The Age of Reason v the Age of Enlightenment 

Almost 7 thousand years ago, mankind entered the Age of Reason. Ancient cities in the middle east and Asia show that mankind could be ordered, think, communicate using writing of a form and have a settled society. Long before the birth of Christ,  mathematics existed in a recognisable form and travellers had worked out how to navigate far and wide using the night sky.  All was indeed well.

aorfrotntcoveropThe trouble with the Age of Reason is that it held no checks and balances. Power was in the hands of the mighty, and practices such as slavery, torture and worse were the order of the day. States tinkered with democracy, but tyrants largely ruled the roost. To this day, we still know that Reason per se does not go far enough.  If reason alone was sufficient, you would not need to learn the Highway code, because intellect should suffice. Any learner knows the folly of that. Here’s some current practices that seem reasonable but are disastrous:

  1. Teenagers at risk should be given screaming dolls to put off teenage pregnancy. This does not work. 
  2. Showing at risk teenagers hardened criminals in gaol. Again, this does not work.

Now the Cabinet office are increasingly doing their bit to highlight that hunches and gut-feel as drivers of government policy are unhelpful, and so they set up and partly own a specialist team knows as the Behavioural Insights team.  You’ll remember the former prime minister, David Cameron talking about ‘nudge theory’, and thus unit is where that came from. Here’s what their website has to say:

“The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is a social purpose company. We are jointly owned by the UK Government; Nesta (the innovation charity); and our employees.

BIT started life inside 10 Downing Street as the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural sciences. Our objectives remain the same as they always have been:

  • making public services more cost-effective and easier for citizens to use;
  • improving outcomes by introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to policy; and wherever possible,
  • enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves”

I am indebted to Alex Quigley, a school leader up in Yorkshire who reads and writes extensively and whos recent blog,, aided me in my thinking.

In summary, David Halpern CEO of BIT has this to say from their research: “Many areas of government have not been tested in any form whatsoever. They are based on hunch, gut feel and narrative. The same is true of many areas outside government. We are effectively flying blind, without much of a clue as to what really works, and what doesn’t. It is actually quite scary.”

enlightenmentWhen mankind entered the Age of Enlightenment, all sorts of new beliefs started to emerge, not developed intuitively by the survivors of the societies what went before. The Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries provide sufficient wealth for philosophers to have time to think, playwrights produce the complete works etc.; all sorts of changes started to occur, which led to the various revolutions, agrarian, industrial and political that permit us now to find ourselves where we are and who we are. Almost 400 years ago , the philosopher René Descartes proclaimed “Cogito Ergo Sum”, broadly translating as ‘I think therefore I am’, continuing the theme that in ancient times Plato and Aristotle promoted on how personal consciousness arises, and it led others to advance ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and the separation of church and state.  To this end, we hold these ideals to be of the highest regard, and indeed the last government appropriated them as British values, and directed schools to teach them!

Back to Halpern then: Government actions …” are based on hunch, gut feel and narrative”. We have so many examples evident of this in 2016 in schools.  Take Theresa May’s recent advocacy for the expansion of grammar schools. Her beliefs stem from her survivor mentality which says “I went to grammar school and look where I am now, so it must be good for everyone else”. In reality, all the evidence is stacked up against her policy, and her performance in the House of Commons this week when responding to Jeremy Corbyn who challenged her on the evidence was beyond dreadful – see snippets from the independent here –  Survivor mentality is classic Age of Reason stuff – it worked for me so it must be good – but as Richard Branson and Jeremy Clarkson show, you don’t even need to complete your education to make a success of your life – indeed Clarkson when out big on A level results day suggesting that failing your exams is a good thing, which is another example of survivor mentality!  What he tweeted was:

“If your A level results are disappointing, don’t worry, I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a super yacht in the Med.’

keep-calm-and-cogito-ergo-sumSchools and Society more generally need both to be reasonable and to be enlightened, and there is a delicate balance to be struck. What we must not do is tip over into the all-reason category, because then only the children of the privileged can rise out of slavery, nor offer only enlightenment, because actually I want to know that there is an order of things for driving on the road, for example. Education needs to be broad, balanced and beneficial to all in receipt, and in turn those new learners need to acquire the motivation to extend their interests into their society and offer value back in return.  At a time when entering service, be that the military, the police, education, healthcare and local government is at a worrying low, I do recognise my responsibility as a school principal to engender in our youngsters the willingness to serve others above self. And to get some great exam results.  And above all to find happiness in who they are!

Next week, prompted by Dr Alisdair Findlay, “Education in the Age of Entitlement”. 




About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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