Essays: Two sides to the truth |
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Two sides to the truth

ON BBC1 Ludovic Kennedy sank the Scharnhorst again. But also on BBC1 Mastermind returned in a new series, with Magnus Magnusson already looking set fair to inherit the Bamber Gascoigne Trophy for services to omniscience. Pettifer took a camera team to Kiev and Ashkenazy brought a pair of Beethoven sonatas here. On ITV, the new commercial for Brut starred a stunt man in a speedboat bursting through a blazing house.

This and other fresh fare was scattered through the week and one felt that the season of recycled pabulum might at long last be staggering to an end. Thursday was particularly rich in grist. For one thing, there was Controversy (BBC2), featuring Professor C. B. Cox valiantly defending his position on education, while Brian Jackson and Drs Halsey and Judge powerfully attacked it from the Left. Dreary of me to point it out, but you get a good debate only when the truth is shared out between both sides. So it was here, and the show crackled along throwing off illuminating sparks.

Cox pushed a line that might reasonably be described as Black Paper Basic: equality of opportunity you can have, but equality you cannot, because sooner or later children reveal themselves as having differing abilities. Standards and values should not be sacrificed to a Utopian dream. If you educate I.Q. 90 alongside I.Q. 130, it’s cruel to I.Q. 90, who is reminded of his deficiencies every minute of the day. (This last point was especially telling, since it enabled Cox to secure a ride on the swings as well as the roundabouts: the elitist view is not just the only workable one, it’s the truly compassionate one.) All in all, a menacingly able opening speech.

The three left-wingers, between them, defused it pretty thoroughly. Dr Halsey argued that until there was more equality in the schools, equality of opportunity would remain a myth. Cox fought back by calling it a fact of life that middle-class children would do better anyway, since their home influence was so much more stimulating. Brian Jackson pounced on this, surely correctly, by insisting that in the vast majority of cases the working class home is a good influence — short of books, perhaps, but long on values that the middle-class could easily lose sight of. Judge wanted to know to what degree standards had actually been lowered by progressive education. If Cox had any armour-piercing ammo left in his magazine, this would have been the time to fire it off: but it was not notably forthcoming.

The four experts having all put their views, the audience was invited to say a few words. An Ivan Illich fan rose to declare that de-schooling was an urgent requirement, since what country had placed more emphasis on intellectual standards than Nazi Germany? Cox’s reply to this should have consisted of (a) a brisk lecture on education in the Third Reich, placing heavy emphasis on the truism that intellectual standards were precisely what the Nazi hierarchy was out to obliterate, and (b) a forceful suggestion that the gentleman might like to get his head examined. But Cox had used up his rhetoric on the smart men and had nothing left for the other kind.

Well where did all that leave you? In my case, back with my original convictions, which are best outlined by saying that I think Professor Cox and Brian Jackson are both right. Cox is right to call for the maintaining of intellectual standards. But Jackson is also right when he suggests that the values of an intellectual elite would become viciously famished without constant nourishment from the values of the mass: there is, simply, much more to life than Cox is letting on. Cox is right about differences, but there are many kinds of difference.

Thursday’s episode of Ten Years On (BBC1) would have served admirably as a tailpiece to the debate. It dealt with two ex-prisoners, Doug Curtis and Dick Pooley, who during the course of the decade had emerged from their enforced equality and showed themselves to be decisively different. Both had flung themselves into the job of starting a trade union for prisoners — but soon this activity became the only point at which their lives made contact. Pooley, not especially articulate or employable, went one way; Curtis brainy and looking like Albert Finney’s kid brother, went another — to Cambridge, where he rapidly became an outstanding advertisement for elitist education.

He still wants to change the system, but from within; and more within than he has become it’s hard to get. We saw him noshing expensively with his agent and publisher, smoothly trotting out ideas for selling his forthcoming book. In the milieu of which he is now becoming master, his record can do nothing but add en extra burst of glamour to the charisma he has buckets of already. Try as you might, you couldn’t help thinking that the difference between him and Pooley was inborn and ineradicable.

Another programme In 10 years’ time would undoubtedly feature Curtis struggling to reconcile his conflicting career as film director, actor, novelist, professor of penology and head of ICI. Let’s hope he and Pooley will still be friends: two men who sat beside each other in the hardest school there is.

Absorbingly, the same theme got another run that same night. The Promised Land (BBC1) traced the fortunes of two families of Ugandan Asians during their first year in Britain. The three Osman brothers throve like bamboo in the rain. Skilled mechanics who had bossed a large workforce in Uganda, they settled down instantly to being bossed themselves. Finally they were bringing home £50 a week each, while their combined families swelled from 13 to 15. As fast as they were out of the camp into refurbished derelicts, they were out of the derelicts into their own houses, with 100 per cent mortgages that they will obviously pay off at a rate of knots. No question of it, the Osmans were top drawer: you didn’t have to be Nostradamus to guess that 10 years from now the eldest brother would be chairman of British Leyland at... [least?]

The other family were itinerant musicians who spent the whole year in camps and could very well spend their whole lives in them. Unemployable in the extreme. It was good to hear that the Osmans had experienced no prejudice and that Britain had lived up to their dreams. In the early days of the camps, a Red Cross entertainment outfit called Mrs Jones and Her Merrymakers from Newbury quaveringly resurrected terrible old songs. The Asian tots lapped it up. Does it still happen, now that all the families who are going to make it have moved out?

The Observer, 9th September 1973