Modern political thought fails, writes Dalrymple,
to distinguish between élitism 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.
the fanatics of formal equality of opportunity have triumphed over the moderates of at least some real opportunity for all, 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,
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. 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.
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.
(1) 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 was left semi-literate and semi-numerate. This left them difficult to train to become skilled workers. 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 Schumpeter’s creative destruction, except that it is destructive destruction. It is easy to destroy (success is almost certain) but difficult to improve. Moreover, all judgment being comparative, the good always throws a lurid light on the bad. Equality of mediocrity assures the peaceful existence of the bureaucrat.
(2) The political attack was from two directions.
(a) 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 deemed not to exist. This affected pedagogy profoundly, once the attitude had made its long march through the institutions.
(b) The point was made by the ‘reformers’ that social ascent was undesirable, and positively harmful in so far as it reinforced the structure of an unjust society that was in need of destruction, not amelioration. Offering poor children the opportunity for social ascent was like treating cancer with an anti-depressant. Aspiration in an unfair society preserved the unfairness.
There was, Dalrymple points out,
no demand from below for the amalgamation of good and bad schools. 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.
Once the destruction started, resistance crumbled. Margaret Thatcher,
herself a product of the system, did much—perhaps more than anyone else—to forward the destruction.
The result was that
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 handed, 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). They suggested a hierarchy of achievement, in which celebrity and football had little place, let alone the hegemony in the minds of the poor that they now have. (Surveys of British children show that the word ‘talent’ is associated by them with pop music or football, and nothing else.)
Élites 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.
a class society is not a closed society.
A closed society
is what attempts to bring about a type of equality other than equality under the law eventuate in.