Bludgeoning Aspiration to Get to Equality

There is no more fateful failure of modern political thought than its failure to distinguish between elitism and social exclusivity. From this failure stems an enormous, costly, and increasingly intolerant attempt to rectify what is not wrong in the first place. One fights chimeras the better to avoid confrontation with real enemies.

In Britain, there has been a long and expensive struggle over selective education—that is, the provision of different kinds of education and schools suited to different kinds of abilities. The fanatics of formal equality of opportunity have triumphed over the moderates of at least some real opportunity for all. Why? Because in the world of modern democratic politics, a declared aim is more important than an actual effect.

In the pre-reform British state educational system (in which 95 per cent of the population was educated), children were divided at the age of 11 into two main streams: the smaller academic stream and the larger vocational stream. The schools for the former were known as grammar schools, and there were such schools even in the poorest areas, though fewer of them than in middle-class areas.

I will leave aside the question of whether this differential reflected mere social prejudice or the greater concentration of high ability in the middle class. The point is that attendance at a grammar school in a poor area was a virtual guarantee of its pupils’ social ascent into the middle class. In these schools, the education given was self-consciously not “relevant” to the pupil’s experience. It was often precisely his experience that held him back, that forged the man-made manacles to which William Blake referred in his poem London. The learning of French, say, might not be of much use in the slums, but it was not supposed that the pupil would stay in the slums forever; at the very least, learning it would broaden his outlook on the world.

Needless to say, this education reflected, and required, a cultural and even a mildly ideological confidence on the part of those who transmitted it. The preceptors believed that there were higher intellectual attainments that were worthwhile in themselves, and that assisting the low-born to ascend the social ladder was a worthy and even a noble end.

The system came under attack for two reasons, one practical and the other political.

The practical reason was the correct observation that the education offered in the non-grammar schools was often, or usually, of a wretched standard, neither academic nor even properly technical. A large part of the population, then, was left semi-literate and semi-numerate. This left them difficult to train to become skilled workers.

Now the mentality of a large and increasing bureaucracy such as that which ran and runs the British educational system, faced with a part that functions well and a part that functions badly, will always choose the destruction of the part that functions well as the solution to supposedly improving the whole. It is their equivalent of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction, except that it is destructive destruction. After all, it is easy to destroy (success is almost certain) but difficult to improve. Moreover, it ought never to be forgotten that, all judgment being comparative, the good always throws a lurid light on the bad. Equality of mediocrity assures the peaceful existence of a bureaucrat.

The political attack on the system was from two main directions. First, it was increasingly denied by intellectuals that there were any higher intellectual attainments that were worthwhile in themselves. The hierarchy of such attainments was based upon a foundation that, being metaphysically assailable, was therefore deemed not to exist. This eventually affected pedagogy profoundly, once the attitude had made its long march through the institutions.

The second political point of the “reformers” was that social ascent was undesirable, and beyond that it was positively harmful in so far as it reinforced the whole structure of an unjust society that was in need of total destruction, not mere amelioration. Offering poor children the opportunity for social ascent, as the grammar schools had done, was like treating cancer with an anti-depressant. Aspiration in an unfair society only preserved the unfairness.

Keep in mind there was no demand from below for the amalgamation of good and bad schools. As with so many reforms, the demand came almost entirely from the intellectual wing of the political class. The meritocratic system was destroyed in the name of undermining social exclusivity, the theory of it being so much more important than the practice. Then, once the destruction started, resistance crumbled. Prime Minister Thatcher, herself a product of the system, did much—perhaps more than anyone else—to forward the destruction when she was Minister of Education. She did not even try to reverse it.

The result: a class society came to look more like a caste society. If the teaching of grammar, for example, were abandoned on the theory that no form of language was superior to any other, an enormous additional advantage was now handed, almost ex officio, to middle class children for whom Standard English was their native tongue. In addition, the middle classes were able to avoid or evade prevailing low standards.

The grammar schools had cultural as well as educational effects: They kept aspiration alive where it was so easily lost (all the more so as jobs for an unskilled working class evaporated). And they suggested a hierarchy of achievement, in which celebrity and football (soccer) had little place, let alone the complete hegemony in the minds of the poor that they now have. (Surveys of British children show increasingly that the word “talent” is associated by them with either pop music or football, and nothing else.)

Of course, elitism and social exclusivity are more than passing acquaintances. Elites tend to reproduce themselves, which is as it should be when you stop to think about it by comparing it with the alternative: a society in which parents do not care specially about their children and make no efforts to secure them the advantages that they themselves have had or achieved.

But a class society is not therefore a closed society. The latter is what attempts to bring about a type of equality other than equality under the law usually eventuate in.