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Meritocrats

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Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
High table in the dining hall at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1958

I came up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1966. Ours was a—perhaps the—transitional generation. We were past the midpoint of the 1960s—the Mods had come and gone and the Beatles were about to record Sgt. Pepper—but the King’s into which I was matriculated was still strikingly traditional. Dinner in Hall was formal, begowned—and required. Undergraduates took their seats, awaited the arrival of the Fellows, then rose to watch a long line of elderly gentlemen shuffle past them on their way to High Table.

Elderly” here is no relative term. Led by (former provost) Sir John Shepherd (born 1881), the Emeritus Fellows typically included Sir Frank Adcock (born 1886), E.M. Forster (born 1879), and others equally venerable. One was made immediately aware of the link between a generation of young men born into the postwar welfare state and the world of late-Victorian King’s: the age of Forster, Rupert Brooke, and John Maynard Keynes, exuding a cultural and social self-confidence to which we could never aspire. The old men seemed to blend seamlessly into the fading portraits on the walls above: without anyone making a point of it, continuity was all about us.

And yet, we were a path-breaking cohort. By the time we graduated, gowns, caps, gate hours, and a whole rulebook of minor regulations—all of them in place when we arrived—were the object of amused nostalgia. In my first term, an enthusiastic if mediocre rugby player, I took the team bus to Oxford to play (and lose to) New College. We got back late, courtesy of a half-successful attempt to dismantle one of our host’s urinals, and some late autumn fog. I arrived at the entrance to my hostel: it was locked—and I had no “late pass.” A flurry of stones succeeded in waking up a friend, who came down utterly petrified: “Don’t let the warden hear you!” It goes without saying that this story would be hard to explain to a King’s student today; but it would have been equally implausible to someone who arrived two years after us. The change came suddenly.

King’s prided itself on the enthusiasm with which it embraced change and radical disruption. The senior tutor of the day would explain to freshmen that locked gates and disciplinary regulations should be regarded with a wink and a nod. This seemed a little rough on the porters and hostel wardens who were responsible for enforcing them—an early introduction to the subtlety of social rank at Cambridge: middle-class bohemians themselves in outlook if not lifestyle, most college officers smiled benignly upon breaches of the rules they were expected to uphold.

The college was also responsible for the appalling new student bar installed shortly after we arrived. Abreast of contemporary style in all things, the Fellows approved a design that resembled nothing so much as the departure lounge at Gatwick Airport—and was chosen for just that reason: King’s (founded in 1441) was not to dwell on its heritage, especially now that it had so many young men for whom the upper-class milieu of Oxbridge meant nothing. As one of those “new” Kingsmen—the first person in my family to complete secondary school, much less attend university—I can say that I would have far preferred the stuffed ambience of a nineteenth-century gentlemen’s club to the ersatz classlessness of the bar. Fortunately this experiment was not representative. The college maintained sufficient self-confidence to offer its students a reassuring sense of continuity and identity.

To me, a South Londoner who had never been north of Leicester, our generation of Kingsmen was not just socially mixed but geographically heterogeneous. For the first time I met boys from the Wirral, Yorkshire, Tyneside, East Anglia, and the Celtic fringe. To a remarkable degree, they were—like me—the upwardly mobile products of selective state schools without fees: we had the 1944 Butler Education Act to thank for our presence in Cambridge, although for some of us the social gulf to be bridged was substantial indeed. The mother of John Bentley, the first boy to attend Kings from a comprehensive school,1 explained to my parents at our graduation party that whenever people on her street asked where her son was and what he was doing, she was tempted to reply that he was “back in Borstal”2:: a more convincing and ultimately respectable answer than confessing that he was punting girls around on the Cambridge Backs.

Somewhere else in the college there surely lurked enclaves of elite private school boys; perhaps they were in the majority? But I only ever became closely acquainted with one such person—my neighbor Martyn Poliakoff, great-grandnephew of the Poliakoff who built the Russian railways, a spiky-haired eccentric out of Westminster School who went on to secure a CBE, Fellowship of the Royal Society, and deserved renown as a popularizer of chemistry to young people. Hardly your typical toff.

My King’s was the very incarnation of meritocratic postwar Britain. Most of us got where we were by doing well in exams and, to a striking extent, we pursued occupations that reflected our early talents and interests. The cohort of Kingsmen who came up in 1966 stand out in their choice of careers: more than any group before or since, we opted for education, public service, the higher reaches of journalism, the arts, and the unprofitable end of the liberal professions.

It is thus altogether appropriate that the most promising economist of our generation—Mervyn King—should have ended up as the governor of the Bank of England, rather than an investment banker or hedge funder. Before our time, talented Kingsmen doubtless followed similar paths. But a glance at the obituaries of an older generation reveals just how many of them returned to the family business or to the traditional professions of their fathers and grandfathers.

As for those who came after, it is depressing to record how quickly and in what numbers the graduates of the 1970s and since resorted to the world of private banking, commerce, and the more remunerative reaches of the law. Perhaps one should not blame them; in our time, jobs were still plentiful and we could bask in the waning rays of postwar prosperity. All the same, it’s very clear that our elective affinities lay elsewhere.

I used to ask my contemporaries why they opted for King’s. A surprising number had no clear response: they just picked it by name, because they admired the chapel or because it sounded distinctive. A handful—mostly economists—said it was because of Keynes. But I was directed to apply to King’s for very specific reasons. A rebel at school—I dropped out in the second year of the 6th form—I was tartly assured by my teachers that no other college in Oxbridge would give me the time of day. But King’s, they seemed to feel, was sufficiently oddball to find me a congenial candidate. I have no idea whether any other college would have considered my application; fortunately, I never had to find out.

College teaching was idiosyncratic. Most of my supervisors—John Saltmarsh, Christopher Morris, and Arthur Hibbert—were obscure, published little, and known only to generations of Kingsmen. Thanks to them I acquired not just a patina of intellectual self-confidence, but abiding respect for teachers who are indifferent to fame (and fortune) and to any consideration outside the supervision armchair.

We were never taught with the specific aim of performing well on the Tripos—the Cambridge final examinations. My supervisors were supremely uninterested in public performance of any sort. It was not that they were indifferent to exam results; they simply took it for granted that our natural talent would carry us through. It’s hard to imagine such people today, if only because they would be doing the college a profound financial disservice in the face of the Research Assessment Exercise, whereby the British government assesses “academic output” and disburses funds accordingly.

Perhaps I am ill-placed to assess the 1960s in King’s. I went on to do graduate work there and held a fellowship for six years, before decamping for Berkeley in 1978: my memories are side-shadowed by later developments. The King’s of Noel Annan—provost from 1956 to 1966—was giving way to that of Edmund Leach (1966–1979), an internationally renowned anthropologist of the Levi-Strauss school. The unmediated self-confidence of the Annan generation3 would be replaced by a certain ironic distance: you never quite felt with Provost Leach that he cared deeply or believed implicitly in the college as a repository of all that was best in Edwardian liberal dissent. For him it was just another myth ripe for the unraveling.

But what Leach did stand for—more than Annan and certainly more than the intellectually undistinguished John Shepherd—was pure smarts: an emphasis further accentuated when Leach was succeeded by the incomparable Bernard Williams. I served for a while as a very junior member on the College Fellowship Electors with Williams, John Dunn, Sydney Brenner (the Nobel Prize winner in medicine), Sir Frank Kermode, Geoffrey Lloyd (the historian of ancient science), and Sir Martin Rees (the Astronomer Royal). I have never lost the sense that this was learning: wit, range, and above all the ability (as Forster put it in another context) to connect.

My greatest debt, though I did not fully appreciate it at the time, was to Dunn, then a very young college Research Fellow, now a distinguished professor emeritus. It was John who—in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke—broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.

That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum. No doubt such tolerant intellectual breadth was not confined to King’s. But listening to friends and contemporaries describe their experiences elsewhere, I sometimes wonder. Lecturers in other establishments often sounded disengaged and busy, or else professionally self-absorbed in the manner of American academic departments at their least impressive.

There is more of that in King’s today than there used to be. As in so many other respects, I think our generation was fortunate: we got the best of both worlds. Promoted on merit into a class and culture that were on their way out, we experienced Oxbridge just before the fall—for which I confess that my own generation, since risen to power and office, is largely responsible.

For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.” The havoc wrought in higher education was well summarized by Anthony Grafton in this magazine,4 but the worst damage has been at the secondary level. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.

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Yale Center for British Art, Paul Merton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
‘Clare Hall and the West End of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, from the banks of the River Cam’; watercolor by J.M.W. Turner, 1793

The result, predicted from the outset, was that the selective private schools (“public schools”) have flourished. Desperate parents pay substantial fees to exempt their children from dysfunctional state schools; universities are under inordinate pressure to admit underqualified candidates from the latter and have lowered their admissions standards accordingly; each new government has instituted reforms aimed at compensating for the failed “initiatives” of their predecessors.

Today, when the British government mandates that 50 percent of high school graduates should attend university, the gap separating the quality of education received by the privately schooled minority from that of everyone else is greater than at any time since the 1940s. They consistently outperform their state-educated peers—a dirty little secret that no one cares to acknowledge but that panicked New Labour governments. It does seem curious to curse the private schools for thriving in a market while enthusiastically rewarding bankers for doing so.

Successive education ministers have authorized and encouraged “academies”—furtively reintroducing (with the help of private money) the very process of selection of whose abolition on egalitarian grounds they once so proudly boasted. Meanwhile, we now have more private school graduates in the British cabinet than for decades past (seventeen at my count)—and the first old Etonian prime minister since 1964. Perhaps we should have stuck with meritocracy.

On my occasional return trips to Cambridge, I am struck by the air of doubt and decline. Oxbridge has certainly not resisted the demagogic vogue: what began as ironic self-mockery in the 1970s (“Here at King’s we have five hundred years of rules and traditions but we don’t take them very seriously, Ha! Ha!”) has become genuine confusion. The earnest self-interrogatory concern with egalitarianism that we encountered in 1966 appears to have descended into an unhealthy obsession with maintaining appearances as the sort of place that would never engage in elitist selection criteria or socially distinctive practices of any kind.

I’m not sure that there is anything to be done about this. King’s, like much else in contemporary Britain, has become a heritage site. It celebrates an inheritance of dissidence, unconvention, and unconcern for hierarchy: look at us—aren’t we different. But you cannot celebrate your qualities of uniqueness unless you have a well-grounded appreciation of what it was that gave them distinction and value. Institutions need substantive traditions and I fear that King’s—like Oxbridge at large—has lost touch with its own.

I suspect that all this began precisely in those transitional years of the mid-1960s. We, of course, understood nothing of that. We got both the traditions and the transgressions; the continuities and the change. But what we bequeathed to our successors was something far less substantial than what we ourselves had inherited (a general truth about the baby- boom generation). Liberalism and tolerance, indifference to external opinion, a prideful sense of distinction accompanying progressive political allegiances: these are manageable contradictions, but only in an institution unafraid to assert its particular form of elitism.

Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.

In my generation we thought of ourselves as both radical and members of an elite. If this sounds incoherent, it is the incoherence of a certain liberal descent that we intuitively imbibed over the course of our college years. It is the incoherence of the patrician Keynes establishing the Royal Ballet and the Arts Council for the greater good of everyone, but ensuring that they were run by the cognoscenti. It is the incoherence of meritocracy: giving everyone a chance and then privileging the talented. It was the incoherence of my King’s and I was fortunate to have experienced it.

  1. 1

    The recently introduced nonselective secondary schools that were soon to become universal and were intended by the Labour government of the time to replace all selective state education.

  2. 2

    A reform school for criminal adolescents.

  3. 3

    See Noel Annan, Our Age: English Intellectuals Between the World Wars—A Group Portrait (Random House, 1990), an uncommonly self-confident account of a generation not yet stricken by self-questioning.

  4. 4

    Anthony Grafton, “Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities,” The New York Review, April 8, 2010.

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