The devil in disguise

September 8, 2000

While paying lip-service to anti-elitism, a 'new elite' is cashing in on a population of cultural semi-literates, argues George Walden

In education as elsewhere, elites are fast becoming the enemy within: no one can say precisely who they are, but everyone is against them. As anti-elitism becomes the guiding spirit of our national institutions, in politics, schools and universities, the media or the arts, Britain is being transformed into something that might be called an ultra-democracy. That would be fine if it meant that privilege and pretension were everywhere under attack, that merit was rewarded and democracy extended to its limits. But that is not what is happening.

I use "ultra" in its sense of beyond rather than extreme, and the ultra-democracy I have in mind is anti-democratic. A true democracy liberates and encourages the aspirations of the individual within society, notably in its public education. Ultra-democracy takes the sovereignty and equality of the people to demagogic extremes. Anti-elitism elevates class-consciousness into a system whose leaders are professional populists, and it is they who form the new elites. Their aim is not so much to elevate those beneath them, but - in a phrase coined by the Russian writer Nicholas Berdyayev a century ago - to "make their career in the masses".

The British system of education could have been purposely devised for the emergence of these new elites. It is one that is characterised on all sides of the political spectrum by bad faith and hypocrisy, one where egalitarian myth goes along with a brute reality.

The result of the abolition of grammar schools and the myth that comprehensives were a success has been the flourishing of the private sector. The result of the myth that all institutes of higher learning are universities has been that an Ivy League has grown vigorously, as ivy does. And the polarisation between the comprehensive and private sectors of education ensures that independent schools dominate the best universities to a greater degree than they did 30 years ago. In education as in culture, ultra-democracy goes along with social regression. Our professional anti-elites are loud in their indignation about Laura Spence, but no one wants to tackle the roots of the problem in our schools for fear of being accused of championing selection.

It is a characteristic of institutions dominated by new elite attitudes to pursue a simulated conflict with authority. The media portrays itself as locked in combat with the establishment, while being a leading member of that establishment. Educational interests assume a beleaguered posture, yet those in charge of schools that some 90 per cent of pupils have no choice but to attend and whose philosophy of education determines what happens at our institutions of higher learning, are not anti-elitists, they are the elite. It is they, not Eton and Winchester, who set the tone in society.

Certainly the educationally privileged are over-represented in the best universities, but they no longer form a class apart. Like everyone else they live in an era of mass consumerism and an egalitarian culture, and that is where most of them will make their money and their careers. Not so long ago, privately educated holders of Cambridge degrees, such as Dawn Airey and David Elstein of Channel 5, or presidents of the Cambridge Union, such as Peter Bazalgette, producer of Big Brother, would have gone into politics, the judiciary or the higher civil service. Instead they produce programmes such as Channel 5's Sex and Shopping and other low-brow commercial fare.

A similar trend is noticeable in the press, and the percentage of Oxbridge graduates going into the media has risen dramatically. Our populist elites have made a canny choice. As Don DeLillo said, the future lies with crowds. All this makes nonsense of our antiquated up-down, left-right debate about elitism in education. Our studiously egalitarian system is producing large numbers of cultural semi-literates, ripe for exploitation by populist elites.

The level of political debate is another reflection of our educational failures. At a time when we are churning out a million graduates a year, five times as many as 40 years ago, you might have thought that political elites would ratchet up their rhetoric, sprinkling it with literary quotations. Instead, a supposedly educated public is addressed as if it were moronic, on a lower level than before. Either there is something wrong with our political elites or with our education. One does not exclude the other.

Whether they are academics playing the populist game, politicians indulging in anti-elite gestures, newspaper editors pandering ever more cynically to mass tastes, businessmen following the dictates of the market however low they lead, or cultural apparatchiks intent on making the arts "more accessible to a wider public", diluting as they go, the new elites are careful to shield their own children from the debilitating effects of their actions. Examples of politicians who pay lip-service to the anti-elitist creed, while ensuring that their children receive a more aspiring education than the rest, are too notorious to quote. In academia, the arts and the media, where the choice of school made by individuals is less likely to come under the public spotlight, there are many more.

Elites ancient and modern look after their own, and already there are signs of dynastical tendencies among the new elites. Half a century ago, the sons and daughters of the middle or upper-middle classes might have turned to socialism or communism to salve their social conscience. Today they are more likely to use parental contacts to make their career in the masses - financially more rewarding and a lot more fun. The children of the new elites do not feel guilty any more, and insofar as they do, their guilt has been turned to profit.

The saying that the right has won in economics and the left in culture - which includes education - is one of the more convincing cliches of the times, yet it overlooks the most important consequence of their respective triumphs: that the victors have done a deal. The basis of their accommodation is clear. Commerce and the modern left share a revulsion of anything smacking of exclusivity: business because its dreams are of expansion, and excluding customers is not what it is about; egalitarians for obvious reasons. Each has its eye on the big numbers: egalitarians look fondly on a mass culture, business seeks mass markets - and each strives endlessly towards the populist norm. For their different reasons, each sees the needs and desires of the masses as sacrosanct: for the egalitarian they are ideological clients, for the businessman they are paying customers.

Education is an example of where their apparently divergent interests coincide. Educators complain about pressures from the business world for more vocational courses and sigh at the neglect of "the higher purposes of education". At the same time, they are suspicious of any over-emphasis on the past and anxious to endear themselves to their students by stressing the contemporary and the "relevant", including commercial culture.

In practice, therefore, the advocates of "the higher purposes of education" frequently go along with low expectations necessary to promote access and equality, the better to assert their anti-elite credentials. The tastes and values inculcated in schools and higher education increasingly reflect the fads and fashions of the times, while business waits at the gates to pocket the profits. An anti-elite educational culture delivers consumers to business like heifers to the abattoir.

What our populist patricians, in education as elsewhere, cannot understand is that elites are an inevitable and desirable aspect of democracy. There can be no elite worth the name that does not aim high, be it in sport or culture, and that fails to encourage the common man to aspire to its condition. In the postwar period, under different administrations, Britain edged further towards open elites, through the lowering of class barriers, improvements in education, greater social justice and the prospect of a higher level of culture for all. The assumption was that progress would be linear.

The emergence of an ultra-democracy led by egalitarian elites, cynics whose ambitions soar no higher than to make their career in the masses, puts these gains at risk. Sadly, their growing influence over society and its culture means that teachers in schools and universities who genuinely seek to instil respect for the higher purposes of education are frequently wasting their time.

George Walden was minister for higher education from 1985 to 1987. His book The New Elites: Making a Career in the Masses is published this week by Allen Lane The Penguin Press, Pounds 18.99.

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