From my new Substack email newsletter, 'Now and Next':
Cartoon: two mammoths are lumbering along together. One has just stepped on a caveman, squashing him flat, spear and all. The first mammoth says to his mate, ‘Take it from me, brains are overrated.’
There is a theme of IQ threading through right-wing comment on immigration and ethnicity, implying that society is weakened by allowing less intelligent people into the country, or letting them have much of a say in how it runs.
This opens a can of worms, as the saying goes.
Let’s take just one of these worms: the usefulness - or otherwise - of high academic ability.
I’ll give an illustration from somewhere I once taught, an outstanding British comprehensive (all-ability) secondary school. One day, a local businessman phoned the headteacher and said, ‘I want one of your school-leavers to work for me. But he must have an O-level in maths.’ The old Ordinary-level examination was aimed at the top 20 percent of ability.
‘I’m happy to recommend someone for you,’ said the Head, ‘but why is the O-level necessary?’
‘He’ll be working in the storeroom, checking stock levels.’
‘You don’t need an O-level to do that.’
‘No, I really must insist, I won’t have someone who can’t count.’
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said the Head. ‘I’ll send you a copy of an O-level maths paper and you tell me if that’s the level of skill you need for the job.’ This he did.
Next day the businessman was back on the phone. ‘I looked at that paper you sent me and I couldn’t understand the first two questions. I’ll go by what you say.’
So the Head recommended a youngster from the C band - the bottom quarter of the school, which then streamed children by broad ability. This lad was perfectly able to do something as simple as counting, but even more importantly he had a perfect record for attendance and punctuality, and was always smartly turned out, affable and obedient.
It was a perfect match, and got secure employment for someone who might easily have been overlooked because of daft selection criteria. Someone much brighter would have been climbing the walls in frustration and boredom after only a few weeks in the job.
The rat-race wind-up slogan says "Aptitude plus attitude equals altitude"; this misses the point that not everybody can, or should aim for the top.