Social mobility redux… November 29, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, The Left.
Just a quick one, I’ve referenced a piece in Prospect some while back in relation to the broader issue of social mobility which has now achieved a certain prominence in contemporary socio-political debates. But there’s another piece in the most recent edition which I think takes a significantly muddled approach to the topic, arguing for example a piece by lecturer Jill Boucher.
I do, however, pay attention to, and get irritated by, much of the discussion of social mobility. This is something I do know a bit about from my own research into neurodevelopmental disorders, learning abilities and disabilities; and which I have reasons to feel strongly about from my experience of adopting two children.
In the case of the nature versus nurture debate relating to social mobility, I find it hard to understand why a substantial group of people, including many influential educationalists and sociologists, fail to accept the overwhelming evidence that genes contribute to academic achievement and thereby social mobility.
And leads to the fair enough question ‘Still on the subject of language: why is it that “social mobility” is almost invariably assumed to refer to upward mobility? Is downward mobility so undesirable, even shameful, as to be unmentionable?’. That’s fair enough, but note where she herself positions herself.
…is life really so dreadful in the middle echelons that we want to escape it? Personally, I don’t want to be a tycoon, over-paid celebrity or member of the landed gentry. And suppose that Tim-nice-but-dim, having benefitted from the small classes and intensive coaching provided by a modest independent school, nevertheless drops down the social scale in comparison with his parents; but works hard, pays his taxes, and is a model husband and father. Is this so deplorable?
But that’s not quite the point. And consider too the following:
Certainly we need wealth creators, potential Nobel Prize winners, and probably very many more computer whizz kids than our education system is producing at present. But we also need good lorry drivers (my older son is one), chefs (my younger son is one), care workers, cleaners, gardeners, bricklayers. And would we not all want our adult children first and foremost to be happy, well-liked and respected, people to be proud of, whether they clean windows for a living or work as a surgeon or barrister?
Boucher isn’t unthinking, and despite some once-modish, but now anything but, tilts at ‘political correctness’ she raises some fair points. But the problem with that is the set of assumptions that underly it, not so much the concept of downward mobility, which is in fact actually quite sensible but the unspoken idea that class structures rests upon genetic inheritance, as distinct from much more proximate and contingent causes.
The first comment under it by Marc Latham is the one which most neatly engages with the argument…
I think it’s okay to think that genes affect intelligence, just not to suppose that those genes always belong to certain people: such as the higher classes with regard to class.
Lower class parents might possess great ‘academic’ genes, which have never had the opportunity.
The duty of schools is to provide an environment for genes to find their potential, and shine in their specialties.
And that’s it.
No one is arguing that there are no genetic factors, though environmental factors appear to be more important. But what is deeply and profoundly in question is the idea that somehow these are intrinsic to classes – that for example implicitly the current class structure is as it is due to genetic factors, that as a group the working class is working class due to some genetic aspects, the middle classes likewise and so on. I’ve already mentioned that Ireland as a whole proves how difficult it is to sustain that thesis given the massive churn in the society and class structure across the last two hundred years. In passing it’s probably worth noting that she places more faith in IQ tests than I would.
Again the set of assumptions is worth parsing. Precisely how does a genetic aptitude for lorry driving (given the example that Boucher gives) manifest itself as distinct from – say – middle management, social worker, business start-up or academia – and while in fairness while she’s not unwilling to consider which is socially most valuable how can these as such be indicative of some greater genetic attributes? Moreover, if one’s parents are same what then of offspring? It’s far from a myth that company development where families are involved tend to operate with those who create the company offering the greatest inspiration, the next generation consolidating and the next again failing – that failure is caused by many factors, but how does that fit into any schema of genetic influence?
Or is it the banal truth that genetic differentiation across classes is not an issue and that it really only operates on the level of the individual – and even then from what some quoted in the above pieces argue on a marginal level.
Which, ironically, though predictably leaves us in exactly the same place as we have always been, needing to foster both collective and individual talent. Or to put it another way, there are no short cuts for the right (or anyone) to some point where a social class – as a whole – can be treated as if they should not all equally have the same opportunities as any other, even if individual outcomes will, obviously be different. And what holds for a social class holds for individuals too.