Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Blunt vs. Bryant

Shadow cabinet minister Chris Bryant bemoaning the renewed success of the public schoolboy in modern-day Britain:
I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk. Where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons? They came through a meritocratic system.
To hazard a guess, I'd say the Alberts and Glendas are still with us, it's just that their ambitions have been neglected by a state education system that, through the best of intentions, has become ideologically committed to mediocrity.

Also, since when was Harrow then Sandhurst a sneaky backdoor into pop stardom?

It's an unpalatable thought, but what if Britain actually is fairly meritocratic, and this is exactly the reason why the public-schoolers are doing so well — they've been better educated and are consequently more successful. 

How do we make sure government, the top end of sport, and culture represent broader society?

We could say — yes, well-educated old Etonians etc. largely do succeed in wider society through fair, meritocratic competition, but their becoming well-educated in the first place was un-meritocratic, because it came to down to having rich parents: so let's achieve meritocracy by banning private education.

Problem with outlawing private education is that it means the state would have a monopoly on coming up with ideas for how to educate ourselves - on current evidence it is too unlikely those ideas would always (or regularly) be the best ones, and education is too important for close-mindedness. Think of a private school and one thinks of Harrow, but there are plenty of experimental private schools based on diverse educational theories.

I'd rule out this illiberal solution, though would agree on the need to reform the overly lax tax rules.

If a liberal democracy that values education therefore has to live with private schools, then what is the best way to cohabit? Positive discrimination in favour of state schoolers, or negative for public schoolers is unthinkable — if our two-tier society is bad and invidious why perpetuate it? Besides, we forget that meritocracy doesn't just mean the best candidate getting what they deserve — it also means our society gets what it deserves, which is the best-qualified and educated people doing the important jobs, whatever their background.

The only way we can live with a private education sector, be a liberal democracy, and have a properly representative elite is for the state sector to compete with the private. Ok, in terms of cash — impossible. And let's rule out grammar schools for now as a partially failed experiment. 

That leaves institutional ethos — easily rejected by the materialist dogma of many on the left, but this is no sensible reason to neglect it. We would be silly to ignore the principals of successful independent schools when they stress the centrality of ethos in their success. Maybe 'ethics' would be a better term — what it is good that you do, what it is bad that you do. The universality of state education encourages the assumption that it is ethically neutral, but I don't think it is. 

So here is a list of ethics I think state schools should propagate, but which were either absent or merely soft-pedalled at the state school I went to:

  1. It is good to be pushed, hard, to do worthwhile things;
  2. It is good to excel, even though others around you do not;
  3. It is good to be extraordinary;
  4. It is good to do difficult things.

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