Proof and preference

by Tim Middleton

The opening sentence of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice is universally acknowledged as one of the most quoted opening sentences of literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is a truth universally acknowledged that many people will lay claim to many other truths that must be universally acknowledged, one such being that every parent wants to know that their child matters. They want everything at their school to be centred round their child’s education and progress. In that regard they have an obvious pride in, and an unrecognised prejudice for, their own child.

A parent once approached the Head of his child’s school to complain that children who had received places at the school through preferential seats (companies could “buy” places at a school to enable certain of their employees to send their child to that school) were receiving preferential treatment — namely, the child being allowed to sit at the front of the class (which parent does not know that no child wants to sit at the front of a classroom…?) and being asked more questions. This was, according to the parent, a dreadful irregularity by the school. Now, it is perfectly understandable that a parent will not wish there to be any prejudice shown but let us pause for a moment and consider what the parent was actually requiring of the teachers.

In simple terms, the parent was saying every child must be asked the same number of questions. That is fair enough. Everyone, especially pupils, knows that some children are desperately keen to answer every question and other pupils love to avoid answering any question. It is a good teaching skill to ensure all children do get to answer questions; we must not allow some children to dominate the responses and the subsequent attention. However, what the parent was in effect asking was that the teacher keeps a record of who answers every question and check that no one child answers more than any other. Picture the scene:

“Sorry, Tatenda, I can’t ask you this question as there are still four pupils who have not answered their first question and we must get through everyone…”
It would not end there, though. While ensuring we do not show preference to a child who has a place on a preferential seat we must ensure that no preference is shown to any child. That means that we must take care that the same number of questions are asked to girls as boys, to left-handed people as to right-handed, to children who live in one suburb as opposed to all others, to children born in every month of the year, to children from different cultures, to children with different colour eyes — shall we go on? It would simply create a venn diagram of logistical impossibility! Imagine the teacher thinking: “I have five minutes left in the lesson and I still haven’t asked a left-handed, brown-eyed, tennis-playing, November-born girl from this suburb a question — quick! Come on, answer, please! Even if you are wrong, just give me an answer so that I can tick the box and show I have not shown any prejudice!”

Imagine, in a similar vein, demanding that a cricket team must have the same number of right-handed batsmen as left-handed batsmen (otherwise we are showing preference), but also the same number of right-arm bowlers as left-arm bowlers — oh, and we must have the same number of fast bowlers and slow bowlers. And what are we going to do with someone who bats right-handed but bowls left-handed? And how can we have equal number of right and left handed batsmen when there is an odd number of players in a cricket team — must one batsman bat right-handed one ball, left-handed the next, and so on until he is out…? Are we being prejudiced against some players when picking a team? Do we show preference? No, of course not! We pick the most appropriate team available for the conditions, while considering all our available players.

It appears to be a truth universally acknowledged that every parent thinks their child is a genius, must pass every subject with A grades, must receive special treatment from the best teachers. Teachers who take pride in their work must not show preference, as that shows prejudice, but we cannot demand proof of all such exercises or it will be a bureaucratic nightmare and leave no time for teaching. No proof, no preference — otherwise it will become a truth universally acknowledged that every single teacher in possession of a good class must be in want of much more than a wife.

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