28 July 2007

The politics of Procrustes

In Antony Flew’s book The Politics of Procrustes (Temple Smith 1981, p.21), he defines some ideas of equality, that is, ‘proposed ideals of how things ought to be.’
Of the three ideals, or sorts of ideals, the first, the most ancient, and the most difficult to define, is sometimes seen as a secular version of something believed to be common to the three great traditions of Mosaic theism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are popularly presented as teaching the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God, with the apparent consequence that all human souls are of equal value in the eyes of their Creator.

The second ideal is customarily called equality of opportunity, although it would be more apt to call it open competition for scarce opportunities: this was, in the French Revolution of 1789, ‘La carriere ouverte aux talents’.

The third ideal, and the one to which so many of our political intellectuals today profess allegiance, is best characterised as equality of outcome or equality of result.
I have put ‘open competition for scarce opportunities’ in bold to draw attention to it, because I do not think it receives much consideration these days, although it was what I imagined (in 1945), and was told by my father, the Welfare State was intended to bring in.
Consider next a major Harvard contribution to the sociology of education. Towards the end of an extended research report, simply entitled Inequality, Christopher Jencks remarks: ‘The reader should by now have gathered that our primary concern is with equalising the distribution of income’.

[He] insists: ‘Most educators and laymen evidently feel that an individual’s genes are his, and that they entitle him to whatever advantages he can get from them. ... For a thoroughgoing egalitarian, however, inequality that derives from biology ought to be as repulsive as inequality that derives from early socialisation’. (Ibid, pp. 22-23, quoting from C. Jencks et al., Inequality, Allen Lane 1973.)

The report quoted by Flew was written by an American in 1973. So far as this country is concerned, the ‘thoroughgoing egalitarian’ attitude has been practically universal as the religion of modern society from the inception of the Welfare State in 1945, although the underlying beliefs were at that time rarely expressed openly. Nevertheless, at the state school which I attended against my will in 1950, I was explicitly told, not only that advantages in life which resulted from environmental (parental) support and encouragement were unfair, but also that advantages arising from innate ability were unfair and should be prevented.

My father’s IQ was very high for the headmaster of a primary school and the IQ range at this school was below the average for schools in general, so that the difference in ability between himself and his pupils (and the parents of his pupils) was unusually great. No doubt this aroused resentment and a desire to explain it away. The situation was made even worse by the fact that his offspring (me) had a phenomenal IQ, considerably higher even than his own.

Hostility was aroused by the fact that I came top of the county in the grammar school scholarship at the earliest possible age (in the year before it became the 11 plus) with 100% on every paper. This led to agitation among people associated with my father’s school to sue him on the grounds that (as my mother quoted to me several decades later, long after my education had been ruined):

(a) I could not have done it on my own. So he had been killing me with overwork and should be sued for maltreating me.

(b) If he could do it for me, he could and should have done it for their children at his school as well.

These complaints, while not entirely consistent, both express a wish to believe that all differences in educational attainment result from environmental influences and should be eliminated. The wish to believe these things is very strong in modern society and it is clear that the psychological forces which have produced the modern ideology had already been set in motion.

They were no doubt present in the local education authority as well as in the headmistress and teachers of the state school to which I was sent, when it had come to light that the convent school which I had been attending had been too permissive towards me, and had been on the verge of allowing me to start taking public exams a few years before the average age for doing so.

I realise now that when my parents expressed opposition to the idea of my going to university, they were showing their willingness to go along with the plans of the local education authority and the local educational community generally. There must have been strong motivation to demonstrate that my early precocity was nothing but the result of my father’s ‘pushing’ me, and that I was no better suited to go to university than the children at his school. It was unlikely that any of them could be got to university (especially at that time, when ‘dumbing down’ had scarcely started), so equality of outcome would more easily be achieved by preventing me from doing so.

So having got me into a state school where the teachers were pre-warned against me and did their best to make my life a misery, my parents were only selling me the party line when they greeted my complaints about the school, and expressions of an urgent desire to leave it, with arguments on the lines of, ‘If you are so unhappy at school, I can’t think why you say you want to do research. If you were suited to academic pursuits you would not be so unhappy at school. And you say you want to go to university! Don’t think we mind if you don’t. It is perfectly all right by us if you don’t go at all.’

Or, in fact, ‘Despair and die.’ It always reminded me of the ghosts which appeared to Richard III in his dream in Shakespeare’s play.

‘Despair and die.’ This was in general the attitude towards me for many years. At Somerville it was, ‘It doesn’t matter if you can’t do well enough to get a research scholarship. There is no need to change your subject or allow you to improve your circumstances in any way. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to do research or have an academic career. Research is dull. Just don’t worry about it. Despair and die.’