Fluffing your lines

First published Jan 2013

Gove as a schoolmaster. You know, from the 50s. He’s even using chalk and a blackboard.

Sometimes one hears a slogan proliferate, the chief promulgators of which firmly believe is so definitive that it will garner universal support for their cause. Mere mention of this truth, they conclude, already wins them the argument. Sharing this wisdom, they reason, makes the moral high ground theirs. Enunciating such insights, they believe, vanquishes all possible dissent.
But sometimes it backfires. Sometimes, such strategies do little more than show just how completely out of step these same people are with the very society it is they are trying to convince. Sometimes the obvious and incontestable moral truth contained within these memes are neither all that obvious nor all that incontestable.
This is all too evident with one of the most common slogans/memes/brainfarts being flung around the internet at the moment, being some variation or other on the theme that Michael Gove, focus of worship for the #cultofGove and general meedya pin up boy, wants to take us back to the 1950s with his education reforms.
Only, there’s a problem.
You see, saying that Gove wants a return to the educational milieu of the past as an argument against his reforms is unlikely to have much purchase amongst an increasingly nostalgic populace convinced, perhaps correctly, that educational standards were indeed higher in the past and that we probably ought to try and get back to them.
Inconvenient that.
And it for this reason that Gove himself encourages this exact line, indeed actively cultivates it, and will lose no sleep whatever in being painted out to be very thing that a great many people wish him to be.
And would you? He’s keeping his customers happy, after all, and this kind of line is the icing on the cake. The #cultofGove, built as it is on uncontested myths adopted by a commentariat that have abandoned any pretence to critical analysis, has had spectacular success not in convincing people that Gove is successful, but rather in convincing people that all his reforms are followed with the sole intention of raising standards. For Gove, if that myth is best cultivated by allowing himself to be linked with an era that, in the mind of the population at large and the commentariat in particular, is associated with more rigorous and disciplined education (which is undeniably what parents want), then you can bet he’ll jolly well do it.

Gove, as he looks in the dreams of his cult devotees

I happen to fundamentally disagree with some of Gove’s reforms, and doubt both his perspicacity and the honesty of his stated intentions, whilst being supportive of certain others (I’m a much bigger fan of Michael Wilshaw). On this, I am by no means unique, neither as a teacher, nor a parent, nor a member of the general public – after all, if one is concerned by educational standards, one should be able to applaud and support any idea intended to improve the education provision we give our young. This means assessing an idea, being open to it, rejecting the duds and supporting the good ideas (a critical perspective also rarely employed by the the #cultofGove).
Yet the ‘Back to the 50s’ line doesn’t do this. It presumes as normative that which is increasingly rejected, it presumes as beyond the pale that which is  increasingly normative, and in the process it sets up a great big dividing line between teachers and the public on the issue of what is best for their children. And you can be sure that the public in general, like Gove, like Wilshaw, are not concerned by any criticism that Gove is harking back to the 50s – indeed, working within the caricatured frameworks only re-enforced by slogans like these, a great many of them would positively welcome it. And if it means challenging some of the ‘progressive’ (I hate that word, but it will have to do) nonsense swilling around our education system, then so would a great many teachers, too.
For which reason, the next time you’re tempted to retweet some devastatingly original Photoshop mock-up of Michael Gove resembling a Victorian-era school master caning young boys for incorrect declension of a Latin verb, just remember: such silliness is merely fodder and sustenance for the ever expanding #cultofGove

Michael Merrick
@Michael_Merrick

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