. It keeps me thinking about a favourite subject, and introduces me to some new and interesting people, albeit in rather formal circumstances.

Naturally enough I told myself that I’d never become a teacher – many teachers will say the same, at least when they’re being honest. But that’s work again, unless you’re one of the fortunate few. So what’s my beef? Well, just that really. Here I am being honest with you and yet I know that what I’m saying isn’t enough. Okay, let me expound more fully.

A few years ago I was offered redundancy and accepted. So I was back on the shelf. Needing another job and to give myself any realistic chance of success, I’d have to recast myself somewhat. Imagine if I turned up at the interview and I said more or less what I’ve just told you.

“Tell us why you want the job”, they’d ask, and my honest answer: “I need some money. I’m a decent teacher and I have a firm grasp of my subject. This could be one of the best offers I’ll get…” Well it just won’t do. No, as I say, I’d need to recast myself. Something more like this:

“I’m a highly experienced professional, looking for an exciting new challenge. I enjoy working as part of a team. I have excellent communication skills. I have excellent organisational skills. I have excellent people skills. I have excellent skills in personally organising communications. I have excellent skills in communicating to organised persons. I have excellent skills in organising communications personnel. Because of the outcomes-based nature of my teacher-training programme, I have developed a thorough understanding of the collection of evidence and portfolio-based approach to assessment. I’m very good at filing. I welcome the opportunity to work with students of different ages, cultures, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. I believe that I am ideally suited to the post of part-time classroom assistant and I want to have your babies…”

Well okay then, just try getting a job if you say otherwise.


I used to work in the public education sector. I ought perhaps to protect the name of the establishment itself, so let’s just say that for almost a decade I lectured A-level physics to a mix of students, with a range of abilities and nationalities, in a typical northern town… which covers the CV more or less.

As with every other college and university today, we were quite literally in the business of education; further education colleges having been “incorporated” by John Major’s government under the Further and Higher Education Act (FHEA) of 1992. Once at a meeting I was informed of my monetary value to the institution (which wasn’t much). Because the most important thing was that the college had to break even, although, as time went on, it rarely did.

Being in business also meant dealing with competition – primarily from other local schools and colleges. “Promotion”, then, which happens to be one of “the four Ps of marketing”2, involved pitching our unique selling points – in this case, a national BTEC diploma in forensic science which was ideal for attracting budding students away from the latest series of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and daytime re-runs of Quincy.

Meanwhile, an impressive new body of staff dedicated to marketing and publicity had to be gradually assembled, and then another sizeable team assigned to deal with “student services”. It was the marketing department who coined our corporate mission statement: “Meeting learner needs and aspiring to excellence”, which as a dedicated workforce we committed to memory, to draw upon for inspiration during dreary afternoon classes in Key Skills Information Technology.

But no college is just a business, and in spite of appealing to a foreign market (a small number of students having been attracted from as far afield as China and Hong Kong), by far the biggest part of each year’s fresh cohort were home students, with funding provided out of the public purse. So the regulatory agency Ofsted with its own teams of inspectors would come now and then to tick their own assessment boxes. The “quality of learning provision” was not apparently guaranteed by market forces alone, because our adopted business model only went so far – markets are generally supposed to ensure quality too, but not in education.

So to ensure that our annual government targets were being reached, new management roles in “quality assurance” also opened up. The further paperwork, combined with already tight budgets made tighter by administrative growth, meant it was harder again to actually balance the books, or at least to reduce the losses. Eventually, a firm of management consultants were hired, and then another firm, putting together reports that were either promptly forgotten or used to justify the multiplication of methods for cutting costs: these included laying off more teaching staff and generating yet more paperwork. A vicious circle justified on the basis of ‘quality’ and ‘efficiency’ had resulted in conditions for both staff and students that simply got worse and worse.

So it’s funny to remember a time, not very long ago, when colleges had operated with hardly any management or administrative staff at all. The odd secretary, a few heads of section, and a principal were quite sufficient to keep the wheels turning in most educational establishments. Whereas, as the very model of modern FE college, plagued by bureaucratic waste and inefficiency, hampered at every turn by tiers of micro-management, there was insufficient funding for the real business of education. John Major’s incorporation of the FE sector had also led to year-on-year declines in real-terms wages for the teaching staff, who were increasingly made to feel like an unwanted overhead. “Struggling to survive and steadily achieving less” is not a mission statement, but it would at least have been more honest and to the point. Or, alternatively, I suppose we could have gone with: “do we look bothered?”


In one way, the problem here goes back all the way to Isaac Newton, and then to just a little before him. It was Newton, after all, who had decisively proved a truth that, whenever I pause to reflect on it, I still find rather startling: that the universe behaves according to elegant mathematical laws. Little surprise then, that following the unprecedented success of Newton’s approach to establishing universal laws that had so elegantly replaced the everyday disorder of earlier natural philosophies, those working in other fields, would also try out the Newtonian approach of quantifying, theorising and testing: intent upon finding equivalent fundamental laws that operate within their own specialisms. Scientists were to become the high-priests and priestesses of our post-Newtonian age, so what better model to follow?

But why does science work at all? Is it simply that by applying careful measurement and numerical analysis, we might make smarter decisions than by using common sense alone, or that the universe really is in some sense mathematically accountable? That it works because God is inexplicably into algebra and geometry. The truth is that no-one knows.

But if the universe were not conducive to such logical and numerical analysis, then natural phenomena could be measured, data collected and collated, and yet all of this cataloguing would be to no avail. For outcomes can be forecast, within limits that can be precisely determined too, only because maths accurately accounts for the behaviours of atoms, and forces, and so forth. God may or may not play dice (and the jury is perhaps still out when it comes to the deeper philosophic truth of quantum mechanics) but when you stop and think about it, it’s strange enough that the universe plays any game consistently enough for us to discover the rules to it. “The most incomprehensible thing about the world,” said Einstein, “is that it is comprehensible.”

So what of the experts in the other widely varied disciplines? Disciplines rather more susceptible to the capriciousness of our human follies and foibles. Ones that are now called the ‘social sciences’, and following these to still lower rungs, the so-called theories of management and business. Taking their lead from Newton, experts in all these fields have turned to quantification, to the collection and collation of data, setting off with these data to formulate theories which are in some sense assumed universal – ‘theory’, in any case, being a word that takes a terrible bashing these days.

In Science, the measure of any theory is in two things: predictability and repeatability, because any scientific theory must allow some way for itself to be tested – and here I mean tested to destruction. If rocks didn’t fall to Earth with constant acceleration then Newton would be rejected. If the Earth didn’t bulge at the equator, if the tides didn’t rise and fall as they do, and if for other reasons Newton couldn’t account for the extraordinary multiplicity of natural phenomenon, then Newton must step aside – as Newton finally has done (to an extent). But where is the predictability and repeatability in the theories of the social sciences or taught in the business and management schools?

About two centuries ago in the early eighteen hundreds, a German physician named Franz Joseph Gall noticed that the cerebral cortex (the so-called ‘grey matter’) of humans was significantly larger than in other animals. Naturally enough, he drew the conclusion that it must be this exceptional anatomical feature that made humans intellectually, and thus morally, superior.

Gall also became convinced that the physical features of the cortex were directly reflected in the shape and size of the skull. Concluding that since the shape of the outside of the cranium is related to the shape of the inside, and thus to the general structure of the cerebral cortex, then the bumps on someone’s head ought to be a potentially decipherable indicator of the way that person thinks, and therefore a sign of their innate character.

Gall’s ideas led to the discipline known phrenology – the reading of the bumps on your bonce – which became a popular and rather serious area for study. Throughout the Victorian era, but especially during the first half century of the nineteenth century, there were phrenological experts aplenty, and after more careful researchers had proved wrong Gall’s basic premise, by showing that the external contours of the skull did not in fact closely match the shape of the brain, phrenology did not immediately lose all of its appeal; a few diehards continuing to study phrenology into the early years of the twentieth century.

In an important sense, we might be well advised to recognise that such people really were ‘experts’, just as informed about the detailed ins and outs of their subject as any expert must be, and, perhaps more importantly, able to speak its language. That phrenology is actually bunkum, and that its language is therefore pure and unadulterated gobbledegook, doesn’t in fact make them any lesser experts in their field. Indeed, it’s all-too easy to forget that considerable training and painstaking effort is almost always necessary if one is to become a competent specialist in the fashionable nonsense of the day.


Richard Feynman, who was undoubtedly one of the greatest of modern physicists, got especially upset by what he saw as the increasing misappropriation of supposed scientific method in areas outside of scientific scope. He coined the useful term “cargo cult science”, drawing a parallel with the stories of Pacific Islanders who, after the Allies departed at the end of the war, had mocked up the old airstrips and acted out the same rituals they had witnessed, with headphones and aerials made of bamboo or whatever, desperate in the hope that they would bring the cargo planes back. Obviously, it didn’t work, any more than flapping your arms is enough to make you fly.

Feynman’s point was that the same goes for science and scientific method. That merely doing and re-doing the things that the scientists also do is not enough to make you a real scientist. Testing something you’ve called ‘a hypothesis’ doesn’t automatically ensure that your results will be any more valid. Whilst correlation is never a sufficient proof of causation. But Feynman also makes a more important point. That as a scientist, you must always have in the back of your mind, thoughts about the billion and one ways you might be wrong: science being founded upon uncertainty and rigorous empirical testing. Indeed, Feynman goes on to say that science requires a special kind of integrity, an honesty that is far beyond the honesty expected in everyday relationships, even when dealing with the most saintly of people. Scientific integrity requiring not simply that one sticks to the truth as found, but, that in addition, one must acknowledge every reasonable doubt against your own beliefs or theories in whatever ways they fail to account fully for that discovered truth. Nothing less than this will do:

“It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid – not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked – to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can – if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong – to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.”3

Feynman properly gets to the heart of what it means to commit oneself to the call of science. For most professions may indeed be “conspiracies against the laity”, as George Bernard Shaw once famously wrote – most pointedly with regards to the profession of medical doctors4 – but a committed scientist (and Feynman is a wonderful example) has no interest in deception. Deception, and its partner in crime, delusion, being precisely what science is objectively attempting to eliminate:

“I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

“For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing – and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.”5


Feynman then goes on to make comparison between the modern purveyors of the various kinds of pseudoscience with earlier witch doctors, although he might instead have said ‘high priests’. And it is important to understand that he is not necessarily saying that the witch doctor or the high priest is a deliberate charlatan, for it may well be that such proponents, the Victorian phrenologists providing again a helpful illustration, vehemently believe in their own quackery. The bigger point he makes being that such systems, or ‘theories’, lack the essential ingredient to make them authentically scientific.

Here, then, is Feynman making a personal assessment of how cargo cult science was already being used to mould society and to shape our lives as long ago as 1974:

“But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to cheek on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down – or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress – lots of theory, but no progress – in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

“Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way – or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn’t do “the right thing,” according to the experts. So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.”6

Before you apply any theories to education then, or offer diagnoses in other social spheres, how can we be certain that, as Feynman puts it, “those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory”? And how do you know that it also makes “something else come out right, in addition”? For what does it actually mean to improve education – is this something that can be so very precisely determined? Some will argue that we can judge from “success rates”, but then every ‘measure of success’ will inevitably be predefined within an established paradigm: an orthodoxy that is itself unchallenged. Of course, science has the remarkable property of re-setting its own paradigms, as its own extraordinary history amply demonstrates, but do the models used in sociology, pedagogy, management practice and business also have this property?

More generally, when the experts in business and management theory have established the rules, what proof do they have that these are not merely rules to games of their own making? How indeed do they show that their preferred management system is better or optimal? Well, most often it will mean simply looking at profits. The bottom-line. Money being the safest and surest instrument when you demand a purely numerical answer in evaluations of improvements within a society. Money appearing to be the ‘hardest’ measure available, but the question then should be, what does it actually measure? I will save my own thoughts on that for a later chapter.


What is education? Here’s my first stab: education is a method of communicating skills or ideas to another person. Or here’s a dictionary definition: “systematic instruction”; “development of character or mental powers”. Yes, a system for helping minds to develop – that sounds about right. So what’s required then to successfully educate our population? Well, I’d suggest that it boils down to more or less two preferred ingredients: i) interested students and ii) teachers who are both able and willing to teach. To help this process to work a little better we ought obviously to try to increase the likelihood of successful transmission of key information and skills, so it will certainly be helpful if the ratio of interested students to dedicated teachers is kept on the low side (I’d say from experience about 10:1 is a good number). Do we need to constantly assess the quality of this learning provision? Well isn’t that the purpose of final exams, which seem to be an unfortunate but necessary evil in any formal system of education.

But now I would like to go further again. For any approach to education that puts so much emphasis on ensuring ‘quality’ misses the point. Learning is a very different process to the manufacturing of parts on a production line. So if we apply the assembly line model (and to a great extent we do precisely this), at best our students will be turned out like precisely engineered cogs and, at worst, they may be turned into spanners. There just has to be a better approach – a frankly more laissez-aller approach.

Let’s go back to our own beginnings, and try to remember how wonderful it was when we felt the awakening of such fabulous new powers as walking and talking. Everything in our lives follows from those original awakenings, of finding first our feet and then our voices, and all the most valuable lessons in our lives have in some way or another continued that process of awakenings. Yet these two universal feats – achieved by literally everyone on earth who isn’t suffering from a serious physical or mental handicap – are almost impossibly complex and subtle achievements. Just think how difficult it is to learn a second language, and yet, you learned the basics of your native tongue with almost no direct training. So we are all born with the greatest capacity for learning; and we might better think of children as little learning machines (except not machines, of course, that’s the point). Rather, children learn in much the same way that caterpillars chew leaves: they just can’t help nourishing themselves with juicy knowledge.

Not that I’m claiming education is necessarily easy. It isn’t. There are usually growing pains too. It is unpleasant to discover that your ideas are incorrect, and yet correcting established prejudices and erroneous presumptions is at the heart of all true learning. Indeed, learning is probably a difficult and tedious thing more often than it’s a pleasure – and especially so as we get older and the things we need to first unlearn have become so deeply engrained that it seems a trauma to erase them. But learning, like most activities, should be enjoyable wherever and whenever this is possible. Why would anyone wish to make it otherwise?

In my own experience as a teacher, what matters most, assuming that the student is keen and relatively able, is persistence and encouragement – and certainly not tests and assessment. And whilst obviously people need to be able to read and write and add up and do all the other basic stuff necessary to function in society, just as we all need air and water for our bodies, education, if it is to be most nutritional, must also develop our higher faculties. It should expand a student’s scope not merely for interpreting the world about them and developing abilities to express whatever thoughts they have about it, but of heightening responsiveness. Because, and increasingly this is forgotten, education is so much more than training, as important as training can be – society needs its plumbers, but it needs its poets too.

That education is the cornerstone to a functioning democracy is a commonplace, yet just behind the platitude lies a richer vision of what we might mean by education. For democracy in the truest sense depends upon an enlightened version of education, which provides not only a safeguard against the social curses of ignorance, but which promotes knowledge and understanding because these are prerequisites for individual freedom, and by extension, for ensuring political freedom more generally. Happily, a more enlightened education of this kind is also a lifelong blessing for all who receive it. Better still, if real education makes the world more interesting and enjoyable, as it should, then this in turn makes for a more interesting and enjoyable world. Let’s take things from there.

American psychologist James Hillman was first Director of the Jung Institute in Zurich and is acknowledged as the founder of a movement known as archetypal psychology. Here he speaks to the central importance of imagination in all teaching and learning and explains how we might surmount some of the barriers that inevitably arise when education is formalised:


I nearly forgot to mention what happened a few years ago. We had a change of principal at the college. The old guy who was loathed and feared suddenly retired and was replaced by a bright young turk. One day, our new principal arranged a meeting and told us all about the exciting future that lay ahead. Gone were the days of tedious education, soon we would welcome in the brave new world of ‘edutainment’ and ‘leisurecation’:

“I once saw a guy teaching teaching physics by lying on a bed of nails”, he told us enthusiastically, by way of an example… hand on heart, I’m not making any of this up!

Thankfully we never introduced either ‘edutainment’ or ‘leisurecation’, for if indeed these terms can be translated into anything at all meaningful, then it is simply this: use any tricks at all to distract the students from the necessary exertions of learning. Even if that means bringing a bed of nails into the classroom. After all, they’re the customers.

Well, our new principal had the ear of the then-Secretary of State for Education, or so he informed us, and she was sold on his grand designs. The old buildings, he said, were riddled with concrete cancer and asbestos, but in a couple of years we’d be relocated to a brown field site on the other side of town becoming “the world’s first multiversity” – £100 million rings a vague bell. And yes, he said that too, “multiversity”. He was never short on portmanteau neologisms.

We did relocate and it did cost a small fortune, more than enough to break the bank. Soon after, our bright young principal relocated himself, jumping ship in the nick of time, having been handsomely rewarded (in spite of his failures) with promotion to the post of Vice-Chancellor at one of the new universities. Meantime, others who had attended his meeting were left to foot the bill, accepting another pay-freeze, and then cajoled into teaching longer hours to larger classes for improved “efficiency”, which meant, as a direct consequence, struggling with more paperwork than ever. All this was, of course, again to the detriment of both staff and students.

But soon there came a more certain nail to our coffin, with one of the mandatory Ofsted inspections reaching the conclusion that the college was failing. Their reason? Although teaching and learning had been passed as satisfactory (and please note that this was before Ofsted downgraded their ‘satisfactory’ grade to mean unsatisfactory! 7), the college failed instead on grounds of poor leadership and management. Although we’d hardly needed Ofsted to tell us that…

So the management took the hit, right? Well, not exactly. The disappointing Ofsted results now allowed an already bloated and overbearing system to be expanded. As new intermediate tiers of management were hastily installed, those teaching were soon faced with extra hoops and hurdles. More management, not less, was the only way to redress the failures of leadership – turkeys being disinclined to vote for Christmas – and inevitably this meant a commensurate growth in paper-chasing checks on quality assurance and target attainment. For an already overstressed and deeply demoralised teaching staff it was more than too much, and that’s why so many of us grabbed the offer of redundancy cheques and headed for the exits (staff redundancies being another part of this new drive for ‘increased efficiency’). If I have any personal regret, it is only that I couldn’t have escaped sooner.

Next chapter…


Addendum: could do better…

Earlier I posed the rhetorical question: “what does it actually mean to improve education?” Because when considered in general terms here is a question that is next to impossible to answer. However, anyone teaching a specialist subject will have a good idea of whether standards in schools and colleges have been rising or falling in their own discipline.

Over the period of more than a decade, I can personally testify to a steady decline in standards in my own subjects (physics and maths). In parallel with reductions in technical difficulty, there has been a commensurate lowering in the level of grades. Changes that were well underway and long before I first called a register.

Indeed, our long leap backwards undoubtedly began when O-levels were replaced by GCSEs. A more steady atrophy has continued ever since, the downward impetus given an occasional helping hand, as with, for instance, the introduction of AS-grades. In physics, the current AS is now around O-level standard (in fact probably lower than that), which means that, unless we now teach A-level twice as efficiently (and we don’t) the standard of the full A-level has drastically fallen.

If you think I’m being unfair and nostalgic, then I recommend that you do a little research of your own. Pick up any GCSE textbook and compare it to a textbook from twenty-odd years ago. The differences are immediately obvious – again, in my own subjects – and these aren’t merely differences in style (something that is likely to shift over time) but in content too – both in breadth and in depth. If you still remain unconvinced after perusing a textbook or two, then I’d further advise that you take a look at an old-style exam paper. Is the difficulty of an exam paper today really equivalent to a paper from twenty years ago? The quick answer is no.

Here is an interactive maths quiz which allows comparison between GCSE and O-level style questions. It was published in The Telegraph back in August 2013.

And it is not simply that the level is lower but that later papers are much more structured than older ones. Questions that once existed as whole puzzles waiting to be unravelled, are today parcelled neatly into bite-sized pieces, and always with each of the parts correctly sequenced:

“GCSEs and A-levels in science and geography are easier than they were 10 years ago, the exams regulator has said. Standards have slipped, with teenagers often facing more multiple choice and short structured questions and papers with less scientific content, according to reports published by Ofqual. The watchdog conducted reviews of GCSEs and A-levels in biology and chemistry between 2003 and 2008 as well as A-level geography between 2001 and 2010 and A-level critical thinking in 2010. The findings show that among the GCSEs, changes to the way the exams were structured had ‘reduced the demand’ of the qualifications, while the A-level reviews found that changes to the way papers were assessed had in many cases made them easier.”8

This was the verdict of the government’s own watchdog Ofqual making an assessment in 2012 of the relative standard of GCSE’s and A-levels compared to those taken just one decade before. In short, there is little point in denying that standards have fallen. As for the biggest official giveaway – well, that was surely the introduction of the GCSE A* grade. Likewise, the lead guitarist of spoof rock band Spinal Tap had the knob on his amplifier recalibrated to go up to level eleven!9


A few years ago (you’ll see more precisely when as you read on) I happened to be working at a university laboratory, when I came across the following joke. It’s a good one:

Teaching Maths In 1970

A logger sells a lorry load of timber for £1000.

His cost of production is 4/5 of the selling price.

What is his profit?

Teaching Maths In 1980

A logger sells a lorry load of timber for £1000.

His cost of production is 4/5 of the selling price, or £800.

What is his profit?

Teaching Maths In 1990

A logger sells a lorry load of timber for £1000.

His cost of production is £800.

Did he make a profit?

Teaching Maths in 2000

A logger sells a lorry load of timber for £1000.

His cost of production is £800 and his profit is £200.

Your assignment: Underline the number 200.

Teaching Maths in 2009

A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is totally selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands.

He does this so that he can make a profit of £200. What do you think of this way of making a living?

Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers. If you are upset about the plight of the animals in question counselling will be available).

Multiple copies had been printed out on A4 and left on one of the lab benches (perhaps accidentally on purpose – who knows?). But evidently someone at the university was having a good old laugh at the state of the nation’s education system.


Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.


1 Thomas Hood, Craniology, reported in Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 597.

2 The so-called 4 Ps of marketing were Product, Price, Promotion and Place. This is the so-called “producer orientated model” but after decades of research, it was revised to become the so-called 4 Cs of the “consumer-orientated model”, with the original Ps replaced respectively by Consumer, Cost, Communication, Convenience. In truth, of course, ‘Promotion’ has very little to do with actual ‘Communication’ and much more to do with Edward Bernays’ long-since abandoned P: ‘Propaganda’.

3 Extract taken from Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman. Adapted from the Caltech commencement address given in 1974.

4[But] the effect of this state of things is to make the medical profession a conspiracy to hide its own shortcomings. No doubt the same may be said of all professions. They are all conspiracies against the laity; and I do not suggest that the medical conspiracy is either better or worse than the military conspiracy, the legal conspiracy, the sacerdotal conspiracy, the pedagogic conspiracy, the royal and aristocratic conspiracy, the literary and artistic conspiracy, and the innumerable industrial, commercial, and financial conspiracies, from the trade unions to the great exchanges, which make up the huge conflict which we call society.” Taken from The Doctor’s Dilemma by George Bernard Shaw published by Penguin, 1946.

5 Extract taken from Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman. Adapted from the Caltech commencement address given in 1974.

6 Ibid.

7 “Education watchdog Ofsted wants to toughen the language of inspections in England – changing the “satisfactory” rating to “requires improvement”.

“Ofsted’s chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, wants to send a message that “satisfactory” is now unsatisfactory and that more schools should be pushing for the higher rating of “good”.”

From a BBC news article entitled “Ofsted plans to scrap ‘satisfactory’ label for schools”, written by Sean Coughlan, published January 17, 2012.

8 From an article entitled “Science exams easier, says Ofqual” published by The Independent on May 1, 2012.

9 For those unfamiliar with the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap in which the eponymous British rock group are on tour in America to promote their latest album. At one point the band’s lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) is showing the fictional maker of the documentary Marty Di Bergi (played by Rob Reiner) his collection of instruments. When Tufnel shows Di Bergi one of his amplifiers that has a knob which goes up to eleven, Di Bergi asks him, “Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?” Tufnel’s baffled reply is: “These go to eleven.”

Incidentally, anyone who has ever used BBC iplayer will be familiar with a digital homage to Tufnel’s celebrated amp. In truth, it’s one of those jokes that wears thin so quickly, you almost immediately forget it was ever a joke to begin with.

Leave a comment

Filed under analysis & opinion, « finishing the rat race », education

when education becomes a business

Cashing in on Degrees — Dispatches

Broadcast on Channel 4 at 8:00pm — 9:00pm on Monday 4th April

Produced and directed by Lesley Gardiner

Journalist Laurie Penny investigates the increasing commercialisation of higher education and asks what happens when universities scour the globe for students and funds. She reveals how, at a time when budgets are being slashed and there is a deepening funding crisis, the university gravy train continues with excessive salaries, expenses and second jobs for those at the top.

Click here for link to 4OD

The documentary briefly revisits the case of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who was awarded a PhD from the London School of Economics in 2008 for a thesis entitled, “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions: From ‘Soft Power’ to Collective Decision-Making?”

The LSE subsequently received a donation of £1.5 million from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation (of which Saif Gaddafi is the president) in June 2009. According to an article in the Independent on Sunday :

Leading figures at the London School of Economics (LSE) openly joked about getting a donation from Saif Gaddafi before he had even been examined for his PhD, claimed a senior source at the LSE last night.1

The Dispatches documentary mentions that George Soros had advised that the LSE accept the donation from Gaddafi. An article published in the Guardian on Saturday 5th March, which looks into the case in more detail, also establishes that:

As part of the fall-out, billionaire US financier George Soros last night apologised for having advised the LSE to take Libyan money. Soros studied at LSE as an undergraduate, and had advised the school that it was acceptable to receive the contribution from Gaddafi’s son, Saif, on the grounds that he appeared at the time to be a believer in open society and claimed to be working to move Libya in that direction. A spokesman for Soros said he had come to see that his advice was “a mistake in judgment, which he now greatly regrets”.2

1 “LSE insider claims Gaddafi donation was ‘openly joked about’” by Jonathan Owen, from Independent on Sunday, Sunday 13th March 2011

2 “Anthony Giddens’ trip to see Gaddafi vetted by Libyan intelligence chief: leaked documents also reveal that US firm Monitor Group organised meetings between Gaddafi and former LSE director”, by Rajeev Syal and Jeevan Vasagar, from the Guardian, Saturday 5th March 2001.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, did you see?, education, Uncategorized