Gove in the Arena, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: In the April 21 issue of National Review, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger titled “Our Man in London: A visit with Michael Gove, Britain’s education minister.” This week in his Impromptus, Nordlinger is expanding that piece, and that visit, into a series. For Part I, go here.

I ask Michael Gove something like this: “How can we conservatives and classical liberals win elections? It’s so hard to run against people offering free stuff, or who blame the wealthy and successful for other people’s problems. How do we persuade voters? In short, how do we beat the socialists?”

Gove first says that he is “not an expert.” Then he answers as follows — I will paraphrase (but closely):

“Tocqueville pointed out — though he wasn’t the first — that, in a democratic system, there’s always a tendency to gravitate to the guy who offers free stuff, or who is prepared to pander to achieve power. But I have more faith in human nature, in that people do want to think better of themselves, people do want to take control of their own lives and make an enterprise of their own existence. People do recognize that being dependent on others is debilitating, and people also have a low tolerance for lead-swingers and others who seem to be taking advantage of their own hard work.”

Here, I ought to make a language note: A “lead-swinger,” in British English, means “idler,” “slacker,” “malingerer.” (I never knew that.)

Gove continues, “I think the way to win the argument, however, is not just to rely on people’s desire to improve their own lives, and their impatience with those who are not being similarly strenuous, but to make the point that conservative ideas are the best way of achieving the sorts of goals that progressives profess to believe in. So, for example, the best way of helping poor children to do better in life is to do everything possible to support their being raised in a loving family, and if that means, for example, making it easier for couples to adopt children who are in abusive or neglectful homes, that is something that should be done. . . .

“It also means critically that, when children are at school, teaching them in what you or I would recognize as a traditional way is the best means of giving them the tools by which they can succeed in life.”

I ask, “Are people hungry for this? For these tools, these good things in life? Do you sense this hunger?” Yes, he says. “I think there’s a greater appreciation for seriousness than we sometimes allow.”

Gove mentions a book called “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes,” by Jonathan Rose. The author, says Gove, “makes the point that, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a huge appetite for intellectual seriousness” among these “classes.” I say, “Oh, yes: the classic coal-smudged book in a workers’ library.” Exactly, says Gove.

Now, “one can’t romanticize it,” he continues. “But there are two things: One, what’s wrong with romanticizing it? That’s part of politics. Showing people a better future for themselves, appealing to their better angels. And the second thing” — is this:

Gove tells me about a woman named Jade Goody, who became a huge “reality TV” star in Britain. She was “a poster girl for ignorance,” someone “at whom you’d gawk,” an exhibit in a “modern-day Bedlam.” She was the “anti-Kardashian,” not a figure of glamour, but of the opposite. Anyway, she became quite rich — and “she had a decision to make about what to do about her wealth, for her two children.”

She decided not to give them condos or castles or cash for their amusement. “She put the money into a trust explicitly for their private-school education,” says Gove. “Her belief was, if her sons had the best possible education, and she gave them that start in life, that was the thing which was most likely to lead them to prosper.”

Jade Goody died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 27.

“So, someone who had been seen as the absolute epitome of ignorance, trashiness, and superficiality was smart enough to know, ‘I’ll use this, and hand on to my children something really powerful and enriching: the best school education money can buy.’”

(Let me note that, when Brits say “school,” they mean pre-university.)

I ask, “Does the Blob always win?” The Blob, remember, is the education establishment that squashes every reform. “I mean, I realize we make our gains or dents,” I continue, “but does anything stick? Does anything last? Doesn’t the Blob always come out on top, one way or the other?”

(I’ve laid it on a little thick, deliberately.)

No, says Gove. “No, no.” But “I think there are tides and cycles in politics. Sometimes the arguments for free enterprise win, sometimes the arguments for thrift win, sometimes the arguments for tax-and-spend appear to prevail. In education, you’ve had various moments when Blob advocates hold sway, and then you’ve had a reaction against it. There is a reaction against it at the moment.” (May it last for a while.)

“And, of course, there are always people who benefit from the Blob’s existence. As a friend of mine once put it, there are people who carry on believing ideologies even if those ideologies are discredited because their salaries depend on it.”

“Rousseau’s view of the world,” says Gove, “is a view of the world that has a purchase on our minds, and the idea that schooling is bad and repressive — the idea that Rousseau popularized — will always have a purchase on some minds. But the important thing to do is counter that, I think, with a different type of romanticism. So instead of saying, ‘Do you know what? We’re the stern, eat-your-spinach figures’ [Gove is speaking of conservatives], I think we should say, ‘We’re the civil-rights crusaders.’” We are fighting to give every child, no matter who he is, a chance.

“There is a romantic view of children as innocents corrupted by the schoolyard, but there’s also an equally romantic view of enlightenment coming through learning, which can ensure that children who may not inherit wealth can inherit the best that has been thought and said.”

With this last phrase, of course, Gove is echoing Matthew Arnold.

Gove is of the school that believes any child can benefit from a sound and serious education, regardless of his personal circumstances. I challenge him on this a little (for interviewing’s sake). Gove says, “I’ve seen students from really tough backgrounds achieve amazing things. It may well be that leveraging the magic that occurs in those classrooms is difficult, and that there are only a limited number of teachers and a limited number of schools that can have that dramatic effect, but I’ve seen it scale up in different jurisdictions. There are some very, very bad families in Shanghai, but they still have an amazing school system.”

I tell Gove that I’m going to ask him an Oprah-style question — a touchy-feely question: “Does your background affect your view of education policy?” (Gove, remember, according to the media tagline, is “the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger.”) He answers, “It must do.” (Classic British locution.) “But I’m wary of a simple equation between biography and views.”

I tell him I suspect he’d have the same views if he had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He says, “I hope so. I mean, my views on education are more or less the same as David Cameron’s.” (The prime minister comes from a “posh” background — which is endlessly, and stupidly, played up.)

Oh, there’s a lot more to say. And Gove will say it in coming “episodes.” Thanks, everyone.