Barack Obama brought fresh attention to the phrase when he sounded an impassioned call to public service, and warned that the pursuit of narrow self-interest — “the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy … betrays a poverty of ambition.”
I was minded of that phrase by Polly Toynbee’s article this morning on the perceived (by her) lack of opportunity in society caused by inequality of wealth and income. Such tosh. It is poverty of ambition that creates inequality in society, not fiscal poverty.Yet Alan Milburn is now pressing for a social mobility target to be fixed in law, as will be the ‘child poverty’ target, as a stick to beat any future government with, that fails to ’solve’ the problem.
Money will never solve the problem.
I left school when I was 13, and the years before that had involved so many different countries and different syllabi that I had managed to study Roman history for four years on the trot, could quote verbatim the annual wool production figures for New Zealand, had no idea that there was such a language as French, and wouldn’t have known how to dissect an equilateral triangle if it had crawled out of my lunch.
With no visible means of support, and no family, in fact no social ‘network’ whatsoever, I had no choice other than to work. With a Liverpool twang and no qualifications – I had even managed to be ‘between countries’ and avoid the 11plus – I should have been perfect fodder for Polly’s ‘destiny decided at birth’; would Polly’s governmental largess have made any difference? I sincerely doubt it. The many well shod scions of aristocratic families who slide into a life of dissolution and debauchery would suggest not.
Were there any legal barriers between the life I had, and the life I desired? Absolutely not, not even one, not even 50 years ago. No one was going to employ me, of course, even then I was too young, and had no experience. My earliest employment was a market stall, selling remnants of curtain fabric from the man who made the curtains for Barnardo’s. He didn’t care, I made cash for him, and solved his storage problem.
Were there any financial barriers? No actually, when I did decide to take myself off to University and qualify as a lawyer, I discovered to my amazement, for I had not gone in search of it, that I was entitled to a grant that was perfectly sufficient to allow me to eat. I have no idea how it was calculated, it was presented to me as a ‘done deal’. The so called ‘expensive books’ that I required were all freely available in the library if you got up early enough in the morning. I still had not attended one further day of education, so my lack of qualifications was no barrier either.
I learnt a lot at University, not just of the law. I learnt of the culture of paucity of ambition in educational circles.
Never having written an essay in my life, my first task was finding out what ‘an essay’ looked like. Yet another book from the library solved that one for me. I handed in my best effort. It got a 2:1. Naturally I was wanted to know how I could have improved on that, I went to see the tutor. His response – and it was repeated by every tutor I went to see in the following years, was ‘but that’s a good mark, you’ll get a degree with that mark, you’ve got nothing to worry about’. On pushing one senior tutor to please help me to improve, I got the sniffy reply, ‘well I only got a 2:2 in my degree, it didn’t stop me getting a job.’
I lost count of the tutors who would come up to me in the library and tell me ‘not to work so hard’, I was amazed, I had always thought that a University would be full of people who relished learning for the sake of learning. Not a bit of it, it was an entire culture of ‘doing the minimum to get by’. More damaging still, there was a positive antipathy towards self-improvement; one essay set at the beginning of the semester was for a module where lectures didn’t begin until the second half of the semester. Since I was moving house at the time, I had no choice other than to teach myself and hand in the essay before lectures began. Come the next semester, everyone but I had their marks. I was called to a meeting between the Dean and the tutor concerned. My essay, it seems, had gone off for duplicate marking and been checked against a plagiarism database. They hadn’t ‘found’ (heavy emphasis on the ‘found’) anything wrong, but they needed to ‘talk to me about my mark’ – why? well after giving me a 1:1 for the essay, she had noticed that I had handed it in before, in her words, ’she had given her lectures and told us what she was looking for’………’how did I explain that?’ ‘Well’, you daft bat (I omitted that bit!) ‘I read all the set pieces, looked up all your published work, looked at the seminar questions, read everything I could find that fell within those parameters, then answered the (bloody) question you set.’ Her response? ‘Why didn’t I just ask for an extra month for my essay if I was moving house.’ Neither of them ever offered a word of encouragement, never mind congratulations – their sole concern was suspicion that I hadn’t waited to be ’spoon fed’ nor taken advantage of a valid ‘excuse’.
That is the attitude that needs to be overcome Polly, right the way through the education system. It is the attitude that is nullified to a certain extent by intelligent, well educated parents, who push their children when the ’system’ won’t.
Polly also takes issue with the ‘rise of unpaid internships’:
“All kinds of professions gladly take in bright graduates for free, so their CVs shine with experience their less fortunate contemporaries lack. It should be banned under employment law”
‘Less fortunate’, Polly? Try ‘less self motivated’.
You can throw money at the ‘problem of social mobility’ all day long Polly, but if people aren’t self-motivated to succeed, aren’t encouraged to succeed, by their parents, and importantly, by the education system, then they will remain in exactly the spot their ambition ‘to be’ was………
I’m still learning, I’m incredibly grateful to the people who bother to tell me when I’ve used the wrong word, or put an apostrophe in the wrong place, or taught me how to do some technical task; I might not have had money, but ambition to succeed comes free. I guess I was lucky, I wasn’t at school long enough to have it knocked out of me.