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Pisa, politics and Boris

4 December 2013

PisaSo it’s official: our kids are thick. And not just thicker than Koreans whose lives are of course intolerably regimented so that most of them commit suicide, but (and the media have been slower to report this much less palatable observation) thicker even than the Irish. In each of the three subjects tested.

Since I myself am Irish, and was educated there (many years ago), I don’t find that quite so surprising as you might. When I taught Oxford undergraduates and compared them with the same group at Trinity College Dublin, it was clear that, whatever the talent of individuals (and the very best will always excel whatever the system), a university education system based on longer terms over four rather than three years allows a type of development that few can achieve under the English system, and more than makes up for the broader but less specialised approach at secondary level. That was forty years ago before the real dumbing-down started; and today, with “university” education almost treated as a human right, the chances of being able to provide it properly are lost forever (whoever pays).

You already know from numerous posts on this blog what I think are the consequences of our all-must-have-prizes culture, and of how we reward team players over those who think independently and ostracise those that take a red pen to the work of their colleagues. I have also written repeatedly on the cognitive errors (a euphemism for stupidities) which allow businesses and politicians to convince us they are doing the right thing when they are cheating or conning us. This isn’t just about the nuances of higher mathematics (or even basic misunderstandings of concepts like inflation), but a national failure to apply elementary logic or just to think through whether policies we are offered really address the issues that concern us.

Let’s take just a single current example. Our energy bills are too high (by hundreds of pounds), so the PM offers to give us back £50 each – out of central taxation (and the proceeds of a crackdown on tax evasion, which have already been promised many times over); but the energy companies’ profits are not affected. Yet the thinking required to identify the parties to this transaction, and to spot the overlap between the consumers and taxpayers, is surely within the competence of a Shanghai schoolboy: possibly even an Irish one.

While our newspapers can boast of a better tradition than many Far Eastern countries of holding government to account, we should not be complacent about the quality of that coverage. There are specific issues which are seemingly too technical even for the Financial Times – notably the question of bank resolution rules and depositor preference which I have discussed in previous posts.

But what are we to make of Boris Johnson’s latest contribution to the debate on élitism? If, as he puts it, you shake the box vigorously, the cornflakes that come to the top are not necessarily the brightest and best, at least not in the terms of the Pisa measures. If it is a bit flippant to say that they are the lightest weight, I am reminded of a recruitment committee I served on in my banking days when one of my colleagues (admittedly in corporate finance) argued (semi-seriously) that we ought only to recruit people with third-class degrees. I don’t think they award many of those today, but the point this (and so many previous posts on this blog) makes is that success in the City, and in Boris’s universe, is more about joining a group of people with shared attitudes than it is about intellectual accomplishment. (How curious that Boris should not understand how a building can have four walls all pointed South: isn’t that just where he lives in the social structure? or perhaps his tower leans just a little too far?) And recent scandals confirm this: you can make far more money by colluding in groups to cheat than by applying the intellectual skills drawn out by the best education.

While the rewards of that kind of behaviour, reinforced by the culture of brainless celebrity, are the carrots constantly dangled before our children, perhaps their refusal to bother to learn elementary mathematics is not so daft after all. Within the moral framework we have given them.


In fairness to Boris, he may not have been wrong. He was asked a question based on an invalid proposition to which, as a matter of formal logic, any answer is technically correct (but “pink” or “teddy” bear might have been more persuasive than “brown”). It’s not a particularly good example of what can go wrong with IQ tests: in some the intelligent candidate is left to choose between the right answer and the one required.


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