Inclusion at the expense of excellence
POLITICIANS who enjoy great music, poetry or even the art pages of COUNTRY LIFE are increasingly ridiculed by those who think that anything more highbrow than Dolly Parton and watching football is suspiciously elitist. The barbarians are at the gates when the popular media takes to attacking high culture and intellectual excellence. Typical was the stick George Osborne got for his love of opera in general and Wagner in particular. It was used as proof positive that he and other Tory intellectuals were out of touch with ordinary people. Indeed, rumour has it that David Cameron issued an edict that Cabinet Ministers were not to be seen at such elitist events. Latitude or even Glastonbury were okay, but not—definitely not—glyndebourne.
The change of attitude is part of a general dumbing down of our society. In the 1970s, we took for granted that our Prime Minister would conduct classical works with major orchestras on important occasions. Edward Heath was also known to spend time in the National Gallery and, like his Conservative predecessor, Harold Macmillan, was extremely well read. Today, we would be told that all that culture was a drawback, an unnecessary indulgence that, in this inclusive age, should not be encouraged. Instead, our leaders should defer to the many who don’t share these tastes.
This populism is now reaching much further into the Establishment. Fear of favouring the well prepared from fee-paying schools has led to talk of no longer encouraging excellence, but only of avoiding exclusion. Thus, candidates for places at our oldest universities are discouraged from showing prowess in outside activities lest that advantage young people who come from families who could give them greater opportunities. Specially worrying is the antagonism towards entry candidates who, although not intending to read music, seek to contribute their musical talent. Once, that would have been a mark of distinction. Now, it mustn’t be taken into account even in colleges with great choirs and a long tradition of choral scholars. The fear is to be seen favouring good schools with good facilities.
Even more threatened are the colleges and cathedrals that recruit boy singers. The utterly special sound of the boy treble has given to British choral music something unique. The choirs of St John’s or King’s in Cambridge or Westminster Cathedral outclass any in the world, yet, the barbarians complain that they’re discriminatory as girls don’t have the same opportunity (in fact, they do at some schools). The fact they have a different voice seems to escape these obsessive egalitarians. Theirs is as silly an argument as complaining that all basses are men.
This is the background against which those who seek to uphold the best now have to operate. Their enemies are not the big names or alternative cultural leaders, but the petty functionaries and second-rate minds who populate committees and administer admissions. So concerned are they to meet the political demand for inclusivity that they undermine the very qualities that make their institutions so attractive. Their superficial approach leads them to see choir schools as elitist even though they recruit many boys from the poorest of families. So it is that all our finest choirs are under constant threat from a modern morality that ranks inclusion above excellence.
These aims are not mutually exclusive. Governments, universities and schools should protect the best while striving to open up access to that best to those who once were left out. It is a betrayal of the deprived to destroy the very excellence to which they ought to have a chance to aspire.
‘It is a betrayal of the deprived to destroy the very excellence to which they aspire
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