The Ghost in the Machine

Professor Robert Plomin has recently published more findings following from his previous work on the heritability of academic ability, in relation to the merits or otherwise of selective education. He attributes almost all of the 7% difference in performance (as measured by G.C.S.E. grades) to factors other than attendance at a selective school – and suggests that the remaining percentile may be accounted for by genetic variations.

The Guardian naturally seized on this as further evidence against selective education, as no doubt will many others.

I would not be at all surprised if the claims made in this research regarding selective schools were entirely correct. But regrettably, this piece of research is just another example of valuing the measurable rather than (everything) valuable. What neither Plomin nor anyone else can do is measure the cultural effects of attending not necessarily a selective school, but a seriously highbrow one. It should be noted that those two categories need not overlap by 100% – though it is very likely that highly academic and thereby cultured schools will be selective, for obvious reasons.

As one who attended a boys’ grammar school and taught in a comprehensive, I can say with some confidence that the differences between the two were not in the ability-for-ability exam outcomes of the children – but they were most certainly there in terms of the attitudes and – for want of a better word – culture that the children acquired. This is something indefinable, but which still often has a life-long effect on those who experience it. It is not so much about what happens in lessons or exams, as the ‘air that people breathe’ in such places, that seems to remain in the mindset ever after. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the knowledge of having part of a so-called ‘elite’ either: it’s simply a matter of choosing to, and being able to access substantial culture and thought.

I have written recently about the inability I perceive of many to access ‘serious’ cultural-intellectual capital, and its potentially disenfranchising consequences for the overall quality of life. There is no doubt in my mind that a school that is able to cultivate a reflective, thoughtful and even highbrow atmosphere, where the pinnacles of human achievement are venerated and imitated, will better equip those who attend it with the expectations (of themselves as much as anyone) and perhaps the skills to access many life-affirming fields and outlooks. As I also wrote, this is a major (and overlooked) element in reducing social inequality – which is not a purely economic matter either.

Unfortunately, schools that need to cater for children (and their parents) who have no inclination to make the necessary effort to do this will always struggle to create such an ethos. This is not only a matter of ability, though it is still likely that the finer points of academe (not to mention any perception of their value) will be intellectually beyond some – and the consequence is that schools will have little choice but to respond in kind. This means, in my experience, that the indefinable atmosphere of an academic institution will simply never emerge, quite possibly reinforced by the staff recruitment choices that are subsequently made.

Sadly, I found my own interests and skills in such matters were largely redundant in the school where I taught – little valued by those in charge, and even less by the numbers of pupils who were unwilling or able to access what I was trying to offer. On the other hand, pop music, celebrity culture and general populist trivia were regularly promoted on the grounds that they were accessible to all; more complex aspirations mostly didn’t get a look-in. Thus the school was unwittingly an ambassador for a low or middlebrow worldview, rather than a repository for the highest kinds of human achievement, which in my view a school should be (no matter what its intake).

I should emphasise that this is not an argument for elitism – in those previous posts I argued that education should be creating opportunities for many more people to access complex forms of culture and thought. But the reality is that non-selective schools necessarily cater for so wide a range of backgrounds, that they in effect can only ever cater for the often-bland middle-of-the-road. To avoid ‘discrimination’, even many of those who might well benefit from exposure to more complex things never get the chance. The consequence of this is everywhere to be seen in our dumbed-down society, where there seem to be fewer and fewer people with the ability and inclination to engage with, and argue for, anything other than lowbrow populism.

The only  elitist or selective argument I would support is that as cultural custodians to society, it is preferable for schools to equip some people to nurture and perpetuate intelligent thought and culture than none.

So Plomin may well be right in his findings – but yet again the emphasis on the measurable outcomes of education only has failed to get near the essence of the ghost in the educational machine.

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