The Myriad Confusions of the Godly Mr Gove

Not the kind of books which Mr Gove has in mind for deep study

Michael Gove continues to bemuse and exasperate in equal measure. This week his madcap plan to send a King James Bible to every school in England has made the headlines and he has annoyed both those who campaign to keep schools secular and those who are against wasting money in times of austerity in equal measure.

When not bowling for immortality as the man who outdid the Gideons’ hotel-based stunt and instead put a bible in the desk drawer of every headteacher in the land, this week Mr Gove has been addressing Cambridge University on the question of elitism in education (  When Gove was in opposition he made grand gestures about not telling teachers what or how to teach and trusting the profession to raise standards. The reality once he has power is very different as he makes regular speeches setting out what should be taught and how it should be taught. He also makes great play of criticising the current curriculum, particularly in English Literature and History which he believes had been dumbed down by New Labour in order to keep exam results artificially high.   Gove mentioned many works of literature and history in his Cambridge speech, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Wagner, Matthew Arnold, Pericles, Pythagoras, Balzac, Pinker with the clear message that he wanted to see works like these taught in schools, in order that young people, in the words of his hero Matthew Arnold, should have access to ‘the best that had been thought and written’.  The more cynical part of me, on reading this roll call of the great and good felt that Gove’s speech has more to do with his intellectual insecurities than any real attempt to shape policy for the better. Put bluntly, faced with an audience of dons, he just tried way too hard to prove he was well read and cultured and any serious links the speech could have with what actually happens in schools were severed by his ridiculous pseudo-intellectual posturing and bluster.  And to return to the central point here, I can still see no explanation of why a minister who is obsessed with granting some schools freedom from the national curriculum, and believes all schools should take responsibility for what they teach, would spend such a long time talking about what should be taught. Gove talks of elitism unashamedly but seems unwilling to face the fact that an elite system can only function if people are excluded from it. Elites need a lumpen-proletariat of excluded in order to exist, yet in the wacky world of Gove, he can call for a return to elitism without having to address this uncomfortable truth.

I studied English Literature at university and took it very seriously indeed, I have read most of the works Gove mentions in this and other speeches, and one of his favourites Middlemarch happens to be one of my favourite novels too and I have read it more than once (quite a feat as it is not an easy read by any means as narrative is often subsumed by the exploration of ideas). I taught English too and well remember the dawning realisation that teaching people to love literature, even a short accessible poem by Philip Larkin is a very hard task indeed. But in the light of our current economic situation, and with the crisis in youth employment, I find it just plain embarrassing that the Secretary of State for Education can have missed the point of his job by such a huge mark. Loving Middlemarch or appreciating the unresolved tension in the Tristan Chord really will have to bloody wait when over 1 million young people are unemployed and there seems to be no credible economic or political policy to find them jobs.

Gove rarely talks of skills which can be used in the modern economy, he does not mention collaboration and teamwork, communication skills and the ability to use a range of technologies to get a job done. He does not talk of creativity and entrepreneurship, of engaging with the information society and introducing young people to the rigours of engineering or computer programming. Presumably as his own education did not cover these elements, and Jane Austen wrote very little in JavaScript, these disciplines have not entered his purview.

So one of two things is going on here. Either Gove is so out of touch with the economic reality of modern Britain that he seriously believes that young people can be forced to work at Poundland for nothing yet can console themselves afterwards by reading passages from Balzac and marvelling at the elegance of Newton’s laws. Or he is taking the piss out of all us – an education secretary faced with the real and pressing challenge of how to run an education system which needs pushing into the 21st century if the nation is to have any hope of survival, but who can only offer rehashed ideas on the curriculum from the 1950s and waste his time on speeches proving how well read he is.

Image is Creative Commons from Remy Sharp, available at ,

Author: mjp6034

Education consultant specialising in educational technology and change management.

16 thoughts on “The Myriad Confusions of the Godly Mr Gove”

  1. This post deserves an ovation, Gove has been well and truly trounced by your observations and remarks. I have no patience whatsoever for his ridiculuous backward thinking ideology that will do nothing more than artificially improve test scores to inflate his ever growing ego. Many, many thanks for posting this.

  2. I don’t think Gove is confused at all. He really is an elitist and knows that by emphasising which books should be read at secondary school he’ll achieve his goal of creating a 2 or 3-tier society.

    The problem I see is that by arguing with him about whether 14 year olds should be studying “Lord of the Flies” or Javascript we’re missing the point about what’s wrong with our education system. The 1 million unemployed youth were disaffected from their education well before they hit secondary school. The secondary school system fails these students because the primary school system fails them. Trying to fix the former is like trying to mow the patio – you’ll be pleased by how level the surface is afterwards because there wasn’t any grass there in the first place.

  3. I hate fascism. And that means that I hate the fascism that demands that my children abandon beautiful music, breathtaking art, and engaging literature, but instead learn skills such as Javascript, plumbing, and tractor-driving for the good of the state.

    For good measure, I’ll add that whereas I have every sympathy with those people who are genuinely stupid, the sort of deliberate stupidity that you affect, Mr “I’ve got a degree in English Literature but I’m not an elitist”, is particularly nauseating.

    1. Thanks for your comments on the blog, although if you took from it that I was affecting stupidity, then I you have misinterpreted my writing. If I had written that ‘Middlemarch is a rubbish novel with no sense of drama or narrative and should be burned, or that the music Wagner is turgid and should never be performed’ then perhaps you may have had a point.

      As for the charge that your children are going to have to give up beautiful music, breathtaking art and engaging literature, this is certainly not the case. You will find they have plenty of free time outside of school to develop and maintain these interests, and that many schools already do what they can to introduce young people to these realms of human endeavour. My point was that we have an education secretary in post at a time when youth unemployment is reaching crisis point and he totally lacks ideas of how to tackle this crisis and appears to have withdrawn into some kind of post-Leavisite valhalla.

    2. You can’t have a go at the author about the English literature thing – everyone knows that by having a degree in English literature you cannot be elite – it has some of the easiest entrance requirements of any degree course and there are only two grades you can achieve at the end of it – a 2:1 if you’ve worked hard or a 2:2 if you’ve been a bit lazy.

      You only have to look at posts that have responded to Gove’s speech, most of which have been written by English graduates, philosophy graduates or worse, psychology graduates, to realise that these people are just trying their best and cannot be part of any elite. I don’t find this attitude nauseating at all, but think instead that is laudable when people try their very best at something.

      1. reminds me of the old joke from my university days..
        ‘Why don’t English Lit students look out of the window in the morning?
        Because that would give them nothing to do in the afternoon….

  4. I think you are on the money with ‘ Presumably as his own education did not cover these elements, and Jane Austen wrote very little in JavaScript these disciplines have not entered his purview’
    I often come across this attitude with some academic colleagues who take the attitude that, for example, new technology in lecture theatres is a waste of money because they have the attitude that I never had them and therefore am the living proof that they are not required.
    I think it is more about the comfort blanket approach of understanding one’s own experience, which to be fair to Gove has got him where he is, and being either unable or so bloody minded so as not to be prepared to take a peek from under the blanket.
    I have been involved with promoting lecture capture at my institution to enhance not replace lectures and have been carrying out some research together with a colleague from the Psychology department and an unsurprising theme emerged when interviewing students. They think lectures are boring. This could be the lecturer’s style, the sit down and listen approach or the material. What is apparent is that our youth are yearning for a change in the forward direction which can be exciting and challenging, not a retreat into the warm, snug, cuddly blanket of Gove’s experience.
    With regard to Mr Norman’s comment that ‘my children abandon beautiful music, breathtaking art, and engaging literature’ I assume he refers to the type of music, art and literature that he enjoys. Personally I love van Gogh’s work, especially The Church at Auvers, but I also appreciate and enjoy Banksy’s art, this one may be appropriate for Mr Gove and this blog . I am looking forward to the annual recitals of Handel’s Messiah performed at this time of year but this morning was listening to Paul Simon , Leonard Cohen and Moby. What does he consider to be ‘engaging literature’? I enjoy reading Ian Rankin novels, and a book I return to time and again is Bach’s ‘Jonathon Livingston Seagull’, a truly insperational book for me. I am not a great lover of Dickens, there is no doubt he was a great author, he is just not for me.
    The point is that none of us has the monopoly on what is ‘beautiful music, breathtaking art, and engaging literature’
    I agree with Mr Philp’s proposal that the education system needs fixing throughout.
    The bottom line is what will one King James Bible in every school do to improve our children’s education? The answer has to be diddly squat, especially in an increasingly secular society. It is a gesture and of course he will leave a legacy of having a book with a foreword by him in every school.
    I am not sure what the cost would be of providing all students with an e-book reader but the Complete Works of Jane Austen (Annotated with Biography and Critical Essays cost 47p and can be downloaded in under a minute form Kindle (other e-book readers are available). This brings together literature and technology. The £375000 waste of money spent on Bibles would buy approx 800,000 copies. We could provide our youth with a portable library and, God forbid, some choice; the trick would be getting them in the habit of reading.
    Suggestions anyone?

    1. Getting them into the habit of reading?

      If we test them more that will encourage them. We’re about to launch a reading test for 6 year olds so that we’ll be able to boost the children who fall behind by the time they have their test at 7. Most primary schools also sit children for a formal-ish reading test at 8, 9 and 10 then of course there’s the test at 11.

      Do that’s the solution them – test them more. Test them again. Test them one more time.

  5. Obviously Steve Philip hasn’t read the spec properly – it is a Phonics Check not a Reading Test but hey you’re not a literature graduate obviously. The majority of respondents to the proposal for the “check” were against it – yet it still went ahead. The phonics resources around the check has a preferred suppliers list – so we have an obvious centralist agenda here without any lack of diversity.

  6. Hi Matt,

    I’m with Kevin on this. Well done.

    I tried several times today, to pen something like this – unsuccessfully.

    Many thanks for writing the post.

    Just for the record – I have no English Lit/Grammar pretensions, qualifications, or degree. I was a chef and I taught catering (as you know). I hope your other correspondents don’t simply disregard my opinion on those grounds 😉

    1. David, I am sure nobody will discount your opinion on any grounds, and if they do, they’ll have me to answer to ;_) I wrote the posting knowing deep down that however narrow Gove chooses to define his ‘elite’ I would almost certainly get into his club (first class degree, and then a PhD for good measure). But the one thing I have learned, far more important than any of my studies of literature, is how complex education is and how it means many things to many people. I have also come to realise, through being lucky enough to work at Huddersfield University, that vocational education is vital to both society but also to individuals, giving them a sense of what they can achieve. My frustrations with the member for Surrey Heath is that he seems to focus only a very narrow definition of what it is to be ‘educated’ and that itself is a fantasy looked at through rose-tinted glasses into a past which never existed…

  7. The real irony of the speech is that despite spouting forth the wonders of Wagner (see, even people without degrees in English Lit can alliterate, and assonate too!), the ‘powers that be’ have decided that music will not be part of the “EBacc”… maybe it should be renamed the “EBuhgum” instead (notice the clever anagram of humbug there…). Wagner is not necessarily anywhere near the epitome of western ‘academic’ music either, despite being Victorian…

  8. Brilliant post, really brilliant. I have so many issues and arguments against Gove but can’t get past the main issue which is he’s got one of those faces I just want to punch.

    1. I know it’s wrong but I identify wholly with Stephen’s sentiments. I have to say that Ricky Gervais is a close second.
      I guess it is that inner part of us that we no longer, if ever, have understood.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s