String theory, autism, and third level clusters

“And he grow old

That knight so bold

And o’er his heart a shadow

Fell as he found

No piece of ground

That looked like El Dorado”

If you’re a fan of John Wayne movies, you’ll be familiar with these lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem. The poem is quoted on and off by James Caan in Howard Hawks’ classic movie, El Dorado.

For theoretical physicists, especially those working in String Theory, their particular El Dorado is what they call a Theory of Everything (TOE) – one single theory that explains the four forces of nature as manifestations of one single unifying force. In his book, A Tear at the End of the Creation, Argentinian theorist, Marcelo Glesier, describes how he became disillusioned with the whole TOE ‘thing’ and began to see it as a sort of quasi-religious quest. In his view, there is no real ‘reason’ as to why the universe should be simple even at a very fundamental level. He now sees the quest for a TOE as akin to searching for El Dorado. He is happy to accept that the universe might well be somewhat ‘messy’.

It is interesting that theoretical physics is a subject that is male-dominated and it would be surprising if thinking in this field was not dominated by ‘male thinking’. In this context, it is interesting to read some of the work of Simon Baron Cohen – cousin of Ali G and Borat – who researches the causes and nature of autism in Cambridge University. He has suggested that autism be viewed as an extreme form of maleness. His argument goes that males are natural ‘systemisers’, very inclined to put order on the world. Anyone who has a young boy in the family will be familiar with their becoming almost obsessed with collecting and classifying. There are very few female plane spotters and women are often bemused by the male mind’s fondness for sports-related statistics. Cohen has suggested that autism is particularly prevalent among the male offspring of engineers and other mathematically trained professionals and he is currently examining the prevalence of autism in Silicon Valley where ‘techies’ tend to form romantic relationships.

So what’s all this got to do with third level clusters? I think the idea of institutional clusters, whether they are in Education or in Health, reflect this systemising mind-set – a predominantly male mind-set – in which it is thought that by creating a simpler, more ordered system, a better system will emerge. I don’t believe that and I think that enforcing clusters and mergers is a recipe for disaster. The emerging body that is Irish Water seems to be an example of this as was the HSE. That is not to say that clusters and mergers that form organically – as the culmination of a process rather than the beginning of one – cannot be worthwhile. For example, DCU and SPD’s merger was clearly advantageous to both parties – it was not enforced simply because of the mind-set of a bureaucrat or politician.

Obsessing with structures is deeply ingrained in the mind of many policy makers. I recently stumbled on former UL President Ed Walsh’s website. On the site is a position paper in which he presents a 13-step plan to reform Irish Education. All but one of those steps related to the ‘system’ and its governance – not surprising since it’s a hell of a long time since Ed Walsh actually stood in a classroom and did some teaching. The only ‘step’ that had anything vaguely to do with the learning process was one that advocated more continuous assessment. The assumption throughout was that poor educational outcomes are solely down to failures of the system. Fix the system and we’ll have an education system as good as Finland or of that fine democracy, Singapore.

This mind-set is a major stumbling block to tackling problems of all kinds. Was it Chesterton who said something like “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem”. People with the systemising mind-set don’t quite get the fact that educational problems mainly relate to the quality of the teacher-student relationship, the broader cultural environment, the commitment of the teacher and the student, and all the ‘coal face’ problems that beset modern education. By obsessing with structures you are presuming that changes made to the structure trickle down – automatically – to the coal face where better educational outcomes become inevitable. They don’t and they’re not.

Perhaps the solution is to get fewer ‘systemisers’ into positions of policy-making. Maybe a different mind-set is required to tackle the real problems of third level education and not to get side-tracked into cluster and merger mania. We need people who can recognise what the key problems are and who have ideas about how they can be fixed. Changes to structures should accommodate changes made to what we do at the coal face – not the other way around.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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