David Thompson


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January 16, 2008



Exactly what kind of beneficial influence do bright kids provide for dumb ones? Other than giving them someone to beat up for being bright?


“It is wrong to allow bright children to go to special schools. This deprives the ordinary schools of their beneficial influence.”
As a formerly bright child who went to an ordinary school, I can attest that my "beneficial influence" on my fellows to the class was seldom appreciated. Non-bright children are rarely interested or able to benefit from the presence of a bright child around except by use and abuse. I'm sure many other people who were bright as children have a painful personal experience from growing around children who targeted them for being smarter.
Personally, the first time I felt at ease with my peers, was when I reached the University, and finally found people I could relate to.



I think the idea - or the stated idea - is that this will, somehow, inspire less able kids to new heights of academic achievement. I’m not at all convinced this actually happens to any significant degree and even if it did the point above remains. And there’s a vaguely sacrificial whiff to this kind of argument, as if ill effects on very able children are automatically worth tolerating… for the greater good, of course.

This may be of interest.

“If you have never attended a comprehensive for any length of time, don’t even begin to think you can make a considered judgement about whether they’re tolerable. We ought to have a rule (particularly for Labour politicians) that no one should be able to advocate state education unless they have had personal experience of it.”




I agree that children aren't to be regarded as mere instruments for the ends of others. What's problematic is that those others include the parents. We force parents to educate their children to a minimum standard, we don't allow religiously motivated parents to deny them medical care, and we generally set limits on parental sovereignty over their children. On the other hand we don't view children as self-determining, fully sovereign individuals in the way we regard adults, either. We don't let them decide for themselves whether or not to go to school, we don't let them drive cars, have sex, alcohol or the vote. All those pleasures come later.

The state is always going to have a major role in these issues. And, pace Lady Thatcher, there IS such a thing as society. That is why the state sets out what's in curriculums and so on. It requires that the future citizens of the state know at least something of its history, institutions, values and so on.

For myself, I now believe that continuing to permit faith schools will lead to disaster, and that we probably need to follow the French principle of laicite. I believe it is Islamic schools that will do by far the most harm. But it is a fact of politics that you cannot single out Islamic schools as the only ones you will not permit. It's as untenable as a blasphemy law which covers every religion except Islam.

I dislike the phrases "Muslim children" and "Catholic children" - they're as absurd as "Tory children" or "New Labour children". If you're too young to choose your MP, you're too young to choose your affiliation with eternity.

What do you think?



“What do you think?”

Um, about which bit? Islamic schools, faith schools generally, labeling children as Catholic, etc, the curriculum, parental sovereignty (as you put it), or the role of the state generally?


Okay. point taken - too many ideas for one post...



Well, I highlighted an argument that’s often advanced, or at least assumed – i.e. that the needs and preferences of bright children are outweighed by some supposed collective benefit. In turn, this argument often presupposes a particular kind of egalitarianism – even a belief that children *ought* to be more alike than they actually are in this respect.

But rejecting that argument doesn’t imply, so far as I can see, that children should therefore be allowed to drive down motorways. Nor is it clear to me what bearing a national curriculum has on rejecting that assumption. And if you feel it’s absurd for children to be designated Catholic, Muslim or whatever - presumably on grounds of individuality and self-determination – then surely enforced “mingling” is similarly problematic for not dissimilar reasons?


This ties in with extending the school leaving age to 18. I went to a comprehensive blighted by the feral, violent, uncontrollable kids. But they all left at sixteen, so the sixth form was actually safe, enjoyable and *interesting* - everyone who attended sixth form was there to learn.

Forcing all kids to stay in school until 18 means bright kids at comprehensives will no longer have the chance to experience what a "proper" education, with enthusiastic, non-violent classmates, can be like.


My point was that we don't actually grant children that self determination - not totally, anyway. What we're comparing is enforced segregation at the behest of the child's parents or enforced mingling at the behest of the state. In Northern Ireland the state went along with enforced segregation. The one thing guaranteed to get Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams in total agreement was any attempt to bring the children of Catholics and Protestants together in the same school.



“What we’re comparing is enforced segregation at the behest of the child’s parents or enforced mingling at the behest of the state.”

Well, the “segregation” might be at the request of the child, what with the child being precocious and all.

The term “enforced segregation” might be used to describe some kinds of religious schooling, but I don’t think it works so well in terms of children with high IQs or musical talent or whatever. I’m not sure whether you mean it in this way, but “enforced segregation” suggests artificiality, coercion and frustration, which is the opposite of what I had in mind. It seems to me that segregating children on the basis of their supposed allegiance to hypothetical deities, for instance, is much more arbitrary, coercive and artificial than allowing children to function in their own upper range of ability.


"They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours." Margaret Thatcher PBUH (23 September 1987)



Did the young Margaret Thatcher live through the Blitz or the Battle Of Britain? Is there any possibility that the spitfire pilots who gave their lives in that conflict were following her advice to "look after themselves first"?



It’s almost funny just how readily that quote is taken out of context and presented as some absolutist statement of pure evil. The wording may be a tad careless, I grant you, but it was part of an interview, not a prepared statement, and I don’t think one should take it as meaning quite what you suggest. If you search out the original text, which few people do, it takes on a rather different, and more measured, meaning.


You might, for instance, consider it in response to the urge to displace personal or parental responsibility, or regarding familial obligation, or in terms of Zohra Moosa, mentioned here recently, who thinks she’s entitled to spend “a lot of society’s money” on her personal interests, as if it were free cash and hers by default.




I imagine you're not a fan of Adam Curtis's documentaries. Nonetheless, I think he was onto something in his 3-part series, "The Trap". There's a reasonable summary here:


And you can see it here:


I am constantly struck by how much people seem to need larger forms of affiliation than self and family and immediate social circle. A few weeks back I was listening to a programme on the BBC world service in which various business and technical people from China were interviewed. All of them seemed profoundly motivated by Chinese national pride, at least as much as by the desire for personal enrichment, plasma-screen TVs and more "stuff". They would say things like, "for centuries, China was the most technologically advanced society on Earth; for a brief period you westerners stole a lead on us, but now we're back. We're building the greatest society of the next century" - that kind of thing. I'm sure some comparable feeling of national mission played a strong part in Japan's postwar rise to being the world's number two economy.



“I imagine you’re not a fan of Adam Curtis’s documentaries.”

The ones I’ve seen – Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self – are very moody and evocative, but they’re heavily loaded and riddled with errors and omissions, often absurdly so. I think Curtis is probably incapable of giving his audience a realistic or impartial picture of events, though what he does, he does with a certain dramatic flair.

“I am constantly struck by how much people seem to need larger forms of affiliation than self and family and immediate social circle.”

Well, indeed, and some more than others. But I don’t see why that should necessarily conflict with Thatcher’s oft-quoted-out-of-context statement, or with her broader outlook, or with a Conservative outlook generally. (Again, if you read the whole “society” thing it takes on a rather different hue - which is probably why so many people quote it out of context.) And the people who most vehemently disdain national identity and national pride - those “larger forms of affiliation” - tend to be on the left of the political spectrum. Which strikes me as counter-productive.

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