Michael Gove's Brave New World

15/10/2013 11:48 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

In Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World, children were not only classified before birth for the type of work they would do - and therefore the level of investment in their education - but also subjected to horrific interventions designed to stunt the mental development of the masses.

Brains of those designated a life of manual labour were discouraged from development by limiting their oxygen as embryos. To condition those bred (or rather hatched) for menial work against following their curiosity - and therefore learning - they were put in a room full of bright books and subjected to terrifying sirens and pain. When the joyful babies crawled towards and touched the books, they received electric shocks through panels in the floor.

From an extremely elitist family, Huxley was very familiar with debates about eugenics and social engineering. His brother Julian, who was vice-president of the British Eugenics Society during World War Two, believed poor people were genetically inferior to the wealthy. In 1941 he anxiously wrote "The lowest strata are reproducing too fast" and, to slow this menace down, he suggested 'they' should not have "too easy access" to hospital care.

By comparison, Aldous was something of a liberal. He became interested in visionary experiences, experimented with mescaline and took LSD in 1955, years before most people had even heard of it. However, in relation to drugs he retained his elitism, arguing that psychedelics should be the preserve of intellectuals and artists.

Nevertheless, he made considerable progress in breaking free from the cultural straitjacket of his background. The fact that in Brave New World so much effort is put into mentally curtailing people to make them fit into their predetermined castes strongly suggests Huxley believed that we are capable of developing beyond the confines of our origins.

Sadly, there are still many people who do not believe this - despite all the evidence demonstrating it. Troublingly, one such person seems to be Dominic Cummings, special adviser to education minister Michael Gove. Even though he and Gove claim to be concerned with improving British education for all, a document recently written by Cummings suggests he believes that achievements are primarily defined by genes.

In a rambling 237 page rant entitled 'Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities', Cummings suggests that much of the population is limited in our response to education by genes. Apparently an intensive, expensive and protracted education would not enable everyone to excel in the way Cummings believes he has.

Putting to one side how costly Cummings' education was compared to the average person's, he defeats his own argument by claiming that state education is England is no better than mediocre. How would we know that individuals are failing to excel due to being from 'poor genetic stock' if teaching is poor? People with considerable potential are hindered by unsatisfactory educational opportunities - the equivalent of getting zapped by electric shocks when looking at a book.

By the same token, those of us who have been fortunate enough to attend university will be familiar with dull, dim, rigid-minded people from expensive schools who mystifyingly managed to get all A grades at A-level. The very fact that wealthy parents will pay more than the average person's salary to send their child to a certain school is a strong indication that they recognise the relative importance of nurture compared to nature.

Neither a geneticist or an educationalist, Cummings (who has a BA in history) controversially asserts that Sure Start pre-school schemes are a waste of money. "Billions have been spent with no real gains," he confidently asserts. How he comes to this conclusion is beyond me, as the benefits of early mental stimulation are immeasurable.

In relation to the significance of genes versus opportunities, Cummings says: "There is strong resistance across the political spectrum to accepting scientific evidence on genetics. Most of those that now dominate discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless."

He also states: "When people look at gaps between rich and poor children that already exist at a young age they almost universally assume that these differences are because of environmental reasons ('privileges and wealth') and ignore genetics."

Cummings suggests that "finding genes responsible for cognitive abilities" coupled with using computers to personalise learning will "bring dramatic improvements to education" but "this will not remove genetic influence over the variation in outcomes or close the gap between the rich and poor."

And, in a statement so pompous that it looks like it comes from a time before Huxley, Cummings says: "One can both listen to basic science on genetics and regard as a priority the improvement of state schools; accepting we are evolved creatures does not mean 'giving up on the less fortunate'."

Given his lack of knowledge in the field of genetics, Cummings would be wise to listen to the experts, who have long recognised that learning opportunities are more important than genetic inheritance.

Perhaps fortunately for Gove, this throwback to early 20th Century ideologies is leaving the Department for Education at the end of the year. Interestingly, his next role is expected to be within the free schools sector, a market he helped create.