OPTIMIST, n. A proponent of the doctrine that black is white. A pessimist applied to God for relief. “Ah, you wish me to restore your hope and cheerfulness,” said God. “No,” replied the petitioner, “I wish you to create something that would justify them.” “The world is all created,” said God, “but you have overlooked something — the mortality of the optimist.”

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

In The Uses of Pessimism & the Danger of False Hope, philosopher and fox-hunting enthusiast, Roger Scruton argues against unbridled or, as he puts it, ‘unscrupulous optimism’, piling many – or most – of the world’s ills at its door. If we always look on the bright side of life then we fall into ‘the best case fallacy’. This leads inexorably to “a kind of addiction to unreality that informs the most destructive forms of optimism: a desire to cross out reality, as the premise from which practical reason begins, and to replace it with a system of compliant illusions.” Those who wax lyrical on the boundless possibilities offered by an exciting future and urge change, progress and the uncritical veneration of the new ignore both the lessons of the past, the realities of the present and the full range of possibilities offered by the future.

By changing ‘is’ to ‘will be’ we enable the unreal to trump the actual, and worlds without limits to obliterate the constraints we know. (p. 25)

This all sounds uncomfortably familiar. How many in education spurn the past, decry the present and urge that we embrace something, anything new. Interesting, this tendency to unscrupulous optimism seems hardwired into institutional circuitry. Scruton cites the poet and right-wing historian Robert Conquest’s three laws of politics to explain how this might work:

  1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
  2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
  3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

Let’s examine each of these through the lens of education.

1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.

The first law suggests we have a tendency to preserve that with which are most familiar. But conservatism (small C) is more than simple reactionism. Jerry Muller defines conservatism as “the search for human happiness based on the use of reason.” He explains that conservatism holds that people are predictably self-interested and behave selfishly in the absence of constraints. We think we’re rational beings and fail to see our essential irrationality. To save us from ourselves, we need strong institutions that protect our rights and keep us safe. Conservatism is, in essence, the preservation of these vital institutions.

In education, this suggests two things: firstly that teachers do what they do as a calculated attempt to improve the lot of students, and secondly, as teachers, we carry on doing what we’ve always done because, well, it’s what we’ve always done. Now, since teachers have, time immemorial, lectured students, transmitted knowledge and beaten them if they stepped out of line, why is that these things are not what are most valued in today’s classrooms? How could it be that teaching has become progressively more progressive? For that we must look to the second law.

2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.

Can it be true that all organisations have a tendency to become ‘left-wing’? Well, I’m in no position to argue that this axiom holds true for all institutions for all time, but it does seem to apply to Western culture. Bruce Charlton argues,

In the modern situation, the Left sets the baseline assumptions: for example in terms of atheism (i.e. the denial of Christianity), equality (i.e. the essential sameness of people), democracy (i.e. the denial of traditional authority), feminism (i.e. the essential sameness of sexes), an egalitarian concept of the nature of anti-racism (i.e. the essential sameness of races), and the sexual revolution (whatever appeared bad is now recognized as Good; and vice versa).

Since these are assumptions, they frame institutions, and shape their organization over time, unless and except the institutions explicitly defines itself against them.

Now, you may well be thinking, hang on, aren’t atheism, equality, democracy, feminism etc. pretty darn good? Superficially, perhaps but equality often leads to unfairness and democracy (the best worst form of government?) is a means for ensuring the tyranny of the majority. The assumption that these things are automatically good sweeps away all sorts of alternatives. Maybe we can feel relieved to think that organisations will tend to these default settings, but where else might the tendency leave us?

This line of thinking would have us believe that educational institutions – schools, teacher training colleges, faculties of education (maybe even the nascent College of Teaching?) will tend toward progressive ideals: teacher authority, cultural transmission and academic excellence are seen as oppressive, even fascistic. This might explain the gradual ‘Leftward’ shift experienced over the last 50 years. And as institutions shift, so too do individuals. New teachers conserve and pass on the new tradition – they with which they know best.

The only ways to avoid this Leftward sweep are either to isolate yourself utterly or to systematically and thoroughly screen all incoming assumptions and react against them. This is rather the approach I feel forced into as someone writing and thinking about education. The more threads I pull, the more the fabric unravels; only by continuing to examine all the dogma on which educational thinking depends for these kind of assumptions can I have any hope of keeping my nose above the sucking tide of progressivism. It’s not that I’ve explicitly defined myself against all progressive ideas, more that I’ve explicitly defined myself against certainty. My filters are terms like engagement, relevance and fun; not because these things are in any way bad, but because they often contain the DNA of other, more pernicious assumptions about what children should or shouldn’t, can or can’t.

3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

The third law sounds suspiciously akin to conspiracy theory. Maybe we would do better to assume institutions are controlled by a cabal of the enemies of the stated purpose of that bureaucracy? And further, we should probably assume that this cabal is, in most cases, well-intentioned and believe themselves to be racking at the roots of injustice. It’s rare that people are motivated by evil aims but unscrupulous optimism is rife.

I really understand the logic that asks, Why should we preserve the literature of Dead White Men? Why should children be tyrannised by middle-class values and memorised lists of redundant, inert facts? Why should we force them to sit in rows, do what they’re told and study for boring, irrelevant exams? Because, as the most progressive schools of the 1970s discovered, when these optimistic ideals collide with reality – they don’t pan out as hoped. Children do not choose what is best for their future selves; they are, in the main, motivated by the pressure to gratify themselves as soon and as fully as possible. (As are very many adults I should add.) The unreal trumps the actual. This is gambling with children’s futures.

But should we not bet all on a brighter future? Isn’t education a ‘beautiful risk’? Scruton warns that, “Gamblers are not risk-takers at all; they enter the game in the full expectation of winning it.” Many in education have estimated the best case and ignored the worst. Those odds might look good but is, in fact, a refusal “to acknowledge that reason has withdrawn its support”.

Scrupulous optimists act differently:

They know they live in a world of constraints, that altering those constraints is difficult and that the consequences of doing so are often unpredictable. They know that they ca far more easily adjust themselves than the constraints under which they live, and that they should work on this continuously ; not only for the sake of their own happiness and of those they love and on who depend on them, but also for the sake of the ‘we’ attitude that respects the constants on which our values depend, and which does its best to preserve them. (p.34)

We’re all flawed. We all make poor and irrational decisions, and we’re all hostages to bias and assumptions. To err is human. This is as true of teachers as it is of students; we all make mistakes. This is something to which we pay easy lip service, but do we really have a growth mindset in education?

Judicious pessimism teaches us not to idolise human beings, but to forgive them their faults and to strive in private for their ammendments. It teaches us to limit our ambitions in the public sphere, and to keep open the institutions, customs and procedures whereby mistakes are corrected and faults confessed to, rather than aim for some new arrangement in which mistakes are never made. (p.37)

Instead of seeing only obstacles to be overcome, we would do better to recognise constraints. Somethings we cannot do and should not consider. People are forever people and will not make the choices we might think best however much we wish it so. Things rarely occur the way we plan. From our vantage of this high watermark of progress we assume order will always emerge from a sea of chaos but entropy is inevitable; things fall apart. If the dice fall as we wish then we assume it’s as a result of our actions. If things turn out ill we seek someone to blame. We see patterns where there is only random, but entirely predictable chance.

Scrupulous people see the order of society not as something imposed as a goal and achieved by shared effort, but as something emerging by an ‘invisible hand’ from decisions and agreements that did not intend it. They accept the world and its imperfections, not because it cannot be improved, but because may of the improvements that matter are by-products of our cooperation rather than the goal of it. They recognise that the invisible hand produces bad results as well as good, and that there is a need for leadership and guidance if emergencies are to be successfully managed. But they also acknowledge that wisdom is seldom contained in a single head, and is more likely to be enshrined in customs that have stood the test of time than in schemes of radicals and activists. (p.41)

We forget or ignore this at our peril. By all means imagine the best case, but temper the desire to tamper with a dose of the worst case. Maybe before making any kind of decision, school leaders should be made to ask themselves these questions:

  • Have you considered the real root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
  • Have you considered other possible reasons for the problem?
  • Have you sought out sources and evidence which contradict your beliefs?
  • Have you allowed for dissenting opinions to be voiced and considered?
  • Have you considered the weight of time, resources and credibility you or others have already sunk into this course of action?
  • Is there any asymmetry in your thinking?
  • How might groupthink and social proof be influencing your decisions?
  • Have you encouraged others to criticise and suggest problems with your plans?
  • How far is your decision based on your opinion of the individuals concerned?
  • To what extent are your decisions anchored by possibly irrelevant information?
  • Do you really understand the data you’re using to inform decision-making?
  • What perverse incentives might you be creating?
  • Often certainty blinds us to alternatives. How confident are you that your decision is correct?
  • What would be the consequences of not taking this course of action?
  • Have any other schools tried this course of action? How many were still doing it three years later? What were the results?
  • Who else could you ask to spot the biases in your thinking?