Monday, May 13, 2013

Mr Tory

Back in the UK, feeling cold and decidedly grumpy; an ideal time to pick an argument, which I did over Michael Gove's 'Mr Men' attack on his critics. Some people have praised it, but I am unimpressed.

The speech starts in a curious way for someone so attached to the concept of rigour, a misquotation in the wrong context. Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn, which is what I presume he is alluding to, does not contain the line, "Truth is beauty and beauty is truth". It ends with the following:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all 
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 

Gove thinks that we need to know a bit more than that; quite rightly so.

This misquote is one of a bewildering set of sub-headings (all taken from a conservative literary canon; Wordsworth, Kipling, Tennyson amongst others) sprinkled throughout the text often with little relevance to what follows. It is as if a dictionary of quotations had been mined to lend the speech literary pretentions. Stylistic quirkiness apart, Gove promises to "abjure ... Ciceronian rhetorical tricks", and then fills his speech with them.

Let's start with one bit that I agree with him over, English Language. I have been dispirited by the standard of written English in many undergraduate essays recently. It has been even more worrying in that in trying to work with some students on improving their writing they lack even the most basic knowledge of grammar. Explaining what a verb is should not be part of my job. The worst thing from my point of view is that it takes so long to mark the bloody things. Nothing is more likely to make me come over all Goveish.

Given the interrelationship between language, class and power, this is a critical issue. As too is his defence of liberal learning, high standards and quality vocational training. Who could disagree? And this is the point. Jamie Whyte puts it beautifully:
A simple test for substance in political statements is whether anyone sane would disagree. If a politician declares it his aim to make the people of Britain healthy, wealthy and wise he tells you nothing useful... In a healthy democracy ... political discussion would focus on the difficult and controversial issues where reasonable people disagree. 
This rhetorical device is used throughout the speech. You are so busy applauding the sentiment, you forget that the debate is not about whether English Language teaching should be improved, it is about whether, for example, a "screening check at age six" is the right way to go about it. He dodges the debate on specific policies by begging the question, assuming that his are the only answers to the issues he raises. Rhetoric on uncontentious ends suppresses debate on contentious means.

The speech is supposed to be an answer to his critics, so how does he deal with them? Does he answer their criticisms? Of course not. He deploys three more tricks. The first is to ignore substantive issues and instead attack an imputed motive. Talking of a letter signed by 100 academics in the Guardian he says:
The assumption lying behind the letter was that the level of aspiration embodied in the current curriculum, its associated teaching methods and our national examinations was already high enough.
The letter says nothing of the sort. And then he continues:
And I have a different starting premise from those 100 academics who are so heavily invested in the regime of low expectations and narrow horizons which they have created. 
Having shown what thoroughly bad people they are, he does not need to inconvenience himself with the fact that, rightly or wrongly, they are concerned that his policies could damage aspiration, lower achievements and narrow horizons. He is not dealing with what his critics are actually saying, but the motives that he has invented for them.

Now for the second trick, the centrepiece of the speech and the bit the media have picked up on, Mr Men and the teaching of history. What he is doing is choosing an extreme example and launch an attack using it as if it was the norm. This is a typical straw man argument. Now, to my inexpert eyes, the Mr Men lesson looks, well, pretty grim. But where does it come from? Is it widely employed in schools? Actually, it is from here; a commercial, private web site, run by someone teaching in the independent sector in France. There is no evidence of its use in English schools. It looks as if Gove's researchers have trawled the web to find something they could ridicule. The whole of schools' history teaching is tainted through guilt by association, despite there being no evidence of any such association existing. But as a tactic it has worked magnificently. Gove's proposals have been ignored as press coverage focuses on the irrelevant and unrepresentative Mr Men and the Nazis.

Finally, out comes a tired, old stalwart; misrepresentation and scorn. This made me recall something from my adult education days in North Yorkshire. Anyone working in community outreach knows that the most difficult thing for a prospective student is taking that first step over the door. The local Training and Education Council tried to deal with this by sponsoring a bite-sized courses week. Free ten to twenty minute sessions on simple skills or interesting facts (we ran local history sessions) were held in locations all over the region. The aim was to tempt people in for the first time then give them the information and guidance about doing something more serious. It was a moderate success, but a PR disaster. One of the sessions showed a quick and easy way to get a duvet into its cover. The local press had a field day with headlines about colleges running courses on duvet stuffing, dumbing down, wasting public money on rubbish instead of proper education, all the usual guff. The result was that they killed the idea, it never happened again.

Gove's speech does the same thing, picking on some ideas suggested for use, predominantly, in primary school history teaching. Here he conflates two things; methods that are used to engage students at the beginning of their learning with what they do by the time they have reached the end. I can assure you that my history seminars are entirely free of cartoon characters, but did any of my students start getting a love of the subject from learning in this way? I certainly didn't get mine from Richard J Evans; it came from reading Ladybird Books in the late 1950s. If you want to engage people, you have to do it with material that is appropriate to their age, prior knowledge, etc. This isn't having low aspirations, it is about finding ways to get people to enjoy learning and laying the foundations for more serious study and adult methods at a later stage. Again, he uses this to shift his attention away from his critics who argue that the methods he favours are those that turned generations of young kids off history for life.

There is much more in there too. It is a speech that uses all the tricks in the politician's toolbox. You should not be surprised. Michael Gove is a politician and an ambitious one at that. Nor should you be surprised by his ideologically driven history syllabus. Sure it is nationalist, but then so is Gove, saying that he would vote to leave the EU. Nor should you be astonished that his pedagogy is conservative, he is a Tory. What else would it be? And it certainly should not be a shock that the cumulative effect of his measures is to centralise power over education policy in Whitehall, after all he is only following the road first laid out by Kenneth Baker in a previous Conservative administration.

The fight is on for the future of education. Gove is there in the blue corner, confident and pugnacious, ducking and weaving. This doesn't worry me. My anxiety comes when I look over to the red corner. There, fear haunts his opponent's eyes and there is no strategy to defend against such a clever right hand lead. In poor condition, the best the left's champion can hope for is to deflect the blows. Delivering the knockout punch is a distant dream.

The Historical Association gets under his guard and lands a couple of shots here and here.
Thanks to Anne


roybaintonwrites said...

Peter - delighted to see you're about to be published by a REAL publishing house - Bloomsbury - I suppose with all the Harry Potter profits they can afford you! I don't know if I've sent you a copy of my current 600 pages of tripe, (Phenomena) but let me know if not and I'll post one off to Eccles post haste. Can't wait to read your book! (And love the way you tracked down Moose Turd Pie!)
luv, STOUT #2

Anton Deque said...

Brilliant Peter. One of your best. Anyone (such a one as myself) who has stood in front of a class and tried sincerely to fulfil their duty to get children and students interested in topics and times far removed from their own would understand.