Monday, October 16, 2006

In defence of elitism

Elitism has become a dirty word in modern Britain.

Anyone daring to suggest, for example, that selection in schools is actually a good idea and works better for children is damned as "elitist" - just as those who recognise that there are genetic differences between races and that mass immigration is not such a good idea are slammed as "racist" and those who suggest that men and women are actually different in capability are slurred as "sexist". But that's just the way the liberal progressives shut down debate on any point where their argument is weak (in other words, all points) by attributing a label to their opponent to stigmatise them and, therefore, silence them.

I'll return to racism and sexism in future posts - but this one is about elitism and why we need it.

Because the truth is that we do need elitism. It is essential for any functioning society to find those with particular aptitudes for certain areas and make best use of their skills and reward them appropriately. You can only do this by using a method known as "selection". Selection is a key part of life which we all have to learn to live with. You can not get a job without going through a selection process. That process is designed to discover if you are capable of fulfilling the role for which you are applying. Without it a business will quickly fall into mediocrity and eventually bankruptcy. The same applies to a nation.

We need to find the "elite" in all aspects; military, academic, business, scientific - even politics. The trouble with elitism is the stigma that has been attached to it by it's historical context. A hundred years ago "the elite" was a term given to those of a higher "class" of people. The upper class were generally regarded as the "elite".

At this time, selection still applied, but it was selection by attribute not aptitude. For example, First World War officers in the British Army were selected not by their ability, but by their social status, their gender and their connections. The result was chaos - "lions led by donkeys" - and the needless death of millions of young men.

The military is perfect example of how the selection process can be used successfully. The First World War showed up the deficiencies of the old selection by attribute process and by WW2 the process was already geared more towards ability - although attribute was still a part of it.

The modern army is entirely driven by selection by aptitude. The officer "elite" are no longer purely from a certain social class or even from a single gender, but are now drawn from all strata of society and are capable and skilled in their roles.

Furthermore, the military has realised the potential of selection and elitism in other areas and we now have the "elite" forces - such as the SAS, men selected purely on their capability - the best of the best, the elite. By using such a rigorous selection criteria the SAS are now amongst the most respected, highly regarded and feared army units in the world. Selection works. Elitism works.

The same principle applies in all areas of life and national interest. Whatever the role - scientists, footballers, artists, doctors, teachers, business leaders, politicians, police, engineers - we need to find the people who are best suited to those roles. This is vitally important when it comes to areas that are central to our national well being.

If we want a high standard of health care and to (once again) lead the world in medical research then we have to make sure that we create an "elite" of doctors, nurses and biologists to achieve that.

This can not be done once people are out of school and already on a different path - it has to be done at the earliest opportunity - and this means selection in school. We have to make sure that we are finding the "elite" as soon as we can and we are doing all we can to promote them to their full capability.

The current system of comprehensive schooling fails to do this. There is selection in comprehensive schools at class level, but the mix is so great that it dilutes the result. Nor was it done by the old system of selection by social status. Selection must be based on aptitude - and the realisation that we are not all going to be gifted enough to be part of the "elite". I know I'm not - and I can accept that. And I accept that those who are truly capable need to be given every assistance in realising their full potential if we, as a nation, are to benefit.

The grammar school system worked. It discovered those with potential and helped them to maximise their capability regardless of their social status. Because it ensured that all pupils in the school were of a certain level is was able to raise expectations and standards. It still had streaming - but now the streams were much more concentrated.

It was by far the best way to achieve the national ambitions of high standards in education and the subsequent recruitment of talented individuals into the important areas of national concern, but we have to realise that there is s a limit to this. We can not carry on with this blind goal of 50% in university - because it spreads the resources too thinly and diminishes the effectiveness of university. Many of those who are going to university now are pursuing degrees of little worth and no value to the national concern. That diverts vital funding away from essential studies into useless frivolity.

We have to allow the selection process to find it's natural level - probably the 30% it was before Labour started setting ridiculous targets is about right.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of "selection" and "elitism" is how it has moved full circle. Where a century ago it was selection by attribute; social status, gender, race, politics - it moved, briefly, during the middle part of the last century, to a system of selection by aptitude and has now reached the point where we once again select by attribute; social status, gender, race and politics. Only now, of course, it is weighted in favour of those who are considered worthy by the new political elite; the poor, women, ethnic minorities and left wing liberal progressives.

The difference is that, where it was once enforced by nothing more than a loose informal tribalism, it is now being enforced by government through regulation and directive. We have the government demanding that universities take more people from poor backgrounds even if their ability is less than those of other candidates. We have all women shortlists for parliamentary selection. We have blatant discrimination in the workplace where a white man applying for a job as a police officer will be turned down because he does not have the right attributes (not ethnic and not female).

Elitism is good and selection is necessary - but only if it is an elitism of ability and it is selection by aptitude.

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