Three, that's the magic number in our galaxy

14th September 2012 at 01:00
The keynote speaker at this year's Scottish Learning Festival takes issue with Douglas Adams

In Douglas Adams' comic masterpiece, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a running joke involving "the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything". Reflecting the underlying surrealism of the book, the answer it turns out is "42". I beg to differ. For me the answer is three.

This is the number of fundamental sources of social power. To illustrate, compare the Olympics with the rest of life. The Games were a remarkable success. People who had previously expressed no interest in sport were suddenly enthusiastic experts in anything from slalom kayaking to dressage, and people who would normally be scornful of flag waving were to be found bedecked with Union Jacks. Of course, the Olympics are an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime experience for a nation, yet it was a surprise to see us transformed in this way.

In stark contrast, when it comes to some of the big challenges we face as a society, from providing care and dignity to an ageing population to tackling social injustice, not only are we bereft of credible strategies but we are also pessimistic about the scope for progress. Indeed, growing social pessimism is a marked characteristic of many Western societies.

Which brings me back to the three fundamental sources of social power, namely, hierarchical authority, social solidarity and individual aspiration. Look how these ingredients came together for the Games: once the bid was won there was public acceptance (albeit sometimes grudging) that we just had to get on, spend the money and make whatever other changes - from accelerated planning decisions to Olympic car lanes - the authorities decreed. When it came to the occasion itself, the nation mobilised in an incredible show of national solidarity with the volunteer army at the forefront. And, of course, at the heart of the whole show were the incredible feats of ambitious individuals striving to be winners.

In contrast, in society at large, the three forces have become badly unbalanced. From the MPs' expenses, to scandals in the Catholic Church to the shaming of banks and newspapers, the standing of hierarchical leadership has fallen and with it public trust. Similarly, the greater diversity and mobility of modern populations, the decline of institutions like churches, trade unions and political parties, and the fracturing of working class communities have all weakened the power of shared norms and values. We are a long way from the confidence of big government and big corporations that lay behind the creation of the modern welfare state and consumer economy. The frailties of authority and solidarity have both contributed to, and been hastened by, the onward rise of individualism, and a generally narrow and materialistic form of individualism at that.

This is why progress on the big complex issues feels unlikely. How can we persuade people to accept short-term sacrifice for long-term benefits when they trust neither the competence nor the motives of decision makers? How can we build a "Big Society" without shared social norms of reciprocity?

The solutions to complex problems that work best are those which draw on the three sources of power. Each has good and bad sides; hierarchies can be powerful and strategic but also bureaucratic and self-serving, solidarity can be altruistic but also insular, individualism can be creative but also selfish. It is through cleverly combining them that we best mitigate their flaws. So, for example, a long-term response to population ageing must encompass the right strategic policy framework which, by being flexible, creates space and support for familial, community and inter-generational reciprocity and encourages self- interested initiative like saving for a pension and living healthily.

The rule of three also applies to organisations. Whether it is the individualism of investment banks or the solidaristic values of communes, institutions relying on only one form of power are frail at best and can be highly destructive. Public services tend to be strong on hierarchy and solidarity but find it harder to accommodate or encourage individual creativity and risk taking. And what about schools? The best have strong, wise and respected leaders, they don't merely assert shared norms and values but embody them in the warp and weft of daily life and, of course, they are places which prize individual creativity, aspiration and achievement, in pupils and in staff.

Indeed, we can even apply the idea of the three sources to the depressingly divisive (in England at least) issue of the content of children's learning. The mastering of facts and skills is based on a respect for the hierarchy of knowledge and expertise, the wider development of competencies and so called "soft skills" often speaks to the need to cultivate empathic and responsible citizens capable of solidarity in a diverse and fast changing world, and it is through discovering every child's own enthusiasm and connecting this to real-world possibilities that we aim to empower them with a sense of individual agency.

The rule of three is no more than a framework for good policy, management and education. It is helpful, but in no way sufficient, to tell us what to do in the face of concrete challenges. Orchestrating power into effective solutions is complex, but unless we start by understanding where power comes from and how it needs to be combined we are in danger of trying to build a better society, and better organisations, using broken and distorted tools.

Scottish Learning Festival: "Towards a Learning Culture" keynote by Matthew Taylor, Wednesday, 1.45pm.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today