‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ – W.B. Yeats
Gove’s pseudo-Burkean barrage in Saturday’s Daily Mail blamed a cavalcade of communist conspirators for what he perceives as the ignorance of state school children. Gove has painted himself as part of a holy alliance formed to exorcise the spectre of communism which is haunting our schools. The Marxist ideology of teachers is, we are told, inculcated by a sinister Politburo comprised of the heads of University Education departments, who are ‘more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence’ than they are in ‘fighting ignorance’ (had I been marking Gove’s piece, I would have picked him up on the unimaginatively repetitious use of the word ‘fighting’ at this juncture, which is sadly out of keeping with his claim in the following paragraph that people should be educated to employ a wider vocabulary, but let’s not be too picky). As a result, state educated children leave school so inarticulate that they are incapable of modern citizenship.
‘How can it erode educational standards to ask that, in their 11 years in school, children be given the opportunity to use the English language in all its range and beauty to communicate their thoughts and feelings with grace and precision?’
Indeed. It is a lamentable tragedy that those of us who were educated in British secondary schools are incapable of stringing a coherent sentence together. Permanganate prose is the preserve of private pedagogy.
It appears that Gove’s words are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but perhaps it is best to weigh the enemy more mighty than he seems. So what provoked this anachronistically McCarthyist reaction? What made the Education Secretary see red was a letter in The Independent newspaper from a hundred academics, criticising his plans for the National Curriculum. Their concern was that Gove’s proposals are obsessive about memorisation and recall, with little concern for critical understanding or autonomous enquiry. Gove’s proposals leave little room for teachers to respond to the interests and capacities of their pupils, or for them to link abstract learning to concrete experience.
Many of these criticisms build on the thoughts of that fearsome advocate of the communist terror John Locke. Locke felt that education should aim at developing independent minds which are well practiced in the proper application of their rational faculties.
Reason is required for good self-government because insofar as it is free from partiality, intolerance and passion, it leads to fair judgment and action. This is, in a sense, an education for liberty – an education which will lead people to become engaged and thoughtful citizens.
Gove should take note of this. Although his approach to education suggests the opposite, he maintains that he has a non-interventionist attitude concerning the relationship between the state and the people. In his evidence before the Leveson Inquiry, he said that he was “unashamedly on the side of those who say that we should think very carefully before legislation and regulation because the cry ‘Something must be done’ often leads to people doing something which isn’t always wise.” If we are to have a population that is able to challenge unnecessary regulation and intervention, as Locke thought that we should, a list of memorised facts is not going to be enough to help us. This leads me to suspect that Gove’s purported anti-authoritarian stance is deeply disingenuous, and that in fact he wishes to raise an unquestioning generation who can be subjected to all kinds of unnecessary authority.
Of course, like most people, I believe in certain basic educational standards, and I believe this because I am a creature of the left, not in spite of it. It is vital that people are proficient in written, oral and other forms of communication – these are the means through which political change is achieved. I also think that we have to have an understanding of mathematics – without it we would be easily blinded by spurious statistics. We also, as Gove says, need ‘a knowledge of these islands and their history’. It is through learning about the history of our country – the Chartists, the suffrage movement and the Diggers, for example – that we learn how things that are now regarded as basic entitlements and freedoms had to be hard won, and how calls for radical reform are written through our history and culture.
Nonetheless, these lessons are not learned through absorbing a ‘stock of knowledge’, as Gove maintains, as though children are nothing but vessels to be filled with context-free (and hence meaningless) information. In any subject, basic methods, rules and principles have to be learned, but these should always immediately be employed in (depending on the subject) application, discussion, narrative, creativity and debate that is responsive to the needs and interests of the children in question. Attention to a deeper understanding of the contexts and purposes of the disciplines taught quickly leads us to the view that a ‘stock of knowledge’ is not the way to go. Wordsworth did not write Tintern Abbey so that children could grow to resent it by having to learn it word for word – his poetry was supposed to help us to cultivate the connections between our thoughts and feelings, and develop a better understanding of our relationship to nature. No mathematician ever developed a theorem because it would be fun to subject thirteen year olds to memorising equations with no conception of their meaning or purpose. To educate in a way that supposes otherwise seems to me the very definition of ‘dumbing down’. It is quite instructive that Gove, who has already demonstrated little familiarity with Marxism, ridicules educationalists for their research interests on the basis that they mention the name ‘Marx’, a word that is clearly on his list of ‘bad things’, without actually responding to what they are really concerned with.
It is also quite telling that he uses his piece as an opportunity to slam the unions, labelling their members of being ‘ultra-militants’. If children are to grow up to be educated, politically engaged citizens, it is best that they are taught by people who are politically engaged themselves, and who have working conditions which will allow them to teach their classes effectively and with enthusiasm. Again, contrary to Gove’s supposed libertarian views, there appears to be a rather nasty strain of authoritarianism here.
Apparently the educators of Britain’s children are ‘a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.’ In response to this, I will quote from my own ‘stock of knowledge’, in this case Mr Gove’s beloved King James Bible:
‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’