Home » But is it art? » The cult of the individual pursued

The cult of the individual pursued

Poor Mayor Boris Johnson. Been in trouble again, arguing the benefits of greed and inequality at a Margaret Thatcher Memorial Blowout last week. No-one spotted he was being half ironic.

Today we learn that some foreign poll has placed Britain 26th on the league table of academic achievement, and we’re fretting again. Why is our kids so stoopid? Must be the fualt of them teechers… Why can’t we be more like the Koreans, with their 24-hour school day?

Actually, I’m quite old and bored with these arguments. It’s been going on since I were a lad. I had a fabulously privileged upbringing with an account at Harrods and a Top 5 public-school education. Today I’m wearing a woolly hat and scarf, sitting with the lights off in a workman’s cottage sandwiched between a council estate and a thunderous main road in the outskirts of an architecturally challenged small town on the windy Welsh coast, staring in horrified fascination at the dwindling remains of my savings and wondering how to survive until I can collect my State pension.

Some disconnect there?

Despite having spent four years at supposedly one of the best independent schools in the country, and with a couple of good A-levels and a pass grade in Economics by the age of 16, my privilege didn’t get me to university. Thanks to my 98% in Latin and 86% in ancient Greek and other goodish results at Common Entrance, when I arrived at the school in the notorious winter of 1962/3 I found myself thrust into the top form of the top stream, two years ahead of my cohort. I was still only 12 years old, I was waving, and then I drowned.

To tell the truth, I was in emotional turmoil. My parents were going through a messy divorce and you had no counselling in those days. Relentlessly pursued for sex by older boys, I found myself in a world of ludicrous ‘privileges’ and bizarre made-up rules, forced to get up at 6 am, cold bath in summer, fumble with collar-studs, lesson before breakfast, banged-up with two other boys in a study for ‘prep’ in the evening, organised games every day, half-starved on appalling food and half-frozen to death. Worse was the sheer boredom.

Sure, some boys I knew then must have wound-up as generals, schoolmasters or high court judges; most would have become provincial solicitors, shopkeepers or owners of SMEs; I finished up as a domestic servant. Not so bad, eh? My seven years of working as a caretaker were spent mostly in a 20-room country mansion recently acquired by a man whose mum and dad had a barrow in an East London street market. Barely schooled, he owned over 300 companies worldwide. A lesson there, surely?

Stuck – by total contrast – in a tiny, underresourced rural Welsh comprehensive, forced to accommodate to an outlandish language and militantly nationalistic subculture, where the careers adviser would routinely suggest either the army or hairdressing as the pinnacle of aspiration, both my kids did better than me. My daughter graduated last year, the boy is still at university.

The point is, I think, that generalisations make bad practice. The PISA report is talking about tested academic performance by subject area, and (I now think) there is no correlation at all between academic performance at secondary level, and subsequent personal success or national GDP improvement.

What a pupil can achieve now in a test is no guarantee of future progress or the improbability of it. After all, I was supposedly as clever as a bagfull of monkeys. To gauge the state of a country’s educational establishment, you need to look at individual outcomes, ten or even twenty years down the line. It is a fact, or rather two facts, that around 90 out of the top 100 most successful UK entrepreneurs don’t have university degrees; while Britain far outstrips better performing countries like Norway, Finland, Singapore and Korea when it comes to individual performance in the key creative fields of science, maths, literature, music and design.

It seems counterintuitive. Is this the result of greed and inequality? I believe, yes. But not necessarily for the same reasons as BoJo. Greed and inequality are not good things in themselves: but they make for more exciting times.

The most successful countries in terms of the test results are all countries where the society is flatter than in class-ridden old Britain. But which country has the greatest number of Nobel laureates, patents filed, world-changing inventions, Top 20 chart hits worldwide, successful transfers of TV comedy shows and stage musicals, global movie- star-names, innovative architects, car and fashion designers working at the top level for the leading international brands, company start-ups, advanced motor engineering labs, victorious military engagements, world-renowned research institutions, medical advances, financial service providers, etc., etc.?

One Nokia, Proton or Daewoo doth not an innovative national culture make.

I believe that highly stratified societies generate more creative energy. But that is not to support inequality, only to celebrate difference.

While our society is highly stratified – the ‘class system’ at work – it is not wealth and privilege that buy success. Quite the opposite. True, the upper echelon all went to schools like mine. So what? Google as I might, I cannot find that any of my cohort has gone on to achieve great things in the 50 years since we were parsing Cicero together (actually, I forget what ‘parsing’ is! But we did a lot of it). Some successful people may have emerged from privileged backgrounds, inheriting seats on boards or doing well in the traditional professions, the military, academia or the law, but many more live on their income from family investments and contribute little to innovation.

And many like me may have subsided genteelly onto the scrapheap, perhaps cushioned by their dwindling Trust funds but essentially economically useless. Privilege makes no difference. Looking at the leading innovators, we tend to find that countries with more stratified societies like Britain do better when their teenagers go through an average, general education of no great distinction, doing neither badly nor spectacularly well.

Coincidentally, there has been quite a number of top British scientists on the radio lately, talking about their careers. All of them were pre-eminent in their field, noted for their discoveries, laden with awards and gongs and prestigious professorships. What struck me about all of them was how they related being only average at school, being educated in the state sector – some had dreadful reports and tales of being told they would never succeed at anything. Several of them had come to science, only after awitching out of Humanities degree courses at university.

Last night I watched an interview on the news with a Korean girl of 15. She starts school at half-past six, finishes at 5 pm then goes straight on to a crammer, where she has more school until 10.30 pm, when she comes home and does homework. She goes to bed at 2 am and gets up at six. Her mother says she is ashamed to have to make her daughter live like this, but it is the only way to succeed in the competitive Korean society.

Western psychologists agree, the average 15-year-old’s healthy mental development depends on getting nine hours’ sleep a night. Adolescence is a time of tremendous changes, and the last thing an adolescent needs is more stress. The child spoke in a flat, exhausted monotone – which is how she will probably spend the rest of her life, working long hours in some low-grade banking job and going home alone to a numbered box-room in a featureless apartment block.

In a society where everyone is on level-pegging, that probably counts as success. In a more stratified society, there is an incentive to obtain more from life, whatever hand it has dealt you. Greed? Inequality? If you believe in those, the natural corollary is to value the criminal urge too! Look, flat societies are more, not less competitive; but for a limited range of jobs, in which opportunities to innovate are few and far between. In a stratified society, there are more options. They are less competitive in that sense, making it easier to stand out. They value individual creative expression over uniform greyness.

Increasingly, though, we are coming to live more like Koreans. North Koreans! Headline-averse politicians with their endless ‘initiatives’, successive meddlesome education secretaries cheerfully ‘learning lessons’ from ghastly, uniformitarian regimes elsewhere are seeing to that. Uniformity is being forced on us by rafts of oppressive new social legislation imposing rules on every aspect of human behaviour; upheld by morally rigid, intrusive policing. It is living by numbers. (Meanwhile I read that 350,000 Britons are dependent on free food banks to get enough to eat. I am in favour of inequality, but it is inexcusable that our politicians haven’t the guts or the nous to deliver a fairer society.)

All, save for the cult of the individual, which we must protect at all costs. Individuals like BoJo, in fact.

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