This piece by Simon Kuper in the Weekend FT is so close to the bone it makes you wince:
I recently went on a business trip with three members of the British ruling classes. The late-night banter over drinks was predictably excellent. Sometimes, though, we had to work. When that happened, my companions showed up unprepared and without notes – and did just fine. No wonder, because their entire education had been a lesson in winging it. They knew that all you need to succeed is to speak well, and that’s what the British ruling classes do: they speak well.
… You also need to perform in a peculiarly British ritual: the Oxbridge interview. It works like this: you are 17 years old. You are wearing a new suit. You travel to an Oxbridge college for your interview. You find the tutor’s rooms. Perhaps you’re served sherry, which you’ve never seen before. Then you talk. The tutors, sprawled on settees, drawl questions about whatever is keeping them awake.
For my interview at Oxford, I sat in an ill-fitting new suit and had to explain the difference between ‘precise’ and ‘accurate’. If this was an issue keeping the tutor awake, he concealed his excitement at my answer pretty well.
The focus on speaking well is mainly an Oxford and Cambridge thing. The tutorial system – in which you have an hour-long meeting once a week with your tutor, at which you read out your essay – teaches people to wing it, and very often not much else. Life was quite different at the LSE, where I benefited from a fairly technical, mathematical education in economics. The trouble is too many people in the British establishment have been educated only at Oxford or Cambridge.
The article would be fun if it wasn’t also rather serious:
Numbers remain a challenge for Britain’s ruling class. It treats the City as a magical moneymaking machine, whose demands are best granted because lord knows how the thing works. Even the finance minister, George Osborne, has no education in economics beyond whatever he picked up studying history at Oxford. British public debate just doesn’t feature many numerate people such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or China’s ruling engineers. Britain’s own excellent engineers and quants are stuck in the engine room while the rhetoricians drive the train.
More than a decade ago a report for the UK Government reached pretty much the same conclusion. It called for “a comprehensive and coherent programme for creating the conditions in which rigorous analysis is routinely demanded and delivered.” (The present Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, was on the steering committee for the report.) I wonder how much has really changed since then.