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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: Reviews

Finding vindication: on the intertwined lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon has managed to produce that rare thing, a work of genuinely popular history.

Romantic Outlaws: the Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley Charlotte Gordon Hutchinson, 649pp, £25

This ingeniously constructed double biography tells the story of a mother and a ­daughter, two writers, who did not know each other. Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died of septicaemia ten days after giving birth to Mary Godwin, later best known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Very different in character and interests – Wollstonecraft was more political, Shelley more scholarly – both women demanded a rare romantic and intellectual freedom that cost them dearly but pushed the boundaries of possibility for later generations.

Wollstonecraft was probably the greater pioneer of the two. Born the second of seven children to a drunken bully of a father and a passive mother, she felt keenly the absence of formal education for herself and her sisters, an injustice that inspired works such as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Vindication. A resourceful woman, she not only earned her own living from a young age but cared for her younger sisters for long periods of time.

Godwin had potentially more stable beginnings, as a daughter of Wollstonecraft’s grieving husband, the philosopher William Godwin, the author of Enquiry ­Concerning Political Justice. Thanks to her father, the young Mary received a better education than did many of her male peers. Yet her dead and already notorious mother haunted her. Throughout her life, she read and reread Wollstonecraft’s work and she and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley often met and talked at her mother’s grave in St Pancras. They may even, Gordon speculates, have first made love there. Gordon later suggests that Frankenstein is best interpreted as a story of the horrors that follow when a mother’s love is absent.

The profound perils of sex, romance and motherhood resonate throughout these pages. Wollstonecraft travelled alone to revolutionary Paris, at first enthralled and later horrified and threatened by Robespierre’s reign of terror. Here, she fell in love with a charismatic American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, and became pregnant with her first daughter, Fanny. As a lone mother, she was a social outcast but went on to publish perhaps one of her greatest works, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Her daughter also suffered as both a lover and a mother.…

Primary politics: parenting advice from Toby Young and Michael Rosen

Two publications ostensibly designed to provide reassurance and wisdom to parents of primary-age children and perhaps to tap in to the ever-growing “pushy parenting” market.

What Every Parent Needs to Know: How to Help Your Child Get the Most Out of Primary School  Toby Young and Miranda Thomas Viking, 432pp, £14.99

Good Ideas: How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher  Michael Rosen John Murray, 368pp, £16.99

As an anxious new mother, I passionately bonded with Penelope Leach’s Baby and Child. With its pen-and-ink illustrations and Leach’s calming authorial voice, it guided me carefully through the terrifying and exhilarating early months. Now along come two publications, ostensibly designed to provide similar reassurance and wisdom to parents of primary-age children and perhaps – surely not? – to tap in to the ever-growing “pushy parenting” market. What is extraordinary is that such different writers (or their publishers) came up with such similar ideas, down to the very titles.

But there the similarities end. The book by Young and Thomas, which comes in at a hefty 400-plus pages, falls into two distinct parts: a detailed description of the new national primary curriculum, year on year, subject by subject, plus a list of supplementary activities for parents who want to boost their children’s learning. The calm, non-partisan tone of this volume (a stylistic departure for Toby Young) deftly obscures its political agenda. No mention here that two of the four expert members of the original panel set up to devise the new primary curriculum resigned in the summer of 2012, concerned about its prescriptive tone and lack of arts education or regard for oral development, among other things, as well as the government’s failure to consult on implementation.

In its place, Young and Thomas pour approval on all they set out to describe, parboil complex pedagogical debates down to simple statements of fact (“phonics is widely recognised as the most effective way of teaching young children to read”) and take easy sideswipes at previous primary curriculums, typically characterising these as demeaningly easy. One gets no sense here of how schools, or indeed parents, are to deal with those children who might struggle with – to cite just one example – the dense history curriculum in year five that covers, inter alia, “the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the fall of the Roman empire, the invasion of Scotland and the migration of Germanic tribes to England from the western coasts of Europe”.…

Women on the verge: Melissa Benn on Beatrix Campbell and Laurie Penny

Prepare to be depressed. We are living through the “end of equality”, the once-celebrated advances of feminism going into dangerous reverse.

End of Equality Beatrix Campbell Seagull Books, 134pp, £6.50

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution Laurie Penny Bloomsbury, 288pp, £12.99

Beatrix Campbell, journalist and activist, working-class radical and feminist, now in her later sixties, is in many ways the quintessential British writer. She has brilliantly reimagined Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, turned a tough and tender eye on Tory women, dissected Britain’s dangerous places and Diana, Princess of Wales, and, more recently, investigated the Northern Ireland peace settlement through the eyes of women and “the coalition of the committed”.

That she is not defined, let alone deified, as the quintessential British writer may be, at least in part, due to her being a working-class radical, feminist and activist – and now in her later sixties. . . Radical men (unless they are patently ridiculous) mature; their reputations settle and expand. Uncompromising feminists are too often faded – note the passive verb – into the background.

There’s a definite sense of kickback in End of Equality, her latest book. At 92 pages with nearly half as many again in footnotes, this slim volume packs a concentrated punch. It turns out that a potentially boundless mass of information from around the globe works best in pocket-size form, particularly when allied to a clear message.

Prepare to be depressed. We are living through the “end of equality”, the once-celebrated advances of feminism going into dangerous reverse. In the UK the pay gap now seems permanent, the multiple blows of austerity have hit women far harder than men, and men’s involvement in engaged fatherhood, though greater than it was, has not brought about the domestic democracy once dreamt of by second-wave feminism. Over the past four decades, men’s core domestic work has “increased by a rate of about one minute per day per year . . . a pace of change both palpable and pitiful”.

In the UK, decades of legal and campaigning work on equal pay for work of equal value, one of the most imaginative political strategies of class-imbued feminism, has led to some historic successes in Birmingham, Cumbria and Scotland, but cash-strapped local councils are unable or unwilling to pay up. Central government is not going to underwrite local councils as it did the banks, and certainly not in order to pay thousands of dinner ladies, carers and nursery nurses backdated settlements worth billions.…

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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