Thursday 20 June 2013

In defence of Michael Gove

Everybody hates Michael Gove, right? But if you want to challenge his education reforms, you must do better than resort to tendentious argument.

Frank Furedi has written an interesting article for Spiked examining the fad for ‘Govephobia’. Leaving aside the specific pros and cons of Gove’s reforms, Furedi raises two interesting points.

The first is the sort of bien pensant groupthink that assumes no argument is necessary – just a knowing smirk or a right-on posture will do. This sort of lazy criticism simply plays into Gove’s hands, because it displays precisely the lack of intellectual rigour that he proposes to tackle.

Which brings us to the second point; the anti-intellectualism that makes low demands of school pupils:
The main thing that breeds anti-Gove hatred is that he seems to be really serious about challenging the regime of low expectations in British schools. Consider all the flak directed at him for his attempts to change the history curriculum. If you listened to all the criticisms of Gove’s proposals for improving the history curriculum, you could be forgiven for thinking that history-teaching in schools is flourishing and that British children have a formidable knowledge of their nation’s past events. What people are effectively saying is: ‘Why is Gove messing with our wonderful history curriculum?’
The reality, of course, is very different. As someone who has dealt with undergraduates for over 40 years, it is clear to me that, today, even smart and idealistic 18- to 19-year-olds lack the kind of historical knowledge that is a pre-requisite for studying my discipline, sociology. Not so long ago, my colleagues and I could assume that all our new undergraduates understood the difference between a traditional and an industrial society. We could also expect them to have some clear ideas about the distinction between the pre-modern and the modern. This is no longer the case, because the history curriculum is now more interested in teaching so-called skills than providing pupils with the knowledge necessary to understand historical change.
When our new Childrens’ Laureate says Gove’s proposed history curriculum is not ‘relevant’ to black children, she is expressing the prevailing utilitarian ethos of valuing school subjects for their usefulness only. In this case, what makes history relevant is its usefulness for affirming certain identities. Mobilising history in order to flatter children might play a useful therapeutic role… but the true purpose of a quality education is to provide children with the knowledge and intellectual resources they really need, and to make them understand that such knowledge does not emerge from their experience. It is precisely the capacity to transcend experience and ‘relevance’ that distinguishes academic knowledge from folk knowledge. Those who hate the proposed history curriculum do not believe that most British school pupils would benefit from an intellectually oriented education; and they hate those, like Gove, who believe that they would.
It is this crass attitude towards the discipline of history, and many other subjects, that motives Govephobia. Why? Because if we were to create a school curriculum that was truly devoted to cultivating an intellectual ethos among the next generation, then a significant section of the education establishment would be exposed as emperors without clothes.
As I pointed out in a post here on Monday, the obsession with making things ‘relevant’ does not liberate people but limits their aspirations and so limits social mobility. Whether Gove’s reforms are the best way of tackling this problem is moot but, if you wish to oppose him, there is no excuse for anti-intellectualism or lazy thinking.

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