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Ancient and modern

In defence of discrimination

The ancients – unlike our Prime Minister — recognised it as a vital quality

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

David Cameron has accused universities of being xenophobic, racist and prejudiced against the poor. He is too much of a coward actually to say that, of course: instead, he said they ‘discriminated’. That is a weasel word these days, and it is worth tiptoeing gingerly on to Mrs Wordsworth’s territory to see what Cameron is missing.

‘Discriminate’ derives from the Latin discerno, ‘I separate or divide off spatially; I distinguish mentally or practically’. The noun discrimen could mean anything from ‘a parting in the hair’ and ‘a point in which things differ’ to ‘the act or power of distinguishing; a process for deciding a disputed question’.


The educationist Quintilian saw the point with his usual perspicuity. He was speculating about how an orator could improve his performance, and said copying someone else was not the answer: if you just followed in someone’s footsteps, you would always come second. In fact (he went on), it was easier to go that bit further ‘because nothing is more difficult to produce than an exact likeness. Nature has failed dramatically in this respect: for there is always some discrimen which enables us to distinguish even the things that appear most similar and most equal to each other’.

And that is what university admissions tutors do with their applicants every day. They do not discriminate against them: they discriminate between them, in order to get the best. Why settle for less? In the process, someone has by definition to lose out. Further, Cameron’s ‘solution’ to the problem — telling universities to reveal entry statistics — is almost Corbynesque in its stupidity. It implies that universities should control entry by some means other than judgment. Or would Cameron prefer tutors to act (in Cicero’s words) ‘like the mob, without deliberation, reason or discrimen?

A prime minister really ought to be a little bit more discerning about our universities than this. Good word, that. Derives from discerno


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