Monday, 22 May 2017

A Grammar Of Ascent?

(This post was originally published as an article in 2015 on another website, now defunct. If I wrote it now I'd change some things but it still reflects my overall thinking, more or less.)  

There are certain genres of article that crop up in the press with great regularity. Dreadful Leftie Hypocrite Sends Kids To Grammar/Private School! is one such. The most recent left-wing notable to be thus exposed was Seumas Milne, late of The Guardian and now in charge of PR for Jeremy Corbyn.

The reaction to such stories tends to be rather muted, not least, I suspect, because rather a lot of journalists (and indeed politicians) who are vocally pro-comprehensive in public are quietly sending their children to independent schools or grammars, or to schools that are comprehensive only in name.

The general shape of the debate over selection has a wearying familiarity. Supporters praise the post-1944 system of state grammar schools as having enabled large numbers of clever but poor children to get a first-class academic education in the state sector, which they would not otherwise have been able to get. They suggest that post-war improvements in access to Oxbridge for state school pupils can be ascribed to the system. Although it’s hard to quantify such a claim, it must contain a certain amount of truth—in just 5 years between 1959 and 1964, the proportion of incoming Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates who had been educated at state schools rose by 11 percentage points, from 26% to 37%.


Opponents say that the old dispensation condemned the majority to sub-standard secondary moderns. Some critics argue that it was biased against girls because there were fewer girls’ grammars than boys’, and that it was unfair to separate children at age eleven with few opportunities thereafter for late intellectual developers to transfer to a grammar. Others note that the network of technical schools envisaged by the 1944 Education Act never really got off the ground (although the failure to provide widespread decent technical education is a problem of very long standing in British educational policy, going back to at least the late nineteenth century). Then there are those who have what are fundamentally political objections to the very idea of academic elitism.

The social mobility question—i.e. do grammar schools make it significantly easier for talented children from less privileged backgrounds to fulfil their full potential, without unacceptable downsides?—is often placed at the centre of the academic selection debate. Both sides have their arguments. The grammar-sceptics note that the UK’s 150-odd remaining grammars do not give many opportunities to poor but clever children, and are instead dominated by the sharp-elbowed middle-classes, who not only know how to play the system, but can afford things like private tuition, music lessons, and trips to the theatre, which give youngsters a head start.

Enthusiasts for grammars point out that it’s very hard to draw firm conclusions about the effect on social mobility of a national network of academically selective secondaries using data drawn from the small number of remaining grammars, and that since some form of selection is inevitable (not everyone can go to the best schools), a child’s academic potential is a much fairer criterion than their parents’ religious affiliation or ability to buy or rent a home in a good catchment area. They might add that the coarsening of many parts of popular culture in the last half-century, and rampant family breakdown, have placed extra barriers in the path of children from less fortunate backgrounds.

That debate will continue. In the meantime, I think there is an important argument for grammar schools that is sometimes overlooked, and it is this: we need places in the state education system where those who are most suited, and most inclined, to participate in and perpetuate high culture can be introduced to that culture, and helped to understand and defend it. That sentence will sound difficult to modern ears. In many readers’ minds words like “elitist” and “snobbery” will start to appear. But a belief in high culture is only the logical outcome of the conviction that it is possible and desirable to draw distinctions between good and bad in culture, and very few people truly believe that it is not possible or desirable to do so. They may disagree where the lines are to be drawn, but that should not be mistaken for not believing in lines at all (for example, I feel sure that fans of a band like Radiohead, who would react angrily to any suggestion that their music is inferior to Mozart or Bach, would almost certainly have little hesitation in asserting the superiority of Radiohead’s music over that of, say, Justin Bieber). To believe in the importance of high culture need not even mean denigrating popular culture. To argue that Great Expectations is objectively a better novel than The Da Vinci Code is not to say that it is morally wrong to read the latter or that Dan Brown is a bad person.

Greater minds than mine have defended the concept of high culture. TS Eliot’s Notes Towards The Definition Of Culture is a well-known extended essay arguing in its favour. One useful way of thinking about culture is that it is a conversation, or perhaps a series of conversations across different disciplines—poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture and so on. By high culture we simply mean the best, the most enduring and the most insightful contributions to those conversations, and the discussion about what individual works belong in those categories is itself part of the broader conversation.

At the root of many people’s inchoate uneasiness about the idea I am presenting is a fear of making judgements, of discriminating. Non-judgmentalism and anti-discrimination are two shibboleths of the modern age. But it is precisely this idea of judgement that we need to rehabilitate. Once upon a time it was a compliment to describe someone as “discriminating”; nowadays it is rather like saying someone steals money from blind orphans.

One of the best places to learn the habit of wise judgement is in a community where everyone else is learning to do so, where people are attempting the difficult but rewarding work of distinguishing between true and false, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, good and bad. To some extent, of course, all schools are doing this, but there ought to be room in the national system for schools that are particularly devoted to doing it consistently and to a high level, and to forming the next generation in the greatest ideals of human culture. Such schools also have a role in providing a supportive setting for those bookish, intellectually-inclined children who would not thrive in more rough-and-tumble environments.

I have sketched only the very bare outlines of a possible argument here. But it is one that I believe is worth thinking about.

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