28 March 2013

Dame Janet Vaughan, the ‘old dragon’ of Somerville

There follows an extract from a review in the Daily Mail by Quentin Letts of the book The Real Iron Lady: Working With Mrs Thatcher by Gillian Shephard.
Janet Vaughan, principal of Mrs T’s Oxford college [Somerville], is several times unveiled as a frightful Lefty snoot – she thought young Margaret Roberts no more than ‘a perfectly adequate chemist’ – but can we not have some description of the old dragon? Did Mrs T ever mention her? Did Vaughan’s dismissiveness fuel the great journey from Grantham to Downing Street? (22 March 2013)
Margaret Thatcher was at Somerville about a decade before I was, so Dame Janet was in situ at the time of the onset of the Welfare State. This shows how well worked out the egalitarian ideology of the Welfare State already was, although at that time seldom made explicit. For example, I do not think that anyone at that time would have said explicitly that there was no such thing as innate ability, or no such thing as genetically determined individual differences.

The appointment of Janet Vaughan as Principal of Somerville sheds a strange light on the underlying intentions of the establishment.

They could hardly have regarded such an appointment as unimportant, or been unaware of what Janet Vaughan’s attitudes were likely to be. Somerville was one of a small number of developing women’s colleges which could be expected to attract the cleverest and most ambitious young women from all over the world, a number of whom would return to their native country to become influential in its government. Dame Janet was strongly communistic in outlook, and communism is opposed to precocious ability. Furthermore, there is every reason to think that Dame Janet herself had an IQ which was well below that of the majority of the undergraduates in her college. It is therefore not surprising that she blocked the way of many of them.

State education might have been expected to provide opportunity for exceptional ability, whatever its original circumstances, but in fact egalitarianism was to mean that there was no such thing as an exceptional individual.

When undergraduates at Somerville encountered difficulties, Dame Janet would deny them permission to take the exams for which they were working and also tell them that they should content themselves with less exalted careers.

I knew of one undergraduate who went regularly to a college of further education in the centre of Oxford to work for an external Honours degree in physics from London University, having been told by Dame Janet that at Oxford she would only be allowed to sit the examination for a Pass degree (a degree without Honours).

Margaret Thatcher was told by Dame Janet that she was nothing more than ‘a perfectly adequate chemist’. I was told by her that I was ‘a competent mathematician, and wasn’t that enough for me?’ I wonder how many others, with IQs far above that of Janet Vaughan herself, were told similar things.

And, denying support for a research scholarship to a Somerville graduate I knew who had a high IQ and was really keen to do research, Dame Janet said – perhaps with the implication that the graduate should not mind about it – that ‘research is dull’. The so-called research which she (Dame Janet) did herself certainly was.