The limitations of text books?

Photo by Stas Knop on

Boris Johnson observed this week that “there was no text book for how to deal with Covid”. What a truth that short observation conveys. Of course there was no text book. Text books have a goal of making the complicated understandable. The situation we are in is both emergent and complex. It needs leadership, not just management.

Treating something complex as though it’s complicated is a sure road to disaster. We ignore difficult linkages, areas we just don’t understand, and those areas that on ancient maps used to be labelled “here be dragons”. In a world where we are desperate to be right, where wrong is seen as failure, very few political or business leaders have the courage and integrity to step into the unknown with candour. It’s much easier to blame someone innocent and hide in the surrounding noise.

That’s not to say text books do not have their place. They are static repositories of what the author(s) believe at a particular point in time and space, together with their evidence. It’s never the truth, but nonetheless a crucial building block in our learning. The giants on whose shoulders we stand.

There is though a balance. alongside the text books, we need to read great works of fiction, poetry, philosophy and anything else that wonders rather than states truths. We need the alchemy that happens when we mix curiosity and wonder with what we think we know, and decide what we need to know.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.


The same is true of knowledge. Knowledge is a river, and changes how we see the world. The truths of text books lies back upstream.

What we are in now goes way beyond text books. Whether we’re politicians, or business people, or just plain old citizens there is no text book for now. Nor is there a “solution”. We have to deal with what’s happening today, with assistance from the past, and an eye on what’s emerging. We cant do it alone. We can though do much in real conversation, in discussion free of ego and “expertise” (we’re right to follow the science – we have no better guide right now – but it’s no map)

If we want to come out of this stronger, we need to connect and really engage in dialogue with people different to us as well as similar, look around us, make our best guess and adapt. We will often be wrong (we always are) but a few more instances of “right” and insight will show us the way.

It’s scary, but we’re human. It’s what we are capable of.

Nobody is coming to rescue us, so we’d best work it out for ourselves. It begins with each of us.

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