Wednesday, December 01, 2004


A recent big article in Time magazine reports that middle-class black students from middle-class areas do much more poorly at school than do their white peers. Everybody, including Joanne Jacobs, seems to treat this as a great puzzle. But it is no puzzle at all. Middle class blacks are at the extreme top of the range for blacks whereas middle class whites are not. So the children of middle class blacks are much more likely to suffer from regression to the mean (i.e. to be less exceptional and hence lower achievers than their parents). And their parents probably made it into the middle class mainly because of affirmative action anyway so even if black children had precisely the same abilities as their parents, they would be less able than their white peers. I guess I must be breaking a lot of taboos in saying that but it does happen to be the truth.

The only way that it would be a puzzle that the black children do less well is if educational achievement were purely a function of class background -- and just to name that assumption is surely to expose it for the absurdity it is. Though what seems obvious to me after my 35+ years as a psychometrician may not be obvious to everybody, I guess. So let me just say that there is now nearly 100 years of solidly replicated psychological research to show that academic ability is mainly inherited. Though I think that there can be few people anyway who are unaware that smart kids mostly come from smart parents and thick kids mostly come from thick parents.

The sad thing is that ignoring heredity ends up putting most unfair pressures on the black children described in the Time article. They are undoubtedly being made to feel that they are a disappointment even though they are probably doing as well as they can. So if anyone thinks I am a moral degenerate for mentioning heredity in such a "sensitive" area, what are we to call those who are treating the children concerned in such an unfair and oppressive way?


The recent memo purloined from Prince Charles made the accurate observation that ‘child-centred’ education, by encouraging false expectations and discouraging effort, seriously hampers the one who receives it. University teachers know this, since they have to deal with the products of an education which puts self-esteem before real achievement. Despite the plethora of As and Bs gained through dumbed-down examinations in dumbed-down subjects, young people tend to enter university without the skills required for real study. The likelihood that an incoming undergraduate can read a book or write an essay diminishes from year to year, and only the entrenched sentimentality of the educational establishment prevents it from acknowledging that the cause of this lies in the culture of self-esteem. The ruling principle of our educational system seems to be that children should be made to feel good about themselves. The curriculum should therefore be ‘relevant’ to their interests, and examinations should make no judgment of their linguistic or literary skills.

Education is possible only if we persuade children that there are things worth knowing that they don’t already know. This may make them feel bad about themselves, but feeling bad now is the price of feeling good later. The culture of self-esteem has the opposite effect: by making children feel good now, it makes them feel bad later — so bad indeed that they blame everybody else for their failure, and join the growing queue of resentful litigants. Education involves transmitting knowledge and skills, not illusions, and a practice devoted to persuading children that they are fine just as they are does not deserve the name of education. The acquisition of knowledge requires both aptitude and work, a truth so obvious that only decades of egalitarian propaganda could have induced so many people to deny it.

The fracas over the Prince’s memo touches on deeper matters, however. Education is an end in itself. But it is also a means to social advancement. And there can be social advancement only where there is social hierarchy. In a society of equals there is neither failure nor success, and despair is conquered by the loss of hope. Real societies are not like that: they are shaped by competition, conflict, friendship and love, all of them forces that have distinction rather than equality as their natural outcome, and all of them profoundly antipathetic to the culture of self-esteem. A society of real human beings is quite unlike the society for which children are prepared by a ‘child-centred’ education. It is one in which you can lose or gain; in which talent, skill and hard work are rewarded and arrogance and ignorance deplored. Social hierarchy is the inevitable consequence of this: not necessarily the static hierarchy of inherited social class, nor the hierarchy of property that tends to replace it, but a hierarchy all the same, in which influence, affection and power are unequally distributed.

Those elementary truths used to be acknowledged by our education system. When I was awarded a place at our local grammar school, my father, a socialist who jealously guarded his working-class identity, foresaw with a curse that I would ‘get above my station’. And he was right, thank God. Both my father’s resentment and my own success testify to the same underlying reality: that you can rise to a higher station in society by getting a good education. Thanks to my grammar school I gained a scholarship to Cambridge, and thanks to Cambridge I gained the kind of education that opened my thoughts, skills and ambitions to a world that I had never dreamed could be mine. And all this without costing my family a penny.

As a result of the culture of self-esteem, however, the helping hand that I received from the state has been withdrawn by the state. Grammar schools have been largely abolished, the curriculum has been vandalised (and also compelled) and the subjects which contain worthwhile knowledge — maths, the hard sciences, Latin, Greek and ancient history — have been driven to the margins of the system. And having destroyed the schools the state would now like to destroy the universities, by forcing them to take the dumbed-down products of its vandalism. All this shows a deep hostility to social hierarchy. But egalitarian dogma does nothing to abolish social hierarchy: it simply ensures that children at the bottom are given no chance to rise to the top. The way to make hierarchy acceptable is not to pretend that it can be abolished, but to provide poorer children with the means to rise in it. In other words, it is to replace aristocracy and plutocracy with meritocracy. And that means doing the kind of thing that was done by my grammar school, and which is done by the Prince through his admirable Trust, namely, to provide young people with the opportunity to develop their talents and to reap the full reward for their work.

Now there are hierarchies only if there are people at the bottom of them. The advocates of self-esteem are so exercised by this fact that they try to invert the social spectrum, to represent the bottom as the top and the top as the bottom. Slovenly speech is praised as socially authentic, and ignorance as ‘difference’. All forms of knowledge that require aptitude or work, or which aspire to a higher culture than that of the street, are dismissed as ‘elitist’ and driven to the edge of the curriculum. The music mistress who wishes to help her class to understand sonata form and its role in the classical symphony will be criticised for the ‘irrelevance’ of her lessons, which ought instead to be concentrating on the kind of music that young people prefer — Oasis, for instance. The suggestion that we ought to be teaching young people to prefer something better will be dismissed as arrogant and oppressive. This anti-elitism has the reverse effect of that intended, since it confines young people to the social position from which they start....

More here


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

Comments? Email me here. For times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site (viewable even in China!) here


No comments: