The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 12th, 2005

Follies of Contrary Mary and ‘our crowd’

Of all the exotic beasts in the British bestiary of public life, there is no more flamboyant specimen than Mary Warnock. Even at 81 this furiously energetic creature is still rattling cages. It is quite clear she loves the attention. Some, including Lady Warnock, have argued that elderly creatures should be put down once they become a nuisance to themselves or others, but it would be a pity to deprive the public of such an entertaining spectacle as Mary and her many mood changes.

It may be that she is one of the last of an endangered species, an evolutionary subset identified as “our crowd” by one of its astutest members, the late Lord Annan. And if we mourn the extinction of even the nastiest little Indonesian gnat, why should we not value the existence of the last few specimens of the 20th-century liberal mandarinate? There is a case for saying this remarkable creature should be cloned before she expires, which as an advocate of human cloning in extreme circumstances, she might perhaps endorse.

There do, however, seem to be some who would happily exterminate Warnock and her kind, if their consciences would allow them. Last week she enraged many, including me, with her recantation of her earlier views about special needs education. She and her commission of 1978 did truly terrible damage to children, families, schools and education generally over more than 25 years.

They decided that children with disabilities should be educated in normal schools alongside normal children and that the distinctions between very different disabilities should be blurred. Indeed she was responsible for introducing the catch-all, right-on term “learning difficulties” for all problems, from permanent intellectual impairment to minor problems with reading.

When all this was translated into the 1981 Education Act, special schools were — and still are being — closed, regardless of their merits, often against the anguished protests of children and their parents, and hugely to the detriment of normal classroom teaching. It has been a national scandal.

Now Warnock admits she was wrong. She admits her policy has had “a disastrous legacy”. She says the idea of “inclusion” — the ideology that drove her committee’s findings — “was sort of a bright idea in the 1970s but now it’s become a kind of mantra . . . but it really isn’t working”.

“Bright idea”! How frivolous and amateurish that sounds, as if the back-of-the-envelope bright ideas of the great and the good — of “our crowd” — had some special validity. Warnock has also said governments must recognise that “even if inclusion is an ideal for society in general, it may not always be an ideal for schools”. But what about the child? What’s missing here, in a tellingly collectivist remark, is an ideal of the person, the little person, or rather the millions of them, who have been sacrificed to this “sort of bright idea”.

This is the unmistakable voice of the bossy amateur reformer, the do-gooder equipped with a formidable sense of entitlement and of her own ability, born and bred to bully people, in Jane Austen’s immortal words, into peace and prosperity.

Who is Warnock and who does she think she is? She is a successful philosopher from a driven middle-class family. “In my family,” she once said, “we were brought up to believe we were the best. There was simply no doubt about it.” Always, by her own account, desperate for success and desperate to be famous, she made her way into the ranks of the great and the good — that exclusive mandarinate of the quangocracy who appoint each other to create the country’s moral and social climate. “Rarely,” another quangocrat said of Warnock, “can an individual have had so much influence on public policy.”

It’s not enough that we have a government backed by only 22% of the electorate; many of those in real power — the largely government-proof clique to whom successive governments outsource their thinking and their embarrassments — are the the living incarnation of democratic deficit. We are too incurious about them.

Everyone always says, for instance, how brilliant Warnock is. However, I think more scepticism might be in order about her and her like. Her thinking on disability was clearly shallow and conventional, which is to say slightly and uncritically avant-garde for the time. The notions of “inclusion”, “normalisation” and “social role valorisation” were both highly politicised and untested, based on American egalitarian social engineering and blindly adopted by liberal wishful thinking in this country.

On such difficult matters only the most rigorous thinking will do — along with a modesty in the face of the complexity of human experience. I have come across Warnock only once, when she gave a talk on Jean-Paul Sartre to my school, and I was shocked, surprised and delighted to find that, in my schoolgirl opinion, her reasoning was sometimes poor, particularly off the cuff during questions from my uppity self. Perhaps in the cosy coteries of “our crowd”, people often get a name for qualities they don’t possess. Buggins might be Muggins.

Perhaps this is unfair to Warnock. One must admire her honesty and her courage in admitting her mistakes — several on matters of life and death. One has to admit her intentions have been good. Even her constant attention-seeking and her apparent snobbery may not matter much. What’s wrong with her, oddly enough — although she seems like a cross between a Wodehouse aunt and a Victorian philanthropist, with a uniquely English dowdiness — is that her mindset is not very English.

In all her committees and her changes of mind and her alarming pronouncements — on embryos, mercy killing, cloning, disability or the uselessness of the old — she seems to have lacked a particularly English and Scottish empirical pragmatism and the modesty that goes with it. She talks that language but seems to lack that sensibility.

Generally speaking, generalisations are best avoided, especially with difficult ethical subjects. That means avoiding universal “bright ideas”, or at least avoiding imposing them on others, especially universally. I suspect Warnock’s mindset is characteristic of her species; unfortunately it is a species that is far from endangered.