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THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

The crisis of the meritocracy: Britain’s transition to mass education since the Second World War

PETER MANDLER, 2020

Oxford: Oxford University Press

361pp, hardback, £25, ISBN 9780198840145

Cambridge historian Peter Mandler has a fundamentally optimistic story to tell about the growth of universal education in Britain over the last seventy years and one can sense his stubborn resistance to any more sceptical interpretation on almost every page of this dense and impressive history. Since the close of the ‘people’s war’ in 1945, Mandler argues, we have witnessed the rise of mass education, initially at secondary level, and more recently in higher education where participation rates currently nudge New Labour’s much vaunted promise of 50 per cent. Contrary to established narratives that have put this development down to economic growth or significant pieces of legislation, Mandler identifies the expansion of educational opportunity as the result of a constantly shifting interplay of demand and supply that has reinforced ‘the deepening compact between the individual citizen and the state which came with formal democracy and the idea of equal citizenship’. Education continues to be seen by the public as one of the ‘decencies’ of life’; hence the inexorable rise in demand for what Mandler often refers to as ‘more and better’.

In short, the people (sort of) did it themselves.

On the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, yet one that is oddly tricky to grapple with, given the mass of contradictory or partial information available to us concerning what the ‘people’ have wanted at any given historical moment or, indeed, who exactly the people are. Mandler deliberately employs ‘a promiscuous array of methods and sources’, sifting through realms of evidence from official publications, interviews, academic studies, pollsters’ findings and demographic surveys in an attempt to clarify the complex relationship between government policy, public demand and social change. This promiscuity encourages him to prosecute his subsidiary critique of the alleged tendency of academic disciplines to work in unhelpful silos. Economists and social scientists, he charges, have paid scant attention to educational expansion while educationists and political historians tend to ‘chop up long-term trends into short political segments’ with many on the left falling into a ‘declinist narrative’ in which the failures of a ‘divided’ Labour party feature heavily as a reason for a lack of genuine progress (an analysis Mandler anyway rejects). But we shall return to the problem of we whingeing progressives in a moment.…

Tag Archives: American dream

Our Kids reveals American class inequality – which has all-too-evident parallels here

Robert D Putnam is that rare creature, a political scientist who has risen above specialism and skilful use of statistics to become the “poet laureate of civil society”. Since the publication in 2000 of Bowling Alone, which charted the weakening of social ties in modern America, he has been courted by civic and religious leaders, including Barack Obama. His latest book, Our Kids, has already inspired passionate essays by Francis Fukuyama, Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt, each, tellingly, finding in Putnam’s research a subtly different message.

Our Kids is an absorbing sketch of the US in the 21st century, built on hundreds of ­interviews with families around the nation (most of which were conducted by Putnam’s research associate Jennifer M Silva) and employing a hefty range of empirical evidence. The book’s starting point is Putnam’s home town, Port Clinton in Ohio, which in the 1950s was a “passable embodiment of the American Dream”. Putnam is careful to acknowledge the racial and sexual prejudices of that era and to note: “Class differences were not absent . . . [but] those differences were muted.” For all that, Port Clinton was, he believes, a “site of extraordinary upward mobility . . . In the breadth and depth of the community support we enjoyed, we were rich, but we didn’t know it.”

Returning home more than half a century later, he finds the town to be a place of stark contrasts, a “poster child for the changes that have swept across America in the last several decades”. Our Kids charts the new divide, with the poor struggling to survive economically, educationally and emotionally, while the middle classes lead largely stable, prosperous lives.

Putnam touches on some striking features of the new inequality, from the rapid growth of a black and Latino middle class to how the better-off are more likely to be politically involved than their poor counterparts, who have become disengaged and distrusting. Although crime has fallen to near-record lows, there has been an exponential (and expensive) rise in imprisonment, particularly of black men, with catastrophic implications for the families left behind.

There is even a striking new divide in family relations. Among the middle classes, the 1950s model of stay-at-home mother and wage-earner father has given way to two graduate working parents, both highly involved with their children. Middle-class children enjoy every advantage: access to good schools, a broader range of extra-curricular activities, a wide net of parental contacts and even the social benefits of family dinners.…

Latest writing

How politics lost touch with everyday life

Early on in his elegiac study of how our literary and aesthetic past might animate our political future, Marc Stears singles out DH Lawrence’s “wonderful essay” Insouciance, written in 1928, which he believes embodies “the vision that animates this book”. In the essay, Lawrence describes a meeting with two elderly ladies who try to draw him into a conversation about “Benito Mussolini and the potential threat he posed to the world” as he watches two men mow the lawn of the hotel where they are all staying. For Lawrence, “the worst ogress couldn’t have treated me more villainously. I don’t care about right and wrong, politics, fascism… There was a direct sensuous contact between me, the lake, mountains, cherry trees, mowers… All this was cut off by the fatal shears of the abstract word fascism… the little old lady… beheaded me, and flung my head into abstract space.”

It may be difficult for a modern reader to agree with Lawrence that he is the true representative of what he calls “actual living”. But both Lawrence and Stears are trying to make the larger point that it is in our daily life that the most significant experiences reside and that politics is too often unhelpfully broad-brush, arrogantly distant from the things that really matter. At the same time, we are alerted to the central problem of any study that ambitiously seeks to reclaim the values of everyday life. Whose everyday life? Whose values?

Stears is an academic, policymaker (currently director of the Sydney Policy Lab) and former speech writer for Ed Miliband, and it soon becomes clear that his ideas spring from cherished memories of a happy Welsh childhood. Celebrations of such familial and communal values, he argues, can be found in the writings of Lawrence, George Orwell, JB Priestley and Dylan Thomas (particularly in Thomas’s Under Milk Wood), as well as the images of the photographer Bill Brandt and the artist Barbara Jones. Taken together, Stears argues, their work represents a generous if unselfconscious social solidarity that sustained the best of Britishness through the interwar years and the Second World War, and found its apotheosis in the 1951 Festival of Britain: a guiding vision that could once again inspire our fractured nation.

Stears’s quest is interesting and bold, but his attempt to unearth a consistent theme across a medley of early 20th-century literary works and then to apply them to the pressing problems of 21st-century Britain soon becomes fraught – as he acknowledges – with contradictions.…

Latest news & events

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.

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