A helping hand
Sorry if I’ve been a bit quiet this week – I’m all wrapped up in end-of-term essays for my teaching course and I’m getting myself into a complete state about it. Meanwhile, while I soldier on with my revision, our two oldest daughters have finished their exams and are finally free to enjoy the sunshine. Right now all we can do is wait for the results and try to reassure them that all will be fine. After all their hard work they deserve to do well.
Because that’s what a meritocracy is all about isn’t it? Those who work hardest succeed while those who faff about (like me) fail. But it’s not quite so straightforward is it? After all, those who work hard often get a leg up too. And I’m not just talking about the sort of leg up that got a former dragon slayed by the self-righteous sword of the media this week.
James Caan, newly appointed social mobility tsar, got into a right old pickle for arguing that privileged parents shouldn’t use their positions to give their children an unfair advantage, but should let them stand on their own two feet. The next day it emerged that his two daughters both worked or had work experience for companies that he either owns or chairs. All he could do was splutter that they got their places on their own merits. The uncomfortable truth is that they probably did, because merit – like good looks and wealth – isn’t doled out fairly.
James Caan’s daughters were probably great at their jobs. They’ve inherited his genes so probably have the same drive, talent and worth ethic as he has. It would be really satisfying to think that the children of the rich and successful were all like Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice But Dim who didn’t “deserve” their success. But that’s as fatuous an argument as saying Paul Newman didn’t deserve those beautiful blue eyes on top of that perfect mouth.
Our confused relationship with the deserving rich was expressed beautifully this week by American economist Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States. The former economics professor at Princeton returned to Princeton University this week to address the class of 2013 at their graduation ceremony. Turning Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech from the film Wall Street upside down he told some of the brainiest and hardest-working students in the world that they should thank their lucky stars for being dealt such a winning hand and to stop pretending that they’d earned their success fair and square.
“Think about it,” he said, “A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate – these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world and to share their luck with others.”
We can harrumph all we like, but parents have been pulling out all the stops to help their kids get on since Daedalus strapped a pair of wings to his son Icarus’s back and told him to follow his lead but avoid the sun. Sometimes they crash and burn, like Icarus, but more often than not they use the family springboard to pull off a triple somersault.
So enjoyable as it is to have a pop at a cornered dragon I’m going to put down my sanctimonious sword, before I get carried away on the good ship Holier than Thou. Which reminds me – perhaps now’s the time to thank everyone who encouraged my daughter, Ella, with their kind words and even kinder donations during her five days of living on a pound a day. She survived her diet of boiled rice, pasta and peas for livebelowtheline.com and raised £290 for Concern Worldwide. She’s a marvellous girl, I think she must get it from her father!
Posted my Amanda Blinkhorn