The US election is entering its closing stages. We may not yet know the winner, but we know the loser: tolerance.
This has been the dirtiest, nastiest campaign ever. Far from providing children with a valuable lesson about democracy, it has had an egregious effect, fuelling fear and ramping up racial tensions in the classroom.
Here in the UK, post the EU referendum vote, we fare no better. Foreigners, feminists and minorities are newly unwelcome. Perhaps they never really were. But at least there was some veneer of tolerance.
Intolerant views are no longer confined to the margins. Stridency is in vogue. Compromise, subtlety and ambiguity are perceived as “soft” and redundant. Hard Brexit, hard lines, hard choices are the order of the day.
This applies to both sides. For every Brexiteer who fulminates against whining, unpatriotic, footling liberals, there is a disappointed Remainer who patronises the ill-educated, insular, bigoted fools who didn’t know what they were voting for.
No shades of grey
Predictably, the battle lines drawn in education are as hard and inflexible as those drawn over the EU.
Grammars are either the solution to “bog standard” comprehensives or a return to elitist, divisive policies of the past. There are no shades of grey.
Grammars, their opponents say, are bad news. Look at the evidence. Look at the exclusion of the poor and the corrosion visited on their neighbours. Gaze in horror at a system that labels vast numbers of children failures at the tender age of 11.
Feel the anger. Feel the fury. Feel the righteousness. It’s good to know that your arguments are not only evidentially right but also morally superior.
But moral superiority doesn’t entertain doubt. It doesn’t feel the need to compromise. It doesn’t need to seek answers to questions it has already answered.
In the rush to damn the argument for new grammars, critics are emulating the dogmatism, the partiality of our newly intolerant age. How far are we prepared to interrogate our own assumptions? How willing are we to accept that there might be merit in divergent views?
Let’s look at the other side of the ledger. We know that the few poor children who go to grammars do very well. We know that many comprehensives fail to offer poor children an academic experience equal to grammars. We that know many do not stretch their most able.
We know that if you are poor in Knowsley or Blackpool, your chances of progressing are slim, the odds of getting into a top university are tiny.
We know all this about an education system that is overwhelmingly comprehensive. And we know that for many poor kids it is failing.
None of those points, of course, cancels out the negatives associated with grammars. The credit column still falls short. But they should at least make us pause.
No excuse for closed minds
Fulminating against our opponents does not absolve us from mending the holes in our own argument.
Is it really a good thing if we spend more time being right than being smart? The fury directed at grammars should not be an excuse for closing our minds.
There is another trap that the terminally correct are in danger of falling into. The evidence against grammars may be mountainous, yet they are popular with the important demographic segments of the voting public. That could be because the public are not persuaded by facts. Or it could be because the brand is far more powerful than the evidence.
Facts and evidence get you only so far. Grammar school opponents will never oppose them successfully if they don’t accept the power of the brand and learn to fight emotion by understanding emotion.
We will never improve our education system if we ignore the merits in our opponents’ arguments or the shortcomings in our own. We risk being stranded in impotent fury if we wrap ourselves in our own righteousness and refuse to acknowledge the legitimate fears and hopes of others.
We are entering a newly intolerant age. Hard, inflexible battle lines are being drawn. But let’s not rush to damn our opponents’ arguments. Because, as far as education is concerned, stridency and intolerance should never be in vogue.