Sunday, 27 May 2012

Ants and Grasshoppers

A university is a big organisation, employing a lot of people.  I think I'm right in saying that, in most university towns, the "uni" is usually second only to local government as an employer. Where a typical large school might employ a few Jacks and Jills of all trades to do the maintenance and the financial and clerical support, a university will have large teams of "support staff".  Our library system alone employs around 200 staff across five sites.

So, if you're a dedicated and curious people-watcher and all-round nosey devil like me, there's a lot of activity to observe and eavesdrop on, ranging from bawdy exchanges between the cleaners who congregate beneath my office window early in the morning, to high-table gossip over a coffee between senior professorial types.

I learn many things from observing this sample of humanity, but I am often struck by the difference between intelligence and achievement, and how one doesn't necessarily lead to the other.  There are some very stupid professors, and some very bright maintenance men.

There is much talk at the moment about the decline of social mobility in Britain since the 1970s.  This always means, of course, people going up the social scale, never down.  To my mind, a few more public-school-educated binmen would do a lot more for social solidarity than any number of comprehensive-school-educated merchant bankers.

But, politicians being people in search of a quick fix, they don't really want to understand the nature of the problem represented by "social mobility".  Someone has to empty the bins, obviously, though I think we're all now less convinced of the need for merchant bankers.  But the basic assumption seems to be that an intelligent person should not be emptying bins and, given equal opportunity with an Etonian, would choose not to.

My humble suggestion is that this assumption fails to take into account the way your social class can trump your intelligence, when it comes to [under]achievement.  The crux is one's relationship to authority, to deferred gratification, and to work.  Obedience, a willingness to accept on trust the desirability of long-term goals, and a belief in the inherent virtue of hard work are the ant-like hallmarks of the "achieving" classes.

You only have to look at the groundsmen and maintenance guys around campus, to see that the spectrum "dumb binman to smart banker", that wants to correlate intelligence with social position, is too simple.  Some of these guys are considerably smarter than the well-qualified middle-management halfwits who tell them what to do.  And their view of life is often far more mature than that of the self-regarding, narrowly-focussed academics whose offices and essential services they maintain.

But do these "smart guys in dumb jobs" look on the work of middle-managers or of academics with envious eyes?  Do they resent being "managed" by fools?  Do they regret now the choices they made in early life?  Do they wish their parents had made them stay in and do their homework when they wanted to play football, or just hang out?

Of course they don't.  And their heart won't be in it when they try to persuade their own kids not to give up too soon on their schoolwork. This is the core issue of social mobility: horizons of ambition and "pain-to-gain thresholds"* are, for whatever reasons, set low in many working-class families. After all, society has put centuries of effort into persuading people not to get "above themselves", up to and including public hanging and deportation to Australia.  It will take more than a relaxed policy on Oxbridge admissions to counter that.

If you come from a "regular" background, you will know that some of the brightest of your fellows will have left school at the first opportunity (if not well before, mentally).  They did not like or see the point of school.  They did not like or understand teachers.  Happily for them, neither did their parents.  This situation has got worse, not better, since I was at school.

A few do go on to success in business: my old primary school playmate John B. failed the Eleven Plus but, after an apprenticeship, went out to South Africa to start various metal-bashing businesses and, I discovered recently, is now CEO of a multinational company.  Wow! But, mostly, they just wanted to start earning proper money, or to work outdoors or with their hands, or perhaps had ambitions in sport or the creative arena, or even just wanted to sign on the dole and live a life of hand-to-mouth hedonism.  To have ill-defined, "grasshopper" goals that do not demand three hours' homework a night is hardly incompatible with intelligence.

Such goals, however, are completely incompatible with acquiring qualifications.

The ones who do stay on at school will always include a few truly bright, self-motivated, and creative youngsters.**  But the majority will be earnest, unimaginative plodders who will rise without trace and, if they can afford it, will have their own children privately educated, and vote for policies that reward hard-working ants and punish freeloading grasshoppers.

Grasshoppers, of course, rarely vote.  But, as the grasshoppers say, whoever you vote for, the government always gets in.

*  I've just invented that expression

** I reckon there were probably fewer than 60 in my cohort out of a town with a population of 65000; I doubt this ratio has improved.


Martin said...

I left school at the earliest opportunity, on a promise to my parents that I would see through an apprenticeship in agricultural engineering. I'm not ashamed to say that it was a promise I reneged on, also, at the earliest opportunity.

I didn't like, or see the point of the teaching methods. Most of our masters were war veterans. Some physically, some mentally scarred by their experiences. Not their fault, but they were a rum bunch with few exceptions.

But, you're quite right about some parents not understanding the educational process, and I include my own parents among them. In their minds, the prize was an apprenticeship. My dear, late stepfather (a brickie) was strong on getting a trade that I could exploit outside working hours. I don't think I ever heard the word, 'university', spoken in our home. If it was, it was whispered in the same deferential tone my mother reserved for 'doctor' or 'solicitor'. I wouldn't have heard it above my vinyl 'comfort blankets' anyway.

My work history is one I have no particular regrets about. I've dug trenches, sweated on a hot plate at the business end of a tar-spraying tanker, and enjoyed the company of colleagues familiar with stopping over at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Curiosity did eventually get the better of me, and I surprised myself by exploring the 'what if' question by enrolling with the OU. And for 6 years I was the lorry driver who spent his breaks in the cab, reading up on stuff like 'culture and belief in europe, 1450-1600.

But after eleven years in an academic environment, and a postgraduate qualification in information science, later, I was ready to move on. My curiosity had been satisfied.

My advice to any youngster, today? Be happy, whether it's working in a garden centre, taking your education to the highest level, or both.

Mike C. said...


You are living proof of my argument. I'm expecting another couple to pop up shortly.

In my own case, I had the treble advantage of (a) growing up in the middle of a grand social experiment aimed precisely at improving social mobility, (b) having parents who just wanted me to be happy, and (c) finding that study was what made me happy.

If leaving school would have made me happy, no-on would have stood in my way. I expect Dad would have got me onto an apprenticeship in his factory, something he could have understood more readily than university. I doubt I would ever hav become CEO of a multinational like my old friend, though!


David Gepp said...

I find it useful to differentiate between 'cleverness' and 'intelligence'. The etymologies focus the distinction, I think.
I see cleverness as the ability to pass exams, play a musical instrument (mechanically) and so on; intelligence as encompassing all the other, more important stuff - playing music with feeling, having insight, the ability to empathise, yet think freely etc.. Neither of these qualities do I possess at the moment (it's just too damn HOT)

Tony_C said...

Einstein's (apocryphal?) advice to a young man (of unspecified social class)looking for a career: "Become a plumber". (But would the great man himself really have enjoyed spending half his life with his arse sticking out of an airing cupboard?)

P.S."Pain-to-gain threshold" was good, but "rise without trace" great. Are you not claiming that one as yours, then?

Mike C. said...

David Gepp,

Good to hear from you -- I too am laid low by the heat, and only firing on half a cylinder.

I like the idea of "EQ" vs. "IQ" -- universities are short on the former, over-supplied with the latter.


Mike C. said...


I wasn't so much claiming copyright on "pain-to-gain threshold" as pointing out it is a mythical measure.

No, "rise without trace" is not mine -- you'll find it used all over the place, but damned if I can remember who said it about who (David Frost?), though I think it originally had a different sense to the one I intended here.


David G. said...

Forgot to mention - I was moved to add my ha'penny worth only because I found your argument entirely persuasive and perceptive - wish I'd read it in the 'left-leaning' (ha!) Guardian.
I'm still amazed and angered though, by those of my/our generation who had the benefits of 'upward' mobility and pulled the drawbridge up after them!

Mike C. said...

David G.,

It is shocking, the hypocrisy, isn't it?

In the end, the only answer is to

1. Abolish private education

2. Completely redraft the comprehensive system so that genuinely meritocratic elites can thrive within a mass education system -- a world made safe for swots!

3. Do away with the idea that higher education is about buying a passport into an aspirational lifestyle

4. Give teachers the space, time and backup to do their job, including if necessary in-house social workers to field social problems and ex-paratroopers to impose discipline (this actually happens in France).

and none of that will ever happen.

I feel so sorry for academically-inclined kids swamped by the bully-culture of the playground that dominates many big inner-city schools. They don't stand a chance.


Martyn Cornell said...

You're right about the town-we-must-not-name improving social mobility: the most important (though, I think, seldom recognised) aspect being that, as I believe I've said before here, no one could tell what class you were from where you lived. Our own alma mater sent far more pupils to Oxbridge than comparable grammar schools precisely because the teachers could not harbour prejudices about the working-class kids capable of going to Oxbridge, since they didn't know, mostly, who the working class ones were. I doubt, thanks to the sale of so many council houses, that is still true: certain areas of "new town" Stevenage now seem to have very different invironments: compare here and here.

Still, the most successful (in terms of running businesses) of my own senior school contemporaries were both pretty middle-class, and neither grew up in Stevenage itself: one, from Hitchin, went on to be chief executive of Drambuie (he died last year of cancer) and the other, from Knebworth, was chief executive at Halfords and is now something big in private equity.

My own (bricklayer) father only knew he didn't want his sons going into manual work like him: not sure what my parents (my mother had won a scholarship to a grammar school, despite living on a council estate) would have said if I had decided not to go to university, but travelling through the factory area on the bus to school every day had filled me with dread and loathing for the idea of a nine-to-five life, and university looked like an excellent way of avoiding such a doom. My own daughter, of course, suffers from having two university-educated parents with expectations: she's got the strength of character to forge her own path, though.

Mike C. said...


Two shocks here:

1. There were middle-class people living in Stevenage?? Knebworth doesn't count!

2. It's possible not to work 9-5 (other than night shifts)?? Bugger!