Social Mobility, Education and Intelligence: The Emperor’s Old Underpants

by C.F. Goodey

The annual rituals surrounding the publication of A-level results rest on age-old assumptions designed, not to promote social mobility, but to protect against it.

First published: 15 August, 2012 | Category: Education, History, Inequality

The loudest noises about freedom always come from those trying to suppress it, said Gerrard Winstanley, as he watched Oliver Cromwell’s freedom-loving army torch his Digger commune. The same could be said of the current noises about social mobility and education. 

Our policy-makers and opinion-formers – the Goves and Letwins, Adonises and Lampls, The Times Higher Education, the broadsheet journalists whose children just happen to be approaching secondary school age – are relentless in their concern for the underprivileged but intellectually able. The surprise in that “but” says it all. Chavs with brains? Amazing! Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor with IQs of 150 and let’s find a way of pulling them up the ladder (just before we kick it away). The tacit note of self-reassurance – “don’t worry, there can’t be that many of them” – is almost audible.

In a meritocracy, ability alone deserves promotion to elite status. But what is intellectual ability? We assume it to be a real category, a psychological object, a fact of nature that transcends history. As a historian, my job is to be suspicious about grand claims. And this fixation of ours with intellectual ability stands up no better than past claims of elites about the basis of their superiority – ones that we now regard as archaic. History shows that they all (a) have similar characteristics and (b) will end up in its dustbin.  

Arbitrary distinctions through the centuries

Four hundred years ago, for example, religious elites saw themselves as superior because they possessed “grace.” This was an inner ability that God had predetermined in a small, distinct group. It was fixed in your nature, “seminally” (i.e. before birth or even conception) – with a passing nod to the idea that some people – Bunyan’s Pilgrim, for example – might also need to work at it. “Election” to grace guaranteed your elite status in this life and salvation in the next. It separated you from the herd of hell-bound reprobates around you. It entitled you to membership of a “rule of the saints” and to lay down the law on other people’s behaviour, for their own good.

Grace was a real category. Proof of this was that it could be measured in the human individual. The elect, as Calvinist theologian Dudley Fenner wrote in 1585, “are a determinate number that can be neither increased nor diminished”.[1] The medieval philosopher William of Ockham claimed that the amount of grace each person possesses could be quantified. Elect individuals could therefore be ranked on a hierarchical scale: Bishop Lancelot Andrewes cited a strictly numerical “order of the just, with 1.2.3.4.5.” Moreover, you could assume that elect status was inherited by your children: this was the grounds on which the dying Cromwell justified handing his (republican) rule on to his own son. 

Secular elites, on the other hand, were superior because they possessed “honour.” This too was a predetermined psychological ability. It was fixed not by God but by the quality of certain natural particles in your blood – with a passing nod to the idea that the odd commoner might gradually cultivate enough “virtue” to earn himself a title, as long as he topped the virtue up with services to the state, or flat cash. Honour was the sign of your gentle status, guaranteeing your biological separation from the plebeian rabble. Being a gentleman entitled you to rule as part of the magistracy; in your group privilege lay the good of the commonwealth as a whole. 

Honour, like grace, was a real category. Once again, proof came from its being measurable. It had its own specific science to do the measuring. The science of “Blazon” was “the most refined part of natural philosophy,” according to its Stuart experts: as exact as geometry. It ranked you and your family’s place in the social order, by a hierarchy of heraldic symbols that justified passing your title, as a “hereditament of the blood,” to your children.

“Intelligence” is social status

Modern meritocratic elites, meanwhile, are superior because they possess “intelligence.” This again is a predetermined psychological ability. It is fixed by your genetic nature – with a passing nod to nurture and personal effort, as even the most defensive geneticist will hasten to add. Intelligence gives you social status, separating your DNA from the common herd who don’t make the grade and are thus not naturally equipped for social mobility in the first place. It entitles you, as a somebody with more of it, to talk first (and down) to the ordinary nobody with less or none of it. And who would dare challenge the general consensus that the requirement of intellectual ability from the people who run things is for the good of society?

Intelligence is a real category because, again, it is measurable. Psychometrics underwrites its existence with scientific evidence; this then feeds into lay presuppositions of a more general kind about an intellectual hierarchy among human beings. Mere knowledge that there is a discipline out there calling itself “cognitive genetics,” as hard-edged as physics or chemistry, helps settle your conscience as you go about reserving its supposed privileges for your own child.

The Calvinist church has now been succeeded at the head of the queue of the elect by the Russell Group. Blazon has been replaced by exam grades. Pseudo-scientific GQ and HQ have given way to the honed and tested, chi-squared truths of IQ and thus of intellectual ability (and disability) more generally.

But this triumphant march of a scientific psychology is undermined by close historical examination. History shows that the claim to natural intellectual ability and the claim to social status are identical. It’s not that a claim to social superiority can be used to support a spurious claim to intellectual superiority, or vice-versa. A claim to one just is a claim to the other. Modern, intelligence-based meritocracy is merely a passing contortion in the spectacular historical circus of posturings about status. 

“Intelligence” is simply an unstable consensus among psychologists, and hence the laity, as to what specific items should come under this label: unstable, because the consensus is historically provisional with, ultimately, no lowest common denominator. In the words of the Monty Python song, “anything goes in, anything goes out” (just to remind ourselves: “fish, bananas, old pyjamas,” etc.). As quaint in its way as grace and honour, the thing we call intelligence is a self-referential bid for status and nothing else. 

On a long historical view, intellectual ability in general is no more a biological or “natural kind” (and cognitive psychology no less a pseudo-science) than grace or honour. The three of them have much in common. The difference between past elites and today’s rule by exam-passers is not between less and more social mobility, rooted in natural and thus justifiable distinctions, but between alternative expressions of a single purpose: closing off privilege. 

And if today’s meritocrat is the new aristocrat, yesterday’s aristocrat was the old meritocrat. Tudor gentry, heraldically assessed and certified, were still anxious to cultivate book learning as well, if only because most of them could not trace their bloodline back more than a few decades; they embarked upon these intellectual virtues only when they started to be alarmed by the sudden spike in social mobility around them. Too many “new men” (the dismissive phrase of the period) were being granted coats of arms by his/her gracious majesty, in return for professional assistance or the usual bung. 

As for the religious elite, endowed with grace, that phrase “new man” had an entirely different connotation: it meant being born again. But this too carried a threat of being swamped. The Book of Revelation’s estimate of 144,000 saved could not accommodate the aspirational influx of those who, thrust upwards by the rapid spread of literate Bible study, began to suspect that they too were in grace. 

Among meritocratic elites, the equivalent threat is “grade inflation” and “soft” subjects. They have fulfilled their obligation to encourage the ordinary to aspire, only to find that there are now too many of the blighters. Status holders will chop off the fingers of anyone grasping at the raft that might ensure rescue from a sea of reprobate, vulgar or dim-witted nonentity. Even those academics whose very business is scepticism still need to “maintain standards.” Intellectual ability has to be something real – how else will the children of academics, let alone the wealthy, receive their entitlement to a quiet, unhoodied school classroom in which it can be nurtured? 

Yet what they get out of it is something else. The privately schooled student’s class of degree tends to be (evidence is marginal either way) no higher than that of the comprehensive-school arriviste with inferior A-levels. The in-group entitlement is not, therefore, to fulfillment of some nebulous “ability” but rather to the airs (and graces) that private education seems to supply and that will ease them disproportionately thereafter, along with their social connections, into honourable professions such as politics, the law and journalism. 

So much for meritocracy, and indeed for intellectual ability. Our presuppositions about an intelligence hierarchy stem directly from the zealous divisiveness of early modern conduct manuals and religious tracts: this is the root of the mind-set that expresses concern about social mobility while blocking access. 

This talk about grace and honour is not just some playful analogy with an obsolete past. Modern secular intelligence grew directly out of them, as those nervous dalliances of the honour elite with book learning suggest. Boyd Hilton has described how the seventeenth-century mob, the Tudors’ “hydra-headed monster,” gradually became the Victorian citizenry, respectable and educable.[2] State schooling, meanwhile, owes its origins to parish schools where the church catechism – originally designed to prepare the elect for glory – acquired a second function as a teaching framework that proved adaptable to an increasingly secular curriculum. The concrete steps that lead from catechical practices to school exams and the IQ test itself, from the local clergyman hearing children recite to the educational psychologist running a baseline assessment, can be precisely traced in history’s primary sources. 

When Cyril Burt justified grammar schools by their election of a few intelligent (and on the whole questionably) working-class children to their proper social station – precisely the agenda of our concerned policy-makers and opinion-formers – he was one link in this seamless historical tradition derived from concepts of honour and grace. It is true that “wit” had been going strong for centuries, but in the middle ages this was still a mundane concept, inappropriate for making status bids. Only in its modern, sanctified form of “intelligence” would it become capable of competing with grace and honour, and eventually of swallowing them up.

Let’s not forget, finally, the hard core of people now described as “intellectually disabled.” Modern psychology could not have established this specific in-group, the intelligent, without first specifying an out-group of the entirely non-intelligent. Without reprobates to admonish, you could not be elect; without the vulgar to be admired by, you could not be honourable; and so, without the “disabled” to pathologise and segregate, you cannot be intelligent. 

In fact, the history of “fools” reveals that the intellectually disabled are not a biological natural kind either: this is not a category that transcends eras. The medieval fool may have had outlandish characteristics, but his description bears no resemblance at all to any modern psychological diagnosis. As Dutch psychologist and historian Inge Mans writes of this period, “Once upon a time there were no mentally retarded people”[3]

The evolution and reduction of the word “idiot” – from its sixteenth-century meaning of any lay or non-honourable person to that of the present pathological minority – illustrates her point. And if the bioethicists (like Peter Singer) maintain that there is a minority whose lack of genetically determined cognitive skills means their human status is questionable and euthanasia justifiable, that is because the theologians once maintained that there are reprobate “monsters” whose “seminally” determined lack of a rational religion meant that they were not in grace and (in Bunyan’s words) “must perish for their unreasonableness.” It is not the odd natural fool with strange behaviour but the great mass of the vulgar and the damned who are the precursors of modern “intellectually disabled” people.

The example of disability is especially instructive. Whether the bid for status comes through grace, honour or intelligence, it has as its core ideal to be well born and well bred: eugenics. Successful bidders project a pathological phobia of contamination on to certain of their fellow human beings, whom they then exclude, segregate and (at the extreme) eliminate, on “natural” grounds. Codifying and updating status differentials into the relevant scientific format of the day is a way of building protective barriers against a swamp of social dirt and spiritual death. Mobility tests the porousness of the barriers. 

“Mobility” as a test of mechanisms of exclusion

If social mobility is a move to somewhere, to a higher, cleaner caste, it is also a move away from somewhere. Does it mean people can permeate the barriers from anywhere? For children, this would require the abolition of private, selective, and segregated (special needs) schools. In universities, it would mean opening the life of the mind to those without prior qualifications or not seeking a degree. It would mean a single accreditation system, for those skills where accreditation seems necessary, that covers the apprentice plumber along with the rocket scientist. And it would mean having people with learning disabilities around, of whatever level of “severity,” since they must be assumed to have the same aspiration to learn as anyone else. 

None of these ideas is new, as any reader of Winstanley’s educational writings or Thomas Hardy’s novels, and anyone acquainted with tiny pockets of existing practice, will already know. But if you are not up for such ideas, you must follow up with the consequence: that social exclusion is education’s primary function, and talk of mobility merely the hissing of a safety valve. It is only a radical undermining of the very concept of intellectual ability that can point towards solving problems of disadvantage. 

What are the prospects? It’s a big ask. The Emperor’s tailor had forewarned him that his fine new clothes would indeed be invisible, but only to one sort of people: the stupid, and especially those whose stupidity belied their superior social or professional standing. That was how the scam worked. They couldn’t see the Emperor’s underpants because no one of any intelligence would seek to undermine their own status.

C.F.Goodey is a historian, who also works as a consultant on learning disability services for local government and voluntary organisations.


[1] C.F.Goodey, A History of Intelligence and “Intellectual Disability”: the Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.

[2] Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846, Oxford 2006

[3] Inge Mans, Zin der Zotheid [with English summary], Amsterdam 1998

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