3 December 2019
It’s now more than three years since Michael Gove, then Justice Secretary in David Cameron’s government, was challenged on Sky News to name some economists who were in favour of Brexit. Memorably, though he may not have realised it at the time, he replied that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, and added that “I’m not asking the public to trust me. I’m asking them to trust themselves.”
In those few words, Gove crystallised something which had been afoot in the public consciousness for years, maybe decades. Specialist knowledge, indeed, intellectualism itself, when deployed in the pursuit of political ends, had lost its lustre, and become the object of dismissal, scorn and perhaps even suspicion. It was ironic that this should be captured in a single phrase by Gove, himself one of the brightest, most articulate and learned members of the government.
We can all think of the casual and unthinking ways in which we dismiss the erudite: head-in-the-clouds, ivory tower, boffin, egghead, nerd, geek. It acknowledges some repository of learning or expertise, but at the same time declares it valueless, or, at least, of only theoretical and philosophical use. Think back to 2007: Alan Sugar, chairing The Apprentice, fired Sophie Kain, a competitor with a PhD in theoretical physics, by admonishing her that “This is the real world, love, this is not your scientific protons and neutrons.” That’s a classic 21st century trope: I’ll see your ‘book learning’, and I’ll raise you hard-won experience on the ground. It’s the University of Life, alive and kicking.
This attitude affects many areas of public life. In politics, certainly, possession of extensive academic knowledge or, worse, a higher degree is either hidden from view—Dr Gordon Brown, Dr John Redwood, Dr Oliver Letwin—or is regarded as a sure sign of an other-worldy crank, someone who will never make it to the front rank of the phalanx—Dr Julian Huppert or the extensively published Tudor historian Chris Skidmore.
I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the public seems to value experience, which it can see, over learning, on which, by definition, one must take the expert’s word. This is brutally true in business and entrepreneurship. We are told gleefully that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard (no ivory towers for him!) and that Steve Jobs failed to complete his studies at a modest college in Oregon. Worshippers crow less loudly that Bill Hewlett had three degrees from Stanford and MIT before he became a household name in IT hardware, or that Jeff Bezos graduated in two disciplines summa cum laude from Princeton. We want to see maverick, phoenix-from-the-ashes dynamism, not a solid foundation of academic achievement or even brilliance.
The second reason is what I will rather grandly call the democratisation of knowledge which the internet has brought. We are all experts now, given ten minutes with Wikipedia; those with a quick grasp of essential facts and a good memory will be able to argue convincingly, or at least convincingly enough for the short attention span of the media, after a fairly cursory browse of a few key websites. Read an interesting article on genetically modified crops in Nature? Then why worry about lacking a solid academic grounding in biology. Difficult debate in prospect on foreign policy in the Middle East? You’ve got an Economist subscription, don’t waste it! Your points will be as pithily formed as the retired ambassador you’re sitting alongside.
What effect has this had on leadership? Most obviously, we can see it in the figure of our own Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. BoJo is undeniably clever: he was a King’s Scholar at Eton; won another scholarship to read classics at Oxford, indeed at Balliol, that most loftily intellectual of colleges; and his journey into broadsheet journalism seemed (initially) effortless. But the Prime Minister is a particular sort of clever. He is the personification of an essay crisis, an overnight crammer, who would crash into an examination hall with one minute to spare, sleep still in his eyes and some killer facts scrawled on his cuff. He is, as has been said of many people in the past, a stupid person’s idea of a clever person. That takes the sting out of his undoubted erudition, his ability to recite what seem like yards of Homer or Shakespeare or Kipling whether it has been requested or not. It reassures us. Yes, the Prime Minister’s clever, but he hasn’t, thank God, worked at it. (Of course he has: there is nothing, not a single errant blond hair or an upturned collar point, about Boris Johnson that is not calculated for effect and advantage.)
At Right Angles we work with leaders. They come in all shapes and sizes, from all sectors and disciplines. CEOs, self-made men, boardroom ninjas and financial virtuosi. Some sit on dazzling academic resumés, others proudly bear the scars of the amphitheatre and know all the most effective parries and thrusts. There’s no pattern, except that all are successful, but also far-sighted enough to want advice from wherever they can get it. That’s the key, really: recognition. They understand that there is a level of success at which you need a suite of disciplines to support you. They draw from the school of management as readily as from the school of hard knocks, and they do not want or need either simulation or dissimulation. It’s a refreshing atmosphere.
That physicist fired by Alan Sugar? Sophie Kain? She went on to be chief engineer at General Dynamics, a company director and founder of a charity alleviating hunger in West Africa. She didn’t stick to her protons and neutrons. And I bet she’s glad she didn’t. But they helped get her where she is.