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Knowledge, Opportunities and False Promises

In the 1800’s Samuel Smiles was well known as a Scottish author and government reformer. He is most famous for writing the book ‘Self-Help’, which arguably was the first in a genre which still holds prominence in the bookshops today. The idea that an individual who diligently concentrates on bettering themselves will be recognised and valued in a just society was very popular.

Samuel Smiles
Samuel Smiles

The book Smiles wrote was extremely successful and was translated into many different languages and was sold across the world. There was something deeply profound about his analysis of individuals succeeding in a meritocratic society, and many people sought an audience with him to discuss his ideas.

He argued that it was character, thrift and perseverance which made the substance of the person, and he heaps high praise on civility, autonomy and individuality. His views were of the persuasion that people should be credited with the fruits of their toil and that a society is only a society when there is a measure of equality about it:

“Labour is toilsome and its gains are slow. Some people determine to live by the labour of others, and from the moment they arrive at that decision, become the enemies of society. “

In terms of education and knowledge building, he saw this as happening throughout the societal landscape and not just in the institutions. He was quite confident in the autodidactic and self learning capacity of people and the essential need for people to learn from doing:

“Daily experience shows that it is energetic individualism which produces the most powerful effects upon the life and action of others, and really constitutes the best practical education. Schools, academies, and colleges, give but the merest beginnings of culture in comparison with it. Far more influential is the life-education daily given in our homes, in the streets, behind counters, in workshops, at the loom and the plough, in counting-houses and manufactories, and in the busy haunts of men.

This is that finishing instruction as members of society, which Schiller designated ‘the education of the human race,’ consisting in action, conduct, self-culture, self-control,—all that tends to discipline a man truly, and fit him for the proper performance of the duties and business of life,—a kind of education not to be learnt from books, or acquired by any amount of mere literary training. With his usual weight of words Bacon observes, that ‘Studies teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation;’ a remark that holds true of actual life, as well as of the cultivation of the intellect itself.

For all experience serves to illustrate and enforce the lesson, that a man perfects himself by work more than by reading,—that it is life rather than literature, action rather than study, and character rather than biography, which tend perpetually to renovate mankind. Biographies of great, but especially of good men, are nevertheless most instructive and useful, as helps, guides, and incentives to others.”

The book Self Help is, in large part, devoted to showing examples of people from humble beginnings who have succeeded in achieving mastery of their craft or knowledge, and getting recognised for their efforts. Here is one such vignette on Richard Cobden who took part in the arguments which were to eventually bring about the repeal of the Corn Laws – laws which artificially inflated the price of staple foods and brought about much food poverty:

“Among like men of the same class may be ranked the late Richard Cobden, whose start in life was equally humble.  The son of a small farmer at Midhurst in Sussex, he was sent at an early age to London and employed as a boy in a warehouse in the City.  He was diligent, well conducted, and eager for information.  His master, a man of the old school, warned him against too much reading; but the boy went on in his own course, storing his mind with the wealth found in books.

He was promoted from one position of trust to another—became a traveller for his house—secured a large connection, and eventually started in business as a calico printer at Manchester.  Taking an interest in public questions, more especially in popular education, his attention was gradually drawn to the subject of the Corn Laws, to the repeal of which he may be said to have devoted his fortune and his life.  It may be mentioned as a curious fact that the first speech he delivered in public was a total failure.  But he had great perseverance, application, and energy; and with persistency and practice, he became at length one of the most persuasive and effective of public speakers, extorting the disinterested eulogy of even Sir Robert Peel himself.

Drouyn de Lhuys, the French Ambassador, has eloquently said of Mr. Cobden, that he was “a living proof of what merit, perseverance, and labour can accomplish; one of the most complete examples of those men who, sprung from the humblest ranks of society, raise themselves to the highest rank in public estimation by the effect of their own worth and of their personal services; finally, one of the rarest examples of the solid qualities inherent in the English character”

[Samuel Smiles, Self Help:]

So what bearing does such a position as Samuel Smiles’ have in the culture of the United Kingdom today or in the past ? How is opportunity distributed and opened up for people ? Is the idea of meritocracy and democracy projected onto our landscape or is it inherent ?

Blue Sky

It is nice – pleasant – to think we live in the ideal society. Just as when we are asked to describe a sky, we have a tendency to idealise it thus describing it as blue when this answer is informed by a stereotype which is inaccurate to it’s true depiction. Whilst it is important to understand that the sky, in some places, at some times, can indeed be blue, it is of equal importance to be able to recognise and talk about the idealised misrepresentations which go on.

The idea of a meritocracy, and noble behaviour around the field of knowledge suffuses us that warm fuzzy feeling. The truth is that, for many, the odds are hopelessly – and illegitimately – stacked against them if they are trying to get recognition for their skills, ideas, or hard work. Our society is unequal – and even when the qualities and characteristics which Samuel Smiles discusses are diligently adhered to, often people at the bottom of the socio-economic curve are ignored and counted out by the prevailing culture in which people have been socialised.

Uncomfortably, I am arguing here that we must address some of the inherent prejudices which are keeping people from thriving in intellectual, social and economic spaces. The pathway to higher education is obscured for many people who are not from the right background, the resources of society are gatekept by opaque bureaucracies which tend to benefit the most powerfully situated, industry has become a corporate playground which is enclosing communities, nations and lifeworlds. I do apologise for the disruption, however please bear with me as I try and qualify these statements.

So, how do I illustrate a pathway into these huge, and unsettling statements? What I will do is use a story to illustrate situations which we can use to identify similar dynamics in our contemporary situation. This will contribute to the substance of a conversation which should be happening much more around education, knowledge and the valuation of the individual in a society.

In the 1600s, Britain was a great naval power which had trade routes that ranged across the world. Thus the importance of a ship’s captain being able to figure out exactly where their ship was is obviously essential both in terms of choosing the right direction and avoiding dangers. They had figured out how to tell the latitude but not the longitude of a ship.

In 1675, The Royal Observatory was created with the aim of improving navigation at sea, but in particular it was brought together for the purpose of solving the ‘longitude’ problem of figuring out how far east or west a ship at sea was. The problem of identifying the latitude of a ship had been solved by measuring the length of the day, or the elevation of the sun or stars.

Royal Observatory
Royal Observatory

The Royal Observatory was built in Greenwich, East London, on the site which it describes as ‘the Prime Meridian of the World’ – Longitude 0 ⁰ 0’ 0”. It is located on a hill in Greenwich Park that overlooks the River Thames. Famously, the Royal Observatory’s own astronomers consistently failed to solve the problem for almost a century, whilst ruthlessly undermining the man who came up with a practical demonstration of the solution.

It being such a pivotal problem that affected trade and the safety of ships, tensions built as the Royal Observatory’s experts tried intensively for three decades to come up with a solution. In 1707, disaster struck when Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell wrecked four ships on the Isles of Scilly. He had mistakenly believed that his fleet was further west of the English mainland than it was; this miscalculation led to more deaths than the sinking of the Titanic (according to Tim Harford).

This brought things to a head, and the British parliament then turned to Sir Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley (the comet expert) for advice. In 1714 the parliament passed the Act of Longitude, promising a prize of £20,000 for a solution to the problem. Compared with the typical wage of the day, this was over £30 million pounds in today’s terms. You can still see the original which begins:

“Whereas it is well known by all that are acquainted with the Art of Navigation, That nothing is so much wanted and desired at Sea, as the Discovery of the Longitude, for the Safety and Quickness of Voyages, the Preservation of Ships and the Lives of Men : And whereas in the Judgment of Able Mathematicians and Navigators, several Methods have already been Discovered, true in Theory, though very Difficult in Practice, some of which (there is reason to expect) may be capable of Improvement, some already Discovered may be proposed to the Publick, and others may be Invented hereafter : And whereas such a Discovery would be of particular Advantage to the Trade of Great Britain, and very much for the Honour of this Kingdom;…”

The prize opened up the problem of longitude to everyone and effectively crowdsourced a solution. This had a great democratising flavour to it as no longer were the astronomers of the Royal Observatory the sole official searchers – the answer could technically come from anyone. And it did….

John Harrison
John Harrison

In 1737, a self taught village carpenter named John Harrison shocked the scientific establishment of the day when he presented a solution to the problem to the Board of Longitude. He had made a clock which was capable of keeping accurate time at sea even through rolling and pitching of the ship on waves along with extreme changes in temperature and humidity.

It was understood that knowing what the correct time was back in London could enable a navigator to calculate longitude using the sun. At the time, the technical obstacles to creating a sufficiently accurate clock were thought to be beyond the ability of humans to produce. John Harrison – a rural craftsman – spurred on by the famous prize was to prove everyone wrong.

That the crowdsourcing of a solution to a problem provided an answer when ‘all the Kings horses and all the Kings men’ could not provide one. This should have been a salutary lesson that prizes could inspire socially beneficial ideas from unexpected sources. Unfortunately, the Royal Observatory’s experts took it as a lesson that prizes could embarrass the likes of them.

The story here illustrates the power of the ingroup to ostracise others even when it is of public benefit. The Astronomer Royal at the time, James Bradley, and his protégé Nevil Maskelyne, went to extraordinary lengths to deny Harrison his prize while they struggled to make progress with an alternative, astronomical method of determining longitude.

Bradley used his authority and influence at first to delay sea trials of Harrison’s son William – and then sent the clock with its bearer into a war zone. When the clock passed this test with flying colours they insisted on more tests. It had lost only five seconds in an eighty-one-day journey to Jamaica.

In 1765, Nevil Maskelyne become Astronomer Royal in 1765, and despite the conflict of interests which had in trying to produce a method for calculating longitude, he sat on the Board of Longitude which was charged with allocating the prize. One of the things he did was to impound Harrison’s clocks for ‘observation and testing’, transporting them on a rickety wagon over London’s cobblestones to Greenwich. Oddly, they didn’t work so well after that.

The Board of Longitude never gave Harrison his prize, but it did give him some development money. The prize has never been officially paid out. The British parliament, after Harrison petitioned the King, awarded the inventor some money in lieu of the prize that never came. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Harrison was unfairly rebuffed and perhaps even cheated out of the prize. Harrison’s clocks eventually became the standard way to find longitude, but only after his death.

Sand castle

What can we learn from this tale ? We can certainly take away that it is wise to include everyone when crowdsourcing a problem, as it might come from quarters which were not included in the assumptions. We can see that human foibles play a role in who and what gets valued under certain circumstances. We can also see that institutional spaces are not always up to the ideals which they transmit.

The longitude prize had inspired a solution, and the prize methodology was widely adopted. The Royal Society of Arts Founded in 1754 as the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, it was granted a Royal Charter in 1847, and the right to use the term Royal in its name by King Edward VII in 1908. As an organisation it offered prizes through a Premium Award Scheme which continued for 100 years.

In 1810 Nicolas Appert, a chef and confectioner also credited with the invention of the bouillon cube, was presented with a 12,000 franc prize by Napolean for inventing a method of preserving food that is still used in canning factories today. Unfortunately, the prickly reaction of the Observatory’s scientific establishment was widely imitated, too.

In 1820 a French aristocrat, Baron de Montyon, bequeathed his fortune to the Academie des Sciences with instructions that it be used to fund two annual prizes, one for ‘making some industrial process less unhealthy’, and one for ‘improving medical science or surgery’. The Academie was less than impressed with these irksome stipulations.

If prizes were to be given out, they reasoned internally that surely some of de Montyon’s money should be spent on administrative support for those prizes along with printing costs. In years when no prize was handed out, they started to use the money to buy library books and experimental equipment – all of which ‘might be necessary in the judging of competitions’.

Adapt Tim Harford

A decade after De Montyon’s death the Academie was scarcely reminiscent of the stipulations which he left his will. They were looting his legacy to fund whatever projects it pleased. Ultimately the Academie began to turn down bequests for prizes, insisting on its rights to make grants to favoured projects or people instead.

This culture shift from prizes to grants is very significant in changing the dynamic of crowdsourcing and democratizing achievement. It moved the onus from that of self determination and transparent production of knowledge to awards which were made according to opaque internal strategies subject to the whims of small groups of people.

Across Europe and the United States, scientific societies shifted from chiefly awarding prizes to mostly handing out grants, or employing researchers directly. What prizes remained tended to be handed out retrospectively and on a subjective basis rather than, as with the Longitude prize and the Food Preservation prize, pre-announced with the aim of encouraging some future solution. The most famous of these being the Nobel prizes. The dynamic was changed.

Despite their early successes, innovation prizes were firmly supplanted by direct grants. Grants, unlike prizes, are a powerful tool of patronage. Prizes, in contrast, are open to anyone who produces results. That makes them intrinsically threatening to the establishment.

Grants can be administrated and their outcomes controlled. We are suffering from closed, non-transparent processes which exclude valuable people from taking part in various important areas of life. The grants, tendering processes and administrative practices imposed on intellectual and social functions engender an ecology which is inaccessible to those outside of the socialized culture which ‘knows the ropes’. Our educational system and general society is now starting to overtly embody a business more than an organ of society which forwards knowledge, draws out and enhances the capabilities of each human being.

The article is in part a digest of the work of Page 105 to 108; Adapt – Why Success Always Starts With Failure by Tim Harford: ISBN 0349121516

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