I love Michael Gove. In an era of bland managerialist politicians the education secretary stands out for his wit, his openness to ideas and his genuine passion for his job. An interview with almost every other front-rank politician (with the exception, if he counts, of Boris Johnson) has become, even for political junkies, an excruciating self-torture, as carefully-rehearsed phrases cascade through the air, regardless of what question is actually being asked. Gove, by contrast, is a joy to listen to. In one recent exchange on World at One, he failed to dismiss entirely talk of Tory dissatisfaction with David Cameron’s leadership in the wake of Ukip’s recent advance. But he did give the English language a new word – “bonkerooney” – one that well encapsulates the effect he has on many of his detractors both within and without the world of education.
Gove was doing what he does best – or at least doing what he evidently most enjoys – yesterday, tweaking the noses of the educational establishment. Of course it’s a truism of British politics that the minister (whether Labour or Conservative – remember David Blunkett?) must always pose as the lonely champion of parents and children against trendy educationalists and complacent teachers. Gove, though, does it with greater than average conviction. His latest speech, given to an audience of teachers from the private sector, garnered headlines largely because of one of the examples he used: a hitherto-obscure online resource that encouraged Year 11 iGCSE students to depict the rise of Hitler in terms of characters from the Mr Men books. The resource’s creator accused Gove of “academic snobbery” and defended his concept as giving students a “challenge to get them to think about it in a different way.” But it’s hard not to see the concept as both infantile and in rather poor taste.
The example, no doubt, was an extreme one, but it served Gove’s wider points about the need for rigour and high expectations in all parts of the school system, from the basics of reading and arithmetic, through the study of literature, history and the sciences to a panoply of extra-curricular activities. Teachers and parents should all be grateful for an education secretary who, in contrast to his predecessor Ed Balls who dropped the word from the title of his department, wants to put education at the centre of national life. Instead he has become a convenient hate-figure, his aims at times wilfully misunderstood.
Take history. Gove has been criticised for curriculum proposals based on dates, facts and “heroes and heroines” of British history. A group of leading historians condemned the proposals’ “narrowness”, claiming that they risked depriving children of “the vast bulk of the precious inheritance of the past” – by which they meant the study of other peoples and other places. There is indeed something naively Whiggish, to a professional historian, about his view of the subject as telling “the British story of progress”. But national myths matter, however open to challenge on particular points of detail. Internalising the broad sweep of history, knowing who came after whom, is essential for a sense of rootedness in one’s own culture. And children respond naturally to stories.
History can of course be used to teach analytical skills – skills that are needed properly to get to grips with the subject, indeed. But to concentrate on such an instrumental use of history risks reducing it to discrete nuggets of unconnected and interchangeable material. The internal politics of the Ming dynasty is just as fascinating, objectively, as that of the Tudors, and may with the rise of China become just as “relevant”, but it will never be part of the mental furniture of this nation, something that every grounded citizen needs to know. That’s why teaching children history should begin with facts, and only then start worrying about interpretation.
The same is true of literature, where again Michael Gove is often criticised for his insistence that children be taught the classics and even memorise poetry. What of creativity and imagination? Well, you can have creativity without a solid grounding in facts – most children are naturally expressive – but imagination needs materials to work with. The best creative writers, and even many “trashier” ones (such as the former Member for Corby) tend to have English degrees. Even those that don’t are invariably wide and deep readers.
The techniques used to dissect and analyse literature are, as with history, transferable skills with which young people in the modern world need to be equipped. But, again as with history, studying great literature is valuable for its own sake as well. You can teach the same analytical techniques by studying King Lear or last night’s episode of EastEnders. In the second case, you’ve learned to analyse a text. In the first case, you’ve learnt to analyse a text and you’ve read King Lear.
In yesterday’s speech, Gove wondered allowed if most parents would rather their 17 year old daughter read Twilight or Middlemarch. It’s a telling example; and it’s not enough to reply that it’s better to be turned on to reading by Stephanie Meyer’s vampire saga than turned off by George Eliot. It wasn’t Gove’s point, exactly, but the message sent out to teenage girls by the Twilight is reactionary and dismal in the extreme: save yourself, act submissive and you too may end up with a drop-dead gorgeous immortal on your arm. Stay away from werewolves. Middlemarch, by contrast, though 150 years older, features a free-thinking, active and educated heroine. If we want our daughters to aspire, which provides the better role model?
Of course there’s a powerful strain of nostalgia in Gove’s vision, easily caricatured as a desire to return to the bad old days of rote-learning and corporal punishment. But his message is more forward-looking and aspirational than that. There’s nothing right-wing, as such, about a firm grounding in basic grammar, however much insisting old-fashioned notions of right and wrong may displease sentimentalists like Michael Rosen. Education has always been the greatest engine of social progress and upward mobility, ever since the butcher’s son Thomas Wolsey rose to become the chief minister of Henry VIII. Progressive notions of education in the state sector have given us a cabinet dominated by Old Etonians for the first time in fifty years. Gove, himself a scholarship boy, offers a way out: back to basics, perhaps, but also back to the future.
Yesterday Gove also imagined – gender stereotype alert – a parent seeing her teenage son hunched over a laptop. “You steal a look over his shoulder – and what would please you more – to see him playing Angry Birds, or coding?” Again, he has a point, though I wonder if mention of the addictive iPhone game might not be a subtle dig at David Cameron, who has admitted his own penchant for the kamikaze pig-smashers. It’s not enough to reply that in either case the mother would no doubt be relieved that the boy wasn’t staring at porn.
Earlier this year I was at a lecture in Cambridge given by Eric Schmidt of Google. Schmidt recalled the stir he caused at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 when he lamented the decline of computer science in schools in favour of an IT curriculum focused on learning to use software. This time he had a different message. “You have a hero in government,” he declared, before outlining a new initiative to teach coding in schools. “His name is Michael Gove.” The sentiment went down like the proverbial lead balloon with the predominantly academic audience. It may have been an exaggeration – only time will tell whether his reforms to the curriculum and to school organisation take root and yield fruit – but in a political arena largely devoid of obvious talent he is a star turn.