Friday, 4 October 2013

Why did the British Left reject psychometric testing (and meritocracy) in the 1950s?


My own favoured explanation is that the Left realized that its traditional appeal - focused on the abolition of serious material poverty (starvation, homelessness, exposure to life-threatening cold etc.) and equal opportunity according to merit rather than birth.

By the 1950s it was apparent that these had already happened - so the Left needed a new agenda, and started systematically lying about reality.

This was the 'turn' from Old Left to New Left - old Left being about prosperity and opportunity - New Left (which became Political Correctness) about favourable outcomes for designated victim groups, and about 'oppression' of these groups conceptualized as psychological suffering rather than life-threatening deprivation.


In Measuring the mind: education and psychology in England c1860-1990, Adrian Wooldridge puts forward his list of reasons why the New Left in Britain turned against psychometric testing, especially IQ testing - and the previously dominant meritocratic project (pages 322-4).

(These changes in the British socialist movement were initiated by ideas outlined in New Fabian Essays of 1952, edited by the egregious Richard Crossman. I'm pretty sure I read this book in a library copy in my mid teens - certainly I read The Future of Socialism by the equally egregious Anthony Crosland of 1956 - which was another literary launch pad for the British New Left.)

1. Disillusion with the 1945-51 Labour government, and a wish to distance the future Labour Party from their methods and policies. Having tasted the reality of Old Leftism - Implementation of the 1944 Butler education act, massive nationalization, creation of the National Health Service and the Welfare State - they discovered it didn't live up to their hopes and dreams, and the coming generation wanted something different.

At another point,Wooldridge emphasises the inappropriate way that IQ testing done on one particular day in a child's life (i.e. 'the eleven plus') was (literally terrifyingly) misused as a way of the state allocating specific individual children to different types of school.

Whereas the tests were originally intended as a way in which an academic school could detect talent among those from non-academic (lower class, rural) backgrounds and those whose formal education had been insufficient or ineffective from the perspective of specific subjects (like Latin and Mathematics). Public, Private or Grammar schools could use psychometric testing offer specific poor but bright children opportunities they would otherwise have lacked.

There is a world of difference between the privilege of being offered an opportunity, and the coercion of state allocation.


2. Anti-communism. This is interesting, because in that era meritocracy was associated with the Soviet Union! By rejecting meritocracy the Labour Party could burnish its (in some respects unconvincing) anti-Soviet credentials in the Cold War era.


3. Fear of betrayal.

The British Left is replete with legends of betrayal (Ramsay Macdonald, Oswald Mosley, 1926 TUC General Council, 1984 'scab' Nottingham miners etc...).

The brooding over betrayal functions as a focus for unifying and mobilizing people with hatred and resentment - in this instance the hatred of class traitors (who rose from the working class and 'forgot their roots') and resentment of those who took advantage of the equal opportunities (by means of scholarships) - and 'creamed off' the working class intelligentsia.

Also the supposed low self esteem of those who had failed - and failed not by being victims of class prejudice against them, but because they were not-good-enough in the free-for-all competition of the meritocracy. This was blamed on psychometric testing and all it represented.


4. Rejection of the Labour Party program to nationalize all possible institutions (known as Clause Four) - the New (moderate, Gaitskellite) socialism would instead be focused on a crusade against the supposed injustice of selectivity and stratification in education - with the notion that this would abolish class divisions and create a truly socialist society.

The idea was that if everybody from all classes went to the same schools and mixed freely, then Britain would cease to be the most 'class-ridden' country in the world (sic) and become more like the classless USA (sic).

Therefore selection must be got rid of, implying that the the psychometric instruments of selection should be discredited. 


Well, all this may be so to some extent - it would not be a great surprise if something of this kind was contributory; but none of these four explanations account for the expansile dishonesty and sheer venom of the New Left in relation to the subject of innate and hereditary differences - especially between groups.

For this level of hostility there can be no good explanation - no plausible explanation in terms of being a by-product of the intention to do good; but rather a bad explanation - in terms of the Left becoming, from this point, ever more evil: ever more destructive of good.

A major indicator of this dishonesty is that the imprecision and defects of IQ testing when applied to specific individual children largely disappear when IQ testing is applied to groups - and yet it was group differences which the Left specifically ruled as taboo.


Dishonesty makes science impossible; but added to this in a lethal cocktail was gross incompetence in designing and interpreting research studies. And here I need to append a warning in relation to this very useful book.

Wooldridge does not remark on the astonishing incompetence of the critiques of psychometrics, perhaps because he does not understand the science of intelligence, nor does he make any apparent effort to do so.   

Measuring the mind is well-worth reading - but (from a scientific perspective) it is no more than a deft and cleverly-constructed mosaic of other people's opinions harvested from a very wide range of reading and meticulously documented.

Whenever the author ventures anything like a scientific opinion (which isn't terribly often) it is clear that Wooldridge doesn't have a clue; although (being a typical Economist journalist in this respect) he deploys a writing style characterized by the assumption of omniscience.

This scientific incompetence enables Wooldridge to avoid potentially career-threatening hate-facts in relation to group differences and heredity. But in doing so, the book has been seriously distorted.


In sum, this book is very useful, and seems historically solid on topics like the history of party and academic politics, but it is unsound on the science of psychometrics itself; because the author is scientifically incompetent and evasively dishonest - neither of which is surprising nor even particularly blameworthy, but these things need to be said lest readers be misled by the brilliant style and encyclopedic coverage.

All of which is to say that this book is social and political history written by an historian of the modern kind; it is not a work in the genre of the history of ideas.  



dearieme said...

I object to "Old Leftism - Implementation of the 1944 Butler education act, ..., creation of ... the Welfare State."

There are various ways that you might define the intro of the Welfare State but no valid one leads you to the postwar Labour government. The latest valid candidate is, in my view, the pre-First World War Liberal government that introduced the Old Age Pension and National Insurance.

And I'm darned if I see what the Butler Act has to do with Old Leftism: it was a Tory's, and introduced under what is usually referred to as the "Conservative-dominated wartime coalition government." I can see that there might be a case for your phrasing, but I don't off-hand see what it is.

P.S. I must add that in the county in which I took the 11+, it was better ordered than all being dependent on one day.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I think the idea was that there was a cross party ideological alliance of a meritocratic and managerialist type - combining Gaitskell and Butler to make 'Buskellism' - then presumably Gaistkell's followers broke away from this.

Josiah said...

Peter Hitchens, on his blog, recently referred to "the semi-totalitarian War-Communism of 1939-45" - suggesting that the collectivist War Economy was a prelude to the peace-time Welfare State.

Anti-Democracy Activist said...

I would say that the British left rejected meritocracy in favor of radical egalitarianism right around the time that the American left rejected protection of the native working class in favor of it; and for similar reasons.

Thus why, in America, the left is the primary cheerleader behind the destruction of the native working class via flooding the low end of the labor market with a torrent of illegal immigrant scabs.

What sense does it make? None. The left is a utopian cult, and there is no reasoning with fanatical cultists.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ADA - "The left is a utopian cult, and there is no reasoning with fanatical cultists."

Speaking as someone who really was a utopian Leftist in my youth (mid-teens) the modern politically correct Left is not utopian, and has not been for many decades.

Just yesterday I was leafing through my copy of William Morris's News from Nowhere - now *that* is utopian Leftism - because (aside from the fact that it is irreligious, and therefore its life is strictly meaningless) the society really is a very pleasant and wholesome one.

An appealing utopia can only be described by a person (or group) who are decent and well motivated as was Morris - the loathsomeness of most (nearly all) utopias comes from amplification of the flaws of the people who describe them. But in the early days of the Left there really were some decent Leftists (wrong, as we now know, but well motivated on the whole).

Now, the modern Left is not and cannot be utopian in this way. Even when you look at the supposedly utopian vision of the 1950s beats or 1960s hippies - they are actually dystopian - they are viscerally disgusting societies that are depicted.

But the modern Left is not even as utopian as that - it is an almost-wholly oppositional movement founded on resentment, hatred, hedonism.

The only utopian element in modern Leftism is the 'transhumanist' hope for a life totally without suffering and in which pleasure is so intense and continuous that it obliterates all other concerns - but speaking as an ex-insider to transhumanism, this does not work even as an ideal - it does not convince - the repellent nature of the ideal cannot be kept at bay and almost nobody truly wants this kind of world except as a fantasy of potential escape from the (genuine) endemic suffering of human life for those who are not religious. And the more realistic this desire becomes, the more suicide beckons.

Modern post-Christian Leftism therefore sails always very close to one form or another of suicide - either the suicide of consciousness-obliterating hedonism, or actual self-killing (which is, of course, no escape at all; since immortality is a fact - deny it as we may).

Philip Neal said...

I see several reasons. One is that meritocracy expanded the lower middle class and created new constituents for the Conservative Party. Another is that the creaming off process left the working class with a low-ability leadership: nobody who lived through the 1970s can forget the sheer inarticulacy of union leaders like Joe Gormley. But more fundamentally, I think that the Left does not value intelligence. The Peter Mandelsons of this world have no desire to be right and regard truth, or falsehood, as a means to an end.