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 (http://bit.ly/uOdgXz). 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.
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 http://flic.kr/p/6yvFBn ,