Calling all conservatives! Attention please, all you reactionaries and nostalgia-merchants, and anyone who thinks the past knocks spots off the present. This is the season of exam results, when the papers are full of happy backlit pictures of girls in summer dresses receiving the news of their Stakhanovite performances at A-level and GCSE.
This is the week when dyspeptic Right-wing columnists and politicians traditionally denounce these scenes as a sham, when lovely hard-working teenagers run crying from the room because some miserable old git has told them that an A-grade these days isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.
The question before us is whether or not humans are capable of stunning improvements in individual and collective performance.
When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, he was thought to be a prodigy. Now, more than a thousand men have pulled off the same feat.
If our physical faculties are capable of such rapid improvement, surely the same applies to our brains. Faster, higher, stronger. Why not cleverer?
Boris further says: ” This year, about 45 per cent of candidates for maths A-level got an A grade, compared to about 7 or 8 per cent in the Sixties. … Are our examiners really trying to tell me that our kids are between four and five times more expert at maths, when the syllabuses have been made so much simpler? The reality is that we have rampant grade inflation, a symptom of all mature societies ”
Drawing from his beloved Classics background he expands: “When the Roman empire was entering its declining years, you not only found that the supreme titles of Augustus and Caesar started to be shared around, but everybody wanted higher and higher gradations of rank. There was a time when it was good enough to be known as a senator. In the fourth century, they decided that senators deserved the further honorific clarissimus – most renowned senator. The trouble was that soon everybody in the senate was called clarissimus. Thousands of people were said to be most renowned. So some people insisted on being more most renowned than others. Now they couldn’t take away the honorific clarissimus from those who felt they had earned it, any more than you could ask the exam boards to reduce the number of As or to take away child benefit from the middle classes. So they divided the clarissimus grade into two categories. There were the spectabiles, who were not only most renowned but also wondrous to behold; and then there were the illustres, who were extra special, prima, very good, tip top, the bee’s knees, cat’s whiskers, and so forth. That is what has happened to exam grades in this country, where we have had to divide second-class degrees into two, because so many seconds were being awarded, and where we have had to counter the profusion of the A grade at GCSE by introducing the A star.”
He concludes by arguing that with an increasing population, better nutrition and with our astonishing computerised ability to disseminate instant information we are producing a bigger crop of ever more outstanding intellects, just as we are producing ever more extraordinary athletes, claiming that it must ultimately be likely that Britain contains more of the cerebral equivalents of Usain Bolt – who destroyed the world records for the 100 and 200 metres – than ever before. But it is a slow business and we are all greedy for success hence our national addiction to spiralling grade inflation, which is everywhere and always a political phenomenon.
The article appears in full in The Daily Telegraph today here