Acland Burghley, an inner-city comprehensive school in north London, invited the actor Damian Lewis (who has starred in TV hits such as Homeland and Wolf Hall) to switch on a laser display for their 50th Anniversary celebrations.
But a former pupil, Dr Rachel Cohen, a City University sociology lecturer, gets up a petition. Lewis, she says is a “wholly inappropriate choice” to take part in the school’s celebrations. Is this because he is a paedophile, a wife-beater or a drug addict? No. It is because he went to Eton, which she said “embodied the reproduction of privilege and inequality in the UK”. According to Cohen, the actor didn’t represent “real Burghley values”.
Dr. Rachel Cohen has fallen into the trap of good logic based on a false premise. It goes something like this:
Talented and motivated children are produced at random and are equally spread in society regardless of social class or parental income. And the only way to nurture and develop that talent is to go to a school with high levels of financial resource – e.g. a private school.
This logic concludes that private schools produce a disproportionate number of talented individuals because more money is spent on honing that talent. And that this is unfair to equally talented children who do not receive the same opportunities.
The basic premise of this argument is demonstrably wrong.
In actual fact talent and motivation, in whatever form, is mostly genetically inherited from our parents. It is not allocated randomly.
Up to World War Two, there was little social mobility because of the way British society was structured. If you were born into coal mining village before the 1930s there was a very high likelihood that this is where you would stay, regardless of talent. Genetic studies (identical twin / adoption studies) up until World War Two confirmed that social class had an impact on our eventual social status.
After World War Two there was an enormous social mobility due to Grammar Schools, public school scholarship and much improved State schools. As the social restrictions in our society were removed children with the genes that coded for talent and motivation broke free. This happened across Britain with working class children shooting up the social scale with talent in science, engineering, law, sports and the arts.
These talented people did well. They earned a good living, achieved a higher social status and joined the affluent middle classes. They married other talented and motivated individuals and had children who had a higher than average chance of inheriting their parents’ genes for talent and motivation. As these (now middle class) children had parents who were more affluent they also had a higher chance of being sent to a private school.
So effectively, genes for talent and motivation starting leaving the working class areas (such as coal mining villages) after World War Two and became middle class.
We would predict that eventually we would see a more polarised genetic society as the genes for talent and motivation are slowly leached out of the working class areas. Social mobility will slow down and humanities educated journalists and politicians will scratch their heads and wonder why, and then conclude that more must be done to help the talented working class children who used to exist but have now mysteriously disappeared.
Genetic studies since World War Two confirm that social class has relatively little impact on our eventual social status.
The irony is breath taking. Increased household income inequality and slowing levels of social mobility are the result of society becoming more equal. Talented children are still reaching their potential, it’s just that more of them are now middle class.
The class-war warriors, socialists and genetics ignorant sociologists (such as Dr Rachel Cohen) had a laudable dream of equality whereby poor working class children would be fairly and equally represented in society. They made the assumption that talented and motivated children where thrown up by society at random. i.e. that talented and motivated children are equally spread across class and relative affluence. So once “equality” was achieved they imagined a world where there would be a fair representation of working class originated talent in the top echelons of society in perpetuity.
They were wrong. Society is now much more equal, but because talent and motivation are largely genetically encoded the talent has just migrated to the affluent parts of society by the process I have described. This process is called assortative mating.
Genetics is probabilistic not deterministic. However, so is the macro level consequence of its effect. It is more likely that talent will migrate to the middle classes, in a society that is relatively socially mobile, by the process of assortative mating. So 7% of all students who attend private schools make up 40% of Oxbridge intake, for example. Not 50% or 100% but 40%. So 60% still come from the State sector. This disproportion is explained by assortative mating, not by discrimination.
But this is not enough for the class-war warriors, socialists and genetics-ignorant sociologists (such as Dr Rachel Cohen). They would want the 7% of students who are privately educated to make up 7% of Oxbridge intake. i.e. not equality of opportunity but equality of outcome.
Our future is not entirely genetically determined and I have no doubt that good schools with quality teachers still make a difference. We should continue do everything we can to ensure that individuals from all parts of society have access to an excellent education and quality careers with equal opportunity to succeed on merit alone. But if we are to have a serious debate on helping the “disadvantaged” we need to look at all causes of “inequality” and move away from the discredited 1960’s assumptions that it is explained by “nurture” and “class”, which is what Rachel Cohen believes. Our sociologists should learn a little about evolutionary biology and genetics before making these wild assumptions.
Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different (three BBC radio programmes on the genetics of intelligence)
Getting ’em young (The Economist looks at the impact of early years education)