The Simpsons Gets Political - SE01 E02 - Bart the Genius

The Simpsons Gets Political - SE01 E01 - Bart the Genius

R squared D R R, Har-dee-har-har.

Script synopsis: After a night spent playing scrabble ends with Bart securing victory by making up a word and winning we cut to Bart taking an intelligence test. He cheats on this, swapping his paper with Martin Prince - the class genius. Hilarity ensues when as a result of the recommendation of the school psychiatrist Bart is transferred to a school for gifted children, a setting he feels out of place in.

However, Homer and Bart begin to bond now that Homer believes Bart to be a genius. Bart begins to feel bad for deceiving Homer as well as being alienated by his friends now they consider him to be a nerd. Eventually Bart admits to the deception and all returns to normal - but not before Homer has chased Bart through the house in anger.

Issue raised: Academic selection, or why it's inappropriate to divide students by school based on presumed aptitude.

But surely, I hear you cry, people will learn best when classes aren't going at the speed of the slowest learner and we should divide people up based on what they're good at, it's just good sense right? If Bart truly had been a genius it would have been the best thing to do to send him off to be hothoused. I don't think so personally, and here's why.

In the UK there is something of a perennial battle over the appropriateness of Grammar Schools. Grammar Schools in some form have existed since 597(CE)(1) and the idea of selecting based on a presumed metric of intelligence has existed in different forms probably for as long as civilisation itself. The debate that takes place in the UK is over a particular type of Grammar School however - the kind legislated for in the Education Act (1944) - the act, amongst other things, envisioned a three- tier schooling system which would break down as;

Grammar Schools -  to teach demanding academic curriculums to the most academically gifted students. The idea being to teach these students to deal in abstract concepts with a strong focus on subjects considered to be intellectually challenging. Such as literature and classics(2) - the idea being to prepare students for life as 'intellectuals' - whatever the fuck that means.

Secondary Technical Schools - to teach students adept in technical and scientific subjects. Essentially in what we now call the 'STEM'(3) subjects - with the idea being to create scientists, engineers and technicians. Barely any of these actually opened however, and most converted to one of the other two.

Secondary Modern School - where intended to teach 'less skilled' students. Equipping them for 'less skilled' jobs and home management(4)(5). As it actually happened these schools taught academic subjects and awarded CSE's, O-Levels and A-levels(6) to those who where so inclined to take them.

It was intended that all three of these where to be given 'parity of esteem' - which is to say that the division was meant to be based on peoples proclivities and what would best suit them. Therefore one type of school is not necessarily better than the other two, entry should be based on merit not on economic position and crucially all ought to receive the same resources. It didn't work like that though' - obviously.

Essentially, the dream didn't come off - what ended up happening is that secondary moderns where disparaged in the eyes of the public, very few technical schools opened and most closed shortly thereafter, and grammar schools sucked resources out of the education system in general to educate the children of the middle classes. From the mid-60's onwards the system reverted to a "Comprehensive System" where everyone is taught in the same school and has access to the same opportunities.

As for the new generation of Grammar Schools that has been announced by Theresa May's government. The less said the better, at least the post-war social planners had good intentions. The plan to admit the top ten-percent in terms of performance on a test sat at eleven is insane in its disregard for consideration of evidence of what works in education or standards of decency generally understood - or not, if you're a particularly evidence/decency averse Tory.

Essentially, 90% of people will end up subsidising 10% of the people so that the 90% can receive an inferior education to that 10%. Which would be unjust even if it would work to raise standards of education and promote social mobility.

Needless to say the current government plans are insane, not based on evidence or any consideration of justice. But out of a sense of fairness and because it's just, and presenting an argument tends to work given the best evidence we have, I'll lay out what the tiers will be;

Grammar Schools - They will admit the top ten percent in terms of attainment on the 11+ exam.(7)

Academies - Everyone else.(8)

So that I can't be accused of being facetious on the issue, I am going to further attempt to give the best version of Theresa May's thinking on the subject, it's basically this.

But if you, as I am, are loathe wade through the Daily Telegraphs uncritical sycophantic simpering when it comes to anything Ms. May does I'll do it for you - anything in quote's are May's own words;

(i) Ms May believes that “If we are to give our children and grandchildren a fair chance to succeed in an ever more competitive world, we have to build a future where every child can access a good school place." 
(ii) Ms May believes that “The brutal and unacceptable truth is that for far too many children in ordinary working class families, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live or how much money their parents have. [...]  It is selection based on house prices and parental income, because when you are working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet, it is no good being told that you can choose a better school for your children by moving to a different area or paying to go private."
It is the case that considerations of justice and utility demand that education we provide is the best that we should provide for every child. How this is to be achieved by sending 10% of them to better schools escapes me - but then I am not the brilliant strategist or blue sky thinker that May clearly is.

On (ii) I agree, it's an absolute travesty - I would repeat however that it is incredibly difficult to see how the creation of a two-tier education system will end this injustice, it seems far more likely that it will intensify it, as 90% of children get told at the age of eleven that they haven't made the cut.

To relate this back to the Simpsons for the conclusion;

Why do you think Milhouse and the rest of Bart's friends ostracised Bart upon his being placed in a selective school?

Maybe they were reacting against the injustice that was being perpetuated. Maybe they considered it unfair that Bart should receive more resources, more attention from the educator and all of the things that went along with his new school - based on some metric of intelligence that is itself highly dubious(9). All of this being done at their expense, in both senses of the term. Maybe they thought that “If we are to give our children and grandchildren a fair chance to succeed in an ever more competitive world, we have to build a future where every child can access a good school place."

Not just Bart.




This became more of a polemic than I had initially anticipated. If you'd like to be armed with some facts on the issue I'd suggest checking out FullFact here. They are a non-partisan organisation who survey evidence on various subjects of public interest and essentially fact check debates. Also give them money - they're a good resource.


(1) Kings School, Canterbury - if you're interested.

(2) Note the inherent class assumptions here - why is a desire or propensity to study classics considered to be an indicator of intelligence, even intelligence when dealing with abstract concepts? Being able to unpick a shit translation of Plato or Homer and cleave some meaning from it is a pretty fucking redundant skill - one which I actually do possess. It's not that the classics have nothing to teach us. It is that the study of the classics has traditionally been the occupation of the upper classes. It's inclusion on the curriculum of these schools should give you an idea about the class position, pre-occupations and world view of the author of the bill. Although more on him and his blind spots later, I don't think he was a bad person or that his intentions where anything but noble, although his good intentions where misplaced.

(3)Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

(4)My school, which was a comprehensive when I attended, had in the past been a secondary modern school, this meant it had a block which was set out like a home with a fireplace and an arm chair and dining table. It hadn't been used in about thirty years - one would assume since all the schools in Lancashire became comprehensives - and was in use as a store cupboard for PE equipment. I went in there a few times, it was bizarre.

(5)Two things here, number one - imagine telling a child at eleven that they where destined for a 'low-skilled' life. The second is the sexism which was inherent in this system, it being assumed that half the people would do the low skilled jobs and the other half would clean the house and shit, boggles the mind. Honestly, people think this was a golden age - jeez.

(6)Certificate of Education - equivalent to the foundation paper of the contemporary GCSE. The O-Level - equivalent to the higher paper of the GCSE. A-Level - We still have those, you know what they are.

(7)Not yet official policy tbf, but as of yet nothing is. Article here.

(8)I may end up being proven wrong and the government might yet come up with more of plan than "lets just hand over money for regressive education policy" - at this point (March 2017) this appears to be the totality of the plan.

(9) IQ is a pretty shit measure of intelligence - here. Psychometric tests are garbage - here. A great deal of the time the only thing general exams are measuring is class position - here.


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