‘The Gift of Integrity,’ in Freeman’s book Gifted Lives, looks at a sad and disappointing life trajectory.
Alison was someone transplanted from an ordinary background to the class conscious intellectually top-heavy culture of Oxford (page 146-147):
Those from state schools who made it to the dreaming spires of Oxford were often deeply shocked to find their faces – and accents – did not fit. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities still take about half their undergraduates from the tiny seven per cent of private schools, and only about 10 per cent of undergraduates there could be called working class, so the social dominance is of the privately educated. . . .
These powerful social effects were to devastate the life of Alison Cranfield. She was an outstandingly brilliant girl whose school, without much consideration as to whether it was the right place for her, had pushed her to Oxbridge for the pride of her school. This meant a big leap across the social-cultural divide and it proved too wide for her. She had slipped, fallen badly and suffered deep long-term emotional damage. Even to think of it, many years after the debacle, brought tears to her eyes.
William Golding‘s life story gives further insight into the impact of this kind of chasm between classes. In his daughter’s memoire, The Children of Lovers, she checks for herself what her father’s record at Oxford contained about him (page 69-70):
The University Appointments Committee – an early form of careers service – had carefully noted on their index card their considered judgement of my father as ‘not quite a gent.’ The jaunty, Wodehousean tone doesn’t mean it’s a joke, and it’s certainly not a compliment. The judgement was precise and professionally significant.
She found similar statements elsewhere (page 70):
On a letter card, from his DipEd studies in 1937-8, they describe him as ‘a decent, sincere man,’ and they mention his book of poems published by MacMillan in 1934 – a considerable feat for a grammar-school boy of twenty-three. But in the coded initials of his entry (interpreted for me once more by the scrupulous university archivist), he was N.T.S. Not Top Shelf.
Her conclusions were (ibid.):
Oxford in the 1930s was still a place of outrageous privilege, of rigid and effective class divisions, which both subtly and unsubtly apportioned opportunity by rank, and permanently shaped people’s careers and lives, so reinforcing privilege for the next generation.
She sheds further light on how exactly this process works in practice (page 70-71) and can pass down the generations:
One might say that the University Appointments Board had to safeguard the currency of its recommendations, given the expectations of future employers. After all, otherwise someone like my father, on the basis of his many good qualities, might have ended up quite unsuitably in charge of some top-shelf children. But the board makes sure this will not happen. It carefully notes that he is ‘fit only for day schools.’ So he sent his daughter to a place he hoped would fix that.
It’s perhaps worth noting that the visitor in RAF uniform who ended up outside my bedsit looking for an English Teacher, as described in an earlier post, was there as a result of the workings of the ‘old boys’ network. He had got his degree at Clare College many years earlier and had used his contacts to discover there was a more recent graduate in his area who might need a job. It was only a day school after all, but even so, after the kinds of interactions we had which I described earlier, he may have come to regret his decision and seen me as coming from too far below the top shelf altogether. And, to be truthful, I had never felt at home in the world of venison and bump suppers into which, willing but naive, I had agreed to be thrown on the back of my A level results and at the behest of my Headmaster. A more telling disadvantage though was probably my difficulty in adapting, after grammar school spoon-feeding, to the need for a more self-directed style of study.
All this highlights the full significance of the point that Michele Obama was trying to make in hosting the gathering of school girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson at an Oxford college.
Michelle Obama takes school pupils to Oxford University to encourage them to aim high. But only just over 1 per cent of Oxford’s undergraduates are of black British origin, Channel 4 News learns.
The First Lady first visited the all-girl Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) School in north London in 2009 (pictured), and has kept in touch with the school since.
Now, as part of her trip to the UK with the President, she visited Oxford University with around 35 of the school’s pupils. In 2009, Mrs Obama encouraged the pupils to “be the best that you can be”, and the trip to the university is expected to encourage the students – the majority of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds – to think about studying for a degree.
The trip was designed as a day-long “immersion experience” at Oxford, including campus tours and mentoring sessions. The First Lady, who has a modest family background but attended Princeton and Harvard, also answered questions from the students, after telling them she was “thrilled to be back”.
She said: “I remember back at a young age trying to decide what schools to apply to and how well-meaning but misguided people questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at an elite university. When I was accepted I had all kinds of worries and doubts, I wouldn’t be as well prepared as students from privileged families and I wouldn’t fit in.
“But after a few months away from home I realised I was just as capable and I had just as much to offer [as] any of my classmates. We passionately believe that you have the talent within you, you have the drive, the experience to succeed at Oxford and universities just like it across the country and the world.”
This kind of self-belief is hugely important. However, Gifted Lives clearly indicates, and not just from one person’s experience, that even talent cannot protect you completely from the toxic effects of inequality. This has echoes of the description of the depressing effects of inequality explored across a number of dimensions in The Spirit Level. The Baha’i Faith has much to say on this issue (see link for the summary article by Bryan Graham from which the following quotations are taken).
. . . . there are many examples of exploitation in the world; whether it is a senior executive exploiting corporate shareholders or a local landowner exploiting peasants. To refer to the passage quoted above: “When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny.”
He expands on this a little later in his summary:
Dahl interprets the modifying principle of poverty as tyranny as implying that “every human being has the right to a reasonable level of personal welfare,” a belief echoed by Sabetan and Fish in their call for the meeting of basic needs. Mohtadi emphasizes that the Bahá’í teachings on volunteer giving, progressive taxation, huqúqu’lláh, and zakát would all operate in such a way as to eliminate extremes of wealth in society. Huddleston highlights similar teachings and identifies the elimination of extreme differences in per capita wealth as one “of the main economic functions of the world government.” The Bahá’í system, therefore, combines voluntary and mandatory means for the elimination of the extremes of wealth, operating within a framework where wages are conceived as just rewards. The Bahá’í world would be more equal but not absolutely equal.
This suggests that, even though such initiatives as Michele Obama’s are praiseworthy and valuable, they are by no means a complete answer. She would be the first to agree with that, I’m sure. What is required is for all of us to put our best energies into reshaping of society. Each of us has to find a path of action by which to do that in a concerted way with other people. We can’t do it alone. This blog is attempting to look at as many possibilities of this kind as will fit into its compass. We each must decide what we are going to do. Not an easy task!