Leveling Up Government Schools is Truly an Olympian Effort

My French brother-in-law recently asked me over the telephone whether I was proud of the relatively good performance of British athletes in the Olympic Games, to which I replied that I was not; rather, I was completely indifferent to it. After all, the performance of North Korean athletes was likewise relatively good, for reasons having perhaps more to do with stick than carrot, and no sensible person would conclude anything favorable about North Korea on the grounds of the prowess of its athletes.

Personally I rank such prowess rather low on the scale of human accomplishment, and my own view is that the country that always comes out best from the Olympics, the only one, as far as I know, whose government takes a principled stand against official encouragement of such prowess, is India. Of course, being a free country, it does not actually prevent anyone from devoting his life to throwing the javelin or putting the shot further than anyone else in the world, but on the other hand does nothing actively to encourage him. Bravo India, with so large a proportion of the world’s population, and so small a proportion of the Olympic medals! It is the hope of the world.

It would be in vain for me to pretend that my attitude is shared by most of my countrymen, who seem to have magpie eyes for all that glitters and yet is worthless. They at least are proud of the performance of their countrymen, especially in relation to that of their neighbors the French. Patriotism of this kind is not the last resort of the scoundrel, it is the first consolation of the fool.

But there is a fly in the soothing ointment of British pride in the athletic accomplishments of their fellow-countrymen: those accomplishments clash horribly with another national obsession, that of social justice. For it turns out that a much higher proportion of successful athletes at the Olympics were privately educated than of the population in general. This is thought to be grossly unjust, not only in itself but because it is against what one might have predicted. That the privately educated should dominate the more cerebral avocations of mankind is perhaps only to be expected; but that those whom the social system has consigned or condemned to be (relatively speaking) hewers of wood and drawers of water should not even be able to take the honors of physical speed or strength – well, that is just too much, the cup of comparative disadvantage runneth over.

As far as I am aware, no one in Britain has yet proposed that British athletes should be handicapped in proportion to the privilege of their background, for example by carrying a one or two pound weight on their backs for each extra $5,000 of parental income by comparison with the median income (of genetic or congenital advantages I hardly dare speak, so contentious is the matter). No: it is accepted that the race, being so important that it cannot be tinkered with, must go to the swift, however it comes about that some are swift and some are slow.

When it comes to a much less important or more trifling matter, however, namely that of education, tinkering is precisely what the most important part of the British intelligentsia thinks should be done. (I define the most important part of the intelligentsia as that which will not rest until its reformist proposals, however obviously absurd, ridiculous, counterproductive or disastrous, are carried out. It is easily recognised by its sheer persistence, by the drill-like nature of its arguments, and the willingness of at least some of its members to outlast anyone else at a public or committee meeting.)

Thus, several quite prominent universities in Britain, having noticed that they are admitting fewer and fewer young people from disadvantaged homes, have recently decided that henceforth they will admit more such students even though their academic accomplishments are lower than those who come from better-off homes, of whom they will admit fewer.

It is not difficult to imagine what the justification for this policy would be, uttered in the unctuous tones habitually used by what Thomas Sowell calls the anointed, with the aim of equalizing the universe: a slight variation, in effect, of Doctor Johnson’s opinion on female preaching. ‘Sir,’ said the Doctor, ‘a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’

So it is with the products of the British state educational system; they do not pass exams with high grades, but you are surprised that they pass them at all, or even take them. Considering all the pedagogical experiments of the past thirty or forty years that have been practiced upon them and of which they are the survivors, they do well even to turn up on the day. This in itself is a sign of comparatively superior intellect.

But I do not think it requires the foresight of Nostradamus to see where this will all end: for example, that the very good students denied places at British universities in order to carry out a little Stalin-style social engineering will simply go abroad, never to return to the land that so hates them.

Social reformers have always found it easier to level down than to level up. The former can be done by simple and purely administrative means, whereas the latter requires long, persistent and wise effort, not necessarily by the bureaucrats, without much assurance of success in the long run because such factors as genetic endowment are likely to interfere with the outcome. It is far easier to make allowances for children of disadvantaged homes than to arrange for them to have a decent education in the first place, which among other things would require good teachers using proper pedagogical methods teaching subject matter that is worthwhile in itself. The procedural measure of success – equality of rates of admission to university – is admirably suited to a world in which appearance is often confounded with reality, a world of spin-doctoring, a world in fact in which such things as the Olympic Games can be taken seriously.