Education and Oligarchy

RestrictedAreaIn passing, in “The Crisis in Education”, Hannah Arendt compares the situation in the USA in the immediate post-1945 period with that obtaining in the UK, or, as she calls it, England. As a result of the Education Act 1944, or the Butler Act, secondary education was made available to all classes of the population. The school leaving age was raised to 15 years, while keeping age 11 as the point at which children passed from primary to secondary education.

The new secondary school system consisted of three types of school: grammar schools, secondary technical schools and secondary modern schools. While allowing for the creation of comprehensive schools, which would combine all three pathways, in the initial period only a few comprehensives were founded. Subsequently, the Labour Party conducted an offensive against grammar schools, in favour of comprehensives, but, as Susan Pedersen (2013) points out in a review of Shirley Williams: the Biography, Williams being the education minister at the time, this move, to end selectivity in the state sector while leaving the private sector untouched, may have been politically naive.

To decide which type of school any individual child should attend, all schoolchildren sat the 11+ exam, which, as Arendt notes, determined whether a child was on a path towards higher or tertiary education.

What the 11+ exam aimed at in the UK was a meritocracy. Arendt argues that this is once more the establishment of an oligarchy, based this time on talent rather than, as before, wealth or birth. This means that the UK will continue, as it has been since time immemorial, to be governed as an oligarchy or aristocracy, the latter if one takes the view that the most gifted are also the best, which, as Arendt comments, is by no means a certainty; or indeed, a “poshocracy“, intermingling confusedly birth, wealth and talent. As an oligarchy, Arendt points out, the UK is neither a monarchy nor a democracy.

The rigour of the 11+ exam has been disputed since its inception but, as Arendt notes, it would have been impossible in the USA as it offends against the US concept of equality in which a right to education is seen as one of the inalienable civic or civil rights. The almost physical division of children into gifted and ungifted would have been considered intolerable in the USA. Meritocracy, as a variety of oligarchy, contradicts the principle of an egalitarian democracy.


Arendt, H., 1961. The Crisis in education, in Between past and future: six exercises in political thought. New York, NY: Viking Press, pp.173-196.

Pedersen, S., 2013. You’re only interested in Hitler, not me. London Review of Books, 35 (24), pp.16-19.

[Questions: To argue thus, that such a division would have been considered intolerable in the USA, would Arendt not have to accept that the US principle of “separate but equal” sustains equality in racial terms, and that US public school segregation was not discrimination, based on physical separation, leading to a de facto inequality?

Was not (and is not) class (in)equality the blind spot in UK education and society, just as racial (in)equality was (and is) the blind spot in US education and society?]

The rest of this reading of Arendt’s text “The Crisis in Education” [1954] can be found at Why Johnny can’t read…