The Tyranny of Homogeneity
What a pretentious title! Let’s keep it simple and say instead that variety is the spice of life.
It has been an interesting time for all of us in recent months, and not necessarily in a good way, of course. One of the more obvious developments, which brings with it both pros and cons, is the degree of insight that some parents have been able to gain into the way their children’s teachers operate, and with this the growing realisation of the different experiences on offer to the pupils. While some may prefer a more uniform approach, I say: ‘Vive la difference!’
When I was at school, I would come home every day and my mother would ask me about my day. From what I recall, I tried to give her as much information as I could about what had happened, about who had said what and about anything out of the ordinary, of which I do not think there was very much. I genuinely cannot recall any attempt at grading my teachers. My little brother, who is ten years younger than me, got round the issue by never telling our mother anything, and getting quite irate when pushed to do so.
There were teachers I liked more than others. These were usually those who were less strict, or who could be more easily distracted by a well posed question. There were some subjects I preferred over others, but this was based on the fairly obvious criteria that I found them easier and therefore tended to get better marks. This is turn created a virtuous circle, whereby I was prepared to put in the discretionary effort for the subjects I liked and tended to make more progress as a result. But I don’t think I was in a position to judge whether some teachers were better than others.
In the end, my achievements were fairly uniform, with nine A grades and a B in my O Levels in 1981. The B was in German, an option I chose in Year 10, or Fourth Form as we called it back then, with the driving motive of avoiding being taught geography by the headmaster, whose style was not to my liking and whose obsession with the intricacies of copper mining in Africa I did not share. I never really gave the German language the attention it deserved, too often thinking I could bluff my way and not worry about learning the vocabulary properly. When I confused a scarf with a duck in the written paper, my chances of a top grade disappeared quite quickly, as would the duck if it was put in a washing machine, which is what I seemed to think had happened!
For the purpose of clarity, no one had seen the need to invent a grade that was better than an A in those days, and I remain committed to calling a chapter in the autobiography that I shall never write ‘What was wrong with A?’ Those who now have to put up with numbers for their GCSE grades will have to spend their lives explaining what a 6 or a 7 actually means, not to mention the total lack of logic in having 9 as the top grade. Cynics say this is so that they can add a 10 in a few years when 9 is no longer enough, or maybe even an 11 in a perfect parody of Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap, if that reference works for you.
Which of my teachers therefore deserves the most credit, I wonder? My achievement was the same across the range of my subjects, and I think I liked French and Latin more than the others. I can say with some certainty that I did not like chemistry or physics, but perhaps these teachers should therefore take the prizes, because they helped me to achieve well in spite of my thinking that I did not have a scientific mind, a feeling that has stayed with me ever since. I am only being slightly flippant when I say I cannot recall a single occasion when what I learned for O Level chemistry has ever been of benefit in the intervening forty years.
The fact that all of our teachers were different was a huge benefit to me and my classmates. It gave us a range of daily experiences, even if some of them involved being nervous with those who were particularly strict. There were thirty of us in the class, and we all learned differently. The array of styles and personalities to which we were exposed taught us crucial skills of resilience and endeavour. This stopped us from developing what psychologists might label a confirmation bias, where we want to be right about how we see the world, so we seek out information that confirms our beliefs and we avoid contradictory evidence and opinions. At its most extreme, this involves the development of what Atal Gawande describes as a 'God Complex', the tendency we all have to believe that what we think and do is right.
In ‘Rebel Ideas’, Matthew Syed reminds us how comforting it is to be surrounded by people who think in the same way, who mirror our perspectives, who confirm our prejudices. He says it makes us feel smarter and validates our world view. Indeed, he goes on, evidence from brain scanners indicates that when others reflect our own thoughts back to us, it stimulates the pleasure centres of our brains. Homophily is the tendency to seek out those who are similar to us, and Syed describes it as being like a hidden gravitational force, dragging human groups towards one corner of the problem space. Or, to quote Benjamin Franklin, ‘If everyone is thinking alike then no one is thinking.’
I can, of course, understand the context of the plea for greater consistency - even if I have spent twenty-five years in various management positions failing to achieve it to any great degree among those with whom I have worked - because we all see the world as we want to see it, not as others tell us to. However, I increasingly believe we should be investing in the power of diversity to counteract what I would pretentiously call the tyranny of homogeneity. As a rather more successful band than Spinal Tap once sang: ‘You can't always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need.’