Private Schools, Equality, and Liberty

by Harry on November 13, 2003

In my role as Adam Swift’s unpaid publicist I want to point out this piece in The Telegraph (you have to register, but its free, quick, and easy, and there’s lots of other good stuff). Swift explains — to Telegraph readers, remember — why the standard arguments in defence of private schools don’t work; either because they appeal to false values, or because they appeal to correct values but are beside the point. A great challenge to private schools — and kudos to John Clare, the Telegraph education editor, for running it. (For Americans who don’t know it the Telegraph is the furthest right of the UK newspapers, so this is a particularly incendiary piece for it).



pathos 11.13.03 at 4:57 pm

In America, most of the upper-middle class do not go to private schools. Most move to a really expensive neighborhood with great public schools and send their kids there.

The quality of the schools helps to drive up the property values.

The assumption seems to be that “no private school” equals “equality of schooling.” Anyone who has seen the variety of public schools would be under that illusion.

Forcing people who live together to school together will merely cut down on people who don’t want to school together from living together.


Pouncer 11.13.03 at 5:13 pm

Swift writes:

“Like it or not, much of the value of education is competitive – what matters is not how good yours is absolutely, but how good it is relative to other people’s. ”

Much of the value of education flows beyond the student. The patient cared for by a better educated doctor, or who takes the medicine developed by the better educated chemist, benefits from the _absolute_ quality of the provider’s education. At the other end of the spectrum, the customer who gets correct change from the cash-register-operator at the local burger join benefits from that worker’s _absolute_ command of basic arithmetic, while the competitive best from a bunch of arithmetically incompetent graduates would afford that customer little benefit at all, (unless he received TOO MUCH change — there’s a Buck Henry/Steve Martin skit about that, I believe…)

“Add in the idea that operating alongside an elite private system depresses the absolute quality of state education”

Why? This is as odd as having the burger boy “Add in” the price of the french fries to the amount of cash tendered before making his change. (Lame joke/analogy, sorry)

There is a growing body of economic literature which indicates that allowing parental selection from among several neighboring schools spurs competition among those schools, to the improvement of all. This is true where students “shop” among several public (state supported) schools, and true again where state schools compete against several church-run or private schools.

I hesitate to reply to an argument not explicitly made, for fear of raising a “straw man”. But some commentors suggest that private schools “skim the cream” of good _students_ from state schools, increasing the proportion of stupid, lazy, ill-disciplined, or crazy students left behind. Stipulating, nonce, that dynamic, the quality of the education consumers (students) says nothing about the quality of the educational product (curriculum, teacher experience, lab resources)
purveyed. The absolute quality of a state-purchased textbook, say, is the same; regardless of another class using that text or another in a private classroom off-site.

” and it should be clear that abolition would not be about cutting down the tall poppies. It would lower the ceiling in order to raise the floor.”

Squishing the students in the middle, I suppose …

*sigh*. Is “Swift” a nom de plume, perhaps, referring to the author of “A Modest Proposal”?
If so, I wish he were funnier, and MORE outrageous. The temptation to take him at his word and detail the length and breadth of his errors is compelling.


Harry 11.13.03 at 5:34 pm

Pathos — that’s right. The US system and the UK system are entirley different, and nothing Swift says about the UK system should be assumed to carry over to the US (as he is very clear in othe rplaces — but he assumes that only UK-concerned readers are reading the Telegraph.

Similar response to some of what pouncer says — in fact he has a forthcoming scholarly article referring to the economic literature you mention. I am an enthusiast for an egalitarian controlled choice system, and he seems to be well-disposed to it too.

But remember that students themselves constitute part of the educational product. If you attend schools with bright well-motivated kids whose parents are contributing to the effectiveness of the school you are getting a different product than if you attend school with disruptive or lazy kids whose parents have no disposable income and are pressed for time because they both work more than full time. Why should poor kids be given the inferior product? Just because their parents don’t have the resources to buy the better one? So much for the land of opportunity. Of course, in the US, for the reasons pathos gives, is really scandalous, because the state itself structures this inequality, and on top of giving well-off children the advantage of going to school with each other it spends up to four times as much money on them.


jdsm 11.13.03 at 5:35 pm

I’m not sure Pouncer is entirely fair to Swift though I agree with some of what he says.

I agree that the value of education is not entirely relative, which is an important mistake in Swift’s argument. The following criticism I think is wrong, however. Elite private systems do depress the quality of state systems for several reasons. The wealthiest 10% would undoubtedly care more about the state system if they actually had to use it. More importantly, the influence of those children who can go to private schools on the others would be beneficial. They have often had more opportunities and involved upbringings and their influence on the rest would be welcome.

If anyone doubts the benefits of having only state schools they should just check out the schools in Scandinavia and Finland imparticularly. Finland does consistently better than the UK and US in international comparisons and it’s nothing to do with funding. If my wife is to be believed, the “cool crowd” at Finnish schools is the crowd who are interested and successful in their studies. In contrast, at most UK schools they are the ones considered square and uncool. I would guess this goes a long way to explaining the difference.


baa 11.13.03 at 5:55 pm

Seriously, Harry, you think this shows why “standard arguments for private schools don’t work”? I find it almost painfully poorly argued.

Pouncer notes above the dreadful mistake stemming from confusing the proposition that “much of the value of education is competitive” with the much stronger proposition that *all* of the value of education is competitive. The error of zero-sum thinking is of massive consequence. Educated egalitarians should not make it.

Second, Swift, like many egalitarians, ignores the radicalism of his position. He writes: “I am very keen on the family. I think that intimate familial relationships are among the greatest goods human beings can realise.”

Alas, the family is a far greater source of inequaltiy than schooling. Swift can take your children (or mine, when I have them) and shelve them in the most dreadful school in metropolitan Detroit, and they will still out-perform children from dysfunctional families, or those that don’t value education, or those that don’t read books in the evenings. So as a practical matter, the fix Swift suggests will likely amount to a slight reduction of inequality at the cost of greatly suppressing excellence and the overall stock of human capital.

I’m afraid this is just another example of a crude leveling midset, and not a terribly bright example at that.


wetzel 11.13.03 at 6:31 pm

I live in Georgia, where the schools are generally poor. Despite our middle class income, my wife and I scrimp and save to send our children to a very expensive private school, which is considered one of the best in the country. My car has 150,000 miles on it and there are no plans for replacement anytime soon.

My second grade son is in a class of twelve wonderful children under the guidance of two teachers.

Although I did debate ‘abandoning’ the public schools, I have made the simple decision that my children are entitled to the very best education I can afford to provide for them. All the rest is really just far off noise, if you want to know the truth, and it’s not about ‘competitiveness’, at least not for me, but more about helping them gain a coherant picture of the world. I believe that a good basis in humanities and science will enrich their lives and improve the quality of their happiness as they grow.

One social benefit the school provides is that it does serve as a place for innovation. Several of the teachers, for example, have advocated changing to a different spelling curriculum, and they have been permitted to carry out a three year project to implement the change in their classrooms and track the results.

See, I try to rationalize the social benefit for what is, in fact, a very priviledged environment dedicated to the perpetuation of class advantage. I wish the school had greater emphasis on serving the community.

Mostly I wish the public schools were like my childrens’ private school, but society would then, I imagine, need to be prepared to do many things, among which is to spend $15,000 per student, but society refuses, and so I refuse to sacrifice the education of my children out of a misplaced communitarian idealism that says that the poor product offered up in the public schools is good enough for my children because it’s ‘public’. There are other ways I can help my community that doesn’t involve sacrificing the well-being of my children.


Nicholas Weininger 11.13.03 at 7:05 pm

Damn. That’s one of the clearest examples of the utter moral monstrousness of egalitarianism I’ve ever seen.

The man claims to care about families, and then claims that parents don’t have a right to spend their own money to give their children an opportunity that other kids don’t have– which is to say, parents are to be enslaved to everyone else’s children, not simply responsible for their own. How grotesque, and how utterly ignorant of the reality of human nature, which is that good parents will find a way to give their children better-than-average opportunities, whatever the State does. I can just imagine the clandestine private tutoring services in a Swiftian world; perhaps they will operate the way back-alley abortionists once did.

For the record, his initial moral premise is completely wrong. Inequality of opportunity is not the least bit unfair, because opportunity is not a fixed pie and in any case no one is entitled to any given amount of it. What Swift advocates– namely, mass theft and repression of people’s desire to use their own resources to do better than others– most certainly is unfair, not to mention illiberal and evil.

Freedom means nothing if it does not mean the freedom to be unequal, and to make those you care about unequal. It is good when better parents are able to give their children better opportunities than worse parents; it provides more incentive to be a good parent.


JJ 11.13.03 at 7:26 pm

Actually, could someone please briefly blog about the political tendencies of British newspapers? I know about the Telegraph and the Guardian. How about the London Times, the Independent, etc., and the same with the major Canadian and Australian papers? I have had this question on my mind for a long time, and now that I read something about it in your blog, I’m hoping somebody can clear it up… Thanks!



Russell L. Carter 11.13.03 at 8:37 pm

“Freedom means nothing if it does not mean the freedom to be unequal, and to make those you care about unequal. It is good when better parents are able to give their children better opportunities than worse parents; it provides more incentive to be a good parent.”

Where oh where did all those people like those lovely people in the Donner Party go? All this egalitarianism is so… grotesque.


Mrs Tilton 11.13.03 at 9:05 pm

Will this do, JJ?

Jim Hacker:
Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers:
– The Daily Mirror is read by people who think
they run the country;
– The Guardian is read by people who think they
ought to run the country;
– The Times is read by people who actually do run
the country;
– The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the
people who run the country;
– The Financial Times is read by people who own
the country;
– The Morning Star is read by people who think
the country ought to be run by another country;
– And the Daily Telegraph is read by people who
think it is.

Sir Humphrey:
Prime Minister, what about the people who read the Sun?

Bernard Woolley:
Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.

From “Yes, Prime Minister” (1987)


ssuma 11.13.03 at 10:41 pm

American newspapers for furiners

-The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country.
-The New York Times is read by people who think they run the country.
-The Washington Post is read by people who think they should run the country.
-The Washington Times is read by people who suppose God wants them to run the country, would like to make enough money to understand the Wall Street Journal, and are comforted every morning knowing those who read the New York Times are no longer running the country.
-USA Today is read by people who think they ought to run the country but don’t really understand the Washington Post. They do, however, like their smog statistics shown in pie charts.
-The Los Angeles Times is read by people who wouldn’t mind running the country, if they could spare the time, and if they didn’t have to leave L.A. to do it.
-The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country and they did a far superior job of it, thank you very much.
-The New York Daily News is read by people who aren’t too sure who’s running the country and don’t really care as long as they can get a seat in the subway.
-The New York Post is read by people who don’t care who’s running the country either, as long as whoever’s running the country does something really scandalous, preferably while intoxicated.
-The San Francisco Chronicle is read by people who aren’t sure there is a country, or that anyone is running it; but whoever it is, they oppose all that they stand for. There are occasional exceptions if the leaders are handicapped minority lesbian feminist atheist dwarfs, who also happen to be illegal aliens from any country or galaxy, as long as they are Democrats.
-The Miami Herald is read by people who are running another country, but need the baseball scores.
-The National Enquirer is read by people trapped in line at the supermarket.


Chris Bertram 11.13.03 at 10:48 pm

Some hilarious responses there!

It is worth pointing out that many of the arguments about balancing different values (such as legitimate parental concen v justice) and the absolute good of education v the positional aspects are dealt with carefully and at length in the book. Those who shoot from the hip on the basis of reading a few hundred words from part of an exchange are bound to get what Swift says wrong.

Having said that, I was a little worried by what Swift said re the pluralist objection, viz

bq. Several of you see my urge to get rid of private schools as worryingly Stalinist. Talk about “private education” misses the point. What is really valuable about the schools in question is that they are independent – of state control. I have a good deal of sympathy with this idea. States can indeed be totalitarian, oppressive and dangerously single-minded. I just don’t believe that our state is, or would be, like that.

Really? Totalitarianism maybe difficult to imagine in the British context, but some pretty authoritarian meddling has been the norm (aspects of the national curriculum, Clause 28). Diversity of provision and genuine choice can surely be married to free access if we are creative enough about the mechanisms.


drapetomaniac 11.13.03 at 10:54 pm

Alas, the family is a far greater source of inequaltiy than schooling. Swift can take your children (or mine, when I have them) and shelve them in the most dreadful school in metropolitan Detroit, and they will still out-perform children from dysfunctional families, or those that don’t value education, or those that don’t read books in the evenings.

Are these examples of the family being a far greater source of inequality or examples of how class advantage remains even in dreadful circumstances? Because things like ‘valuing’ education for the child and having the leisure to read books in the evenings are also functions of being from the middle class. This is why immigrant children of middle-class origins in poor communities do so well — because they were benefeciaries of generations of inequality in their country of origin.


baa 11.13.03 at 11:09 pm

I’ll plead guilty to shooting from the hip, but Swift provided an inviting target.

Maybe the long form doesn’t seem so dunce-a-riffic, but he certainly gives the impression of:

a) regarding education basically as a zero-sum enterprise

b) overestimating naively the amount of inequality that derives from schooling,

c) thinking that person x’s children can largely be thought of as resources to be employed for the betterment of person y’s children.

If the book rejects these principles and still presents a strong argument against private schooling, I’m all ears. Although to be fair to us hip-shooters Harry didn’t phrase his introduction as “here’s a flawed op-ed by a subtle egalitarian thinker.” I remain puzzled by what he saw in this, and I mean really puzzled, not feigning puzzlement to make a point. Convince me.


baa 11.13.03 at 11:20 pm


On class advantage vs. family characteristics. It hardly matters if the family remains the vehicle by which inequality perpetuates. Dumping everyone in Fort Apache, the Bronx (or for that matter Sidwell Friends) won’t eliminate inequality. That’s the point.

On the details, I doubt we’ll be able to account for the facts through the (quasi-marxist) explanation of past inequality/exploitation in country of origin. I expect cultural differences will often (but not always!) trump class (i.e., we will find cases where lower class members of culture X value education on average more than middle class members of culture Y).


Damien Smith 11.14.03 at 12:24 am

Swift’s argument, based on this brief reading, ignores the right of free association (Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights) which some could argue is as fundamental a freedom as freedom of religion. Whether such association, whether paid for or not, is disapproved of should be immaterial.

Swift is basically trying to appropriate the positive externalities of better-off or better able students; their presence in state schools is better for the rest of British children who don’t have their advantages, but at little or even negative gain to themselves. This is an odd form of targeting: in order to help the worst off targe” [sic] the better off. (There are a number of papers on the microeconomics of social interactions that address this very question.)

The trouble in his short piece is that he does not address their parents; compulsion and the “greater social good” aside, why should they agree to do this? A lot of parents will invariably try to do the best for their children, be it by private schools or by moving house (a “postcode lottery” does exist in north London, for instance, with housing prices in Hampstead, for instance, going up around good state schools. What does he propose to do about this?

A more efficable solution (at the very minimum, from a transactions-cost standpoint) would be for most parents, if possible, to voluntarily accept the bargain. I have not read his book, so I don’t know if he addresses this, but he did not do a good job for his case here.


Harry 11.14.03 at 2:09 am

Chris is right that the book has pretty much everything that has been raised so far covered, and covered well. Read it. I don’t think the op-ed piece is flawed — it is limited by space and by his remit to address the real arguments made by Telegraph readers (you can find their letters by searching his name on the site) — hence the failure to address Baa’s interesting point about the disincentive to develop human capital (which, for egalitarians who care about the least advantaged, would be an important point in the context of tax-benefit system which worked to the maximal benefit of the least advantaged).

Here’s why I worry less than some of you about Swift’s focus on the competitive aspects of education, and, as with other of the worries, it may be because of his focus on the British context: the intrinsic, non-competitive aspect of education tends to come along with the competitive aspect in the UK case, and, like him, I see no reason for the ability of parents to pay to be the key to getting at these benefits. If they were disconnected from the competitive benefits (as they are to a much greater extent in some Scandinavian countries) I would still not be keen on parental wealth providing the key, but it would be less of a worry.

Swift is well aware of the role the family plays in producing inequality of opportunity, as evidenced in his paper Justice Luck and the Family at the Equality Exchange ( The point is this: The family is extremely valuable, so protecting its ability to produce the goods that it, alone, can produce, is prior to any concern with equality of opportunity. This means that we shall have to tolerate whatever inequality of opportunity it produces. But private schooling, or at least private schooling access to which is controlled by ability to pay, does not fall into this category. We can prohibit it while allowing plenty of scope for families to produce their distinctive goods. He makes this argument in the piece, which people just seem to be ignoring.

What about the right to freedom of association? Maybe the family is covered by this, but if so it is covered in an odd sort of way. After all, children are not free to exit families at least when they are young. Parents are not free to do to for and with their children many of the things that they are free to do to for and with consenting others (who are also free); and even many of those things they are (legally) free to do they (morally) shouldn’t. And there are lots of ways in which we properly limit parents from benefiting their children competitively, even with their money (no bribing judges, or soccer coaches; no buying needed organs, etc). The very institution of publicly-funded schooling is a limit — if funding were high enough and state schooling good enough (as in some Scandinavian countries) it would be a much more serious limit than prohibiting private schools (though I can see that some of the above commentators would object to publicly funded schooling too). Each case has to be argued on its merits, and appeal to the right to freedom of association isn’t sufficiently specific to decide anything.

Incidentally, there’s a lot of data now on what people try to do for their children, and of course some parents simply try to do whatever they can to get their children competitive advantage (often at real cost to their children’s prospects for having a well-rounded, flourishing life). But my reading of the studies is that people who go private are often motivated, entirely reasonably, by the desire to get some particular good thing for their kid — which might just be the good thing of avoiding an extremely bad school (where ‘bad’ might mean any of a number of things). In the US, for which I know less of the literature on parental motivations for choice, but where the academically elitist schools are largely in the public sector, this seems especially intuitive. For my own kids the local public high school is clearly the high school which gives them a best chance of getting into elite universities, maximizing their lifetime income expectancy — but it is a huge, socially segregated, anonymous institution imbued with popular commercial culture, and when it comes to it I might prefer one of the academically less promising, but more socially mixed private schools if a) it seems to suit their personalities, b) I could afford it and c) I could stand to go Catholic. Do I have a fundamental right to do that? Of course not.


Cryptic Ned 11.14.03 at 4:12 am

The comparison between the jokes about American and British newspapers are interesting. Is it really true that in Britain the “people who run the country” are different from the “people who own the country”?


Skip Perry 11.14.03 at 7:09 am

Wetzel said:

I live in Georgia, where the schools are generally poor. Despite our middle class income, my wife and I scrimp and save to send our children to a very expensive private school, which is considered one of the best in the country. My car has 150,000 miles on it and there are no plans for replacement anytime soon.

I think my alma mater is your children’s rival school, which is not one of the best in the country but still gets its smart people into Ivies. For the record, I’ve never attended a public school; my parents never had a problem paying 10k+ a year and the thought of going public never crossed their (or my) minds. That’s just how it was. The debate on the merits of private schooling seems so distant for me, and I assume it’s much the same for young people who only attended public schools. I bet things will get clearer if I end up having kids, though.


fouro 11.14.03 at 9:36 am

Public school parent of 5 & 8 year-olds for the moment, here. A few discontinuous ideas:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Harvard, however, is a different matter.

As a British-born American who’s tried (been subjected to, more like) public and private schools on both sides of the water, it seems to me things break down fairly simply. All four variants warehouse kids with varying degrees of cotton wool, spun to make parents less anxious about opportunity and about the practical fact of the “warehousing.”

UK Private schools: Talk equality and work for superiority.
UK Public schools: Talk superiority and work for equality.

US Private schools: Worry about about inferior education and pursue superior socialization.
US Public schools: Worry about superior socialization and pursue inferior education

I got my biggest ass-whipping at a UK Private school.
I made the deepest friends at a UK Public school.
I learned how to play “the game” and found the best drugs at a US Private school.
I lost my virginity and found my career-love of choice at a US public school.

What’s this mean? I dunno for others, but for me:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

heya skip


Pouncer 11.14.03 at 4:36 pm

>For my own kids the local public high school
>is clearly the high school which gives them
>a best chance of getting into elite >universities, maximizing their lifetime
>income expectancy — but it is a huge, socially
>segregated, anonymous institution imbued
>with popular commercial culture, and when
>it comes to it I might prefer one of the
>academically less promising, but more
>socially mixed private schools … Do
>I have a fundamental right to do that?

>Of course not.


You don’t consider that you have a fundamental right of free association?


Ken 11.14.03 at 7:40 pm

“But remember that students themselves constitute part of the educational product. If you attend schools with bright well-motivated kids whose parents are contributing to the effectiveness of the school you are getting a different product than if you attend school with disruptive or lazy kids whose parents have no disposable income and are pressed for time because they both work more than full time. Why should poor kids be given the inferior product? Just because their parents don’t have the resources to buy the better one?”

Unfortuantely, it doesn’t really work that way. The presence of good students does not turn bad students into good ones.

The actual results of putting the good student and the bad student together is that the good student comes out of it with some (hopefully minor) injuries and a diminshed enthusiasm for performing at the top of his game, while the bad student gets a few minutes of sadistic entertainment in between flunking his classes.


Jeremy Osner` 11.14.03 at 8:20 pm

Some threads make you laugh; some make you sigh.


harry 11.14.03 at 8:51 pm

Pouncer, sure I have a fundamental right to freedom of association. It allows me to decide a great deal about how I live my life. My children are not me (couldn’t be — logically impossible). My right to freedom of association does not give me rights to control my children. Read the rest of my comment and you’ll see that.

Ken, in fact you’re wrong. Of course, all sorts of caveats, but there’s pretty good evidence that the presence of advantaged and bright kids in a school benefit the other kids (whether those other kids are bright and advantaged or not). Why? Lots of reasons, one of which is that the presence of these kids acts as a magnet for talented teachers, whose skills can be used to benefit the other children. Since I have evidence on my side I’ll indulge in anecdote — my own experience at a school with very high proportions of disadvantaged kids was nothing like you describe — and nor was that of the handful of middle class kids I was friends with there.


nick 11.14.03 at 9:03 pm

It’s funny, but I was talking to my sister the other day about her sociology project on the changing influence of class in Britain over the last 50 years. To get to the point, I suggested that the expansion of university access (and the changes in the education system underlying that expansion) had challenged the institutional dynamics of a ‘ruling class’, but that the pervasiveness of the private school system remains a stumbling block to true reform, simply because many parents embrace it out of sheer pragmatics frustration.

It’s interesting that moderate Tories tend to have the most productive things to say about the inequities of the British education system: George Walden is the most notable of these, and Swift mentions him in another piece on the subject from March of this year:

“Hypocrisy… is a corrosive thing. Rational people reach the state when they no longer see the gulf between what they are saying and what they are doing, or feel the remotest need to align their actions with their consciences. The liberal middle classes patronise comprehensives in words but not with their presence. Like the priests of some mouldering religion, they make pious noises in public places, then go their private ways … The point is that, in education, hypocrisy has become the norm.”

And if you want to read Swift arguing his case with more nuance than in the Telegraph piece, I’d recommend that you click on the link above.


fouro 11.14.03 at 9:04 pm

Ken, can’t agree there. For lots of reasons, but mainly because your premise excludes the influence of discipline and guidance and of socialization and peer pressure inherent in education. Proximity does not ipso facto dictate bad into good. But the odds dramatically spike.

Don’t all posts here, from all angles, point to a question: What is education for? Once you decide an answer for that you can move on to execution. My far-too-nebulous earlier point was that unless there’s some meaningful shared definition of “private citizen” and “common weal”, including the rights and obligations of each defined entity, then all the rest is preference not fact, isn’t it?

Seems to me we tried to overcome this once, it was in all the papers in England at the time. It worked for a while, too, however imperfectly. Now, we have The Prisoner’s Dilemma approaching end-game. Which is sad: Considering what a cool Democratic thing we’ve created, we’re now reduced to being the great looking Blonde who frets endlessly about the zit on her ass.

In my experience working with companies that believe in exploration, and in helping lead an organization that builds identities and physical environments around elevating peoples’ expectations and self-belief, *physical* environment has little to do with motivation. Within the limits of talent (and, yes, often paradoxically beyond), you play to the level of your team not the stadium; you learn, at the speed of your peers whether it’s in a dumpster or a glassy new suburban cathedral to private education.

So the question remains: what is education for? Answer that and common solutions start to emerge.


fouro 11.14.03 at 9:30 pm

Geez, Nick, I’m channelling Swift with my comparatives of UK/US, Public/Private above.

The liberal middle classes patronise comprehensives in words but not with their presence. Like the priests of some mouldering religion, they make pious noises in public places, then go their private ways

People are funny things: once they stop being afraid of big scary animals, they focus on somebody else’s big scary institution. When that’s beat, they then reformulate their own institutions into “big and scary” to give them something to throw spears at. Then come the people in the next town. Then the neighbors. Then each other. But never themselves, or their true motives. All with a veneer of sneer and certitude.

Makes you wish you were Dr. Dolittle sometimes.


daniel dennis 11.15.03 at 6:48 pm

Adam Swifts arguments in the Daily Telegraph against private education do not hold water.

Firstly, Swift is unclear about the right to education. Surely there is a right to education? If Swift were to speak to a farmer who sent his children out to work the fields from age six, surely Swift would say, ‘These children have a right to education.” If he responded, well they have a right to freedom of religion and sexual expression, but not to education, would Swift not be astounded, and disagree vehemently?

Perhaps Swift thinks we only have a right to a mediocre education (such as the one I received at my comprehensive school). But then how do you draw the line? Do children have a right to an education that Adam Swift deems good enough? Surely there is no way of non-arbitrarily drawing this line, and arbitrariness is anathema to rights.

More importantly, what is education, other than reading certain books, engaging in certain educational activities, listening to and talking to certain people (teachers), and (private education involves) giving one’s own money to people of one’s choosing (teachers and support staff)? Is there not a fundamental right to do all of these things? These are surely among the most fundamental rights that we have. How can Swift ride roughshod over these rights (by banning private education) without destroying any attempt to have a society where fundamental human rights are respected?

I cannot see that the aforementioned rights are less fundamental than the rights to freedom of religion and sexual expression. I do not know exactly what Swift means by sexual expression, but suppose Swift means, the right for homosexuals to not have to conceal their homosexuality on pain of punishment. But imagine Swift saved the life of a dictator, and in gratitude the dictator offered to change one law for Swift. In his country there were two central oppressive laws: the first making it illegal to be openly homosexual; the second making it illegal to read most books, illegal to engage in educational activities, illegal to talk to who one wishes, (such as teachers), illegal to give money to whom one chooses (such as teachers). Which law would Swift change? I know that I and the vast majority of people (whether homosexual or heterosexual) would change the second – for whilst both laws are terrible and oppressive, the second offends against more fundamental human rights.

A further point, is that in the field of rights there is no scope, no justification, for trade-offs. In other words, there is no justification for infringing the rights of one person, merely to benefit others (a classic example being, there is no justification for murdering one person in order to redistribute their organs to save the lives of five others). In the field of education, this means that one should not sacrifice the education of one child merely to benefit another. Those politicians who abolished grammar schools sacrificed the education of people like me, to benefit other children, and this is wrong. Secondary Modern schools were a disgrace, but rather than abolish Grammar schools and turn all schools into Secondary Moderns by another name (and harm children like me), the solution would have been to put far more money and staff into the secondary moderns (thereby benefiting the children in Secondary Moderns *without* simultaneously harming other children).

This brings me to the last point, which deals with what seems to be Swifts central assumption, which is that there is a fixed quantity of educational resources, with rich people buying the best. If the government increased the wages of teachers, and increased funds to provide more teachers, then more teachers, and better teachers, would be drawn into the profession. Standards in state schools would rise. If this were combined with a return to selective education, then pretty soon there would not be too much to choose between independent schools and grammar schools. Yes, independent schools would still have flashier facilities, and be able to poach some of the best teachers (though there are lots of reasons good teachers would stay with grammar schools) but nevertheless, the education in the grammar schools would be good enough for main determinant of achievement to be the ability of the pupils, rather than the wealth of their parents. Increasing state funding of education, and a return to selective education, therefore seems the best way forward, because it would largely eliminate competitive advantage brought by having wealthy parents, whilst not infringing any fundamental human rights. Do you agree?


fouro 11.16.03 at 12:23 am

Erm umm, where’d everyone go? Must be addressing each other in private-like.

[ Must figure out the blogger learn secret handshake. Or, maybe pay dues ]


Vinteuil 11.17.03 at 5:37 am

harry writes:

“…there are lots of ways in which we properly limit parents from benefiting their children competitively, even with their money (no bribing judges, or soccer coaches; no buying needed organs, etc).”

But the reasons why we forbid bribery and the sale of organs have nothing to do with unfair competitive benefits. It’s not as if such things would suddenly become morally permissible if we could all equally afford them. What harry needs here is an example of a *morally permissible* benefit which we limit parents from conferring on their children unequally. I can’t think of any, myself.

Incidentally, I wonder if Swift would forbid parents to enroll their children in supplemental educational programs after school or on weekends, given that they had all been forced into the same public schools during regular hours. The same “arguments” would seem to apply.

Comments on this entry are closed.