Well done to the Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, for speaking out on climate change; he emphasises today (The Times, 25 February 2012) that ‘something real is happening’ when the ice cap starts to melt.
But did the man known as ‘Two Brains’ actually wear them both out getting to this pretty obvious conclusion? Given that in the same Times piece he is reported as saying feminism is ‘partly to blame’ for a widening income gap, one must suppose so.
What appalling hypocrisy, coming from a Minister in a Government which is actively reducing opportunities for ‘ordinary’ women and their children.
‘You have this pattern‘, David Willetts says in the article, ‘where it tends to be well-educated men marrying well-educated women. That means the concentrations of income and opportunity are huge… It shows how difficult it is to change social mobility and ensure that all the young have a decent start in life. Fifty years ago we thought that creating meritocracy would be easy but it isn’t as straightforward as people thought.’
Well, for starters men and women of high rank and privilege have been married off to each other throughout history, the only differences from now being (a) that the women were often not as well-educated as the men and (b) that their wealth in both case was inherited. The past half century is a mere blip in this pattern of maintaining privilege over the ages.
Secondly, if ‘blame’ were to be apportioned for the concentrations of wealth and talent which marriage between well-educated people now produce, why not blame the men for insisting that their brides be accomplished professionals? That is as logical as blaming well-educated women for choosing to marry accomplished men.
But the really serious objection to Mr Willett’s position is that it is hugely hypocritical. His political responsibility is for universities, and for access thereto, but higher education establishments will accept only those who pass muster; and a moment’s reflection tells us that passing muster depends on early years experience.
A government which is attacking women disproportionately whilst also dismantling much early years provision – Sure Start and the rest – is in no position to talk about how, fifty years ago, ‘we’ believed that meritocracy might be achieved. True, in 1958 the sociologist Michael Young had written his book on The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033, but whilst this treatise introduced the concept of ‘meritocracy’ to a wider audience, it aimed also to debunk it.
I suspect that David Willetts, who went to a top state grammar school in Birmingham, has not moved on from the rhetoric of the 1950s and 60s about how this system would offer equality of opportunity for all. It didn’t, and it won’t, ever.
A more effective way of levelling the playing field might be to invest in programmes such as Sure Start, whilst also introducing much heftier taxation of inheritance as wealth is passed from generation to privileged generation.
But grammar schools also offered segregated educational opportunities by gender. So perhaps this indulged the traditionalist view that girls – who in Birmingham in the 1960s were so poorly served with grammar school places that the city was taken to court – have less ‘need’ of good education than boys.
Along with his a-historical perspective on how the rich and powerful maintained privilege through inter-marriage, I can’t think of any other explanation for David Willetts’ extraordinary attribution of ‘blame’, with his view that feminism has reduced the prospects for meritocracy.
Even the very kindest of analyses must however surely conclude that this position looks more half-baked than two-brained.