The Best Education Should be Provided for the Best People… (R15)

or Privileged Education Should be Provided for the Privileged [2017]

This is the second look back at essays I wrote while being trained as a teacher in the mid-1960’s. (see I find it somewhat astonishing to find that it all fits with who and what I am now!

…The emphasis at present is almost invariably on the higher education of the most gifted… The point is, could many people, with the right educational help, achieve still more? If they could, then in human justice and in economic self-interest, we ought, as a country, to provide that help… Half our Future (The Newsom Report 1963)

The proposition that the ‘best’ education should be provided for the ‘best’ people may be discussed linguistically as a comparison of the function of the word itself with the function of other words in different contexts; a discussion of this kind will lead inevitably to a consideration of the proposition as being ultimately inseparable from the socio-political context.

In his splendid book Ethics, PHNowell-Smith points out that we assume that adjectives stand for some property or the other and that we tend to ask what a certain word means rather than ask what so-and-so means by it; words are not labels but tools. WORDS ARE NOT LABELS BUT TOOLS. According to this argument,‘best’ in the above proposition, has no essential meaning but must be seen as having a function of some kind relevant only to anybody who makes the assertion and their supporters.

Nowell-Smith suggests that words have logically different forces, that there are Aptness-words, Descriptive-words and Gerundive-words (as an example, take three possible descriptions of the view from a hill – ‘sublime’ (an Aptness word with an emotional tinge), ‘extensive’ (an objectively Descriptive- word), admirable (meet-to-be-admired, a Gerundive-word). Now, the word ‘best’ in the above proposition functions as an A-word and as a D-word so that it is too loaded with meanings to have any particular meaning, especially since it also has the force of a G-word (meet-to-be-catered-for-first), which gives the whole proposition a G-significance. One should always be sceptical when words with an ought-force are bandied about. The question is – Sez who?

The result of the ambiguity in the function of the word ‘best’ is to give the proposition a closed, and, in its own terms, a self-justifying logic. As a slogan it serves as a rallying point for interested parties with a confusion between a straightforward assertion and a symbol of practical social intent. In Israel Scheffler’s terminology (The Language of Education), the whole proposition takes on a ‘programmatic’ quality – it’s a G-sentence – deriving from a historicist prophecy that the future of humankind will be secure when the best education is provided for the best people. A somewhat dubious belief, in my view.

Such an attitude, no doubt based on class prejudice, ignores the probable benefits of piecemeal change to improve the total educational set-up, or it indicates a person who is afraid to postulate an open future, or both.

Plato’s is typical of this approach; he established a precedent which has served to channel educational ideas for over two thousand years. He defines ‘best and inferior people’ by means of the metaphor of gold, silver and bronze children thus:-

When God fashioned you, he added gold in the composition of those of you who are qualified to be Rulers (which is why their prestige is the greatest); he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in,the farmers and the rest.

Justice is said to inhere in a system in which ‘…each of the three classes… does its own job and minds its own business…’ The foolish invention ‘God’ and Plato are responsible for many of the ills of the world. Among modern examples of thinking within this tradition is the justification for tripartite organisation (grammar, technical, and secondary modern) enshrined in the Norwood Report of 1943. Interesting that Sir Cyril Norwood was a religionist and one time Head Master of Harrow, a died- in-the-wool elitist.

As Karl Popper points out (The Open-Society and its Enemies, Vol One), in response to the social and, political decay of which Plato was very conscious, he evolved the ideal of the arrested state which was to be preserved from change by the rule of a philosopher-king who has achieved a vision of the Good. Popper argues that, though on the surface, he is making a disinterested analysis of educational and societal theories, Plato is, in fact, presenting the idea of an education with a definite political function.

[In 2017, one is reminded of the Tory claim to disinterestedness while they underhandedly demolish the Comprehensive answer to Plato and seek, ideologically, to set up grammar schools, academies and something else for the hoi polloi. In the Tory/Norwood/Plato model, Toffee-nosed schools that produce the likes of Gove & Johnson & Camoron remain untouched, outside the system, full of untouchables… When I wrote this essay in 1966, little did I think that within fifty years we would find ourselves in the clutches of a Fascist Dictatorship akin to that proposed by Plato and God Almighty…]

For all his brilliant poetry, with his telling allusions to mystical writings, TSEliot’s views on education echo Plato’s: ‘we can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago…’ The provision of education for all as a ‘right’, so he says, ‘…irrespective of capacity will dilute and adulterate it further in some [unspecified] way…’ [Tommy-rot…]

Another outspoken statement deriving from this way of thinking, is made by Colm Brogan in The Nature of Education (1962). He writes that ‘…The children who deserve our best attention are those who can show a more than average promise…’ The justification for this is that, in Brogan’s view of the world, ‘…education is an investment…’ and in the administration of education, ‘the economic efficiency of the educational product [children as ‘educational products’, as things…!] is … a first concern…’ Colm Brogan is against spending more money on increasing the number of teachers available since ‘…it is not self-evident that a large additional teaching force would be most usefully employed in improving the reading ability of a boy who will seldom want to read anything beyond racing results and the captions of comic strips…’

[2017 Colm Brogan (died 1977) was a journalist who wrote pamphlets for the Tory Party and believed that socialism was responsible for the rise of Hitler… Takes one to know one… Did he not know that the Daily Mail supported Hitler? That various members of the Royal family were Nazi sympathisers? How telling it is that he describes children as ‘educational products’! – churned off some mechanical production line…]

It is obvious that Colm Brogan [congruent with and feeding into the secret views of Tory grandees even now – 2017] overlooks, out of sheer ignorance and/or intention, the possibility of effecting change through the educative process in itself. Clearly if educational activity is based on the principle ‘…that no child should be written off as of low ability in any given direction until the best conditions and most effective stimuli for that particular child’s success have been provided…’ (CMFleming: Adolescence) then Colm Brogan’s ‘educational product’ will at the very least be different.

…New provision has always elicited… new responses. Intellectual talent is not a fixed quantity with which we have to work but a variable that can be modified by social policy and educational approaches… (Newsom)

Brogan suggests that indiscriminate improvement of educational facilities would lead, to a dangerous pool of unemployed intellectuals [something of a contradiction! A universal decent education for all would at least produce ‘intellectuals’ rather than readers of cartoon captions! 2017] : Newsom, on the other hand, far more humanely, makes the statement that ‘…the future pattern of employment in this country will require a much larger pool of talent than is at present available…’ Take your pick.

Those who wish to restrict education to the provision of advantages for the ‘best people’ whether these are defined by Plato’s metaphor, in traditional class terms, or in accordance with the norms of a social hierarchy based on merit and achievement (Mannheim and others), do so doubtless because they fear that to support the widest diffusion of teaching/learning as a model of cultural renewal is, in effect, to support something peculiarly consonant with the ‘democratisation of culture and something that poses a threat to cultures whose basic social, norms are institutionally protected from criticism.’ (Scheffler) I suggest that this is true of our own society.

Ultimately this discussion consists of a denial that there are any ‘best’ people [except, of course, in the minds of those who consider that the label applies to them… 2017] and the contrary assertion that all children are individually entitled to the ‘best’ education which I take to be child-centred, organically related to the needs of the individual and leading to self-critical attitudes. Those who claim that there are ‘best’ people who have a right to the ‘best’ education [2017 whatever they mean by this latter term – privately funded by the rich to satisfy their own base agenda, perhaps] do so because they are afraid of the consequences to themselves of total improvement of education for all. Their insecurity is a feature of the isolated class superiority they assume for themselves.

1st November 1966

My Tutor’s comment!


The purpose of education is in the process not in the end of education… John Dewey

Since 2010, the Tory way of making sure that the so-called ‘best’ people (ones more likely in future to keep voting them into their thousand year Reich) is to charge through the nose for university education and make sure that the ‘best’ education is provided in areas of affluence. None of which is declared, of course but it’s the effect which has been researched. It’s a very subtle and underhand way of doing things.

Privileged Education is Provided for the Privileged
– keep the rest of them howling at the gates…

In 1808, some Lord or the other stood up in the House of Lords and declared that ‘…we can’t have the mob educated – they will begin to see through us…’ Nowadays, they’ve learned to keep such sentiments to themselves, expressing them only during the course of posh & private garden parties, no doubt.

3 thoughts on “The Best Education Should be Provided for the Best People… (R15)

  1. Once again, Colin, I’m amazed by the prescience of your essays from half a century ago. And of course, I’m also once again saddened by the tragic trajectory of these past fifty years, as the promise of education that you held out for us then has been systematically perverted by the misguided few who hold themselves as “the best”. But perhaps all is not yet lost. I do hope that you’ll continue to mine your archives for more gems such as this essay – we may yet learn from our past mistakes, if only their consequences keep being dissected as lucidly as you have managed to do in this one.


    1. Thanks, Tom! I continue to be amazed at the way those long ago essays by a former ‘I’ seem to be coming out of the same mind as I imagine I possess now. I suppose I shall always continue to be both pessimistically optimistic and optimistically pessimistic!

      The interface between what I suppose would be called my ‘ideals’ and what I observe going on around me is a slightly bitter sort of place which I contrive to keep at arm’s length.

      I seem to have lost a very long essay which looked at what was happening in three schools operated on ASNeill lines – principles on which I brought up my own children who have all in their various ways grown up to be ardent & uncompromising free thinkers.

      Liked by 1 person

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