Gove in the Arena, Part II

Michael Gove


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.


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