Schmidt's brilliant criticism of U.K. (and Google)

Google's chairman lectures the United Kingdom that its education system hasn't brought science and the arts together. Which, oddly, is exactly what could be said of Google.

commentary There's clearly something wrong with the British education system.

British youths are rioting in the streets and somehow the nation has produced far fewer great comedies that are then destroyed in the American versions.

Who, therefore, could not applaud Google Chairman Eric Schmidt for a bravura, even Braveheart performance in Edinburgh today?

As the Guardian spells out, Schmidt stood before the collected brains listening to his McTaggart Lecture, stared them down and gave them his most withering engineer's frown.

He said that the U.K. education system had performed a "drift to the humanities." Which perhaps has gone out of control, given that the recent riots suggested a drift to the inhumanities.

He also declared: "Over the past century the U.K. has stopped nurturing its polymaths. You need to bring art and science back together."

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt Stephen Shankland/CNET

I ought to disclose that I was educated the British way. No, not so much the cold showers and learning to talk without moving your lips, but a definite and heartfelt derision for both science and business. Physics and chemistry were subjects beloved by those who could neither hit a ball nor hit on a girl. Engineers were people who grew beards in the hope of making themselves attractive. Science and business were as declasse as nose picking.

Schmidt is unquestionably correct in reminding his audience: "Lewis Carroll didn't just write one of the classic fairytales of all time. He was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford." Carroll was a couple of other things too, but we needn't go into them here.

There can't be a Brit who doesn't feel slightly troubled by his or her nation today on hearing Schmidt inform them: "I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in U.K. schools."

Sliding the dagger of his argument a little further into British complacency, he added: "Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage."

This is the nation that built the world's first home office computer.

And yet before the Brits take off their shirts and begin to whip themselves into a forlorn frenzy, there is another entity that might think of joining them in the self-flaggelationfest.

That entity is Google.

This place of brilliant engineering minds carries as its cudgel its disdain for many of the arts. As Steven Levy's fine "In The Plex" pointed out, Larry Page was no great believer in, for example, the creative art of advertising.

As former Google designer Douglas Bowman blogged , anyone of an artistic bent surely couldn't bear the idea of Google's management researching 41 shades of blue to see which might be the right one.

Bowman wrote: "I won't miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data."

Schmidt's excellent and withering words might also therefore be contemplated by those at Google who have made engineering constructs their goal, rather than their emotional delivery to people. That's what the arts remind you: to connect with and move human hearts-- and then minds.

Few academic institutions and even fewer companies have managed to breathe new life into their work by successfully melding the arts and the sciences. Although there's a little company down the road from Google that might offer it a few hints. You know the company. The CEO resigned this week.

 

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