Ideas about Inferiority

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • Ability, Merit and Measurement: Mental Testing and English Education 1880-1940 by Gillian Sutherland and Stephen Sharp
    Oxford, 332 pp, £25.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 822632 2

Since the last century, national success – the capacity to compete in global markets, generate new technologies or produce and sustain a proud, healthy and energetic citizenry – has been linked to schooling as it never had been before (A Nation at Risk is the spectacular title of the Gardner Report on education which has been causing a stir in America.) Until the 1880s or thereabouts, the provision for education was much discussed, but rarely in Britain was the state of popular knowledge equated with national survival. Reading and writing for the poor attending Sunday schools, basic skills for manual workers, a little social science for the class of superior workers, liberal education for future governors and those destined for the professions: allowing for some disquiet on the part of moralists and humanists bothered by questions of justice or high culture, these aims were usually considered sufficient. Making little or no demand upon the Treasury, they were all the more satisfactory.

In the last years of Victoria’s celebrated reign the tone of educational discussion changed. No longer were market incentives regarded as adequate for fulfilling the conception of national need characteristic of Gladstonian Liberalism with its habit of deferring to respectable public opinion in educational decisions. Henceforth, said critics, reformers, some politicians and a number of senior bureaucrats, the ability of England to meet overseas challenges required a top-down effort at social planning. The nation’s future lay with her children. Forster’s Education Act of 1870 (subsequently amended), the Balfour Education Act of 1902 (subsequently extended) and provision for technical and vocational education at public expense became central aspects of Late Victorian and Edwardian social reconstruction. In retrospect we notice the same deliberate and piecemeal social engineering characteristic of Victorian legislation generally, but there were enough innovations to set the early 20th century apart from prior departures in public policy.

Compulsory systems of mass education are gigantic laboratories. They provide modern governments with unexampled opportunities for social experimentation. They are at the same time the begetter (but also the begot) of large numbers of salaried professionals eager for careers: health experts and physical therapists, psychometrists and biometricians, statisticians and budget analysts, guidance counsellors and specialists in the treatment of reading disorders. The very scale of intervention is daunting but exciting. The Dr Knocks of this world are ecstatic, a million thermometers to be thrust at once into the mouths of compliant patients. The possibilities for regimentation, if merely at the level of enforcing a common dress code or delousing immature scalps or inculcating solid habits of thrift and temperance, are irresistible. An army of children and adolescents passing through the impressionable years: could a saint resist such a run at the future? As a potential source of values, either reinforcing those of the home or imposing upon them, schools stand alone.

Subtracting a certain amount of Utopian overkill, we are still left with the important question why, if schools are the key to national regeneration, are so many chances thrown away? Why, if the survival of a nation depends upon its supply of educated citizens, busily performing the many tasks required of a happy society, did the British create a system of selection as restrictive, unjust and unimaginative as the 11-plus? These are standing historical questions. A number of explanations exist: ‘objective’ ones, for example, having to do with taxation policy and the allocation of existing resources, or demand curves (but demand was probably there), or bureaucratic rationalisation appalled by the sloppy if flexible historical practice of allowing overlap between elementary and secondary education. It seemed sensible to divide the two at a rough and ready line drawn somewhere near puberty. Although much deplored today, the 11-plus was not too dissimilar from methods of tracking used throughout Europe.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in