In the light of Michael Gove’s pronouncements on the state of the exam and education system yesterday, I was going to write a blog post about the bits I actually thought were sound (and there were some), but also about how I didn’t trust Gove to do the right thing for the right reasons. Instead, my attention was brought to this article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph by the Rev Dr Peter Mullen. In reality it’s little more than an angry inchoate howl at the modern world, though I really did wonder if was something more: a situationist prank or a rather more sophisticated form of trolling. More worryingly, he might actually be sincere, so I though I should consider what he wrote, and provide my own responses to what is little more than a rather tawdry screed of abuse by a rather sad, reactionary man.
“You have to admire Michael Gove: a man with the righteousness of St George, the courage of Joan of Arc and the wisdom of the Venerable Bede. But even he will not be able to repair our schools. It’s too late. The foundations have all collapsed. It’s no use going back to “O” levels in the quest to raise standards. The problem is the material with which Mike is obliged to work. I don’t mean the pupils. I mean the teachers.
“For two generations there has been a relentless dumbing down: a contempt for excellence designed to conceal the vast ignorance and illiteracy of these teachers. Most of them don’t know anything worth knowing. Moreover, they are proud of their ignorance. They were taught at colleges of education or university departments which encourage it. The intellectual level of these establishments is such that when the lecturer comes in and says “good morning”, the students write it down.”
Or, to put it another way: for two generations, teachers have been prevented from doing anything as radical as actually teaching by the constant interference from (mostly) middle aged male ministers at whatever the DoE calls itself this week, who remember their prep schools (or in a few cases, grammar schools) through a sweetly nostalgic fug. They believe that it would be a wondrous thing to give it to everybody else’s children, even though most (over 90%, I believe) have not lucky enough to able to receive it. All the while, our children’s school experience is filtered through an overly interventionist, reductive system that reduces their learning to a bunch of arbitrarily constructed numbers commanded by government that are used to shuffle money around the education system to the particular favourites of whatever political fashion is in vogue at the time.
I believe more of the problems are connected to the mania for metrics and tables espoused by governments of all stripes in the modern era. Not enough Mr Chips and far too much Gradgrind (yes, I have actually read some Dickens too. Isn’t that amazing?), it seems to me.
Furthermore, I’m not sure he’s been in that many university departments recently. Many of our problems are also caused by the relentless pursuit to the reductionist forces of marketisation.
“They know nothing. For them history is the slave trade, Hitler and the evils of British imperialism. They know no maths. They wouldn’t recognise the binomial theorem if it rose up and bit them on the arse. The differential calculus makes no difference to any of them.”
Well, I ditched history at 14, because the way it was taught to me in the “good old days” (the mid 80s) was so arse-clenchingly bad that I had no interest in the way it was presented to me. As a matter of fact, I read a fair number of historical texts now. And yes, the current menu of slavery, empire and the wars might be dull, but they are some of the issues in our history that have had most influence in shaping our country, so I’d say it would be fair enough if one wanted to give kids a broad education.
As for calculus and binomial theorem, I’m fine thanks, and more besides
“They wouldn’t be able to recite one line of Dryden or Lancelot Andrewes. When it comes to music, don’t ask them about sonata or ternary form or even invite them to whistle the opening of the “Eroica” symphony. They much prefer Sid Shit and the Droplets, or anyone performing at Glastonbury.”
Strangely, I have no wish to commit vast swathes of Dryden or any author to memory simply for the sake of recitation. I find that is what reading is for, and brings me far more joy. And I do a lot of that. Yes, I like modern music, and am not that enamoured of the Eroica. Actually, I prefer the Ninth symphony, which I think is one of human history’s crowning achievements of any description. Conversely, while I know little of sonata or ternary form (why would I? I am not a musician), I would be surprised if he knew much about some of my areas of specialism. That is, after all, what academic specialism is about. And it seems he has a more focused distaste for what might be loosely termed “popular” culture. Just remember, even the Eroica was pop music once. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what will have lasting value and what will not.
“They say “I was sat” and “I was stood.” They read airport novels, watch TV “talent” shows and attend rock concerts.”
Well, I’ve certainly been to the odd gig. A heinous crime in his eyes, sans doute. But I’m not a fan of “talent shows”, nor of “airport novels”, whatever they are supposed to be. Then again, I don’t really feel the need to wear some of his pretensions as a badge of so-called superiority. But I think we can safely agree that, yes, I don’t think Dan Brown can write either.
“They despise elitism – precisely because elitism reveals their own copious mediocrity. They are, with notable exceptions here and there, a mob of overpaid, unionised thugs who do nothing but inflict intellectual and cultural deprivation upon the young.”
Actually, I rather like elitism. But I like to discriminate on the grounds of ability and talent, rather than the accident of comfortable birth or the size of a familial bank balance. I do, however, object to the whinings of a man in late middle age who has pretty much forgotten the function of the church to which he belongs, and has become complacent and reactionary as a result of his own lack of imagination and wit. His article is pure, out and out, snobbery. I was about to introduce the word intellectual too, but I rather suspect that this particular, and almost emetic, outpouring of distaste and hatred of the proles is of a rather more primal sort. What a deeply unpleasant man he is.
“I can’t think of a better argument for playing truant.”
Neither can I if he’d ever been teaching me.