Thursday, January 09, 2014


An essay by the late historian Tony Judt, composed as he slowly died of motor neuron disease.

I came up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1966...

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 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.

... 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, 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.

... 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. ...
See also Defining Merit and Les Grandes Ecoles Chinoises.


JorgeVidela said...


aa based on class i favor. the problem in les etats unis merdeux is this would benefit the pwt that elite unis HATE. it would mean more ne an s asians too and fewer MOTs. it would basically zero NAMs.

did uni of cal drop sat and other test requirements after the anti aa measure passed? i don't remember.

there is one country worse than les etats unis merdeux in its selection for pushiness and obedience over ability. that's canada. no wonder they like hockey.

BUT, the above author has no appreciation for the late bloomer. determining someone's life at age 11 based on an iq test isn't only tragic. it's STUPID and doesn't reflect the actual distribution of ability. better is to have many more decision points. that is, rather than separate into smart and dumb separate into alpha double plus, alpha plus,..., delta double minus, but to make it possible every year or more frequently for one to move up or down. this is the way it's done for british football league membership.

AND at the same time whoever adores elitism rather than merely acknowledging its necessity makes elton john look like john wayne. they're the same sort who ooo and ahhh at contemporary art. they should be laughed at.

Paul said...

Interesting article. I think there's a good case to be made that, contrary to the pretensions of admissions officers, strictly test-based admissions actually increase intellectual (if not ethnic) diversity and make for a livelier, less conformist student body. Could Judt, having dropped out of secondary school, have made it past Ivy League application-reading apparatchiks?

Cornelius said...

I understand why professors, politicians, etc. might consider their professions to be more meritocratic than business, but I don't understand why anyone would take them seriously. Universities would not exist in their current form without massive government subsidies. Politics is a winner-take-all popularity contest. Business provides people with things they actually want, with products and services they are willing to pay for without coercion and without forcing the popular products and services on other consumers. On both merit and ethic, business triumphs.

I agree with everything else that Judt wrote or implied.

JorgeVidela said...

"On both merit and ethic, business triumphs."

this would be true if:

1) connections didn't matter in bid-ness. (just getting a foot in the door often requires that a relative or friend open the door.)

2) bid-ness ethics weren't a contradiction in terms.

Cornelius said...

Apply your three points to academia and politics

1) Connections matter far more in academia/politics than in business where there is a much stronger incentive to pick the best person for the job i.e. making money.

2) Academics with tenure have far less incentive to remain ethical than CEOs with boards to answer to and journalists who never take their side. I hope I don't even need to elaborate on ethics in politics...

3) Ignoring the implicit authoritarianism in your statement. Many (probably most) of the things academics are convincing the government to fund research on are things that no one needs and none should want. Of course, politicians don't need academics to convince them to waste money on things that no one needs.

JorgeVidela said...

1) false for academics
2) boards to answer to??? do you have any idea how not true that is? public boards are impotent. board seats are high paid sinecures.
3)authoritarian? well yes, i think when bidness is limited in the amount it can deduct for marketing expense the world would be a much much better place.

but true. almost all academic research is academic in the pejorative sense, and almost all academics are completely oblivious to this.

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