Thursday, 9 May 2013

The educational fish rots from the head

I've got two book reviews to write today, so I need to get my brain working and my typing finger warmed up. What better way than to have a pop at Michael Gove?

(This is going to get text-heavy and ranty. If you fancy the funny, beautifully-pitched graphic version, Paul Bernal's got it right here). 

If you think I need a reason, let's start with this. Yesterday, I excoriated my own university for its uncritical acceptance of entrepreneurial discourse, and the way it falls over itself to pay shysters for their snake-oil. 

A little later yesterday I chanced upon a Freedom of Information request by one Janet Downs, to whom a statue should be erected by public subscription, preferably outside the Department for Education. Intrigued by Mr Gove's assertion (in the Mail on Sunday, naturally) that:

"Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance,with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real."
I should be grateful if you could give me details of these surveys: who ran them, what questions were asked, when the surveys took place, and size and make-up of samples. 
she pressed the DFE for details. After all, the Government's education minister must be drawing on the talents and research skills of the very best academics and civil servants in the land, right? These surveys will be rigorous, extensive, statistically-significant and representative. Won't they? After all, Mr Gove is continually telling us that standards must be raised. 

Back came the reply, revealing that Mr Gove's commitment to 'outsourcing' and small government reaches the parts other ministers cannot reach:

Dear Ms Downs 
Thank you for your email of 26 March, requesting details of a survey about teenagers’ lack of historical knowledge.
Unfortunately, I am not able to provide you with the details of the survey as it was commissioned and conducted by UKTV Gold.  I would advise thatyou contact UKTV Gold direct, as they should be able to assist you on this matter.
Yours sincerely
Emma Seymour, Curriculum Policy Division
That's right. The Secretary of State for Education, the scourge of lazy thinking, relies on surveys conducted for promotional purposes by a TV repeats channel. What's on today? Multiple episodes of Last of the Summer Wine, Only Fools and Horses and (curiously for a channel seemingly shocked by historical inaccuracy), Goodnight Sweetheart, whose central device is a time machine used by a chap to conduct romances both in the present and in 1940s Britain (and about which I've often been tempted to write an academic paper or two).  

But at least we can rely on the accuracy and rigour of UKTV Gold's research, can't we? Er… apparently not. Grahame Whitfield kindly pointed me towards the Local Schools Network's analysis. Oh dear. Oh dearie, dearie me. They unearthed the actual poll, which dates back to 2008, and found a few teensy, weeny problems. Firstly, it didn't test 'teenagers' specifically, but 3000 'people'. Which might lead one to think that Mr Gove is rather disingenuous. Or lazy. One could further assume that many of those adults were educated during his own party's 18 years in office from 1979-1997. 

And that's not all. Poor UKTV Gold seems to be labouring under some historical misapprehensions of its own. As the LSN points out, 

the survey listed Lady Godiva as fictional and said 12% believed she was real. But the 12% were right – Lady Godiva endowed monasteries at Stow and Coventry. And the 47% who thought “fictional” Eleanor Rigby was real were no doubt thinking of Paul McCartney’s anecdote that he found the name on a gravestone.
Looking at the company's PR-driven report, it becomes clear that they really don't know very much about history, or indeed historiography. 
most people believe that fictional figures such as King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby really existed. 
King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood top the list of fictional characters that Brits are most likely to confuse with fact 
Now it's true that there's no archaeological evidence for Robin Hood and King Arthur, but there's no shortage of cultural artefacts, such as the 6th century Welsh poem Y Gododdin. No doubt the 'real' Arthur and Robin (there were several possible Robin models) are nothing like the representations purveyed by UKTV Gold, but they aren't exactly fictional. For a bracingly sceptical Arthur survey, I recommend Guy Halsall's Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (OUP 2013). For Robin, start with Stephen Knight's Robin Hood: a Mythic Biography

Let's look at UKTV's Top Ten:

Top ten fictional characters that the British public thinks are real
  • 1) King Arthur – 65%
  • 2) Sherlock Holmes – 58%
  • 3) Robin Hood – 51%
  • 4) Eleanor Rigby – 47%
  • 5) Mona Lisa -35%
  • 6) Dick Turpin – 34%
  • 7) Biggles – 33%
  • 8) The Three Musketeers – 17%
  • 9) Lady Godiva – 12%
  • 10) Robinson Crusoe – 5%
So: Arthur (dubious); Holmes (fictional); Robin (dubious, and yet UKTV Gold has shown Robin TV series, contributing to our ignorance); Eleanor Rigby (definitely real); Mona Lisa (a portrait with several strong candidates); Dick Turpin (real), Biggles (fictional) the Musketeers (a real military formation, with whom d'Artagnan really fought in the 17th century), Lady Godiva (real) and Robinson Crusoe who, though fictional, was closely based on the experiences of Alexander Selkirk.

The whole thing is rather incoherent:

Nearly half of us (47%) have no idea who Richard the Lionheart was; even though the historical figure has featured in numerous films throughout the 21st Century. 
Perhaps, UKTV Gold, people don't watch these films much. When was the last film about Richard? Are you subtly suggesting both that a) fictionalised films are reliable history and that b) we're thick because we watch too much TV? Better switch off UKTV Gold then!

And one more thing. In your Top Ten Real People Britons Think Are Mythical:

10) Charles Dickins - 3%
Suddenly UKTV Gold is looking thicker than its survey participants. 

But Ms Downs was not satisfied by the DfE's reply (one curiously unashamed that its positions are unsupported by substantive research). She went back for more:
Thank you for your reply saying that one survey about teenagers'lack of historical knowledge was done by UKGold.
I should be grateful if you could let me know when the survey was undertaken.
Michael Gove referred to "survey after survey". This indicates that there was more than just one. But you have given me the name of only one.
Would it be fair to say that there was actually only one survey and not several as Mr Gove said?
And we're very grateful for her tenacity, because the DfE reply moved from UKTV Gold to purest Comedy Gold:
As advised previously, you would need to contact UKTV Gold to find out details of their survey, including when it was undertaken.
The other survey’s the Secretary of State referred to include:
·        a survey of 2000 11 to 16 year olds by Premier Inn;
·        a study commissioned by Lord Ashcroft of 1000 children aged 11 to 18 to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London;
·        a report by Professor Robert Tombs for think-tank Politeia;
·        an article by London Mums Magazine[1]
·        research carried out by the Sea Cadets to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar[2]
Let us pass over the apostrophe abuse lightly: there are bigger fish to fry. For lo! Mr Gove's instinctive fear that the kids are being thickened rests on more than a TV company's PR stunt. Why, a budget hotel chain ran a survey. Sadly, they won't tell us who did the research, how they selected their participants, what the question were or anything else: their Facebook page links only to the Independent's space-filling summary, an article clearly written by PI's PR team, and which uses the (new to me) word 'cruelness', which makes the adults look more stupid than the kids. What Premier Inn's motivation is, beyond cheap publicity, is beyond me – but I hope they're proud to contribute to official government policy. 

What of the other 'research'? Well, Lord Ashcroft is the very strange, tax-evading billionaire who ran his survey as a publicity stunt for his memorial to the men who flattened Dresden and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. His memorial is notable for a) its terrible architecture and b) the prominence of its donors' names, not a notable feature of previous war memorials: also engraved on the wall is the name of Bee Gee Robin Gibb, someone else who has translated childhood war games into adult triumphalism. At least the actual data is available, though again, it hasn't been contextualised in any way and he uses it to promote Gove's 1950s Greyfriars fantasy. 

Moving on. Robert Tombs (Prof in French Political History) and Politeia. Well, let's just say that Politeia is a political think-tank which exists solely to justify any given Conservative policy initiative. Its work is not peer-reviewed or published in academic journals, and is therefore not reliably rigorous. The good Professor's co-authors are interesting: one teaches history in private boarding school (qualifications unknown) and the other has a PhD in the history of history teaching but appears not to have any further public presence or job. The report insists that 'British history' must be taught from Hadrian onwards, as though 'British' is a meaningful term that far back.  It happily cites 'newspaper reports' as evidence for serious accusations about the integrity of the exam system, and claims that because other countries have a narrowly nationalist curriculum, the UK should too! 

The report is certainly dubious, but it makes some points which Mr Gove could usefully digest:

emphasize the academic values rooted in each subject. These can only be properly understood by those versed in the subject: the teachers, who should be allowed to teach in accord with their judgement, and the academic subject specialists, whose lifetime of study qualifies them to propose the curricula and set the examinations 
Especially given that several reports suggest that Mr Gove wrote the entire proposed history curriculum himself (that's according to the distinguished historian Richard Evans who, though Gove praises him, describes the new curriculum as a 'pub quiz'), having discarded the suggestions his own Tory friends gave him. Certainly not my idea of academic freedom. But this paragraph implies that Prof Tombs and Co should rather disapprove of a Minister who bases his assumptions on cheap TV channel PR stunts. 

As to the rest: a magazine article and a newspaper report? No disrespect to London Mums, the Sea Cadets and the Telegraph (amusingly, the first comment attacks American ignorance while spelling 'Runnymede' incorrectly), but really. The London Mums article claims that 63% of children can't spell 'achievement', and lists several other howlers. Their source? A commercial exam revision website which just might have an interest in persuading parents to part with extra cash by making stark claims about their kids' ignorance. Sadly, they don't provide any details about their survey: questions, sample size and collection: nothing reliable at all. It's a pub quiz dressed up as research. Ironically, the London Mums article critiquing kids' illiteracy is replete with stylistic and grammatical errors, sweeping unjustified assertions (the dates 'everyone' used to know, for example). Worst of all, the author thinks that 'mumpreneur' is a word. For which she deserves a painful and public punishment. 

I teach at a rather good, though unfashionable, university. If my students submitted work which turned out to be based on this kind of rubbish, we'd fail them. I have a big sign on my wall which reads:

We spend a lot of time explaining to them the difference between serious research and 'stuff you can Google'. This is a whole other level. We're talking government policy which will affect the lives and opportunities of millions of children. Anecdotes based on PR stunts cannot form the basis for policy. MUST. DO. BETTER. 

What really annoys me is this. Michael Gove is an intelligent man. He knows this behaviour is wrong. That gives him a moral responsibility to behave better. But for reasons of pure cynicism, he actively chooses to distort, cheat and mislead. This isn't accidental: it's a strategy.

No wonder my university thinks it's OK to hire charlatans when this is the example set by Whitehall. 

Update: Gove has turned his attention to English, invoking the spirit of FR Leavis to attack 'narrow' curricula by calling for a return to the 'transcendent' 'Canon' of 'Great' literature, by which he means dead white British authors, which seems pretty narrow to me: if Gove had been alive in the 19th-century, he'd have moaned about junk like Dickens and advocated a return to Plato and Empedocles, in Greek of course, and to the use of the Mr Men to explore Hitler's rise and fall in history classes. 

You good people have read quite enough of my ranting, so I'll be brief on this bit. Reading doesn't always have to be 'educational'. People discover texts at different times in their lives. I was forced to read Dickens too young, and it took 15 years before I realised for myself that he had a lot of charm and profundity (still not reconciled to the supposedly comic stuff). FR Leavis, the eminence grise of Gove's worldview didn't include Dickens in his original canon, because canons are just indicators of the current hegemony's concerns, and not guides to Eternal Truths About Life, the Universe and Everything. People read for entertainment. For enlightenment about their own cultural context, not just history. People read for comfort and above all to discover themselves and others. People might start with Twilight and discover books that you and I consider better. Others might read Twilight AND 'the greats'. 

For instance, as an undergraduate, I was taught by one of the world's greatest Arthurian literary scholars, Professor PJC Field. He was, we thought, a snob. Then I met him in WHSmith's. He was buying a pile of Dick Francis novels. Spotting me sniggering in a superior fashion, he announced that 'Man cannot live by Arthurian literature alone' and departed. For a long time, because I was an insecure and uptight teenager who couldn't relax with matters cultural in case someone caught me out, I thought I'd won that exchange. It was only later, when I'd read some critical theory, got something approximating a life and matured considerably, that I realise he'd won. He wasn't ashamed or insecure of his cultural choices, and I was. I learned a lot from that. So should Mr Gove. 

The idea that literature is 'transcendent' is just embarrassing nonsense. 'Transcendent' isn't a critical term: it's an anti-critical term. If I asked my students why Shakespeare is great and they replied 'because he transcends time and cultures', that would be the end of the conversation. Whereas replying 'Shakespeare is great because he took all the concerns of his period and cultural position and made ambiguous, complex drama out of them which can be read in the following ways…' is the start of a fantastic, life-long conversation. 'Transcendent' is the product of one quite recent critical position. It's not a historical one either: Shakespeare wasn't particularly popular for a long time after his death, and the Victorians joyously tacked happy endings onto the tragedies to suit their needs (they didn't like the lack of cosmic justice involved in Cordelia's death, for instance). 

Canons are repressive concepts. They tell you what an élite thinks you should know, rather than what everybody read: Dickens was outsold by several people whose works you never hear about now. I've no problem with making value judgements - but I do object to people who disguise their value judgements as universal truths. It's dishonest and oppressive. 

What he doesn't mention – and you'll have seen this coming – is that the Mr Men example isn't some widespread, pernicious dereliction of duty committed by the Marxist Enemies of Promise he frequently evokes. It's mentioned on a lesson plan. A lesson plan made available on a commercial website. For the iGCSE, Gove's beloved semi-O-Level used by a lot of snobby private schools. 

Yet again, he's smearing all teachers by resorting to selective quotation and nonexistent attribution. 


GMS said...

Bravo! The man is an absolute menace (and a possible future Prime Minister). One starts to hanker after the Botgias...

GMS said...

That should have been Borgias.

chris y said...

The report insists that 'British history' must be taught from Hadrian onwards

Why Hadrian? What did Claudius ever do to Tombs? Or the builders of Stonehenge and Skara Brae, by the same logic? Hadrian seems like a bizarre place to start, even if you think schools should be making a big deal out of Roman Britain, because it excludes the governorship of Julius Agricola, which is the only period of the Roman occupation for which we have any substantial contemporary documentation.

GMS: Botgias are small pieces of software which are released onto the internet to promote the careers of their writers' nephews and murder their enemies.

Anonymous said...

Far be it from me to suggest that it is fitting that a "plastic Scot" education secretary who decided to redundantly plonk the word "English" in front of his new baccalaureate qualification (giving the Welsh & NI education boards issues about whether to adopt them as they had GCSE and A-Level) would deem British history to start with the splitting of the island of Britannia by a ruddy great wall

Anonymous said...

Gove vs reality

Cameron is allowing him to prove he's an idiot, whilst ruining our education system.

kennyevil said...

Excellent post but I have to disagree with you on one point: I don't think that Michael Give is an intelligent man. He possesses an extensive vocabulary and harbours rather large ambitions but I believe both exceed his intelligence by some degree.

kennyevil said...

Gove not Give. It'd help if I could spell the man's name correctly while I'm admonishing his lack of intelligence.

Anonymous said...

I ask my uncle (aDunkirk veteran )on election day 1945 ,why he hadn't voted for Mr Churchill .And his reply "because he is a Tory windbag "I don't tell this anecdote to slight the Great mans reputation,but to point out that at time he was a p olitician that lost office through lack of support.And facts and myths become blurred over time..

Sue Cowley said...

Oh this is wonderful, after reading Gove's speech and nearly weeping with frustration, you have made my day. Thank you so much!

Jon Tulloch said...

A magnificent and painfully astute blog again Mr. Vole. The Leavis link is particularly interesting given the manifest disdain and loathing Leavis had (evident in his attacks on CP Snow) for any idea about culture that did not originate from his own privately-educated classical background. Gove's problem is that he wants to undo the rise of mass culture without taking the time to understand culture at all, and to become a kind of latter-day Lord Reith ignoring half a century of ideological re-evaluations.

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi everybody. Thanks for your comments.
Chris: no, I don't understand the rather arbitrary choice of Hadrian for the beginning of 'Britain'. Why not Magnus Maximus, or the post-Ice Age repopulation or any one of a number of dates. Baffling.

Kenny: perhaps you're right. I recall Denis Skinner describing the Cabinet as 'educated beyond their abilities'. Suits Gove perfectly. I suppose that's the secret of private schools' success: they get their students that little bit further through individual attention and psychological boosting.

Jon: I agree. It's knee-jerk reaction, like the rightwing version of the Frankfurt school.

Dennis O'Sullivan said...

Thanks for the further condemnation of a very dangerous man. I am a long-serving teacher of English and headteacher. Never has one man caused so much despair amongst teachers and parents and it is only the profession's courage and determination that is protecting young people from Gove's worst excesses of ideological corruption.I wite a blog out of the sort of anger I felt I had left behind in my anarcho-syndicalist days (
"He had a mind like a steel trap; only one that had been left out so long it had rusted shut" is one such entry.
I will post a link to The Plashing Vole if that's OK.
"If you want to end wars and stuff, you gotta sing loud." Country Joe of The Fish.

Historian on the Edge said...

Check this out. The movement grows: