Thursday, 7 February 2013

Digging up the Bones

Hard on the heels of the disinterment of Richard III we had the sight of Michael Gove rattling the bones of Antonio Gramsci and Jade Goody this week. The juxtaposition of an early twentieth century Italian Marxist and a reality TV star is meant to catch the attention of the media, something both engaged with closely in their different ways. The Education Secretary cited them as the twin inspirations of his radical-traditionalist policies in a speech entitled "The Progressive Betrayal". This was the usual evidence-lite diatribe against the strawman of progressive education, topped off with the claim that Labour is conspiring to keep the proles stupid and pliable, presumably by insisting they learn about Martin Luther King rather than the achievements of the British Empire.

Goody and Gramsci are deployed here as icons, not as real people. What do Jade Goody and Antonio Gramsci have in common? Well, one spent a long time locked up under the watchful eye of Big Brother, while the other had her own brand of perfume. If you think that's a poor joke, Gove's message that these apparent opposites, chav icon and bien pensant pinup, shared a belief that "traditional" education is best for the lower orders is even worse. The choice of icons is intended to wind up middle-class lefties who, Gove believes, look down on Goody as vulgar and look up to Gramsci as a secular saint. In Gove's mind, "progressive teaching" and "lefty" are synonymous. He naturally ignores the role of previous Tory education secretaries, such as Thatcher and Baker, in the development of modern educational practice.

Gove paints Goody as a victim not of her pathological craving for fame, or the exploitative nature of modern media, but of progressive education. He cites her ignorance of the location of Cambridge and Rio de Janeiro as "not her fault but the education system's". It's not often you hear a Tory dismiss personal agency and insist the system is wholly to blame. Unless he thinks a conspiracy of teachers denied her access to an atlas for a decade, you have to suspect some portion of responsibility should rest with Goody herself. He claims that "there was no doubt that Jade was intelligent. She exploited the notoriety she had earned to make herself a ubiquitous television and magazine presence, earning huge sums in the process and becoming in due course far wealthier than most of her detractors". This is cobblers, as well as a crude attempt to equate wealth with virtue. The brains behind the monetisation of her fame was Max Clifford. Gove's establishment of her credentials serves a predictable purpose: "Jade knew that the most precious thing she could bequeath her children was not money but knowledge ... she used her money to send them to the most traditional, academically demanding prep school she could find". Strangely, her respect for knowledge ("the most precious thing") did not stimulate her curiosity about geography or cause her to sign up for an adult education class. If anything, Goody's investment reveals a pragmatic understanding of education as a positional good. You buy it as a means to an end, not because you appreciate it as an end in itself. Ironically, Goody lifts the veil.

Gove's use of Gramsci is both mischievous and anachronistic. The Italian's views have to be seen in the context of his times (he was jailed by Mussolini in 1926 and died in 1937). As Gove notes, the Fascists were interested in "progressive" practices in education, but this was part of their conscious rejection of the traditional enlightenment curriculum which they saw as being complicit in the degeneracy of democracy. Fascism was reactionary in intent but revolutionary in practice. The "national revolution" in education allowed for the rejection of whole chunks of the established canon, notably anything tainted by free-thinking or socialism or (in Germany) Jewishness. He may be a democrat, but there is a whiff of the totalising and prescriptive in Gove's approach to the curriculum. It is also necessary to understand that Gramsci saw liberal bourgeois education in early 20th century Italy as historically progressive relative to working class education (which he referred to as "medieval").

Gramsci was the developer of the idea of cultural hegemony, i.e. class rule by means other than physical force or economic coercion, though the origin of the idea lies with Marx's observation that "the ruling ideas in any society are always the ideas of the ruling class". Hegemony operates through cultural institutions such as education, organised religion, the press and entertainment. It involves the articulation of values and mores that reinforce the dominance of the ruling class (e.g. equating wealth with virtue). Education is crucial both as a particular medium and as a paradigm for all cultural media (consider how "serious" TV tends towards the form of the lecture or demonstration, or newspaper editorials the form of the essay). As Gramsci said: "every relationship of hegemony is necessarily a pedagogical relationship". In other words, it seeks to persuade and indoctrinate.

If education is hegemonic, then the education system of the last 50 years (Gove sees the rot setting in with the Plowden report of 1967) has presumably been biased to maintain certain interests. Gove casts this in terms of an antagonism between Labour and the progressive educationalists on one side and working class kids on the other: "Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity. They think working class children should stick to the station in life they were born into – they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves". This is a hard claim to make stick when you consider the historic expansion of post-16 education numbers under the last Labour government, a trend now thrown into reverse by the abolition of EMA and the introduction of prohibitive tuition fees. The most significant feature of the UK system, the division into private and public sectors, is the one that Gove fails to address beyond promoting the private option as a proxy for excellence (while snarkily highlighting the "choice" of private schools made by various self-identifying lefties for their own kids).

Gove references Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes to show "the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people". He fails to note that autodidacts (and institutions like the Workers' Education Association) were examples of the DIY reaction to the poverty of education when most working class children were condemned to elementary schools. The relative decline in this culture of self-improvement after WW2 was not the result of nasty lefty teachers convincing working class kids to accept their lot, but the consequence of first the Butler Act and then comprehensive education providing access to knowledge and a path to further education (supported by full grants), with the Open University providing a backstop for mature students.

Gove's push for traditional subjects and teaching methods for all is expressed in consciously radical language, such as "the government's liberation theology". This could just be dismissed as an example of the arch style that arose after Vince Cable labelled the Tories "Maoist" a while back, but there is truth in the claim that some elements (with Gove to the fore) really are ideological true-believers and are consciously revolutionary in style and practice. He says: "I think the things we need to protect and enhance ... are all better protected if we make them as universal as possible". This is clearly about making an educational ideology universal, i.e. hegemonic, it's not about democratising education and ensuring that every state school has the material advantages of Eton. But the real significance is the totalising ambition. Gove is not just seeking to impose a Tory curriculum, or to open education to the market, he is engaged in a cultural revolution that aims to colonise the aspirational working class with middle class values. A continuation of Thatcherism by other means, with the Kings James Bible instead of a little red book.

Like Gove, Gramsci had little sympathy for the idea that the working class have a distinct culture worth valuing, dismissing it as a pre-industrial relic overlaid with false consciousness (i.e. the product of a cultural hegemony that encouraged the masses to know their place). He believed that a true proletarian culture had to be created in order to achieve class consciousness and thereby revolution. It is for this reason that the paradox of Gramsci arises: why would a Marxist revolutionary advance traditional forms of education? Quite simply, he saw the traditional curriculum as a tool for exercising power and felt that workers should seize it and put it to their own use. This is expropriation, not the exaltation of tradition. The same instrumental view can be seen in the educational practices of communist regimes in the twentieth century. The USSR was hardly known for its "progressive" methods, beyond dropping RE and doubling science.

The real irony of all this is that, despite Gove's attempted triangulation, he and Gramsci have far more in common with each other than either does with Goody. Not because they're both swots, but because of a shared mistrust of variety and the organic. The popular lauding of Goody as "bubbly", "guileless" and "natural" was a recognition that she represented a chaotic force, temporarily tamed. Without that sense of fragility and danger, she would have been dismissed as a gobby fool. Gove's pedantry, his precise diction, and his relentlessly polite manner while delivering snide propaganda, all serve to give the impression of a fastidious man. But his ideological perfectionisim leads to avoidable mistakes, such as the school building programme fiasco and this week's EBC reverse. A paradox of revolution since Robespierre is that it's often the fastidious who contrive to unleash chaos.

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