At Large

Cricket and Political Correctness

English "public school boys" save the day for a British sport and British education.

By 1.13.11

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This is a story about cricket and government schools. You may not care much about cricket, but what it tells us about the latest developments in England's state funded schools may be of interest to all.

My source for the following is an old friend called John Graham. He went to Eton and St. Paul's (private schools) and was once a promising young cricketer himself. We went to university at the same time. Then he worked as a correspondent for the Financial Times. He still lives in London, and he follows the international cricket news as keenly as he ever did. If something unusual happens, he is likely to send me an email.

Readers should know that the leading international cricket contest, going back to the 19th century, is between England and Australia. Recently the English cricket team, touring down under in the winter months (their summer), decisively beat the Australians and won the "test" series. As the Australian team has done well in recent years this English victory was considered noteworthy and John Graham duly emailed me. But he also sent me some far more unusual news.

Half the victorious English team consisted of former "public school boys," he wrote. That's confusing terminology, I know. In England, "public school" refers to a private, fee-paying school, such as Eton or Harrow, St. Paul's or Winchester.

Half the team! I used to be a big cricket fan in the England of the 1950s, and when I think back to the English team of that time, there might have been but one player who had received a private-school education.

In football terms, it's about like hearing that the New England Patriots are nowadays drawing some of their most promising talent from the Harvard and Yale football teams.

So what happened in England? What about the other school boys, the vast majority, who go to state schools and then, if they show promise, are hired by county cricket teams and may then with luck be selected to play for England.

Here is John Graham's reply:

Cricket is not favoured in state schools (which educate 94% of the nation's schoolchildren) for various reasons. The game takes too long; there aren't teachers to teach it or to umpire the games; all governments -- Tory and Labour -- have spent the past 30 years selling off school playing fields in order for more shops or houses to be built and thus create profits for private entrepreneurs (a development both good and bad). Also, cricket is competitive and therefore by definition bad because someone might lose.

This last point is not a joke. Exams are now being made easier, in case students find them too difficult. Public exams may be taken at school or in some congenial surroundings in case students are upset by having to sit them in a strange place. Competitive sports are BANNED by many teachers. Until the age of about 15, children who are lucky enough to be able to play cricket are not allowed to use a hard cricket ball in case it hurts them -- they use some softer ball instead. I am told fast bowlers are told to bowl more slowly.

A cricket ball, incidentally, is about the same size and weight as a baseball. It is red rather than white, but they are about the same in hardness.

So what's happening in state schools is that not just cricket but the whole notion of competition is being undermined, to conform with political correctness. Meanwhile in the private, fee-paying schools the ethos of competition is alive and well. That's not surprising because parents have to fork over as much as 30,000 pounds a year -- about $50,000 -- to send their children to these schools. They want their children to do well in life and they know that protecting them from the realities of competition is not the route to advancement.

In the 1950s the advocates of government schooling often loathed private schools as bastions of wealth and privilege -- which to some extent they were. But their enemies also thought that private schools would not be able to hold out for long against the competition. After all the state schools were free. Why pay $50,000 a year when a decent education could be had for nothing? Parents were already paying plenty in taxes.

In those days the state schools were still good. It was often said that grammar schools in the 1950s could educate children at least as well as most private schools. Then two things happened. Many of the (state funded) grammar schools were abolished by political decision. Why? Because they too preserved a system of inequality. Access to them was determined by competitive exams. So many students were excluded. Better to level down than to permit such blatant inequality to flourish.

John Graham again:

The grammar schools were gradually abolished from 1960s onwards, by political parties of all colors. It was a ludicrous experiment in politically correct egalitarianism. Madness, as everyone but closed-mind ideologues of the Left now acknowledge.

Now comes the more recent round of insanity, in which the very notion of competition is under attack. The ball should not be too hard, or pitched too fast. Competitive sports divide us into winners and losers, and so it is inherently unjust. This is the extremism of the "loony Left," and of course we often meet it on this side of the Atlantic.

In the old days it was reckoned that five or six percent of English school children went to fee-paying schools. Now that percentage is up to seven, perhaps 7.2 percent. Despite the huge financial burdens that they impose, the private schools are not just holding their own but are more and more in demand.

The state schools, which were expected to put the private schools out of business, ended up undermining themselves by their persistent hostility to the idea of competition. It didn't work because parents put the well-being of their own children ahead of leftist ideology.

The cricket story is just a parable for the broader story. Private school students do better in exams and win admission to Oxford and Cambridge in proportionately much high numbers than those from state schools; even though (as Graham says) "Oxbridge has been and remains under great social and political pressure to take more entrants from state schools." They have been bending over backwards to do so for years.

In politics, we see the same thing. British Prime Minister David Cameron went to Eton and his deputy, Nick Clegg to Westminster; the Chancellor of the Exchequer to St. Paul's. On the Labour side, Tony Blair attended Fettes, one of Scotland's most elite private schools.

One of the great problems of our time is that the Left cannot face reality, a prominent feature of which is inequality in all walks of life. The related problem is that for about a hundred years leftists have enjoyed political power that is out of all proportion to their numbers. So they are inclined to believe that inequality is something that can be stamped out by force. That is an extremist program if there ever was one.

The problem for the Left is that the more they try to stamp out reality, the more their insanity becomes apparent to the rest of us -- the great majority. What has happened to cricket in the state schools is only the latest illustration of the ideologues at work, but it surely won't be the last.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).