by John Galvin
Christopher Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of the British school system, appears to be the only man in Great Britain (or the US for that matter) willing to tell the truth about falling standards of education. In a recent article he again points out the disastrous process by which the government lowers test standards, increases the number of places at universities, and then "scrapes the bottom of the barrel" to fill these places with unqualified students.
Mr. Woodhead must be commended for his honesty and admired for his courage. Not many in England would be willing to decry "bog-standard universities." It takes real nerve to quote Kingsley Amis to the effect that "More means worse." This is heresy against the ruling order of the blackest hue. Displaying real temerity, he goes so far as to question the value of a university education at all for the majority of students.
But even he does not go all the way and identify the source of the problem. Call it the "Peter Principle" if you will. This theory that sparked a best-selling book in the 1970s is famous for pointing out that in a meritocratic system, "each man is promoted to his level of incompetence." In a lesser-know section of the book, he draws the corollary that a stratified system allocates talent more efficiently.
I first noticed the effects of this process while coaching Little League. Like nearly all such leagues, we had a 2-tier system that we called "Majors" and "Minors" (other leagues call them "A League" and "B League"). Players in the "Majors" were primarily 11 and 12-year olds, while players in the "Minors" were primarily 9 and 10-year olds. But the assignment was not based strictly on age, so a talented 9-year old might be in the Majors while a less-talented 12-year old might never make it out of the Minors.
The league in our town had an "elitist" system in which there were only 6 teams in the upper league while there would be around 14 teams in the lower league depending on turnout. The feeling had been that only truly qualified players should make it to the Majors. The rest should stay in the Minors where they could play at a less competitive level. Under this system, a large number of 12-year olds never played in the Majors.
A movement was launched to change this system. The number of teams in the upper league was increased from 6 to 10. Every 12-year old had to be drafted onto a team in the Majors. "No one must be left behind." I must confess that I voted for this change.
Only after the new system was implemented did it become apparent what had resulted: the level of play dropped all across the league. The skill levels in BOTH the Minors and the Majors decreased significantly. Our teams became uncompetitive. Several years in a row we were unable to win a single game in the first round of the national Little League tournament.
In my astonishment at this unanticipated result, I tried to analyze what had happened. Only then did I realize that we had violated a fundamental principle of which my egalitarian upbringing had left me ignorant. Every time you lower standards, you lower the average level in BOTH the top group AND the bottom group. We had taken a group of less talented players and moved them into the upper league, significantly lowering the standard of play in that league. This was not unanticipated as a drawback to the plan. But while these players were comparatively less talented than the original players in the upper league, they were the best of the bunch in the lower league. So now the lower league was stripped of all its best players, lowering the skill level there as well.
This was predicted by the "Peter Principle" which said that the result of a system which tries to raise everyone will be to take the men who would have made competent plumbers, honest policemen, and reliable builders and make them instead into 2nd-tier lawyers. Society will suffer on both ends, as much from a lack of capable manpower to fill essential roles as from an excess of less capable manpower filling roles to which the barriers to entry have been lowered.
But I was still puzzled by the mathematics of the situation in the Little League. How could it be that everyone suffers? Doesn't someone come out ahead? Viewed on an individual basis, the math does balance out when you consider that the disadvantages suffered by all the other players are equal to the advantages gained by the favored group. In a league of 240 players, 48 players are the beneficiaries of this program of "affirmative action," 72 would have been in the upper league anyway, and 120 will remain in a lower league. The 72 players will never have a chance to play on a team, and in a league, where all the players are required to meet an exacting standard. They must play at a lower level where you just don't know whether someone will catch the ball when you throw it. The 120 players are now reduced to playing glorified tee-ball since all the skilled players (especially those who can throw a fastball) have been removed. In contrast to the 192 who suffer, the 48 players who are moved ahead to the upper league do play at a higher level than they would otherwise have done.
So on an individual basis, the minority who have been pushed ahead by the system benefit to the extent of the losses suffered by the majority. Viewed on a society-wide basis, however, everyone suffers a loss. The absolute level of play drops across the board for everyone. Every team is weaker. The league loses its ability to compete with other leagues. And the system as a whole has lost its ability to develop talent. The one player who might some day play at a professional level, the couple of players who might some day play at a college level, the handful of players who might some day make varsity high school teams, even the entire top half of the league who will go on as teenagers to play full-size baseball beyond the Little League level, all these players have seen their opportunities severely diminished.
Of course there will be some "victims" of any system. With the 120th and last pick in the Majors draft, I took a 12-year old who obviously would never have had a chance to play in the upper league under the old system. Yet that year he blossomed into one of the best players in the league. Shouldn't I be glad that he received this opportunity?
Sure I was very happy to see this kid prosper. One of the reasons he wasn't drafted was that he was going through a divorce situation (note to parents: believe me, coaches are very aware of these things). His successful season of baseball did wonders for his self-confidence. But remember, he was one of the minority of beneficiaries who was profiting at the expense of the majority. And there's an even bigger issue.
The vast majority of these beneficiaries of affirmative action don't blossom as he did. They would have been much better off in the lower league. They've been pushed ahead to a level of competition where they don't belong and can't keep up. On that same team, for example, I had another 12-year old who would not stay in the batter's box. He was scared to death. He would have been so much better off in the Minors.
I know this from experience because I coached several 12-year olds during my time in the Minors when the league had maintained its more "elitist" structure. They had a wonderful time and enjoyed their chance to be the "big fish in the small pond" for a change. Of the four 12-year olds I coached in two seasons, all four went on to play full-scale baseball as 13-year olds, unlike about half of the players in the upper league.
What then is the logical conclusion about drawing standards? Someone might point out, in a reductio ad absurdum, that according to this theory the ideal cutoff level would always be one. Medical schools should accept one candidate to be a doctor, law schools one candidate to be a lawyer, etc. I propose that the ideal number is always the minimum necessary, thus always setting the objective standard level at the highest attainable. In many cases, this might indeed result in only one successful candidate. After all, only one pianist wins the Van Clyburn competition; an elite science program might find only one worthy candidate to join their department. But in every case, the best result is obtained by keeping the standard as high as possible.
In our Little League, for example, the ideal number of players admitted to the upper league would probably have been 48, enough for 4 teams. This would have been the minimum number of players required to maintain a competitive league. As a matter of fact, before my time (back in the days when our town could still compete on the state level in the Little League tournament), the upper league did consist of 4 teams; the increase to 6 teams represented an earlier concession to egalitarianism. Was an earlier generation of coaches more knowledgeable about political theory than we were? Or was it the accumulated experience from years of trial and error that allowed them to arrive at the optimal result that we so blithely overthrew?
John Galvin is a businessman living in Cincinnati. His most recent publication is “Humanae Vitae: A Critical Re-evaluation.”
© 2001 LewRockwell.com