One aspect of classical culture that some of its admirers may prefer to gloss over was its contempt for the poor. They were seen to lack the leisure that was essential for the development of true virtue, to be incapable of serving the community in any useful manner, and to have no choice but to labour in occupations and under conditions that degraded their weak claim to full human status still further. Little wonder that polities where the masses had any influence or access to power, however limited or illusory, were regarded with suspicion; the poor lacked the education to rule themselves properly or control their base appetites, so how could they possibly rule others? Antiquity gave us the concept of ‘aristocracy’, the rule of the best men, as a justification for the continuing exclusion of the masses from meaningful participation, and presented the alleged incapacity of ordinary men as moral inadequacy on their part.
When I say that ‘some’ of the admirers of antiquity might feel uncomfortable about this set of assumptions, this is because I suspect that by no means all of them would. This was certainly the case well into the twentieth century, when ancient tropes about the ignorant, amoral, appetite-driven plebs (and their bread and circuses) were invoked time and again in the face of the rising power of the masses. It’s also echoed – albeit, in the extant reports, without any explicit references to ancient precedents – in the pronouncements of the Chairman of the Independent Schools Association, Richard Walden. State schools are failing to provide children with a rounded and enriching education, and hence with a moral compass; fee-paying schools teach children to distinguish good from bad and true from false, and develop their characters.
The very nature of our schools, with their respect for discipline and academic seriousness, sport and culture, citizenship and community, service, environmental awareness, spiritual life and personal responsibility, sends out into the world young people with emotional intelligence, developed moral understanding and a willingness to make a contribution to society.
In brief: virtue isn’t for everyone, you have to be able to afford it. Walden doesn’t attribute this inability to develop a moral compass to the children themselves, but to their parents and their schools, for focusing too much on attainment levels and academic results – just as ancient elite ideology didn’t regard the masses as inherently incapable of attaining virtue, but as incapable of attaining it because of their circumstances. What’s striking is the number of questions not being asked. Why are schools and so obsessed with academic results? Because that is not only what society and the state demand of them, but what their pupils need if they are to have any hope of getting to university or getting on in life. Why are parents concerned about this? Because they desperately want to see their children to have a chance of success. (I’m not sure how this squares with another common complaint from this kind of source, that poor children do badly because their parents are less likely to care, join the PTA, run school trips etc.)
The idea that fee-paying schools, and the parents who send their children there, are not concerned with academic results but rather with character and moral development is ludicrous. After all, that’s the major reason why parents who can afford it are spending ridiculous amounts of money on fees: the schools offer the prospect of improved grades, hence a place at one of the better universities, hence a more assured future for their children. The difference is that the fee-paying schools may simply be better and/or more efficient at training their pupils to jump through the necessary hoops, so there’s more free space in the curriculum (i.e. it’s about money); they start from a more comfortable position because the most troublesome/disruptive/deprived children have been filtered out (money); and they have the facilities, like playing fields and equipment, for such non-academic development (money).
Most debates about the dominance of privately-educated students in the ‘top’ universities have focused on issues of academic ability: do their superior grades reflect intellectual superiority or just better training? Cue the research that clearly shows that state-educated students with lower grades than average consistently perform at least as well as the private intake at university; perhaps this then explains this attempt at shifting the terms of discourse, so that the continuing dominance of privately-educated students can be justified in terms of their superior character and moral compass even if they’re not actually brighter. And of course if state schools were to follow this lead (or were ordered to follow it by the Department of Education), and shift focus from academic results to character-building, without the necessary resources, one result might be to reinforce the gap between private and state in exam results.
The ancients recognised that wealth or birth were no guarantee of virtue – but made the acquisition of virtue dependent on the possession of wealth. We seem to be in a similar position: wealth (let alone birth) is no guarantee of virtue – but the possession of wealth is explained as the product of virtue (hence the justifications offered for ludicrous salaries and bonuses), and the acquisition of that virtue turns out to be dependent on the possession of wealth and the donation of a portion of it to institutions dedicated to the perpetuation of privilege.