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Ancient and modern

Plato and the problem with grammar school

Meritocracy is all very well. But what’s merit, exactly?

17 September 2016

9:00 AM

17 September 2016

9:00 AM

Theresa May wants to use grammar schools to create a meritocratic, ‘socially mobile’ society at a cost of £50 million. But that raises the question: merit in what, precisely?

In his Republic, Plato envisaged Socrates wondering how society was created, with a view to determining how best to establish a just one. Socrates suggested that society originated out of universal needs which individuals could not necessarily satisfy themselves. Food, shelter and clothing were the most basic ones, demanding therefore farmers, builders and weavers; and since everyone had different aptitudes, workers best served the whole community by sticking to their last. Then again, the farmer needed his plough, the builder his tools, etc. Enter, then, blacksmiths, craftsmen, cowherds, shepherds and stockmen.


Further, no community could survive without imports. To produce exchangeable goods required more farmers and weavers, etc., together with merchants to do the negotiating, and ships and sailors the transport. Retailers, too, were needed to serve home markets; and manual labourers to earn a wage by marketing their muscle. More dangerously, people might wish to enjoy the luxuries of civilisation — sofas, perfumes, call-girls, hunting and fishing, artists, poets, musicians, fashions designers and cosmeticians — and these would create a need for tutors, nannies, barbers, cooks and so on. This in turn would require more territory, and that would mean war, and therefore soldiers.

Finally, the rulers — Plato’s ‘Guardians’, supported by ‘Auxiliaries’ with military, policing and executive functions. These would be the only ones who required education, and their selection would be based rigorously on merit.

In today’s world, ‘merit’ needs to be displayed in far more areas than Plato’s ever did. So what sort of ‘merit’ is to be required of those who do not go to grammar schools? And will Mrs May put £50 million their way too? Or don’t they merit it? Is ‘social mobility’ not for them?


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