the best which has been thought/said/known/written – take your pick

I’ve seen Michael Young’s The Rise of Meritocracy cited so many times recently, I thought I should read it.  Published in 1958, it’s written from the perspective of a sociological analysis looking back from 2034. 

Young speculates on the long-term changes resulting from the 1944 Education Act.  The introduction of the 11+ test had made a grammar school education available to many bright children from families who couldn’t previously have afforded it.  Young suggests that in future, the UK will be governed not by those from historically wealthy families, but by those with most intellectual ability – a ‘meritocracy’.

One of the unintended and unwanted outcomes Young forecasts is that low-income families would no longer be able to console themselves with the idea that the rich were often stupid. In the brave new world, the elite would be both wealthy and clever.  So children who weren’t especially academically able would find themselves stuck in low-paid occupations. This would have significant social, economic and legislative implications.  Young is especially critical of comprehensive education.  Was the criticism serious or satirical?  I couldn’t tell.

Suspending disbelief

We’re all familiar with novels about the future.  But they are novels; we know to suspend our disbelief so we can focus on the author’s key themes.  Young’s book isn’t a novel.  A barrister, and one-time director of research for the Labour Party, he wrote The Rise of Meritocracy as a satirical socio-political treatise.  He had difficulty getting it published.  The Fabian Society turned it down, as did eleven other publishers.  Eventually a chance meeting with the founder of Thames & Hudson allowed it to see the light of day.

I found the book perplexing for several reasons:

References The Rise of Meritocracy is written as an academic treatise, and cites references that support its arguments.  The pre-1958 references are probably authentic.  (I tried to track some down but failed, but that’s not surprising, as pre-internet references are often not cited online.  The post-1958 references were originally fictitious, but a revised edition of the book was published in 1994 and its new introduction contains authentic post-1958 references.  I felt the references were neither serious nor satirical, but rather superfluous.

Satire   The book is intended to be satirical, but the satire would be lost on any reader unfamiliar with the detail of policy issues facing the Labour Party or the education system in the 1950s.  

Anachronisms Young couldn’t possibly have predicted the huge economic, social and political upheavals that took place between 1958 and 2034.  But despite expecting his readers to imagine the book was written in 2034, it’s written very much from a 1950s perspective. It’s as if the 1944 Education Act and its consequences were the only significant changes during the following 90 years. 

This produces some jarring anachronisms.  IQ, for example, crops up frequently in the text, despite single figure IQ measures being called into question long before the 1950s and multi-dimension assessments being in use since the beginning of the 20th century.

Another is the importance of labour unions.  Again, Young couldn’t have foreseen the forthcoming crises in the union movement, but I couldn’t tell if his predictions were serious or satirical, or both.

And then there’s the use of ‘he’ as the default pronoun, despite women’s equality being a very live issue at the time due to women having done ‘men’s’ work during WW2, and equal pay being very much on the political agenda. Women are marginalised in the workplace in Young’s vision of the meritocracy, so maybe he was being satirical.  Who can tell?

It’s a small world

By this time, I was puzzled by how frequently I’d encountered references to Young’s concept of ‘meritocracy’ recently.  The Rise of Meritocracy might have made interesting and entertaining reading in the 1950s, but other than highlighting some issues about education and social mobility, it didn’t seem especially informative or currently relevant.

Then I reached page 159 (of 180 pages).  There, Young quotes from a fictitious ‘Chelsea Manifesto’ published by the Technicians Party in 2009. The Manifesto refers to “the best that has been thought and known in the world”, a modified quotation from, as Young puts it, ”the almost forgotten Matthew Arnold”. What Arnold actually said in the preface to his book Anarchy and Culture, was “the best which has been thought and said in the world” [my emphasis], but you could be forgiven for assuming Young was quoting Arnold directly.  That misquote provided a plausible explanation for why why I’d seen Young (and Arnold) cited so frequently recently. 

In January 2010 Civitas published a book by David Conway called Liberal Education and the National Curriculum. Conway deals with Matthew Arnold’s ideas in some detail – and quotes him correctly.

In May 2010 Michael Gove was appointed Education Secretary for the new Coalition government.  In 2011 the West London Free School opened, the first free school in the country to sign a funding agreement with the Secretary of State for Education – Michael Gove.  The West London Free School was co-founded by Toby Young, Michael Young’s son.  It was soon after this that Michael Gove began using the Arnold quote – or rather ‘started throwing mangled versions of it around in lofty speeches’ as Phil Beadle puts it in an article on the Teachwire site.

In 2011 Gove referred to “the best that has been thought and written” [my emphasis] in a speech to Cambridge University, and again in 2012 in a letter to Tim Oates, a director of Cambridge Assessment. In 2013 the same misquote appears in Gove’s (in)famous ‘Mr Men’ speech to teachers at Brighton College. And in 2014 in an interview with Anthony Horowitz. and in a speech to Policy Exchange.

Now, it could be that Michael Gove is a big fan of Matthew Arnold. But if so, why does he misquote him and miss so many opportunities to name-drop? I’m picturing a more likely explanation; that Toby Young mentioned his dad’s Arnold reference to Michael Gove who thought it would make a good soundbite.  That would explain why Arnold and Young senior were suddenly back in vogue.

In 2014 Civitas published a somewhat less scholarly work – Toby Young’s Prisoners of the Blob. On the Civitas webpage about Young junior’s book, Arnold is quoted accurately – twice.  And interestingly, Toby refers to 1950s education and Harold Wilson describing comprehensive schools as ‘grammar schools for all’. 

Would Michael Young have agreed?  Having tried to untangle the fact from the fiction, the satire from the seriousness, and the quotes from the misquotes – I have no idea.

References

Arnold, Matthew (2006). Culture and Anarchy. Oxford World Classics.

Young, Michael (2017). The Rise of the Meritocracy. Routledge.