The politics of envy:
The idea comes from someone called Owen Jones, a self described “fourth generation socialist”. He went to Oxford himself you see, and the whole place “was a real culture shock”. Apparently, the dreaming spires “reek” of public school and so they must be abolished, to stop all the toffs who go there from getting the nice jobs. Jones is not quite so crass as to want to bulldoze the actual medieval quads, but the “Oxbridge system”, of interviews, tutorials, exams and the rest of it must go. It all puts off working-class kids, and that is unforgivable.
If one follows Mr Jones logic consistently then the actual buildings will be bulldozed in time. The children of the working class, or at least the sepia cliches of Mr Jones' imagination, would hardly feel comfortable in such posh surroundings. Perhaps readers in history and literature could instead attend lectures in a renovated fish and chips shop. There are endless possibilities here: Economics examinations being held in mine shafts; courses in Latin and Greek being given in public parks; an abandoned foundry used as a library for rare manuscripts. The levellers logic is very much a bulldozer rather than a razor. Anything that does not conform to their world view must be destroyed.
The fig leaf here is equality. To the ears of most reasonable people the word means equality of treatment, a recognition of our common humanity and the series of corollary rights and responsibilities so entailed. To the levellers it is a code for equality of outcome. It is not that we should all be given the same opportunity, which itself is impossible, but that we should all conform to some arbitrary ideal. The notion is both foolish and totalitarian. Beyond our most basic of attributes we are not the same in appearance, intelligence, background, genetic make-up, personality or aptitude. To seek to alter such things is an act of hubris as the Greeks understood it. One flouts not the Gods of Olympus but something far more stark and uncompromising, human nature.
Behind the levellers rhetoric is not logic, as they claim, or fairness or justice or any such thing, it is an ugly emotion: Envy. For centuries the Christian churches preached against envy. In more secular times the cautious and the wise have issued their own warnings. If the goal of the levellers was to help those lower down the social strata then their energies would be directed elsewhere. To help the poor, the sick and the unfortunate one must be begin in the opposite direction. Poverty is remedied by wealth, illness by medicine and misfortunate by peace and freedom. Those who provide such things in superabundance should be encouraged and defended. As Mrs Thatcher noted, without money the Good Samaritan would also have had to pass on the other side. Rather than trying to cut down the tall poppies, in the Australian terminology, one should encourage them. We remedy weakness through strength.
I am not arguing here a political point. Whether the best means to aid the poor, the sick and unfortunate are private or public (my personal preference is private) is a separate matter. How the individual relates to society is a matter of social ethics. The mentality of envy is far deeper and far more pernicious. One cringes at the mind that would look upon Oxbridge and demand that it be smashed to bits. That the buildings might remain is a sore consolation. Its magnificent spirit would be lost.
Mr Jones spends much time in his post deriding the "poshness" of Oxbridge. About half of the two great universities student bodies comes from public schools (i.e. elite private schools like Eton and Harrow). They are not necessarily brighter than their state educated competitors, argues Mr Jones, simply better educated. The purpose of university admissions is to select qualified candidates for post-secondary education. It is certainly a tragedy that the state schools are inferior to the great old public schools. Someone seeking fairness would push for the improvement of the state schools, he might even call for the reintroduction of the old grammar school system which served Britain so very well for centuries. Mr Jones offers little in this direction. He is a leveller. Being a leveller he seeks to bring the few down to the many, rather than the many up to the few.
Here is envy made plain:
Above all, Oxford and Cambridge should be normalised as universities. The best tutors should be encouraged to disperse across the university system - perhaps with incentives. It is right to have a top tier of universities catering to the brightest students - particularly when they are forced to reflect society as a whole, rather than the brightest rich kids: and that is the model that should be promoted.
Normality here meaning mediocrity. Destroying Oxbridge as centers of excellence will do little to help the unprivileged. There is a very great value in concentrating talent. Bright people talking to other bright people engenders bright ideas. Bright people talking to dullards leads to boredom and stagnation. This is the reason why Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Oxbridge are such tremendous value generators for the world. It is where bright specialists congregate to work together (or compete) within a field. How many new Googles or Apples would the world see if such talent clusters were dispersed and evenly spread out. Perhaps a legislated quota of one genius per square mile.
In fairness to Mr Jones he does believe there should be a top tier of universities focused on the brightest. This seems rather chimerical. Being bright is simply a potential, though a very important one. Student A might be much brighter than Student B, however the latter is a qualified engineer and the former a hairdresser by training. Who is the engineering firm going to hire? A potential is not an actual. Bright students without the skill set to meet Oxbridge's requirements are the fault of the state school system. To say that something is wrong with some of the world's top schools, because they stand at the pinnacle of a mediocre pile, is a perverse inversion. It is like saying there is something wrong with the healthy man because everyone else is sick.
Mr Jones presents to me a mental image. Despite his credentials as an Oxford graduate the working class envy is palpable. It is to look upon something beautiful, that is not completely his, and therefore demand that it be destroyed. Taking a bottle of acid to an art gallery would be a more honest expression of such a wicked wish.