Friday, August 22, 2008

Know Your Place, Says Polly

The History Channel debate was hugely enjoyable. More than one hundred people packed into the Marble Room at the Royal Society to hear a panel consisting of Polly Toynbee, Douglad Murray, Dominic Sandbrook and Diane Abbott. Sadly Simon Heffer couldn't join us due to illness. It was a good natured debate with more agreement than I might have predicted. All the panellists agreed that up to the age of 16 it was important for children to learn by rote so they knew the important dates and events. They were all sceptical about the value of teaching history by empathy.

A major point of disagreement emerged, though, on aspirational teaching, and encouraging kids to dream the dream. Christian May on the CF blog tells the story...
At one point during the lively discussion about how history should be taught, Douglas Murray said that one of the benefits of learning about great people in history is that it encourages children to think “that could be me” - a sense that individuals matter. Given how much of a Labour lover Toynbee is one would have thought that she might have agreed with this, given that it seems to fit with Brown’s “aspiration agenda.” However, she attacked Murray’s argument and said that to tell children that they could achieve greatness was to fill their heads with fairy tale nonsense. Apparently we live in a society where only the very rich achieve greatness. She went on to say that America’s notion that ‘anyone can make it if they work hard’ is simply a way of “keeping people in their place.” I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, and during the Q&A session I asked her to clarify her remarks and suggested that there was no better way of “keeping children in their place” than by telling them not to bother aspiring to greatness. I’m pleased to say that my questioning was met with general approval by the audience, but Polly just reiterated her notion that we live in a society where only the rich can make it etc. I then put it to her that not all great figures from history were born wealthy (or indeed achieved wealth), at which point she reverted to some safe ground - America bashing.

As a (relatively young) Conservative it is one of my core beliefs that individuals should aspire to better themselves, and society, through ambition and hard work. A world run by Toynbee would be a world where children are encouraged not to try, as “they’ll never make it in to the history book. That’s just where rich people end up.” Frightening stuff.

I put to Polly that in her word a thirteen year old Usain Bolt would never have won double Olympic Gold if her 'know your place' world existed.

UPDATE: Coffee House has a long post on the debate, together with the list of the 50 Things...

* The History Channel series '50 Things You Need to Know About British History' starts at 9pm on September 7th.


Anonymous said...

It's a well-known fact that anything that comes out of "Dame" Polly's mouth is complete drivel

Anonymous said...

She is a bit like Miss Haversham, waiting for her long lost son, Social Democracy, to return.

Just taking Usain Bolt as an example isn't very good. For every 100m champ, there are thousands who spent their lives training in sports only to fall by the wayside and miss out on an education.

But for once Toynbee is right, for all the talk of social mobility, most studies show that if you are born poor in the UK, you will most likely die poor and that this is more likely to be the case in the UK than anywhere else in the UK.

People shouldn't "know their place" but sadly most will remain rooted in their place. Indeed, this is exactly what George Osbourne has been attacking Labour for this week, that for all the talk, indeed all the money spent, almost no one is better off. The poor are failed by education and continue to be failed.

Obnoxio The Clown said...

It's obvious though, that you have to have at least a Tuscan villa before you can aspire to anything.


Anonymous said...

So in a society where "being famous" or "being a celebrity" is a youthful aspiration; where it is realistic for boys to aspire to be David Beckham or Wayne Rooney and girls to be Kylie Minogue or Jordan - to aspire to be an heroic figure from history is unrealistic. I am sure there is logic in there somewhere but I can't find it.

Nich Starling said...

Who's Hussein ? Is he Iraqi ? The Jamaican is Usain not Hussein.

Gege said...


you and Polly are both right.

Whilst it is true that success comes through hard work and vision, it is also true that for a lot of people, their hard work doesnt pay off.

Thats why they say 'life isnt fair'!

Anonymous said...

Good god. She really is quite scary. Surely not everyone else on the left can be so blinkered. Is she really unable to see the sheer idiocy of her postion?

Regrettably its this kind of thinking that led to the destruction of the grammar schools and the virtual abolition of competition in state schools. But then I guess its easier to tell the masses what to do if they have no hope or aspiration.

As for the comments about America - does she know what she's talking about? Some of the world's richest ever men came from very humble backgrounds - John D Rockefeller and JJ Astor for example.

Helen said...

Well, of course, it would be easier for children from poorer families to achieve greater things if we had a better education system. Thank you Polly and her friends.

As for America, I bet Ms Toynbee foams at the mouth when the name Ronald Reagan is mentioned. And I bet she says disdainfully "he was just a B-movie actor". Because he did not come from a rich family - far from it; he made his way up and became president, to some the greatest twentieth century one. The likes of Ms Toynbee loathe him not just for his politics (fancy bringing that nice Soviet Union down and cutting taxes so ordinary people kept more of their income) but because he was an upstart.

Anonymous said...

Aspiring to better things doesn't mean becoming a football 'star' or even a Rockefeller - it's about being independent, making sure your children reach their potential, having enough that you can help others (with time and effort as well as money), enjoying great art, etc.

Anonymous said...

I would let you get away with pictures of naked women on your blog but I can't let you get away with claiming to be "relatively young".

DiscoveredJoys said...

I seem to remember a grocer's daughter doing rather well...

Anonymous said...

Andrew Efiong said...
"... this is more likely to be the case in the UK than anywhere else in the UK."


Anonymous said...

" rich achieve greatness"

polly is rich was she out when greatness called?
She is barking mad.

Tapestry said...

Wealth achieved is the result usually of risk-taking...of being prepared to commit money and effort to a project of uncertain outcome - and managing to make it work.

The people in the middle are usually the most risk-averse. They don't want to lose what they have scraped together.

The best risk-takers are those who have nothing to lose, who came up from nothing...Rockefeller is a good example.

The rich take risks as they can afford to lose a bit, and know they have to take risks to stay ahead, or return to middle level or less, over time.

Wealth easily erodes, as the children of the wealth-creator rarely understand where the money came from, and far prefer spending it than engaging in any risk-taking.

That goes even more so for the grand-children (as a rule). I read a piece by Rees Mogg (for once talking sense) saying that most families produce a successful wealth creator only about once every five generations. The intervening generations just about hang on to their level, which erodes quietly until the next wealth re-builder arrives.

Occasionally you get a double or triple generation family with successful business minds in succession. Then you get Murdochs or Marks & Spencer. But they are very rare.

Social trends also come and go.

Empires rise and they fall - in families as surely as they do with countries.

Polly Toynbee and her post-war ilk have done about as much as any generation have ever done to ruin the golden inheritance this country was handed.

Thankfully the young are now ambitious again, and not interested in EUising the whole place into the oblivion, where Polly cannot wait to send us all.

Socialism like wealth eventually dies out, thank God. Roll on the day. History cures all in time, even Polly Toynbee.

Anonymous said...

Well Polly should be pleased - she's grabbed all the comments here. Who said that no publicity is worse than bad publicity?

Anonymous said...

I am in absolute agreement with Judith - that is what life is about. 'Greatness' is a bonus and while we can't all achieve 'greatness' in the sense it is usually used - ordinary people achieve greatness every day. I am thinking about people like my next door neighbour - an elderly lady, generous of heart and spirit who has brought kindness and support to my family and many others.

As for La Toynbee - she has obviously read too much into Robert Merton's work. While he did maintain that the frustration caused by failing to achieve the American Dream would cause some to turn to crime to achieve their goals and others to 'drop out' his view was that the majority would conform. It was his view that certain personalities would react badly to the the inequalities that unfortunately inevitably exist in society, but certainly not all. He never thought you shouldn't try as he himself came from a humble immigrant background. Toynbee's I believe is very privileged.

What is true is that the 'American Dream' has been bastardised. It is now about acquiring money, bling, status and fame. Learning for its own sake is devalued as well as teaching, the caring professions, motherhood and anything else that can't be translated into dollars and cents. It is the failure to achieve this corrupt version of the
'American Dream' that brings dissatisfaction, causing some to do anything to achieve their goals - even criminal acts. Or somewhow will just drop out because they can't achieve them. Again, this is certainly not the majority.

What we really need is an overhaul of our system of values and this can only be achieved in the long term. But of course Toynbee thinks we're all too 'thick' for that. God, I hate her.

Anonymous said...

Look, Toynbee's all for Green ishoos isn't she?

Well, can we treat her like the global climate warming change people treat people they don't like?

For you Toynbee, the debate is over and you are no longer necessary. Bye.

Anonymous said...

Lady Finchley,

I agree with much of what you say, but take issue with your comments on the American Dream

In the US, whilst some of what you say has occured, it has been mainly in the metropolitan areas. The vast majority of the country - that middle America that people like Polly are so scathing about - still holds to the aspirations that many of their ancestors had (most of whom were of course from very humble immigrant stock). Most of these people aspire merely to be comfortable, to raise a family and generally live a good life. Many have a work ethic which puts us to shame.

(I know the above is somewhat of a generalisation but with a country the size of the US, its hard not to)

The American Dream you talk about is far more prevalent in the UK where the educational ethos of "all must have prizes" has lead to the assumption that everything should be given to you just because you want it. The link between hard work and success has been definitvely broken and its hard to see how it can be restored.

Anonymous said...

What a horrible woman.

Anonymous said...

Toynbee, that is!

Anonymous said...

Good for you that you put Toynbee in her place. That sort of mentality means people born into disadvantage just stay that way. If Barack Obama were born in a Labour run borough, he'd have no chance of being where he is now. The likes of Toynbee made such mean comments about Adam Afriyie when he got elected. That's when the scales fell from my eyes about the Labour Party. They don't want people from communities they see as disadvantaged to achieve anything.
Boris for PM!! (sorry slightly off-post in this sentence, but Boris has been excellent in China recently).

Anonymous said...

Classic piece of taking meaning out of context, this. The debate was talking about 'the great' in history in terms of power politics, not sprinting. No-one is suggesting Winston Churchill would challenge Usain Bolt's 100m record, but being a descendent of the Duke of Malborough and a student of Harrow probably kick started his political career. Polly is absolutely correct to say that we shouldn't mask socio-economic realities with unrealistic fantasies. Incidentally, this isn't incompatible with encouraging kids' aspirations, Toynbee's just saying don't lose sight of the role that social injustices continue to play in politics. If you want proof of those, just look at the backgrounds of the Tory front bench.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Paolo - the American Dream is to have a fulfilling life, not to achieve fame and fortune.

I also agree with Judith, aspiration helps you be the best you can be and no one can do more. Human fulfillment is more than money or fame. But Socalists are greedy, envious, spiteful people and don't understand that - "he's got more money, bigger house, more cars than me, I want that or it's not fair. That is all they know."

Summoning their god of equality, anyone who they are envious of (or cannot control) and uses intelligence or skill is elitist, and that is almost as bad as being racist - to a socalist like Toynbee. Can't have people thinking for themselves or striving to better themselves - 'they won't be grateful for our handouts and believe in the socialist religion anymore'!! Isn't this the grotesque Gramsci experiement they are subjecting us all to?

One of my favourite quotes is the end of Middlemarch:- "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

As I said yesterday, in the teaching of history we should make sure we include local and social history as well. But the many great British (and indeed everywhere else) figures from all backgounds - especially humble, show you just what can be done.

But you are not a failure if you only live a 'faithful life', where you have done you best to use your talents. Isn't there a Christian parable along those lines?

Anonymous said...

What was Polly doing taking part in a History debate anyway? Didn't she drop out of her Oxford History degree after only one year?

Roger Thornhill said...

Toynbee wants people to know their place, then they can be talked down to, infanilised, taxed, handed a little of the tax back - and boy they'd better be grateful - while the Socialist elite wafts about.

Her mindset repeatedly exposes the logical block on outcomes. Yep, MOST people will remain ordinary, but anyone MIGHT become extraordinary if they grasp opportunity, prepare for chance encounters over a Pound Note and with a ton of luck.

Anonymous said...

Pollyanna's terrified of competition, Iain. And it's not hard to see why, given how poorly researched and badly written most of her articles are.

Nich Starling said...

She is essentailly right though isn't she.

You can work your socks off for most of your life and remain poor but if you are born with money and contacts you can sit around on your arse most of your life and have everything you want handed to you on a plate.

Tell me it's not so ?

Anonymous said...

I had a think about this. If we point at a historical figure and encourage kids to think "that could be me", we're making a moral judgement. We're condoning that figure.

Now in some cases you might say they were good people we should indeed try and emulate. But, I don't think history class should be condoning or condemming anyone. However obviously they seem good or evil to us. It should just present the facts.

Anonymous said...

Norfolk Blogger - it's not so.

Well, it's not always so. You can get stuck in a dead end job with no prospects. It's up to you whether to stay there or take a risk and move. If you take the risk you might end up better off - or worse off. That's the risk.

Sometimes those born with wealth and contacts just mess it all up and end up penniless. Sometimes those born penniless make it rich.

Polly Crackers says that if you're born rich, you're made for life. If you're born poor, tug that forelock, shut up and know your place. Nobody from a council estate could possibly get a PhD. Nobody from a council estate could or should attempt to run their own business or buy their own home. If you're poor, stay there and keep quiet. She's more Victorian than the Victorians.

I, for one, refuse to shut down my business, give up my PhD and go back to the council estate I came from.

It can be done, but if you tell kids it can't, then they won't try. They'll aspire to nothing more than gang membership because they've been told that's all they're worth.

Determination and sheer bloody-mindedness trumps money and contacts, in my experience.

Anonymous said...

leg-iron said...
"Norfolk Blogger - it's not so.

Well, it's not always so."

We know it's not ALWAYS so. Just the vast majority of cases.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, that wonderfully undefined 'vast majority'.

Most of those who went to my comprehensive (it was grammar for my first two years) have ended up doing pretty well. They don't have sprawling estates and Rolls-Royces, but they have decent jobs and their own homes.

Teachers at that school pushed us to work harder, to get as far as each of us could, and it paid off. If they had said 'You're all factory fodder and none of you will get anywhere because you're not rich', then the vast majority of us might well now be languishing on the dole. We are not.

Sure, there were some who ducked school, ended up with no qualifications and live their lives on the dole. But they were certainly not the vast majority.

The majority will do what they're told. That's always been the case. If you tell them to sit down, shut up and don't try, that's what they'll do.

That's what this 'vast majoity' are doing now. Exactly what they've been told to do.

Anonymous said...

Ask a sample 11 year-olds what they'd really like to be in 5/10 years time.

A significant and worrying proportion would tell you that they want to be 'famous'. If Polly (or anyone else) points out that that is unhealthy, they are, er, right.

If young people learnt that fame comes second, after being outstanding at something, or being very successful somewhere, that would be very valuable.

Anonymous said...

A significant and worrying proportion would tell you that they want to be 'famous'. If Polly (or anyone else) points out that that is unhealthy, they are, er, right.

Worrying? Unhealthy? Come on. If you went back 20, 50, 100 years, what would the average 11-year-old be aspiring to be? A factory worker? A plumber? A road sweeper?

They wanted to be film stars, radio stars, astronauts, footballers, rock stars, and now they want to be TV stars.

When you're eleven it's all so simple. You just want to be one of your current heroes. When they grow up (they haven't even hit puberty yet!) most of them won't even remember what they wanted to be. A few of them do actually become those people, you know. Should we tell them not to do that?

It is not in any way unhealthy for 11-year olds to think, act and speak like 11-year-olds. There really is nothing to worry about in the imaginings of children. It's what they do.

Let them dream. They'll hit reality soon enough. At the moment they're happy - should we really socially engineer all that away and make them into grey drones now?

Anonymous said...

leg-iron said...
"If you went back 20, 50, 100 years, what would the average 11-year-old be aspiring to be? ...They wanted to be film stars, radio stars, astronauts, footballers, rock stars, and now they want to be TV stars."

1908. 100 years ago. Radios stars? Astronauts? Rock stars? I don't think so.

When I was 11 - 50 years ago - I and my friends wanted to be scientists, pilots, doctors, teachers. Fame didn't come into it.

Anonymous said...

Leg-iron, the point is that, as confirmed by numerous surveys, it is a fact of life that the 'vast majority' of people end up in much the same position as their parents socially and financially.

Although you can point to exceptions, children of rich parents will generally be wealthy in later life, without too much effort, because things are handed to them on a plate. Children of poor parents are more likely to be relatively poor, even if they do work hard all their lives.

Anonymous said...

It is foolish to believe that the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich.

Many years ago, a left-wing historian (Lawrence Stone) set out to prove the rigidity of the English class system from Tudor times onwards.

Unfortunately for him, what he discovered was a very considerable amount of movement up and down within all classes - including scions of the nobility.

I come from a Central European refugee background - my widowed greatgrandmother came to London, with her 5 young children, in 1890. She spoke no English, and she had practically no money. All of her grandchildren made it into the middle classes, and her greatgrandchildren have done well in the academic, business and professional fields.

The story is typical of many similar families - if you had nothing, you didn't sit around on your backside moaning, you got up and worked, and made sure your children studied, and you did your best to set them a good example.

Anonymous said...

1908. 100 years ago. Radios stars? Astronauts? Rock stars? I don't think so.

Sigh. Okay, let's go back to 1644 when eleven-year-olds wanted to be the generals of the cavaliers or roundheads. Specific enough?

When I was 11 - 50 years ago - I and my friends wanted to be scientists, pilots, doctors, teachers. Fame didn't come into it.

And how would you have felt to be told, at that age, that you were wasting your time thinking about it because you couldn't possibly ever become any of those things? Maybe you are now in one of those careers, maybe not. I have no way of knowing.

If not, do you consider yourself utterly damaged because you didn't become what you wanted to be when you were eleven? Or would you have felt more damaged if, having been told you couldn't achieve those things, you didn't even try?

Mark - The point here isn't so much whether most people will end up in the same sort of jobs as their parents. Most will, as you say.

The point is that they are being told to expect that. That they shouldn't try to get out of the rut. That they must accept their lot in life and not aspire to higher things.

In which case, none of them will ever get out of there.

So the next Prime Minister must therefore come from the upper classes because those 'of lower station' have been told not to be so silly and get back into line for the factory jobs.

I know that not everyone can achieve their dreams. I know that few people within any particular generation will get out of the family rut.

What I'm saying is that they should at least be allowed to try.

Anonymous said...

- I and my friends wanted to be scientists, pilots, doctors, teachers. Fame didn't come into it.

Leg-iron said ... "And how would you have felt to be told, at that age, that you were wasting your time thinking about it because you couldn't possibly ever become any of those things?"

Actually, we all became one or other of those things. Education is the key. We were at a grammar school and it was constantly drummed into us that we could achieve any of those career goals, the exception being those jobs where parental wealth or the 'old boy network' (probably more prevalent in those days) were major factors.

We felt sorry for the 75% who were at secondary modern schools and had much less opportunity to break out of their family economic and social situation. Very few of the secondary modern pupils that I knew achieved very much in career terms.

In my grammar school cohort, although only about 10% went to university (this is was the late 50s/early 60s remember) almost all eventually went into professional/managerial jobs. One is a multi-millionare and another is a peer.

Almost all the secondary modern contingent ended up in much the same position as their parents. I doubt if they got much encouragement from their teachers but I know that some of them worked very hard in their jobs without much reward.

Anonymous said...

I became one of those things too (scientist) because education was then about getting as far as you could, based on your abilities. There was none of this business of keeping everyone back so the slower kids didn't feel bad. If they had done that in PE, no cross country run would ever have been completed, the rugby and football teams would never have won a thing, sports day would have been a dead loss, and all because I was no use at any of those things but would have had to be 'included'.

The school I went to was grammar for the first two years, then became comprehensive, but all the teachers stayed so there wasn't too much difference by the time I left. Political correctness hadn't yet reared its scaly and distinctly pointed head.

None of us came from wealthy backgrounds. None of us had money and contacts from birth. We were taught that if you wanted something, work for it. Nobody ever said 'don't be silly, that's just for the rich'. Most of those kids now have decent jobs and homes. One became a professioanl goalkeeper for a league team. That's one of those eleven-year-old dreams that actually did come true. There weren't many.

Now, it's 'unhealthy' for children to dream those dreams. They are told they can't become what they dream, when they should be told 'well, if you really want that, here's what you'd have to do'.

Really, it doesn't matter what eleven-year-olds dream of because once they hit puberty, all thoughts turn to the opposite sex and those fantasies get forgotten.

All the same, telling kids they have no chance and have to accept what their parents have is just wrong.

I had the chance to get out of a council estate existence and I took it. Now I'd argue until I'm blue in the face to give every other kid out there at least the chance to do the same.

Most won't make it, some won't want to. Some will. Let them try.

Anonymous said...

Your comprehensive benefited from the residual grammar school effect. I wonder how well it is doing now.

Bring back the grammar schools. Leave the rest of the kids in the comprehensives but put a lot more money and effort into changing the ethos of those schools.

The grammar schools won't need much extra help - they can look after themselves. Who ever heard of a 'failing' grammar school?

Anonymous said...

I wonder how well it is doing now.

It was demolished a couple of years ago. So, not too well.

If it was possible to bring back grammar schools while leaving the comprehensives as they are (ie ensuring they didn't slip back to the 'dumping ground' mentality of the secondary moderns), that would be great.

I don't know if that's possible though.

Anonymous said...


Good point about the corruption of the American Dream being in urban areas. Unfortunately it is seeping through and it takes place just as much in the Wall Street as it did in the ghetto. In the States (where I am from) it is more about greed and bling and here (where I have lived for 25 years) it is more about all must win prizes but certain American things (like me!)import successfully and others such as bling and celebrity culture don't. In the UK we sometimes seem to take the worst of America and combine it with the worst of our own.

I think Merton would turn in his grave if he saw what his'American Dream' became.

Anonymous said...

It's called giving people hope. No hope, no point in living.

Toynbee may be right in some ways, the education system is now so skewed towards the private sector, most State educated kids aren't given the tools to 'make it'. And it's the likes of Toynbee who have taken away the ladder for those State educated kids, i.e. grammar schools.

But by saying it, you destroy the hope. And that only ends in trouble.