EDUCATION - by Dr Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
Different abilities; different outcomes
, January 15, 2000
Attempts to remove unequal educational outcomes is doomed to failure, says Dr Lucy Sullivan from the Centre for Independent Studies, because it takes no account of different levels of ability.
It is ironic that in the same period as economic and political Marxism in both Europe and Asia has been abandoned, ideological Marxism, or Post-Marxism, has achieved ascendancy in the English-speaking countries of the West.
The Marxist doctrine of the inherently unjust nature of economic inequality continues to infuse the English-speaking Left's view of society and all its works, and explains the prolonged drive to create a reductionist form of equality through the State's control of education.
Marx attributed the wealth and power of capitalists to their ownership of the means of production: land, equipment, machinery, warehouses, and raw materials. Their proprietary claim to ownership of the goods produced and to the profits of surplus production (rather than it falling to the workers, the hands-on makers of the goods which return the profits), he construed as exploitation.
The egalitarian miasma induced Marx to misattribute the source of capitalist power. It lies not in ownership but in organisation. The power of the capitalist class lay and lies in their command of what Marx referred to as the 'forces of production' - of technology, production methods, scientific knowledge, measurement, record-keeping - and in their concerted organisation of all these things into the industrial system.
Capitalists do not own these forces, as they are immaterial; they command them in the form of internalised skills. The means of production, which they own, will not yield a surplus in the absence of these organisational skills. Hence there is no profit in the workers taking control of the means of production if they do not command the requisite organisational skills to direct their functioning.
To cast one's mind over history is to see clearly that it has always been organisational ability which has delivered advantage to its possessors, whether Persians, Greeks, Romans, feudal barons or the nineteenth century bourgeoisie.
Neither intelligence, nor might and aggression, nor wealth, alone, have done so. Organisational ability gathers wealth to itself, as well as power and position; but wealth is not the fundamental source of power. Wealth without organisational ability is powerless, and is soon dissipated. 'A fool and his money are soon parted', and there are countless historical demonstrations of this fact. Organisational ability uses the wealth it gathers to itself to further its activities.
It is because of this brute fact that Communism did not achieve what Marx predicted. The State assumed ownership of the means of production, but it could not assume ownership of the organisational abilities of the class it supplanted. These remained located in individuals and within genetic or pedagogical family and class networks. State ownership of the means of production did not give power to the workers. It remained with the possessors of organisational ability, who re-acquired it within the new system, although now dissociated from ownership of land, capital and capital goods. Although the establishment of the new order in Russia shook up the system of selection of those with the relevant skills, nevertheless a subset of society was re-formed which, through the exercise of these special organisational skills, acquired and retained enhanced wealth, position and power. Social reality continued to deny the egalitarian ideal. With the disbanding of Communism, the familiar association of organisational skill in business and the acquisition of capital has been newly asserted.
As the long-term experience of state Communism in the East increasingly demonstrated this fact of life, political and social developments in the West also posed a problem for Marxist theory.
Marx had reiterated the Enlightenment belief that the ruling classes of a society set its standards of morality and restrict access to crucial knowledge in order to maintain their control of the classes below them, and that removal of the obscurantism of religion and of inequality of political rights would destroy their privilege.
The establishment of democracy with universal suffrage, free education, and the steady eradication of formal political and social privilege in Western nations did not, however, lead to universal equality or, to use the now preferred term, social justice.
It is an untested but fundamental tenet of New Left educational theory that everyone has, innately and non-differentially, the requisite abilities to execute the most complex intellectual tasks of Western civilisation. This assertion of the equal abilities of humankind harks back to the eighteenth century.
As partisans of the Left took control of the curriculum, schools and universities turned from a policy of the provision of the knowledge which is supposed to be power, to all capable of absorbing it, to one of making it inaccessible to all, regardless of ability, and of replacing it on all possible fronts with the indoctrination of a sociology of cultural relativism. This programme has the potential to destroy, not so much social inequalities, as Western culture itself.
The introduction, with the universalisation of primary and then secondary education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of the working classes to the intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment and its predecessors, in place of the teachings of the Church, did not produce the predicted eradication of political and economic inequality.
And so a further source of intellectual oppression had to be sought. There is a weak but significant relationship between the exercise of capitalist organisational skills and superior taste in the arts, which gave credence to the belief that 'elitist' tastes in literature, art and music are part of the battery of privilege of Western society.
Therefore this intellectual heritage, too, had to be shown to be a mere cultural preoccupation of an elitist group with no claim to higher intellectual status than the cultural expressions of any other sub-group of society, and serving much the same oppressive functions as the deceptive mysteries of the Church.
Since not everyone can be made to appreciate and participate in high culture, all forms of art and thought are, in keeping with Tocqueville's identification of 'levelling down', declared of equal merit, and those 'elitist' forms which demand greater finesse are withdrawn from the curriculum. Thus, within the educational system, a strategy is pursued of denying the transmission of essential cultural knowledge to its rightful heirs - all those with the ability to annex, enjoy, maintain and extend it. .c1.Individual differences;
Egalitarian idealism requires that if the exercise of effective power in a capitalist economy demands specialist skills, then each and every human being both potentially in infancy and actually in maturity, is equally capable of exercising those skills.
It would be odd, indeed, if our brains were a sole non-variant element in our make-up, showing none of the normal characteristics of genetic control of morphology and hence function. The study of individual differences, both intellectual and more generally cognitive, has consistently shown that there are wide and regularly occurring differences in human abilities which show the common biological distribution of the normal (bell-shaped) curve.
Differences in the more intellectual abilities, generally summarised as IQ scores, show a close relationship to academic achievement and a rather loose association with social class: these findings, consistent over close to a century, are detailed and assessed in Herrnstein & Murray's recent book, The Bell Curve. It has not, nevertheless, been specifically shown that a particular and rare set of abilities is isomorphic with the holding of the relatively few positions of extreme wealth and power identified with the industrial or financial entrepreneur.
The question which needs to be settled, in order to decide on the social justice issue, is, essentially, this: do the technological knowledge and organisational skill necessary for capitalist enterprise represent a rare or a common human ability?
If they are in combination a rare human ability, like the ability to run a mile in less than four minutes or to understand Einstein's theory of relativity, then we can expect that no amount of environmental manipulation and training will allow everyone, equally, to assume the power and position of the capitalist entrepreneur. But if they are a common human potential, like the ability to read or to drive a car, then basically anyone could be a capitalist, given the right conditions of nurture, education and opportunity.
The first state of affairs determines that a society in which there is structural inequality is not necessarily unjust, just realistic; while the latter implies the existence of an unrealised potential in the many, suppressed by the human environment, which equates with injustice.
We are talking, then, about the difference between being able to do something, maybe a little better or worse than the average, and scarcely being able to do it at all. It is this crux of the debate over social injustice which has made the IQ test a bone of contention.
For if it should be the case that certain essential functions in the running of modern society depend on the exercise of abilities, or levels of ability, which are not uniformly present in humankind, and if these abilities are found, empirically, to be skewed in their distribution more or less on a class basis, and therefore would appear to be heritable (and therefore teachable, largely, only within a class or group), then this puts paid to notions of the interchangeability of social and economic function between classes, and to the achievability of equality and social justice as conceived in Marxist economic and political terms (although not in the more modest terms of political liberalism). The structure of society becomes a product of human ability, rather than its determinant.
We cannot at this juncture declare with certainty that the ability to organise capital and industry is one such innate and rare ability, rather than common to humankind, but the failure of democracy and universal education to dislodge a class element from the structure of modern society suggests that this is probably so.
I think it is undoubted that the highest IQs are not uniformly found among the economically powerful of society; and yet it is almost certainly an absurdity to entertain the belief that IQs in the lowest ranges are found among them either. As is the case with 'genius', it is likely that a certain minimum highish IQ is required (110 has been assessed as the threshold level for 'genius'), but beyond that, factors which IQ does not measure (such as hard work - the most important factor of the several others identified as associated with genius) are likely to be of importance.
My guess is that this ability is a cross of a high - but not the highest - level of intelligence and a particular personality type which has not been well described to date. It does not slot well into the traditional tripartite social division - as it is neither warrior, nor artisan, nor priest - but probably closest to the first, with a fair dash of the second.
The change of personnel which occurred in the evolution from aristocratic to bourgeois society suggests that a genuinely different or new conjunction of abilities was required for the novel economic enterprise of industrialism. (The new class of finance bankers are probably another kettle of fish, with more pure warrior and less of the homely element of usefulness of the industrial capitalist.)
The critique by the Left of IQ measurement does not come directly to grips with this question. Its thrust of the last half century has been to deny the possibility of class difference in IQ at the theoretical level, and the arguments of censorship and vituperation have been employed within academia and outside it in order to deny a steadily accumulating evidence against the dogma of equality of intellectual abilities.
It is true, as claimed by their denigrators, that the content of IQ tests reflects the intellectual preferences and abilities of the structurally powerful classes in society; but this does not mean that they are not good measures of the types of ability which are most needed for the performance of particular, high-level, essential activities in the modern economy - that they do not measure a reality of ability which is relatively crucial and elite. If they are, the social positioning of those who possess these abilities, in roles which allow them to exercise them, is not an oppressive sleight of hand, but a rendering of position through competence.
The skills, of whatever kind, which are culturally built on rare abilities can only be acquired by those who possess the abilities in the first place; and they can only be taught by those who both possess the abilities and themselves have acquired the skills - by those who are carriers of this part of the culture, which may be more or less essential to the functioning of a given society as a whole, from absolutely central to entirely peripheral: depending on whether the skill is in electronics or in trapeze artistry. It is thus only to be expected - is unavoidable - that rare or specialist skills will be found to cluster in families, social groups, and classes, both because of the genetic nature of inheritance and because of their learned component, which is transmitted with greater finesse by family tradition than by most efforts at public education.
No capitalist plot or deliberate cultivation of ideological hegemony is required to explain the tendency of the skills of industrial organisation (or of circus performance) to remain located within a particular class, or even family.
At the same time, an equally valid law of inheritance, regression to the mean, ensures that there will be movement into and out of positions of structural eminence on the basis of innate ability. Such movement has always, historically, and with increased impetus in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, occurred.
When these skills were assiduously promoted in public education, by both Church and State, in the century to 1970, they were far more successfully exported across classes than they are today, after deconstruction and educational reform.
The persistence of class in determining the personnel of positions of structural authority, if not wealth, cannot be admitted by the radical Left to have anything to do with unchangeable facts of ability, because that would be to admit that it is just. Any suggestion that there may be real class differences in intellectual abilities is met with moral indignation, although this has no necessary implications of unequal human worth in social and ethical terms..c1.Dysfunctional education;
In summary, the logic of the post-Marxist thesis which is currently eroding the curriculum content of schools and universities goes something like this: the existence of socio-economic difference is unassailable evidence for the existence of class oppression.
But socio-economic difference has persisted despite the achievement of political equality and formal equal educational opportunity. If this were the result of differences in intellectual capability between classes and individuals, this would undermine the class oppression thesis, which cannot be wrong.
Therefore we must insist that there are no class, nor indeed individual, differences in possession of the level and type of intelligence which underpins the most complex operations of modern society.
If everyone does not succeed equally, this must be because a priority has been placed on an esoteric category of knowledge generated, quite spuriously, by the structural elite (no longer necessarily capitalists, who are rare in academia), in order to maintain their power. Therefore the canon of knowledge which has permitted inequality of outcome must be withdrawn from the curriculum and replaced with the sorts of material that allow everyone (given their equal intellectual capabilities) to achieve equally.
When we have created a situation in which everyone can go to university and obtain equal top marks, we will have demonstrated that economic and structural inequality is indeed purely the result of class oppression, and is a sure sign of injustice.
Why has so much of academia aligned itself with this nonsense? The academic world, since its secularisation in the nineteenth century, has largely seen itself as within the traditions of Enlightenment philosophy and science, and in contradistinction from those of the Church.
Post-Marxism demonises the past works and achievements of the capitalist industrialist system which created the world it now so comfortably inhabits. Increasing numbers of students and teachers are being drawn into an incestuously self-perpetuating cycle, reproducing a set of dysfunctional ideas, while they remain entirely parasitic on the capitalist economy which they so deplore.
Fiddling while Rome burns, they are sequestering the constructions of knowledge and understanding which underpin both the democratic and the technological aspects of the society which supports them. Although post-Marxist theory represents a particularly extreme and strident outbreak of egalitarian idealism in education, in the last three decades, the human view it enshrines has had a quieter but persistent presence in educational policy for at least half a century.
It has expressed itself in imputations of injustice and discrimination attached to programs of selection for retention in education and enrolment in courses, particularly if the outcome exhibits any degree of class association.
Provision for individual differences in ability has been wished out of educational policy, in a vain attempt to make this association disappear. Again, the egalitarian choice has been for the reduction of all to the lowest common denominator.
Primary education had become universal in English-speaking countries by the beginning of the twentieth century, but secondary and higher education, until mid-century, remained selective on the basis of both class and merit. The already educated classes could pay for the further education of those of their children capable of profiting from it, while a system of scholarships provided for the higher education of intellectually talented children of uneducated parents.
Following the Second World War, this system was escalated and homogenised, with free secondary and tertiary education being made available to ever larger numbers of children, regardless of background, until, at the end of the twentieth century, there is a State commitment to the free or heavily subsidised education of all children to the end of secondary school, regardless of capability, and of upwards of 60% of young people in tertiary institutions.
The universalisation of secondary and tertiary education has necessitated changes in its contents. Given the normal distribution of intellectual abilities in a population, it is obvious that the threshold of merit for entry to higher levels of education will be lowered as the percentage of the population admitted increases, and that the content of courses provided will need to be adapted to the lower end of the range of intellectual capacities, to which they are now offered.
If, prior to this development, there had been no barriers to educational progression based on attainment and/or if the education offered had not been set at an essentially elitist level, then of course no major changes in content would have been necessary. But this was manifestly not the case.
The universalising of secondary education was accompanied by a lowering in the standards of its curricula, and the expansion of tertiary education also has been accompanied by a proliferation of 'popular' courses of diminished intellectual rigour, which can usually be identified by the appendage to their titles of the word 'studies'.
The expansion of post-primary education did not of itself necessitate a total shift in the curriculum from higher to lower standards. A variety of strategies for catering for differing levels and types of ability had been developed in primary education in the first half of the century, and could have been extended to serve the expansion of universal education into early adulthood. These methods were, instead, in deference to the passion for equality, systematically withdrawn.
Primary education had catered for slow learners by a policy of 'leaving down', so that pupils were not relentlessly pushed ahead of their attainment by the mere passing of the years, but this was discontinued as discriminatory and demeaning.
Exceptionally bright children could also be 'put up', and their progress through a structured syllabus accelerated. Instead, children were to work at their own pace, and the problems of integrating this approach with a coordinated syllabus and with group teaching, which is the only really feasible method with affordable teacher:pupil ratios, were ignored.
The surface uniformity of the class could not erase the reality that some children were achieving less than others, and under these new conditions the less able, who most require structured teaching, were more likely to suffer. The crisis in literacy appeared in tandem with individually-paced learning.
To disguise the dysfunctionality of the new approach, the examination and reporting of primary school children's attainment was mystified, so that neither parents nor children, nor to some extent even teachers, could assess their progress.
Secondary education, before it became universal, had employed a form of 'streaming', whereby the more academic chldren went to grammar schools, and the less academic to technical schools. The end-of-primary-school examination, which had sorted children into academic and non-academic secondary schools, was abolished and 'comprehensive' schools for all ranges of ability became the new policy.
The practice of 'streaming' into separate classes on the basis of ability, to allow teaching in whatever subject to be adapted to the needs and capabilities of pupils, was also abolished as inegalitarian.
However, the choice of subjects for study - academic versus technical - continued to be class- and ability- related, so attempts were made to give both categories equal academic status as grounds for entry to tertiary institutions (this debate is on-going and featured in the most recent review of the Higher School Certificate in New South Wales).
The content of technical subjects was also changed to shift it in the academic, hands-off, direction. Thus not only were domestic high schools closed, but the teaching of domestic science was changed from the practical to the theoretical. At the tertiary level, Colleges of Advanced Education, which had taught the skills of technology, were turned into universities teaching the theory (the Dawkins reforms).
This development occurred more or less contemporaneously in all English-speaking countries. Murphy (1990) [Murphy, J. (1990) 'A most respectable prejudice: inequality in education research and policy'. British Journal of Sociology, 41, 29-54.] recounts the waves of successive attempts to make educational outcomes in Britain accord with 'the long-standing and widely accepted view which, since Tawney, has written off sectional [i.e. of class, race and sex] differences in education as unfair and unjust' (p.29). On each occasion a source of injustice was identified which, it was postulated, would, if removed, result in equal educational achievement across the class spectrum. These hypotheses were, untested, turned into policy, but their promise was never realised. Education became vastly more expensive but, if anything, class differences increased, and standards fell.
Despite reforms of a similar nature in Australia, unequal educational outcomes were still seen as unjust, and with all other structural approaches having failed, two further strategies to eliminate injustice were devised. One, which we have already reviewed, was to give equal marks to pupils across class backgrounds (and to justify this through curriculum manipulation). The second, in which welfare policy and youth unemployment have symbiotically played significant supporting roles, is the massive promotion of retention in upper secondary and tertiary education.
Retention rates to Year 12 in Australian schools rose from 35% in 1981 to 64% in 1991. This policy resulted in a narrowing of the retention gap between private and state schools, which, in 1981 and 1991, had retention rates of 57% and 83% (private), and of 28% and 71% (state), respectively. Nevertheless, in terms of continuation into tertiary education, private school pupils were the main beneficiaries.
In the mid-80s, 50% of all school leavers remained in education, and this had risen to 60% by the early 1990s. Of state school leavers, 42% proceeded to further education in 1985, and this had risen only 6% to 48% by 1993. By contrast, 62% of private school leavers proceeded to further education in 1985, and this had risen 14% to 76% by 1993. Therefore it would seem that the policy of prolonged retention has been primarily of service to students from wealthier families.
Thus it seems that these two latest efforts to provide 'justice' and 'equality' in education have fared no better than their predecessors, despite their enormous cost and impact on the quality of education at the higher levels. It has been remarked that a major outcome of the post-war reforms has been to provide free, or heavily subsidised, to the middle-classes the education that they previously paid for.
In reflecting on this protracted drama of the failure of reform to rectify class inequalities (which is in marked contrast to its success as regards sexual inequalities), one cannot but wonder at the apparently universal self-censorship which has prevented anyone, even Murphy, from suggesting outright that the persistence of inequality in educational outcome may be the result of inequality in relevant input - of innate differences in intellectual (and only intellectual), abilities - differences which nevertheless do not divide exclusively on class lines either in input or output.
Structural recognition of the unalterable reality of individual difference in educational ability needs to be returned to educational policy, as a priority. Streaming should be reintroduced in secondary schools and formalised in universities.
A place for the truly academically inclined and their erudite disciplines should be maintained, even while the majority enjoy an education suited to their more ordinary talents and tastes. The highest intellectual achievements of our culture must be nurtured and strengthened.
This commitment can peacefully coexist with the maintenance of a broad curriculum providing the transmission of the knowledge and skills which serve the vast majority of our needs, and accessible to the majority of the population.
Equally we must dampen the stridency of the populist movement amongst the new 'academics' and educationalists who are the product of the first generation of educational expansion. This new generation of the intelligentsia found, in the elite culture of the older universities which had nurtured them, a site of invidious comparison for the courses which they were compelled to create to provide for a much enlarged and 'de-graded' student body.
To them, post-modernist theory offered an opportunity to asssert superior status, for while it promotes intellectual nonsense, it has a certain moral weight on its side. It purveys the powerful political wish for equality; and this wish, despite the often patent self-interest and power-seeking which underpins its promotion, is indeed admirable and generally deeply felt.
But wishes are not sound policy. We are witnessing the sad spectacle of a large sector of the academic profession, which should be committed to disinterested knowledge, trying to make reality fit ideology, rather than vice versa - trying, as they move into ever more ludicrous assertions, to force from a false premise a logical conclusion which the intransigence of the given world does not allow.