Systems-building and the public sector

Tuesday, March 30th

The Master and his Emissary.

I promised a while back to write something about a “fascinating book”, not directly related to education, I was reading which had some implications, I thought, for what has been going on in schools. So here goes.

The book is “The Master and his Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. It is, I think, a staggeringly ambitious work, and one I feel slightly daunted even trying to summarise (especially since one of the central concepts is that representation and abstraction of ideas is of itself problematic, but maybe I shouldn’t go there… yet.)

McGilchrist is a former neuroscientist, who has also taught English at Oxford University, where he was a fellow of All Souls College. The book attempts to use knowledge about the way the brain works to present an argument about how we understand the world.

Essentially, and simplifying hugely, the book makes an argument that the two hemispheres of the brain process information in different ways, prizing certain modes of apprehending the world differently.

Its first part looks at what we know about how the brain functions, some of which draws on research involving cases of patients which have lost the use of one hemisphere.

The left hemisphere, which is linked to the right side of the body including the right hand, is essentially very focused in the way it attends to the world. It likes detail, and intricate systems, and abstract theories, and favours mechanisms over living things. By contrast, the right hemisphere takes a broader view of the world, emphasising the brain’s lived experience of what has gone before in trying to understand something as it really is, and avoiding trying to view things in abstract, systematised or representative forms. The right is the hemisphere where – again, simplifying I think – empathy is felt.

Early on in the book, McGilchrist uses an example from the natural world which may help me to explain this better. A bird eating a piece of grit needs to use both hemispheres of its brain. The left provides the focus that its brain must give to the grit as it pecks at it. But the bird also needs to keep part of its attention spread as wide as possible, in being on the look-out for potential predators. This is the right hemisphere’s job. So the bird needs both hemispheres. (Although, interestingly, human patients who lose the use of one hemisphere can compensate, although those without the left seem to cope better than those without the right).

The second part of the book is an amazingly original run through the history of western thought, ranging from philosophy to literature, art and music asking what each hemisphere has brought to intellectual developments in these fields.

The book’s title is an expression of its arresting thesis: that the right hemisphere – supporting the broader, more holistic way of sensing the world – should, in a better world, be the “master”. It should be the dominant influence on our thoughts. But, in reality, in the modern world, it has become the junior half to the more “focused”, system-building, left. The latter has come to predominate in what has been an ongoing power struggle between the two.

I listened to a discussion of this book on the Today programme before Christmas, and was captivated, because its central argument seemed to me to be very much in line with what I think might have been going on (to bring it back to, perhaps, a slightly more mundane level) with the way public services have been managed in recent decades, and in particular to what has happened in education.

I have often been struck, for example, on how the development of policy can be seen to make sense with reference to its place within a particular system, or structure of thinking, (ie from an almost intentionally narrow perspective) but far less so when one steps back and tries to think about matters from another angle.

I can think of several examples. Arguably, during the research for my book I was confronted with this phenomenon a lot. The argument, which may or may not actually have been voiced against the central line of my thinking, went something like this: “This evidence you have collected may show some of the damage that league tables, or targets, say, are doing to education, as broadly conceived. But league tables and targets are part of an important, politically vital, system for holding schools to account. This should not change.” The system, then, was seen as more important than what might be thought to be wider goals of this particular public service, such as promoting the richest possible education for pupils.

Reading Sir Michael Barber’s book, Instruction to Deliver, I was struck in a similar way about his description of the development of a system for the management of public services, including education. The method described and advocated was fairly simple: those at the political centre must decide on the priorities for public services, then set them targets and establish a structure of ranking indicators by which progress towards those goals could be measured. Those working in public services should then be encouraged, cajoled and possibly threatened, towards those goals. While I was struck by the attention to detail involved, the whole thing had an entirely self-referential, or even solipsistic, quality. For example, while Sir Michael argues that public servants should have sleepless nights worrying where the next percentage point increase in test scores was going to come from, there were very few attempts, in his book, to relate the improvements in test scores to real-world classroom experiences for pupils. In other words, did they have any real meaning outside of the system itself? But to ask this question seemed almost beside the point, you might think after reading Instruction to Deliver. To do so, perhaps, might be seen as widening the focus in a very unhelpful way: the whole point of this structure is to set goals, then to narrow down your focus on achieving them.

Systems-builders such as Sir Michael would, I think, also be happier with a structure which assumes a particular form of motivation among public sector workers: that they are the rational self-interested utility-maximisers of classic economic thought. This therefore makes constructing mechanisms to influence what they do simpler than it would be under the messier reality of, for example, behavioural economics which suggests that we are more complex than that, and that altruism is one of our urges.

To use a final, perhaps more trivial, example, I find, in reporting on and observing the exams world, that this sometimes has a surreal, almost Alice in Wonderland quality to it. Qualifications can be given points scores and weighted against others, I think, without anyone really standing back and saying “this may make sense in terms of this particular system”, but does the system as a whole make sense? (I should say that that thought draws on a remark by Cambridge Assessment in evidence, I think, to a recent select committee inquiry into accountability).

I have to confess that, while McGilchrist’s book was a fantastic read, I was slightly disappointed at the end that it did not have more to say about whether or not the modern, tremendously detailed, systems that we are so fond of designing, in all areas of life, actually do more to enslave us to particular ways of thinking than is often recognised.

There is an intriguingly glancing reference to this near the end, in a chapter entitled “The Master Betrayed” which deals with the modern world. In a left hemisphere-dominated world, McGilchrist argues (interestingly using the conditional tense) the “mechanistic” view would dominate.

“Family relationships, or skilled roles within society, such as those of priests, teachers and doctors which transcend what can be quantified or regulated, and in fact depend on a degree of altruism, would become the object of suspicion. The left hemisphere misunderstands the nature of such relationships, as it misunderstands altruism as a version of self-interest, and sees them as a threat to its power.

“…Strenuous efforts would be made to bring families and professions under bureaucratic control, a move that would be made possible, presumably, only by furthering fear and mistrust,” he writes.

McGilchrist adds that, in such a world, “Numbers, which the left hemisphere feels familiar with and is excellent at manipulating (though, it may be remembered, it is less good at understanding what they mean), would come to replace the response to individuals…which the right hemisphere would have distinguished. ‘Either/or’ would tend to be substituted for matters of degree, and a certain inflexibility would result.”  

However, overall, the main villain of the piece seems to be a kind of over-rationality (to be clear, the book is not an attack on science), as epitomised through the thinking of the philosopher Rene Descartes, and, perhaps, the Enlightenment more generally. McGilchrist is, by contrast, fond of the Renaissance and Romanticism.

 I’m not sure I’ve done justice to his book at all here but I would recommend it.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not qualified to comment on neuroscience, though I had understood that the position which holds that there is a decisive division between the left and right brain-hemispheres was not entirley secured; more holistic understandings which argue that brain-functions are more evenly distributed, may also be tennable. However, the essential point is surely to do with the extent to which one is persuaded by perspectives emphasising hard-wiring or pre-programming in the brain over the educative effects of encountering the cultural contexts into which we are born and within which we actively develop even as we also develop those contexts.

    That said, it is heartening to read any challenge to the dominant ideology of targets, top-down directives and coercive accountability which has so poisoned the culture of the public sector. The idea of public service, and all which that entails of professional responsibility, trust, expertise and collaborative endeavour for the public good, had no grip among post ERA policy-makers whether Tory or New Labour. In the shadow of Thatcherism and its Blairite offspring It remains a foreign language.

    Sir Michael Barber’s career might stand as one exemplar of what can go wrong. As a negotiator for the NUT during the first anti-SATs boycott in the early 1990s, he opposed his own union’s policy of backing the boycott-action, and wanted to lift the boycott almost at once as a “gesture of goodwill” to the government. In his 1996 book about the National Curriculum he disparages NUT activists and records that union officials such as himself were skilled in evading the demands coming from the very people in school-branches they were supposed to represent. He essentially supported the SATs, and the government’s policy of imposing them, and attacked the NUT in print for its opposition to the narrow tests almost as soon as he could upon quitting his union post (in the Times, 7 January 1994). His support for ‘hyper-accountability’ and the kind of system-building outlined in your article, has been unswerving. As well as backing SATs he also supported setting and OFSTED, helped devise the now-scrapped National Literacy Strategy and other parts of New Labour’s education-policy before 1997, headed the Standards and Effectiveness Unit and later the Number 10 Delivery Uniit in Downing Street, (organisations charged with applying these systems-building policies across the public sector) and went to his reward in 2005 at McKinsey and Co., a private firm. The full details are (or used to be) available online (at ) in an interview he gave on 13 January 2006.

    It is a commonplace to observe that the attitudes and policies which Sir Michael Barber embodies draw their energy from the orthodoxy of the profit-making sector, where the pursuit of greater and greater profit is the essential driver. Pointless to look for broader human values where the watchword is ‘efficiency’. This remains a crucial front in the struggle between different world-views, which itself derives, I believe, not from divisions in human brain-structure but from the inevitable struggle between classes within our current economic mode of production.

  2. My goodness, Warwick, you’ve tossed us a medicine ball here. Having been nicely flattened by it, I shall now endeavour to convince you that I have actually caught it, and that this is me throwing it back.

    Firstly, the book appears to be dealing with only the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and it appears to have neglected the entire subconscious, which I should have thought was by far the largest and most important bit. If I understand correctly, that bit fights itself, breaks apart, tumbles around and finally crystallises in new and more permanent mode each time you e.g. lose your temper or fall asleep. So it would seem that the left and right hemispheres must only control the conscious mind, which constitutes a small portion of the whole psyche, and that they cannot control or even influence the subconscious mind which is the greater part of the psyche.

    To put it more crudely – the older I get, the more I believe and rely on my own instinct, and I think that probably relates to the increasing development or recognition of the subconscious mind, which in a civilised culture is of necessity denied for much of our lives.

    Most learning depends ultimately on the subconscious mind. It is a little easier to play your Grade I piano scales on the second day of practising than it was on your first, because you have slept on it. That is, a little of the comprehension of task (left brain) and a little of the motor skill (right brain) has worked its way into your subconscious. You can’t manage without that process any more than you can turn left on your push-bike while relying on conscious thought only, to make your decisions as to how far to turn the wheel or shift your balance.

    So it’s not us and them, or right or left. It’s all one. Teaching is (or should be) pragmatic. There will never be a way of examining the most able and the least able students fairly, anyway, as we all know. There will never be a fair way of league-tabling state schools which are all so very different.

    Erm, that’s it.

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