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The Aristocracy of Talent

Adrian Wooldridge

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There are few terms whose origins are more misunderstood than 'meritocracy'. So Adrian Wooldridge has performed a public service with his latest book, The Aristocracy of Talent. Although the word is widely used in a positive sense, it was invented by Michael Young in a dystopian book, published in 1958, called The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young, who co-wrote Labour's 1945 manifesto, depicted a society ruled by an elite selected via IQ tests, presiding over a discontented mass of the less intellectually gifted.

More recently the American philosopher much loved by the BBC, Michael Sandel, has weighed in with The Tyranny of Merit, which declares it unfair that so many of the rewards in life have gone to those fortunate enough to have been born with superior intelligence.

Wooldridge's work is a welcome retort to this argument; or at least I agree with his point that intelligence alone (the 'lucky genes', as some have it) is never enough to produce extreme success, especially not in commercial life, where the big money is to be made. Wooldridge rightly stresses the importance of hard work: "Few people are so naturally gifted that they don't have to make an effort to master a difficult subject or skill . . . Even young Mozart had to practise."

The topic moves from contentious to potentially toxic when differences between national or ethnic groups enter the discussion. This Wooldridge attempts to tackle in a chapter entitled The Chosen People. As he points out, the ethno-religious group [Jews] that constitutes one third of 1 per cent of the world's population won, in the first half of the 20th century, 14 per cent of Nobel prizes in literature, chemistry, physics and medicine/physiology, despite pervasive discrimination; in the second half of the century, despite suffering mass extermination in the Holocaust, the proportion rose to 29 per cent.

Wooldridge, wisely, doesn't attempt to define how much of this is down to upbringing - nurture - and how much to breeding - nature. I incline strongly to the former explanation. Whatever the reason, Wooldridge is sharp on how much the supposedly meritocratic American establishment sought to treat Jews like horses marked down in handicap races. "Deans of admissions merrily rejected bright Jews, just as they currently reject bright Asians, on the vague grounds that their 'general bearing' was off-putting or their educational outlook 'too narrow'."

This book has some astounding facts to back up its argument, for example that in 1983 a federal judge pronounced that San Francisco's Lowell High School contained too many Asians and ordered it to apply different admission standards to different racial groups. It is fascinating how the advocates of 'affirmative action'- guaranteeing more places to African-Americans who will, indeed, have faced greater obstacles to academic progress - found themselves in the same boat as old-style white supremacists when alarmed by the thought of Asian intellectual overachievement.

The inevitable truth is that all groups, if they have any influence in the matter, find ways of prioritising their sectional interest, even while preaching a doctrine of disinterested fairness. Sometimes this hypocrisy can be found in one extraordinary person, as the author observes of Napoleon, who created a legal code [that] treated citizens as individuals rather than, as under the old regime, members of exclusive groups defined by class . . . [and] pushed French education in an even more meritocratic direction, defined by examinations and selection. Yet the Corsican made himself emperor, married into the Hapsburgs, showered family members with crowns . . . [and] made some of the self-made men around him into hereditary aristocrats.

This is a colourful example of what is nowadays referred to as 'assortative mating' and it vexes Wooldridge. This challenge to the desired social mobility - university-forged marriages between high achievers, creating the hereditary intellectual elite that was feared by Young - paradoxically stems from the greatest of the West's achievements in increasing opportunity for all: female emancipation. To show how painfully slow that progress was, Wooldridge unearths a 1969 statement by F Skiddy von Stade, then Harvard's dean of freshmen: "I honestly shudder at the thought of changing the balance of males versus females at Harvard . . . Quite simply, I do not see highly educated women making startling strides in contributing to our society in the foreseeable future.

Even when I was at Oxford, some years later than that, a small fraction of the places were available for women, because the vast majority of the colleges were men-only. That stemmed from the view that a woman's sole function was to look after the family.

Now the fashionable concern is that those highly educated women, destined for high-earning jobs, are paired off with their male equivalents, creating an even more impermeable class at the top of society. As Young warned, because they will have won their place at the top through their own academic achievement, rather than the inherited rank of old, they might lack the latter's alleged saving grace of noblesse oblige.

What's the answer? Wooldridge argues that the increasingly successful private schools should give over most of their places to those who cannot afford the fees. Maybe. Alternatively we can wait to see if drugs and decadence blight the children of 'assortative mating'. That's what happened to the old aristocracy.

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