The Myth of Meritocracy

Timothy Larsen on Peter Mandler

The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War. Peter Mandler. Oxford University Press, November 2020. pp. 384 $32.85

Peter Mandler’s truly impressive study, The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War, is a deeply researched account of secondary and higher education in Britain during the last seventy-five years.  Along the way, it raises and explores some of the largest questions that one can ask about the provision of education: what is it for?; who is it for?; and what subjects should students be studying?  As a People’s History, The Crisis of Meritocracy is a tour de force of revisionist insight – slaying assumptions and myths of both the political left and right by keeping its focus fixed on the wishes and actions of young people and their parents.  Every claim is advanced with painstaking precision regarding the particular place, time period, percentages, exceptions, and so on.  Indeed, the last 134 pages are all scholarly apparatus, beginning with seventeen tables and charts.  All this meticulousness has the effect of making a reviewer feel guilty about mining this volume for big-picture discussion points applicable to other nations.  It feels a bit like being a tabloid journalist distilling a technical study for crass coverage: “Mandler Manhandles Meritocratic Muddle.”  Nevertheless, it is worth the risk, as Mandler’s significant, original, and thought-provoking findings will help us think more clearly about education today, not only in Britain, but also in the United States and elsewhere.

Going into the Second World War, schooling was mandatory in Britain only up to age fourteen.  All this learning—even for the teenagers—was done in an elementary school and its only goal was to provide a rudimentary education. There was a widespread (but false) assumption among the ruling classes that the working classes—the ordinary people that made up the majority of the populace—did not need or want any more education beyond the basics.  Secondary education was provided in private schools (which, in an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of way, are called “public” schools in Britain—a term dating back from when the “private” alternative was being educated at home).  Famous “public” schools include Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and Winchester.  In terms of the kind of education these foundations offer—one that is academic in focus—they are referred to as “grammar” schools.

The grammar schools existed to serve students from “good” families, but a few members of the lower orders who were deemed to be extraordinarily intellectually gifted were allowed in and given scholarships.  This set them on a course of upward social mobility.  Perhaps their father was a coalminer, but they would become a schoolteacher.  People from the privileged classes were fascinated by these rare working-class wunderkind.  In their imagination, they were assumed to pay a heavy price for their good fortune in the complete eradication of their former identity, culture, and community.  It was as if—through some palace intrigue—they had been whisked away at birth to be adopted in a foreign land, and now—the plot finally foiled—they were being welcomed back into the royal family of Ruritania.  They would enjoy privileges beyond their wildest expectations, but would also have to speak a new language, inhabit a new culture, and leave behind everything and everyone they had thitherto known.  And this only possible road to secondary education was a narrow one: child prodigies were presumed to be few and far between.  For the rest of the children of the working classes, a grammar school education was deemed to be totally unsuitable. This elite view is reflected in E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End(1910) in which the impoverished Leonard Bast tries to pursue deep reading and high culture, but these interests only serve to cut him off from his natural station and companions without his gaining anything good in return for the real life he must go on living.  As a none-too-subtle cautionary tale, Bast ends up being literally crushed to death by books.

In 1944, the British government made a commitment to state-sponsored secondary education for all.  Working-class parents thought that all their children would finally get the opportunity to have at least a holiday in Ruritania, but they were bitterly disappointed.  The government introduced the 11+, an examination which essentially put a Sorting Hat on all children around the age of eleven.  A small percentage were pronounced to be intellectually gifted and allowed to go on to a grammar school.  The vast majority of students, however, were herded into newly conceived “secondary moderns”—schools designed to offer “practical work and realistic studies.”  Parents and their children hated these schools.  So we reach one of the key emphases of Mandler’s study: working-class parents did not want vocational training or technical courses or practical studies or apprenticeship programs – they wanted an academic education, which they insisted was the “best” sort of education – for their sons and daughters.

The cry of the parents was: “Grammar schools for all.”  This demand was literally incomprehensible to many government officials and educational experts.  To them, it sounded like insisting that everyone who joins a competition must be allowed to play in the semi-finals or on the all-star team – you clearly just do not understand the basic concept of what we are talking about, they insisted.  This is the “meritocratic” view as the term is being used in this book’s title – the view that opportunities should be given only to an exceptional few who are judged by elites to be able to benefit from them.  The parents, however, insisted on a democratic view – the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to benefit from the best kind of education.  In their minds, it was as if only those rare children who had perfect pitch were allowed to learn an orchestral instrument and everyone else was only permitted to play a kazoo.  Parents thought, to carry on the analogy, that even if their child was not capable of becoming a professional violinist, she would still benefit from, and have her life enriched by, the experience of learning to play one.  Despite all efforts to try to talk them out of the notion, working-class parents were adamant that an academic education was the best kind of education and that it should be made available to all.

Again, what is striking is how hard it was for the elites to hear this message.  One government report in 1957 ridiculously claimed to have found that: “With the exception of a small minority, education for their children was of little consequence to working class parents.”  When the cry became so empathetic that officials could no longer mistake what parents were saying, they were inclined to resist it.  A Chief Inspector of Schools spoke of the importance of not giving in to “external pressures” – by which he meant parents advocating for a good education for their children!  In the end, however, the democratic uprising was such that the government could not put down “the revolt of the Mums.”  The 11+ was eliminated and secondary moderns were replaced with “comprehensives” – secondary schools that offered more flexible pathways which allowed many more students over a longer period of years to find their way to an academic track upwards.

Quite soon, this showdown was reproduced at the level of higher education.  In the 1950s, around 2-3% of those who completed secondary education went on to university.  Once again, this was widely viewed in elite circles as a law of nature based on a meritocratic view of how many suitably intelligent people the gene pool produced at any one time: “there was thought to be a natural ‘ceiling’ on access to higher education.”  If higher education expanded to 5%, they asserted, by that point society would be giving a university place to absolutely everyone who had the “aptitude” for it. Once again, the democratic wave knocked down this meritocratic wall.  The large number of parents whose children had successfully completed an academic secondary education did not accept the fact that the gates of the universities were barred to them.  Once again, officials and experts often insisted that what ordinary people really wanted was “further” education of a more vocational or technical variety, but parents and students continued to demand an academic education on the grounds that it was the best kind.  The government created “polytechnics” to give the masses an experience of further education that was suitably “practical.”  The unstoppable preferences of parents and students, however, would capsized this model.  The polytechnics became more and more academic because that was what the people wanted.  In 1992, the government gave up completely and the polytechnics were transformed into degree-granting universities.

Once mass university education was a certainty a new fallback position of officialdom was to assert that students were often studying the wrong subjects – a lot more of them should do a degree in a STEM field, they insisted.  The Conservative government worked itself into the ironic position of trying to create more of a Soviet-style command economy in education—forcing students to pursue those degrees which politicians decided were in the best interests of the state—on the grounds that this was the right way to foster a vibrant, unfettered, free-market economy!  Students would not be nudged or bullied in this way, however.  For many years there was actually a swing away from science degrees.  Moreover—another irony—the assumption that more degrees in science and mathematics were needed was not supported by the data.  Far from the universities not producing enough STEM graduates to meet the needs of the economy, the majority of STEM graduates continue to end up in non-scientific jobs which they would have just as much been able to land and to do successfully if they had studied arts or humanities (as, indeed, many of their co-workers did).

On the other hand, the “graduate premium” was real.  Even with the potential inflationary effect of the mass expansion of higher education, a degree continued to mean higher lifetime earnings.  Employers began to insist on a degree for all kinds of positions where it had not previously been required, but they were and are largely unconcerned about what the degree happens to be in.  The overwhelming majority of positions that are advertised as requiring a university education are not restricted on the basis of subject matter: “Employers seemed happy with ‘graduateness’—the maturity and educability conveyed by any higher education.”  And to the bewilderment of government ideologues, even employers did not want the universities to be restructured to emphasize alignment with the specific tasks currently being pursued in the business sector: “puzzlingly to some minsters they seemed more interested in general education than in connecting universities directly to industry.”

Likewise, economists have focused on education as a “investment good”—students ought to be thinking about making choices that will maximize their future earnings—but parents and students have always thought about education as a “consumption good” as well, to change from the language of economics to that of philosophy, as an end rather than just a means.  The masses find higher education inherently enjoyable, and they choose their particular subject of study primarily because they find it enjoyable.  As one deflated economist finally conceded: “people want to go to university because they enjoy the education process, irrespective of the financial return to a degree.” Governments and economists were only interested in more education producing higher earners, but studies have shown all kinds of other positive outcomes are correlated with getting a degree from better physical health to more civicmindedness.  To return to my analogy again, it is like people insisting that one learns to play a musical instrument because it increases one’s abilities in abstract reasoning. But imagine a new study comes along that undercuts that claim.   Do we then sell off the cello and the coronet?  No, the real answer is that we are musical family and we enjoy playing music: it is an end in itself.  Higher education is now considered by people generally to be one of the “decencies of life.”  As Lord Robbins, a key figure in the government’s move to accepting mass higher education, observed: “If there is to be talk of a pool of ability, it must be a pool which surpasses the widow’s cruse in the Old Testament, in that when more is taken for higher education in one generation more will tend to be available in the next.”

A parallel story to Howards End at the level of higher education was the film, Educating Rita (1983).  Rita is from a working-class world in which the menfolk do manual labor and she is a hairdresser.  Like Leonard Bast, she gets a hankering for deep reading and high culture.  She enrolls in part-time courses through The Open University (a model which includes distance-learning options founded in 1969 as an early response to the growing demand for mass higher education).  Educating Rita is an essentially upbeat film about one working-class woman’s ability to reinvent herself, but it nevertheless still assumes that the price must be the loss of all she has previously known – she becomes a disappointment to her father, divorces her husband, and loses her old culture, community, and friends.  Mandler, however, listens to the real people involved and debunks this fiction as well.  The transitions in people’s lives that more education brought about were generally gradual and smooth and did not result in a rupture in identity.  The manual-labor jobs that defined the working classes were rapidly going away anyway.  People were glad to make the transition to the knowledge economy and did so while retaining a positive sense of their working-class identity and connections.

The really huge jump to mass higher education in Britain came in the 1990s.  It has transformed myriads of families into the kind of family that goes to university, and being the kind of people who earn a degree has become a permanent part of their family’s identity, irrespective of calculations about careers and earnings.  In a study done in 2007, “96 per cent of the least advantaged mothers expressed a desire for their 7 year olds to go to university.”  Democratic education for the masses had won out over meritocratic education for the few.  The revolt of the Mums was complete.

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.  He is the author of eight books including, most recently, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (OUP, 2018), and the editor of a dozen volumes, including one coming out in November, The Oxford Handbook of Christmas.