Monday, February 01, 2010

Meritocracy and Tea Party

On the back of all the news about the MySchool website David Burchell writing in the Oz has decided to have a vague over-all go at the idea of meritocracy.

An out-take provides a touch of the flavour of this piece;

The state system is struggling, and state comprehensives in unfashionable areas struggle most because their pupils' families are struggling too. And yet the social segregation between them and the other schools systems - public and private alike - grows a little with each pass-ing year. At my kids' school there are still legions of boys who believe that nimble hands and a knack for repairing broken things will send you on a solid path through life as a citizen, a wage-earner and a paterfamilias. Yet, as we know, without some vital piece of paper they are likely to be doomed to our contemporary social netherworld, the disability-pension list.

Breathtakingly he asserts the principle that the problem with selective schools is that they increase the gap to the comprehensive schools, without a scintilla of evidence that the absence of the brightest does anything other than affect the average. Will the presence of brighter kids in the comprehensive school increase the educational achievement of the remainder? Does it give them something to aspire to? Or does it make them feel even worse about their pedestrian performance?

But in the same breath he argues that we should recognise that book learning isn't everything and that "repairing broken things" is equally valid. And I ca assure the earnest author that there really are a host of real world things out there between a "piece of paper" and being consigned to the disability pension (and why disability rather than unemployment, what part of bias is it to assume the disabled aren't actually disabled).

The conclusion is equally inept. He writes, in part;

And yet the crying need of our schools sector has nothing to do with the interminable cold war between the public and private sectors as such. We need more schools with a wider range of social backgrounds among their pupils, and a wider range of role models on which potentially able pupils can draw. We need our state schools to become more independent - both in hiring and firing, and in developing and priding themselves on their school's ethos.

... In the end it's not school systems as such but the life-prospects of our young citizens on we should be focused.

And if this task, so simple in conception, seems at present impossibly difficult in execution - this is chiefly because it is confronted by that implacable combination of high-minded philosophy and low self-interest that drives so many of our highest goals and poorest achievements.

Okay so he declares his hand, the bright kids have to go to the comprehensive school to be role models for the not so bright. But how does this it with the idea that being bright shouldn't be seen as the only goal.

And the really bad news is that if you do come up with a state school system without selective schools, so everyone is coralled into the local school, and you then give these schools greater autonomy - or independence from the system - the most likely consequence is to amplify the effects of the socio-economic circumstances of the whole neighbourhood.

It remains the challenge for everyone who wants to use education as some kind of "leveller" that family circumstance makes a huge difference, and that kids from households in which "book learning" is already valued do more book learning.

Ask oneself deeper questions like the ones that emerge from the latest horror story from the UK of a couple of under-age (pre-teen) thugs.

But this does not mean that one needs to go the route of the "Tea Party" movement in the US. This is a weird mob, that had some role in the surprise result in Massachusetts, and subject of an article in the New Yorker. One member is quoted as saying the object to the government subsidising "the loser's mortgages". This is a group at the other extreme, that their priviledge is theirs and not to be messed with.

It is fascinating to see these people and what they think is the defence of freedom. At least at the time he wrote The Road to Surfdom, Hayek noted that while it was important to have freedom because no central planner could do a better job than the market in allocating resources to match preferences, he also counselled against hubris amongst those who weee well off. Hayek would be horrified to hear;

I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.

As he noted the fact that one person was well of was as much about luck as it was about effort. The luck could be luck in obtaining abilities, or just in the coin falling the right way on a risk. Let's face it, selection processes in recruitment are not the perfectly scientific selection on merit they are made out to be, and the individual applicant has no control over who else decides to apply. In fact, I think Hayek might argue "if you chose not to be charitable, do not be surprised that Government steps in and decides to be charitable in your place."

An nteresting feature of the Tea Party is its self-organising nature. This confounds critics, as one Tea Party pundit says "If you listen to the Democrats, they’re completely convinced somebody’s in charge of all this." But it also reflects our need to better understand how social values evolve and are re-inforced. That's part of the story about those UK delinquents, and it is possibly the only story that might justify forcing everyone into the same "local school". It is just that the "network effect" could work either way - just like Gresham's law that "bad money drives out good" the negative values can overwhelm the good.

In fact there is a whole host of study on these effects in a whole host of fields that I don't want to go into now. But I will return to them. And when I do I'll return to Phillip Bobbit and Terror and Consent and making sense of the modern world. In making sense of the modern world we need to better understand that the technology of computation and communication that helped win the long war has fundamentally changed the dynamics of networks. Stuff gets communicated faster, global attitudes (and economic markets) can shift faster.

And then we have to realise that we really can't justify our presence in a program supposed to be about libertation and democracy in Afghanistan, if the price of doing so is to maintain a patriarchy.

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