Not Saussure

March 10, 2007

Chippiness and privilege

Filed under: Education — notsaussure @ 11:46 am

Recently Chris Dillow took issue with Daniel Finkelstein’s diagnosis of jibes about David Cameron’s university membership of the Bullingdon Club as ‘chippiness’, a discussion carried on by Fabian Tassano in Mediocracy. As I suggested in the comments to Fabian’s article, I’m from vaguely that sort of milieu myself but could never quite see the point of drinking and dining clubs when I was at Cambridge; if I wanted to get drunk and then get up to the stupid sort of things young men do when they’re drunk with their mates, I could do that perfectly well without getting up a club or society under whose auspices to do it.

Anyway, I’d turned such analytical talents as I possessed to the sociology of the University — about 9 men to every 1 woman in those days of single-sex colleges — and concluded that majority of my male fellow-students had simply given up on the girls, feeling outnumbered by the competition, and were consoling themselves with drunken japes in all-male companionship. Meanwhile, the poor girls were finding themselves massively outnumbered by men, most of whom were scared to talk to them, which left them feeling ever-so neglected. In like Flynn, me, since I’ve always thought you can have much more fun with one member of the opposite sex than with several members of the same one, particularly when the latter are only interested in getting someone’s trousers off so they can claim to have ‘de-bagged’ him because that’s what they think undergraduates are supposed to do.

Chris says,

It’s pitiful that such people have had so much money spent on their education and yet have (with a few exceptions) turned into no-marks. Some, I’ve heard, are so imbecilic that they couldn’t even get into Oxford.Even the public schoolboys who have done quite well for themselves have done little better than us. When I worked in the City, I remember talking to an Harrovian colleague and asking: “aren’t you embarrassed that, with all that money spent on your education, you’ve ended up working next to me?”

Part of the answer, of course, is that many of the public schools certainly don’t select purely on academic grounds; mine, one of the brainer ones, certainly didn’t; indeed, Francis Wheen has been known to joke on The News Quiz, neither did his.   He attended a comprehensive (Harrow), he reckons since obviously no school attended by his class-mate, Mark Thatcher, can claim to select purely on brains.    One suspects Chris Dillow should have asked  what his colleague might have been doing had he not had all the extra help that a bright chap like Chris clearly didn’t need.

The question, I suppose, is how do people feel about ‘buying an unfair advantage’ for their children (as opposed, of course, to others buying an unfair advantage for their children, which is clearly wrong). I have in mind the daughter of a chap for whom my wife used to work. The girl was apparently a handful, to say the least; ‘challenging’ is, I believe, the preferred phrase. Her parents were in the fortunate position to be able to send her to a school that specialised in keeping such girls from getting up to too much havoc during their teenage years, with the result that young Georgie managed to scrape a few GCSEs and an undistinguished A level before emerging, with not inconsiderable charm and poise, to work for a few years in some minor capacity in a PR company belonging to one of daddy’s friends before, eventually, getting married to some amiable chap from a not dissimilar background.

Had the lass attended, if not the local comp (dunno what the local comp in Knightsbridge is like), at least some local comps, her life would doubtless have taken a rather different turn and she’d quite possibly have been one of these young single mothers who live off benefits, having collected an ASBO or two, or at least until either Tony Blair’s exhortations or David Cameron’s tax incentives encourage them to mend their ways.

Unfair, certainly, but what’s wrong — perzactly — with her parents spending a not inconsiderable amount of money on trying to make sure turned out rather more responsible than otherwise she might have done, didn’t make a nuisance of herself — at least to the general public — while she was growing up, and didn’t cost the taxpayers a penny? I know it’s not fair that others didn’t have her advantages, but, as my late wife used to say during her last illness, she’d looked at the back of her birth certificate, and it didn’t say anything about how things have to be fair.

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  1. You are quite right. I don’t know why even the otherwise-rational in Britain feel they have the right to interfere in private decisions on this particular issue.

    If my wife and I (comprehensive-educated both, and my wife a teacher in several comprehensives) had not be able to afford private education, we would simply not have had children. We know what State education in Britain means and – on an informed basis – it was simply as important as that to us. I don’t regret not owning the Ferraris I could have bought for the money. It was the best I have ever spent.

    Given that, via taxes, we paid for other children to be educated by the State, why are we in any way open to criticism for paying extra for our own children to be educated privately? They didn’t wear NHS spectacles or go to NHS dentists either. Again, we paid for resources which were then used by others. We should get a bloody medal.

    Frankly, given the outrageous cost of private education in Britain, it says something very important that there is such strong demand for it – and by no means only from rich people to whom the fees are just pocket change. My colleagues from Germany, France or America are perfectly content to send their children to State schools.

    As for Chris Dillow’s Harrovian chum, perhaps without the benefit of his education, he might not have been able to get a job working next to him? Money well spent, if so.

    Surely Chris’s point is anyway a very cheap one? Education isn’t all about the job you can get afterwards – it’s about quality of life. The best thing my children got for my money was encouragement to think independently. My wife, by contrast, gave up teaching for the State because it even wanted to dictate the comments she was allowed to make on school reports, offering her only a menu of “positive” observations. Are cowed teachers likely to produce independent thinkers?

    Comment by Tom Paine — March 10, 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  2. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea to concede that it’s “unfair”. Once you do, your main argument against all the destructive socialist intervention is “whoever said life had to be fair?”.

    First, it may in fact be fairer than alternatives (e.g. lotteries) if in fact there’s a correlation between intelligence and wealth. (A possibility which is treated by most educational commentators as if it can be completely ignored.)

    Second, even there were no such correlation, all the evidence suggests that a state educational system is “unfair” for everybody – (a) because it produces stupid anomalies (e.g. if you happen to live in Hackney you get a much worse deal than if you live in Oxford), and – more importantly – (b) because it has a damaging effect on everyone.

    Though, of course, some socialists may feel that as long as it’s equally damaging for everyone, that satisfies the principle of “fairness”.

    Comment by Fabian Tassano — March 11, 2007 @ 8:57 am

  3. Chris’ attitude and I’ve taken it up with him, is tosh. what the hell does it matter what Cameron did with his spare time, even if it was a Bilderberger type of thing. It’s their right. I can’t stand people wanting to remove other people’s freedoms in this way or salgging them for being ‘clubby’, for example. I’m like you in that I was never into them much but that’s anotehr question.

    Comment by jameshigham — March 11, 2007 @ 11:25 am

  4. Fabian, I’m perfectly happy to concede ‘it’s unfair;’ I have it on very good authority that ‘the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all’!

    Self-evidently, the life-chances of someone born in Hackney are probably not likely to be as advantageous as those of someone born in Knightsbridge. And certainly, somone of young Georgina’s character and temperament — she’s a pleasant enough girl, but hardly Hypatia outfitted by Harvey Nich’s — born in different circumstances would almost certainly have had a very different life.

    This, I think, is important to acknowledge; partly because facts is facts even though we may not like them, but primarily because the myth that we’ve, in effect, got a level playing field is as damaging as the one that the playing field can ever be leveled, or at least leveled and leave us with any sort of society we’d want to live in.

    Once we’ve got that out of the way, we’re able — I think — to dispense with both the idea that there aren’t always going to be winners and losers and that the losers deserve no sympathy because it’s all their fault — both ideas, it seems to me, are pretty corrosive. Obviously getting a poor start in life doesn’t excuse you from going off the rails or not making what you can of yourself, but I think social policy — which is normally made by the winners, after all — has to be tempered with a degree of ‘There but for the grace of God.’

    Rather than metaphors drawn from sporting events, I prefer cards — you play the hand you get dealt, and there’s no excuse for not playing it as well as you can, but it’s wrong to blame people for getting dealt a poor hand in the first place.

    It is, to my mind, one of the great strengths of the independent sector in education that it’s able, because of its variety, to help people who don’t necessarily start with a great deal of intellectual ability to fulfill their potential; Wykehamists would probably have done pretty well anywhere — it’s people who go to the brainy establishments (‘St Cake’s may not be a brainy school, but I like to think we’re a happy school’) who really benefit, since, no matter how dim or eccentric your child, you can probably find the ideal school for him in the private sector.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 13, 2007 @ 1:42 pm

  5. NS, I get what you’re saying.

    But what do you make of the now common presumption that the state should rectify any major “unfairness”?

    I think a lot of people would make a distinction between (a) the “unfairness” that some are innately swifter than others, and (b) the “unfairness” that the results of the race reflect not only innate swiftness but environmental advantages/handicaps.

    The major debate at the moment seems to be not with whether (b) is unfair. Most writers seem to think it is, and they also seem to think (me not included) that the state should do something about it, the only question being what.

    No, the debate seems to have moved on to whether (a) is unfair. Even if we accept heredity (it is argued), should we allow those with innately higher ability to enjoy a higher standard of living? When they didn’t do anything to “deserve” it, given it resulted from the luck of the genetic lottery? And some are beginning to argue, no it’s not fair, and we shouldn’t permit inequality even when it is based on meritocracy.

    Comment by Fabian Tassano — March 13, 2007 @ 5:48 pm

  6. What do I make of the now common presumption that the state should rectify any major ‘unfairness’?

    I think it’s pernicious bunkum, since I don’t think it can be done, and, even if it could, few people particularly want to. People say they want fairness, but, in my experience, few people see any solution by which they or their families lose out as being particularly fair.

    I’m all in favour of trying to mitigate the specific practical effects of this unfairness when you can, both in the sense of trying to give people the best start in life (and helping them with fresh starts later on, if they’ve fouled up first time — we all of us make mistakes, after all) and in the sense of not being too hard on people who’re the authors of their own misfortunes, so long as they don’t take the mickey.

    But I find the whole political rhetoric of fairness and equality very worrying. That’s partly, as I said, because I don’t think many people regard their own prosperity as being particularly undeserved, or at least not so undeserved they’re prepared to sacrifice it to any great extent; consequently, I tend to suspect that a great deal of trying to ensure ‘fairness’ will, in fact, mysteriously end up rigging the game in favour of the people who’re deciding the rules — thus proving that it’s only right, proper and fair they should enjoy what they presently do.

    It’s also because I don’t think the state’s got any business doing that; best that it confine itself to allowing people to get on with their own lives as best they can, while ensuring that the laws are equally applied and that people do business with each other on equitable terms.

    Let it do that, while also protecting the weak from being exploited too badly by the strong — because otherwise life can become very unpleasant — so long as they ask for that protection, and maintaining — or helping maintain — a safety net for people who mess up too badly, and I think that’s all we can hope for.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 13, 2007 @ 11:45 pm

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