Saturday, January 4, 2014

New year, same old Gove

At the end of my last blog, I returned, like a stuck record, to Michael Gove’s politicisation of history teaching. And, right on cue, he’s just popped up to say that anyone who thinks World War I was a senseless waste of human life is obviously a dangerous leftie and basically an enemy of the state.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Gove criticised what he called “myths” about the war and the “left-wing academics” who perpetrate them, suggesting that they reflect “an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”. It’s about one step away from ‘THE MAN WHO HATED BRITAIN’.

Even more objectionably, he then tries to claim a monopoly on respect and compassion for the people whose slaughter he’s defending – implying that these sinister red historians have cast British soldiers as “dupes”, and that by questioning this year’s centenary ‘celebrations’ they are attacking “the very idea of honouring their sacrifice”. Apparently, “These arguments are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.” Whereas of course, Gove’s arguments are thoroughly grown-up and in no way boil down to ‘What? You disagree with me? Oh my God I can’t believe you just said you hated Britain and all the soldiers!!!’

In Gove’s mind, we can only truly honour the memory of the millions dead if we convince ourselves that their deaths were in the service of some gloriously noble cause. “Even the battle of the Somme, once considered the epitome of military futility, has now been analysed in depth by the military historian William Philpott and recast as a precursor of allied victory.” Well, hooray. I’m sure my dead great-grandfather will be just thrilled. And I’m certainly grateful to Gove for making me see that all those times I felt desperately sad and angry about the way his life was cut short, I wasn’t actually ‘honouring his sacrifice’, I was succumbing to my innate left-wing tendency to denigrate Britain.

I suppose the one silver lining to all this bullshit is that it really brings the political nature of Gove’s agenda for history teaching out into the open. Although he pays lip service to the idea that history is about debate, it’s pretty clear that he really thinks it’s about propaganda. To see why, it’s worth quoting from his offending Daily Mail article at length:
“There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance.

But it is important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.

Instead, they help us to understand that, for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage…

But whatever each of us takes from these acts of remembrance and hours of debate it is always worth remembering that the freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict is a direct consequence of the bravery of men and women who fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty.”

In other words: “By all means let’s have a debate, but let’s be clear that if you’re on the wrong side of that debate, you’re almost certainly a commie with quasi-treasonable motives. Oh, and the only reason we can have the debate in the first place is because actually I’m right! So nurrrrh!”

And that’s what is so terrifying about Michael Gove. He seems to derive his intellectual opinions directly from his political prejudices and then to genuinely believe that everyone else must be doing the same, and therefore that he doesn’t have to listen to them. I’m a patriot, therefore World War I must have been justified, and anyone who says otherwise obviously hates patriotism. I hate unions, therefore the opinions of unionised teachers who oppose my reforms are obviously some kind of left-wing plot and can be safely trampled over. I think education should be about Facts and Grammar, and anyone who says otherwise is obviously a wishy-washy leftie who doesn’t want kids to achieve.

Of course, we all do this to some extent. But surely the process of education should be about controlling these tendencies, not actively cultivating them? I think my friend Cathy put her finger on it when she asked yesterday: “How can so unwilling a mind be in charge of education?”

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