Failure in the Use of Knowledge

Good sense, said Descartes at the beginning of the Discourse on Method, is the most evenly-distributed thing in the world. However displeased we may be with the distribution of anything else, each of us believes that we have a sufficiency of it (unlike, he might have added, everyone else).

I suppose the question of who are the wise men and who the fools will never be settled once and for all—certainly not in matters that touch on politics. For my own part, though not over-endowed with political perspicacity, I am often surprised by the utter foolishness of the great ones of the world. They seem to me to take the Bourbons, who learnt nothing and forgot nothing, not as a warning but as a model. Over and over they make the same mistakes and fall prey to the same illusions. It is almost as if ineducability were the key to success in a political career. That, or naivety.

When the Iraqi army collapsed before the onslaught of the ISIS bands—not a formidable challenge, one might have thought, for a proper army—some people were shocked. How is it that the Iraqi army, assiduously armed and trained, dressed as an army ought to be dressed, presumably the firm upholder of the Iraqi order, melted away to nothing in only a few days? How is it that such resistance as is being offered comes from the impromptu action of militias rather than from trained forces?

The naivety of the expectation that the Iraqi army would be and would act as a real army once it was trained is to me astonishing, though I suppose it is itself naïve to be astonished at such naivety. To have expected such a thing was grossly to overestimate the role of formal training in the establishment of institutions. The necessary was mistaken for the sufficient. Human beings do not work like clockwork and, perhaps, in the end it is best that this is so.

I first noticed the difficulty in Africa. Armies of the newly independent countries had to be built from scratch; despite several rounds of training, they never seemed to act as they were supposed by their trainers to do. Come a real test (usually from a rag-tag band of rebels), they often disintegrated like a cracker under a hammer. France has intervened militarily 50 times in its former colonial empire precisely because no army it has trained has ever defended its government successfully from rebels. This is in large part because the rebels usually believe in something, at least temporarily, however absurd it may be. In contrast, the official army, despite the training, despite the officers’ sojourns in the best military academies, mainly contents itself with the task of extracting as much surplus from the population as possible. The purpose of most such armies is personal enrichment (or should I say disimpoverishment?) and social ascent.

The difficulty exists in other fields, though to a lesser extent, such as medicine and engineering. Generally it has been assumed that, if you train a doctor or an engineer from a poor country in an advanced country, he will return home and behave like a doctor or an engineer in the country in which he was trained. If he had stayed put there, he would likely have been a competent doctor or an engineer; but as soon as he returns home, he feels other pressures on him. An obvious, if extreme, example of this is Dr. Bashar al-Assad. The son of the dictator Haffez al-Assad was training as an ophthalmic surgeon in London when he received the call to return to Syria as heir-apparent, which had never been his wish. Assad’s conduct in London had been exemplary, and no doubt would have continued to be so had his playboy brother, destined for the presidency, not killed himself in a stupid car accident in the belief that the laws of physics did not apply to great ones such as he. I need hardly point out that Assad’s conduct has not subsequently been that of an average London ophthalmic surgeon.

We seem to have lost common sense when it comes to our expectations of what may be achieved by formal pedagogy. Today’s Daily Telegraph, once a serious newspaper, contains two articles that illustrate this.

On the one hand, there is an article telling readers what most of them need hardly be told: that to teach reading by a system of phonics is superior in its results to newer (though by now not new) methods such as “look-and-say,” “whole word,” “whole sentence,” and even “real books” teaching. Despite evidence that the traditional method is superior, millions of children have been and continue to be subjected to an educational experiment no more scientifically based than pulling the legs off flies to see whether they need them to get airborne. With perfect good reason we expect our children to be taught how to read by means of formal teaching; we know it can be done. It is a miracle wrought by our overweening government in Britain that it now spends nine times as much per pupil on education as it did in 1950, and yet levels of basic literacy in the population have risen hardly at all, particularly among the poorest. Formal teaching is persistently not used to reach an eminently achievable goal.

Another article in the same edition of the newspaper, however, informs us that our Prime Minister, who cannot see a bad idea without embracing it with what he imagines is vote-getting fervor, is endorsing a scheme to teach entrepreneurialism and business-mindedness to schoolchildren from the age of five. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Ours will be the first society in which eight-year-old children will find out, in formal lessons, how to put on a condom and how important it is to make a profit, but not how to read.

Personally, my first excursion into profit-making was at the age of nine. I had a friend who was not very intelligent and easily gulled (the two qualities are not identical, even if they are statistically correlated). I had a stamp, with a map of Mozambique, as I recall, that I told him was the rarest stamp in the world, though I knew it to be practically worthless. I told him I could not let him have it for the small sum of threepence, but I could let him have it for sixpence. He paid up like a lamb. I made sixpence easy profit, since the stamp came from my father’s office and cost me nothing.

Since then I have somewhat lost my entrepreneurial drive. I am not sure that I need to be taught it again, though. Entrepreneurialism—much of it good, some of it very bad—is what happens when nothing prevents it from happening. Unfortunately the philosophy of most modern governments, including Mr. Cameron’s, is dedicated to preventing it from happening.