In­clu­sion at the ex­pense of ex­cel­lence

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

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

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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