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Literary Culture, Meritocracy and the Assessment of Intelligence in Britain and America, 1880-1920

Literary Culture, Meritocracy and the Assessment of Intelligence in Britain and America, 1880-1920
How late nineteenth- and early twentieth century novelists conceptualised and represented human intelligence

School Prizes in Interwar Literature: Manifestations of Meritocracy by Natasha Periyan


In his 1940 autobiography, Pack My Bag, The Eton educated writer, Henry Green wrote: ‘Success at school is more complete than any other kind at any other time’ (p. 62). The school prize as a signifier of perfect success preoccupies interwar literature. Its recurrence reflects a context in which, as Adrian Wooldridge (1994) records, new political ideals were being forged based upon meritocratic modes of advancement. This social order was fostered by a commitment to the concept of intelligence and implemented by the competitive examination and the scholarship ladder. Wooldridge suggests that ‘Meritocratic mobility […] offered a means of reconciling elitism with democracy’ (1994, p. 175). However, by the post-Second World War period, meritocracy’s democratic claims were being seriously interrogated. Michael Young’s essayistic novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) suggested the dystopian effects of a state-controlled society in which IQ is envisaged as the primary social good. By the 1950s and 1960s, Marxist educationalists and sociologists were critiquing the supposedly ‘objective’ basis of the system of intelligence testing which formed the basis of grammar-school selection (Wooldridge pp. 319-339; Kavanagh 2017). Contemporary critics of meritocracy argue that the powerful discourses of individual striving and moral responsibility associated with meritocratic systems mask the structural inequalities that facilitate self-advancement (Littler 2018). The educationist Ansgar Allen contends that in the context of a more malleable concept of intelligence and as a consequence of state erosion ‘individuals must now attend to their own social mobility’ (2011, p. 377) in a capricious, unpredictable social system.

In an interwar context of calls for secondary education for all and concerns surrounding educational access, the school prize lies as a fault-line in the expression of the meritocratic ideal. A typical feature of the public school speech day, the school prize in fact signals the operation of merit within a circumscribed, elite social group. Interwar writers such as Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, W.H. Auden, Henry Green, Cyril Connolly and H.E. Bates offered a critical examination of the forms of merit rewarded by the school prize. It embodies an intersecting set of concerns surrounding intelligence’s role as a marker of identity; the status of academic excellence in the ‘real world’; the role of intelligence in commemoration rites and the democratic and educational limits of meritocratic advancement.

The public school ritual of the prize day was also mimicked by grammar schools. In 1935, the novelist H.E. Bates wrote in Graham Greene’s collection The Old School that he was perceived as a ‘clever boy’ (p. 17) and recorded how he had ‘won a scholarship entitling me to the benefits of secondary education’ (p. 13) at Kettering Grammar School. Although he was an academic success at his elementary school, a starring role at Kettering’s Prize Day seemed unlikely: ‘It was a singular blow for me […] when I began to come out very much nearer the bottom of the class than the top.’ (p. 17). This was despite the apparent physiognomic proof provided of his intellectual ability: ‘hadn’t my grandfather pointed out the extraordinary size of my head?’ (p. 17).

Even those who did win prizes could reflect upon school speech day with bitterness. Eton old boys Henry Green and Cyril Connolly suggested that early success came at the price of mature mediocrity. Enemies of Promise records Connolly’s ‘glittering prizes’ and his unexpected award of the Rosebery History Prize, which gave him social leverage amongst his peers. Connolly’s Theory of Permanent Adolescence contends that boys’ public-school years ‘are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development’ (p. 271) and finds that ‘Early laurels weigh like lead’ (p. 271). The initial seduction these prizes seem to offer in fact dooms the recipient to future failure. Similarly, Green, Connolly’s contemporary, suggested that ‘there are men who have won every prize and burned themselves out and who go about now amiable but defeated’ (p. 107). The glory of youthful success is unsustainable in adult life.

At the same time, the school speech day formed an integral part of the discourse of the Lost Generation. This popular myth of the loss of talent and future leaders that the destruction of the First World War occasioned at once provided a means of eulogizing the young and explaining present political unrest. For Christopher Isherwood, the very forms of First World War commemoration seemed to mirror the forms of public-school celebration. In his 1932 novel The Memorial, Lily, the wife of Richard the ‘hero’ (p. 133) at his public school who is killed in the First World War, finds in traditional commemoration rites an affinity with the ‘callover she had heard on a Speech Day at Eric’s school’ (p. 97). In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain depicts the filmy magic of the Uppingham School Speech Day. From the perspective of the early 1930s, Brittain remembers the event as ‘the one perfect summer idyll that I ever experienced’ (p. 72) and is bemused by the fact that nothing about the day signalled the tragedy to come. Her future fiancé, Roland Leighton, was awarded six out of the seven prizes. He accepted his award, ‘pale but composed’ (p. 70), with a sense of gravitas. While Henry Green and Cyril Connolly wryly depict the flimsiness of the pomp of public-school prizes in relation to the real world, Roland never lived to disappoint his youthful promise.

Brittain’s eulogy is far removed from Auden’s satirical take on public school rites. In The Orators, Auden’s Old Boy offers a distortion of the Prize Day Speech that captures the cadences and tones of its declamatory rhetoric. The Old Boy subverts the rankings of boys into academic groupings as he categorises them as different types of sinners in a parody of Dante’s Inferno. The speech ends with an invocation for insurrection as the Old Boy urges his audience to put those deemed undesirable in a stokehole: ‘Now boys hustle them, ready, steady – go.’ (p. 17).

James Hilton’s popular novel, Goodbye Mr Chips, an affectionate look at the profession of school-teaching and public-school life, reflected the traditional ethos of the public school far removed from Auden’s insurrectionary vision. At the Brookfield Speech Day, Mr Chips fumblingly rebukes Lloyd George for his ‘People’s Budget’ which sought to raise taxation of the wealthy to fund a programme of liberal reforms. Mr Chips was ‘orthodox about Lloyd George and the famous budget. He did not care for either of them.’ (p. 54). When Lloyd George arrives at Brookfield to give the speech day address, Chips seizes his opportunity to speak to him: ‘I am nearly old enough – umph – to remember you as a young man, and – umph – I confess that you seem to me – umph – to have improved – umph – a great deal.’ (p. 54). Education was amongst the reforms funded by Lloyd George’s budget, with Asquith’s government increasing provision of scholarship places in secondary education. An unanticipated irony of the text lies in Chips’s dismay at the enactment of reforms which support the meritocratic order of which the public school prize day is itself an expression – amongst a more elite social group.

Indeed, this rite of scholarly achievement came loaded with class associations, as the draft version of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves, suggests. In an early version of the text, a working-class servant girl Florrie is depicted in scenes which juxtapose her work against middle-class children’s lessons in school. At the pinnacle of these children’s school careers, Florrie is absent once again:


Innumerable children, or as they now began to be called “future citizens”, we Toms Charles Harris Ellen, Alices Dorothys, & so on, in till the names recurred over & over again […] & to each the Dr. gave a book, & Miss Lambert gave a book, with an inscription in their rapid scholastic hands. – save of course, Florrie Staples, the kitchenmaid.’ (p.137)


The school’s prize-giving ceremony is collapsed into a rite of civic initiation as Woolf depicts the words of the school prize speech: these children are now ‘future citizens’.

Florrie is absent from the educational ceremony that initiates new ‘citizens’ into the political and social order through the bestowal of a book. Woolf’s emendation to these lines serves as a double erasure: she erases her own effort to call attention to Florrie’s social erasure. This act of erasure suggestively records on the page the class processes of inclusion and exclusion that shaped a meritocratic educational system in ways that anticipates later critiques of meritocracy.

The pedagogical limits of school prizes are explored in Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936). Holtby depicts the schoolmistress Sarah Burton’s key professional lesson. While ‘good’ with the ‘bright ones’ and the clever ‘scholarship girls’, Sarah’s teaching does not support struggling pupils: ‘But what about the stupid and dull and ineffective? […] You hadn’t much use for the defeated, had you? Not much patience with failure.’ (p. 472). Holtby deploys the terms that were synonymous with the ranking of minds in the early twentieth century – with the ‘dull’ a particularly salient term that reflected the diagnostic language of the 1929 Wood Committee. This report claimed to discover a new population of the ‘dull’ within the educational system. For Holtby, a pupil’s lack of success within a system that rewards intellectual attainment lies not as a symptom of the child’s personal inadequacy but as a professional problem to be tackled by the teacher. A text that frustrates the romantic conventions of middlebrow fiction, South Riding can be read instead as a bildungsroman of the teacher. In it, Holtby critiques the meritocratic social order sustained by the school prize ceremony as a commentary not on the intellectual limits of the individual pupil, but on the professional limits of her protagonist, who fails to nurture many of her pupils. Holtby sets the terms for a more inclusive educational system in this shift of emphasis from the pupil to the pedagogue.




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