Schumpeter’s fatuousness re-visited

The Economist’s recent Schumpeter column again floated to the top of my preoccupations today, coalescing with some more immediately personal ones as I rode my bicycle along the river in today’s perfect Brisbane spring weather.

Maria Montessori, 1870-1952.  Is that Jimmy Wales sniffling in the foreground?
Maria Montessori, 1870-1952. Is that Jimmy Wales sniffling in the foreground?

The real Schumpeter’s influence in economics, and fairly much everything else, has been trivialised as putting into general circulation the much abused term ‘creative destruction’, which one must suppose has been taken by the Economist’s less skilled leader writers as a remit to deride whatever aspect of business escapes their understanding on any given day.

As I pedalled my way towards Newstead, I contemplated M Sinclair Stevens’ vehemence in excoriating Schumpeter for making an admittedly somewhat tenuous link between open plan office layouts favoured by a few of America’s über-plutocratic tech Wunderkindchen and the Montessori pedagogy attached by Schumpeter to Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, and Jimmy Wales by virtue of them having attended Montessori schools.

Sinclair Stevens was right to question the correlation between open plan office design and Montessori philosophy. It seems if the Wunderkindchen learned anything about innovation or experimentation, it is how to more effectively exploit their minions and maximize their own profitability. And there is the simple answer for the faddish ‘popularity’ of open-plan layouts: cost. It’s cheaper to rip out the walls in an office building than to refurbish or re-partition existing offices.

However, unlike Sinclair Stevens, my take on Schumpeter’s motivations for linking kindergarten playtime mentality to Montessori via office layout was unrepentantly dismissive: this particular Schumpeter Scribe was just being fatuous about dismissing all things not the product of an English public school, with few other indexes of international snobbery remaining for even the most redoubtable Brits.

Second among my preoccupations on my ride was the sage advice given to me last night by ‘Alter Kumpel’ Dieter Mueller, who cautioned me against persisting with long hours pursuing my studies when I really needed to take a break, tend to other priorities, and give the mind time to absorb and synthesise the information with which I am saturating it.

That advice might not seem particularly novel or insightful, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it in the melee of facts and figures competing for priority in that next paper to be drafted, or that next presentation with which to bore to death my fellow students. Besides, it made me think of the hours I spend developing and polishing diagrams to illustrate processes and theoretical relationships. These diagrams are unlikely to improve my assessment by any ratio comparable to the time I spend on them, but they do achieve something else entirely: they engage me with the subject matter in a way quite different to drafting prose, citing references or making notes on lectures and reading. They are the late manifestation of my own Montessori-like education decades ago, when I attended the Rudolf Steiner school, where the pedagogy had a marked emphasis on considering all topics with all our faculties. History was not separate from art or math, and science was not to be considered in isolation from literature or languages. Rudolf Steiner’s holistic Christian man was to be a Renaissance thinker.

I wonder what my teachers would have made of this reflection, so many years after I failed to live up to their expectations.

In any case, all this musing on my bicycle made me realize that Schumpeter’s real failing in the column had been not to spot the dreary absence of any signs that the Montessori pedagogy had rubbed off on the Wunderkindchen. Do they foster and develop the kind of multi- and cross-skilled approaches to business that might go hand in hand with something more creative than the dreary focus solely on numbers in the tech meat grinders that are among our most admired corporations?

Is there anything human that goes on in those corporations? Anything that is not completely obliterated by the cult of numbers? Algorithms, pattern matching, rigged ‘like’ scores, search engine optimization just to reach more morons, and, of course, the bottom line. Profit!
This absence of focus on anything but numbers is where I locate what I call the fearsome, nihilistic determinism of contemporary political economy, and the inhumane proto-fascist tendencies of people who uncritically accept the technocratic logics of working in the meat grinder hierarchies of that political economy.

Not that my ideas about such matters are likely to be helpful in my degree studies. In fact, I suspect these ideas will be regarded as hostile to the curriculum and the pedagogical orthodoxy, even if I demonstrate in passing that I can also apply the technical training I receive as callously and uncritically as the best of aspiring cogs in the machinery.

Perhaps that is Schumpeter’s real motivation then: to snipe at anyone or anything that does not submit to the meat grinder, the way all good British public schoolboys are taught to. And what a myopic, ahistorical view that is. Once upon a time the same schools in Britain turned out the leaders of empire, who were such leaders precisely because they could still understand and negotiate the contradictions in their societies. Today it is exceedingly rare for even highly educated people to recognise the corrosive effects of Western political economy on individual liberty and civil society, let alone pursue any critical analysis. That is the forlorn place, I suppose, where we find Schumpeter’s scribe.

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