Education and the Defence of Elitism

Tony Judt, who died on August 6th., was a historian in his prime, having published his magnum opus "Post-War: A History of Europe Since 1945" in 2005, and being at the top of his form as a historical polemicist, particularly in his criticisms of Israel and her policies. "Post-War" takes time, but is well worth the effort for any aspiring historian, or indeed anyone who simply wants to understand the latter half of the twentieth century.

Meanwhile Judt, never one to accept conventional orthodoxies, also provided an excoriating criticism of England's comprehensive school system, and a vigorous defence of the educational elitism of the grammar schools. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, he commented:

For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.” The havoc wrought in higher education was well summarized by Anthony Grafton in this magazine, but the worst damage has been at the secondary level. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.

The result, predicted from the outset, was that the selective private schools (“public schools”) have flourished. Desperate parents pay substantial fees to exempt their children from dysfunctional state schools; universities are under inordinate pressure to admit underqualified candidates from the latter and have lowered their admissions standards accordingly; each new government has instituted reforms aimed at compensating for the failed “initiatives” of their predecessors.

He concluded:

Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.


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