This is the age of educational anxiety

But good grades don’t always make great workers.

Education has never been so stressful. A-level results were published this past week, the culmination of years of collective anxiety by pupils, parents and teachers. Like Christmas, exam stress begins earlier every year. Once confined to the summer term, it now creeps into the whole academic year, not just as a result of coursework but because exam results have never been more crucial. As the universities minister, David Willetts, pointed out, too many employers don’t even consider candidates without a 2.1 degree or better. Attainment is increasingly portrayed as a ladder to the top in which one missed step dooms the whole ascent.
 
I am almost the only member of my family who is not a teacher. My parents were teachers, as were my grandmother and my uncle and aunt; both my grandfathers were stateschool head teachers. Perhaps by genetic predestination, I married a teacher. My family’s experience confirms the general trend: more exams, more anxiety about exams and deepening concern among parents that their children cannot afford to fall short, that opportunities narrow early and decisively.
 
It is easy to bemoan pushy parents, private tutors, overanxious pupils and teachers who teach to the test. We have all encountered parents who view their child’s education as a kind of reverse teleology, beginning with the “right” kind of top job, working backwards through elite university, through school, even into the nursery playground. I suspect that their neurosis often does more harm than good in the long term.
 
But their competitive angst is also understandable. The age of educational anxiety is the inevitable conclusion of two questionable (though rarely questioned) assumptions: first, that grades reflect merit, and second, that academic attainment is what makes people successful in the workplace.
 
Almost everyone in education today agrees that the never-ending steeplechase of examinations and assessment has become damagingly stressful. But that will never change; indeed, it will increase indefinitely, unless employers change the way they make appointments. The question “How do people get good jobs?” is the first domino. That causes a cascade of assumptions that ends in the parental conviction: “My child has to get these results.”
 
Much more revealing than this summer’s exam results was a telling confession by one of the world’s best-known employers. In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, senior vice-president of people operations at Google, gave a candid assessment of his firm’s track record at predicting who would turn out to be a good employee. “We did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring,” Bock said. “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.”
 
Bock’s testimony is unusually valuable because Google collects and analyses a huge quantity of information from employees. “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPAs [the American equivalent of degree classes] are worthless as criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless – no correlation at all,” he said. “Your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed in college.”
 
Bock went further, arguing that there may be an inverse correlation between formal education and original thought. “I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are . . . conditioned to succeed in that environment . . . You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”
 
Everyone has heard the roll-call of big-name businessmen who failed in formal education: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson. Google is trying to widen the net to catch some of that talent. “The proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well,” Bock explained. “We have teams where 14 per cent never went to college.”
 
They would doubtless bridle at the idea of literature as “problem-solving” but Bock’s point applies to writers as well as entrepreneurs. Evelyn Waugh was awarded a Third at Oxford and didn’t even bother to collect it. Cyril Connolly was also placed in the third class. John Betjeman didn’t even do that well – he was given a “pass”, a meagre improvement on a straight fail.
 
But faith in exam results shows no sign of loosening its grip. That is partly because it suits the winners in today’s status quo. I’ve argued before that credentialism has turned full circle. Intended to be a progressive alternative to the old-boy network, credentialism now plays into the hands of people who have the energy and inside knowledge to navigate the system.
 
Given the lengths to which some parents will go in order to engineer superb grades for their children – private tutors, cramming, re-marks, resits – the correlation between exam results and ability is increasingly questionable. That is why we have all had the experience of meeting people with “good degrees” from “top universities” and wondering how it can have happened.
 
Credentialism is an easy position to defend, however. No one gets blamed for giving places at university to highly credentialled candidates who turn out to be spoon-fed. And those hiring at firms are unlikely to be blamed for appointing highly decorated graduates who turn out to be ineffectual employees. But setting out not to get blamed isn’t the same thing as making the best decision.
 
Each year’s set of results is greeted with a forensic analysis of standards, grades, places, rankings and prospects. If only we were equally rigorous about re-examining the dubious assumptions that underpin our obsession with academic attainment. 
John Betjeman at Somerset House in 1975. At Oxford, he just scraped through without failing. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.