The New Statesman Essay - How we let more mean worse

Alan Ryan argues that, by pretending that the second-rate is as good as the best, British higher edu

Can you be an egalitarian elitist? Or an elitist egalitarian? To put it slightly differently, can you be a traditionalist and an egalitarian? Can you preserve respect, even a degree of reverence, for traditional standards of excellence in the arts and sciences, while wanting an egalitarian society? This question was answered memorably by the critics of university expansion 40 years ago. "More means worse," they said. In general, I am afraid, they turned out to be right.

"Worse" covers a multitude of possibilities. One possibility is that most students would be taught in large classes by underpaid teachers, and their teachers would themselves be less literate, less confident and less at ease with really difficult material than their predecessors had been. On the whole, that has been true. A second possibility is that some of the skills that had been highly valued would decay. Again, it is true that most students today write less sharply, precisely and persuasively than the (far fewer) students of 40 years ago. A third is that while students 40 years ago could - not always, but not infrequently - be got to see that education was a liberation from the parochial and the commonplace, today's students see post-16 education as a chore that has to be endured for the sake of a comfortable billet in the parochial and commonplace world.

However, I want to take the question a bit differently: to argue that, although the critics turned out to be right, it didn't have to be this way - indeed, that to put up with it being like this is to betray the egalitarian cause.

Most sports allow room for both egalitarianism and elitism: they don't care about origins, only about competence. I am a non-starter - not even very bad - as a footballer; Hunter Davies, as a young man, was a bad but enthusiastic one; and Andy Cole is a wonderfully good one. There is a footballing elite, and its members are the players who a competent audience can recognise as the most highly skilled. It is a familiar jibe against egalitarians that they have no complaints against the existence of a footballing elite, but use the term "elitist" as an all-purpose term of abuse in other contexts. It is a cliched insult, but it is on target.

Physics is much like football. Most of us are quite rightly not allowed on the pitch, but we all know that Heisenberg and Bohr did physics the way Michelangelo did sculpture - that is, so astonishingly, that most of the rest of us stand and gawp. We don't have to stand and gawp, however. We can learn enough physics, or at any rate understand enough of the history of physics, to see why Heisenberg and Bohr were important; just as we can try modelling with clay and learn enough of the history of art to get some deeper sense of why Michelangelo surprised his contemporaries and still astonishes us. Making some hefty allowances for the ways in which poetry, historical analysis, urban geography and the sociology of the lower-middle-class family differ from physics and sculpture, we can still draw a sharp line in these subjects between what is done well, and what is done poorly. Indeed, if there are areas where we can't, there is a strong case for thinking that what we are doing is just messing about.

That takes us back to "more means worse". The opponents of university expansion in the early 1960s thought that not many people in any society were likely to devote the passionate attention to works of literature that, say, F R Leavis and his disciples did. Not many people, they thought, would want to read with that intense determination to discover just what was going on and why it mattered, nor would they want to expose their own characters, allegiances and sensibilities to the self-examination that was supposed to flow from encounters with great literature. If you had a tenfold increase in the number of people reading English in higher education, therefore, the result would be a systematic dilution of what made the exercise worthwhile in the first place. Too many would flinch from the demands of serious literary inquiry.

Pause for a moment to bring in the idea of tradition. Traditions can be crippling. Enthusiasts for particular traditions can defer to them far too enthusiastically. Armies attached to traditional formations and tactics get slaughtered by fleet-of-foot irregulars; businesses that practise traditional techniques are undone by innovative competitors. Mere tradition is indefensible. But intellectual and cultural traditions also contain what the philosopher John Dewey described as "the funded capital of humanity". They are our inheritance, without which our cultural poverty would be complete. They are what humanity has achieved in the past and thought worth trying to transmit to posterity, and what posterity has thought worth trying to preserve.

Traditional egalitarianism proposes that the beneficiaries of this inheritance have an absolute obligation to make it available to anyone who can benefit, according to their capacity for benefit, and not according to whatever irrelevances you might care to mention. And to reverse the noun and the adjective, egalitarian traditionalism is the reminder that before we - at any rate, before most of us - can do anything new and interesting, we need to absorb the achievements of our predecessors, and internalise the abilities that went into them. Everyone is entitled to have a go, but everyone should remember that some tasks are difficult, and one way of mastering them is to immerse oneself in the tradition that gives them their point. Nobody ought to try to rewrite Paradise Lost, but anyone who takes poetry, moral imagination and the history of European civilisation seriously must find it an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Why should more have meant worse, then? There are three plausible explanations, but before embarking on them it is worth remembering that, even if more has meant worse, it does not follow that more has simply been a mistake. We may have done worse than we could and should have done, but it doesn't follow that we have just been wrong. As between a world of couch potatoes where Manchester United still play amazing football and a world where everyone plays energetic but mediocre football (and Manchester United are no better than Tranmere Rovers), there is a lot to be said for the second. But as is obvious when you think about it, there isn't really such a choice. The effect of everyone playing energetic soccer would certainly be that more people would play really well. The mistake would be to pretend that merely to kick the ball around energetically is as good as to play real football - a mistake we don't make in football, and do make in education.

So why do we do it? In the first place, sheer good nature. It is, after all, not nothing to do maths at all, to know a bit about English literature, or to string together any sort of narrative of the industrial revolution. And it may have taken a lot of hard work for the student who has got this far. (In general, students in most of higher education don't work hard; they are appallingly underworked, and are much more in danger of demoralisation from that, than from suddenly discovering that even when they work hard, they have come to the limit of their abilities.) Any decent person will want to praise the effort and admire the achievement, and won't want to point out that it is a stroll in the foothills rather than the real thing. American high schools are the great bad example of substituting the attempt to create self-esteem for providing an education, but much of British higher education is well down the same track.

Second, intellectuals find it hard to believe that not everyone can or wants to stretch their mind and imagination as far as they will go. Even those of us who are deeply and irreversibly addicted to philosophy are also happy to dismantle old cars, lie on beaches and sail dinghies quite incompetently. Contrary to Socrates's famous (but perfectly unbelievable) claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined life is entirely worth living for very large numbers of people. Tastes vary, temperaments vary, and life has attractions enough to supply us with 70 years of interest even if we never open a book, let alone open the works of Plato.

Many children will find that they don't want to be able to read Goethe's Faust in German, or Les Chemins de la Liberte in French, get the binomial theorem under their belt, or look forward to reading Kant's first Critique in their late teens. In which case, having given them not only long enough to discover what they want to do, and given them enough of the vital critical and intellectual skills to enable them to strike out in whatever direction they want, we should provide decent vocational and professional training, and not waste everyone's time pretending to be teaching them academic subjects to the highest levels.

Britain has always contrived to get this issue exactly wrong. Once, a small minority studied academic subjects and the rest went to secondary modern schools and got jobs at 14 - without having acquired skills beyond the most elementary grasp of the three Rs. Now, we have the Prime Minister wanting 50 per cent of 18-year-olds to go to university, largely for vocational reasons, but not to receive serious vocational training. What we do instead is pretend that a degree is a degree is a degree, but don't really mean it.

Third, we think, rightly enough, that for most purposes, something is better than nothing. It is hard to argue that it would be better that there should be no Classic FM playing snippets and lollipops, and that listeners should hear the whole of Tannhauser or none of it. One may not discover a great deal about the dramatic structure of the verismo opera from a three-minute shot of Renee Fleming, but it gives pleasure and may whet a few appetites for something more elaborated and complex. Similarly, we are prone to think that reading a novel is better than not reading at all, and a bit of ungrammatical spoken French more of an accomplishment than total confinement within English.

But if the argument always runs thus - that just as people have no time to listen to a whole opera and had better be fed Classic FM, people have neither the ability nor the time in their lives to master a discipline, set themselves high standards and understand the difference between what most of us can do and what the best of us have done - then we have settled for the worst version of more means worse. This is not the argument from the cultural version of Gresham's Law - that just as bad money drives out good, so schlock will drive out culture. On the contrary, there may well be, quantitatively, just as much serious work done as there ever was. It is rather that its role in the whole of what goes on will be diminished, since it will be a small proportion of what passes for an understanding of music, history, physics or whatever you have in mind.

More importantly than any of that, it amounts to a sort of contempt for the whole egalitarian project. That project was to throw open the doors of Aladdin's cave and invite everyone to take what they needed and could make use of. To say that as there are so many of them they must have paste rather than diamonds, and costume jewellery rather than the real thing, is to cheat them. To go on to say that - as we promised them Aladdin's cave and can only give them paste and costume jewellery - we had better lie to them and tell them that those are the real thing, is a good deal worse than just cheating them.

It was easy to be high-minded when meritocracy meant that a small handful of clever children from working-class backgrounds could be given the advantages that the best-off 4 or 5 per cent of the population expected for their children. That was egalitarian elitism in its simplest form, and it is not surprising that the next generation revolted against the depressing effects such a system had on the non-selected. But it is a mistake to conclude that what the small handful got was not worth having; it was so much worth having that almost anyone of an optimistic frame of mind wanted to hand it round to as many more children as possible - not for vocational reasons, but for trans-vocational reasons, to remind them that they might properly inherit whatever humanity had achieved.

It is this that makes many of us so ambivalent about the efforts of David Blunkett and his Department for Education. On the one hand, it is plainly essential that children do not leave primary school illiterate and innumerate, and equally essential that they don't lose their way in secondary school. If man does not live by bread alone, he surely needs bread to live at all, and the wish to give everyone the skills to earn a decently paid, interesting and reasonably secure living is a fine ambition. But we go to work in order to live; we don't live in order to go to work. If we can't read, we can't follow the instructions on a soup packet; but the English language doesn't exist for the sake of instructions on soup packets. Used properly, it leads on to Keats or Orwell or any number of other pleasures and illuminations.

To know this, however, is to know enough to be an egalitarian elitist. Simply, it is to commit oneself to the two thoughts I began with. First, that all the achievements of the human race really are the common inheritance of us all; and second, that being able to use any of them, let alone many of them, needs effort, aptitude, and a complicated mixture of deference to the past and confidence in the present. Not everyone has to climb the north face of the Eiger, and not everyone has to read Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica; but it is good for all of us to know that some people can.

Alan Ryan is the warden of New College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again