Two phrases leap out from yesterday's remarks on educational standards by Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. The first is "white boys" and the second is "anti-educational cultures". The first is startling because of its identification of a specific racial category associated with underachievement, and the second because it marks an acceptance that in Britain there exists a distinct educational nihilism that could prove socially and economically catastrophic.
The issue of racial differences in any area is fraught; in education it is explosive. Clearly if Woodhead had made the same point about black boys, there would have been an instant detonation. When Paul Condon of the Metropolitan Police made the statistically uncontentious observation that blacks were disproportionately heavily involved in street crime, the idea was at once buried beneath the inflammatory rhetoric of race warfare.
It is in the nature of contemporary political dialogue that there is no such rhetoric to protect whites from the revelations - often admittedly spurious - of statistics or genetics. So Woodhead is safe; his remarks will not be called "racist". But his phrase about "white boys" raises precisely the same issue as the specification of a racial category in any context. If white boys are underachieving, is it because they are white or is their whiteness simply one aspect of their cultural predicament?
In fact, his identification of a specifically white problem in education works to discredit many of the assumptions previously made about racial differences. Most studies that have attempted to link race and IQ have tended to show that Orientals are the smartest, whites come second and blacks third. The existence of such clear-cut differences appears, at first sight, to be unsurprising. After all, obvious racial variations do exist, so it seems reasonable to assume that less obvious ones, such as academic ability, are as real as slanting eyes or curly hair.
However, most of the studies are compromised by fundamental conceptual flaws. First, genetics has tended to show that racial differences are superficial; variations within a population are far greater than variations between populations. Second, intelligence is still not sufficiently well defined to make it convincingly measurable. Third, many studies suggest that changes in environment - say, moving a child from a poor area to a rich one - can produce changes in IQ far greater than any differences arising from purely inherited factors. And fourth, no such study can be convincingly scientific because of the impossibility of isolating environmental from inherited factors in human populations.
So Woodhead's observation that whites are doing badly is strong evidence against the depressingly numerous, supposedly scientific and usually dumbly right-wing studies which suggest that blacks are intrinsically intellectually inferior. That is good news, not because it undermines the serious study of racial differences but because it helps to undermine the stupid, politically corrupted study of racial differences. Obviously we may one day find something to say about mass human variation on the basis of race or genetics, but it will certainly not be a glibly mechanistic linkage of colour and intelligence.
Against the dumb left it should also be added that identifying a problem among whites tends also to discredit the belief among blindly ideological race warriors that racism is at the root of all disadvantage. In short: nothing is reducible to the more mindless slogans of either the right or the left. More good news.
But Woodhead's second phrase - "anti-educational …