March 16th 2013

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Red China's global cyber-espionage exposed

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor government 'drowning, not waving'

EDITORIAL: A new agenda for the next five years

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Bill to end Medicare-funded abortions for sex selection

SCHOOLING: Progressive education's disastrous legacy

CHINA: Chinese Communist Party set to implode

EUROPEAN UNION: Can 'internal devaluation' save the European Union?

ITALY: Former comedian now Italy's kingmaker

UNITED STATES: President Obama's Captain Queeg moment

OPINION: Where is Baden-Powell's Scouting movement today?

LIFE ISSUES: China: Baby crushed to death during one-child policy enforcement


CINEMA: Life, liberty and the pursuit of vengeance

BOOK REVIEW Scholarship trumps victimhood

BOOK REVIEW Epic voyages of a national hero

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Progressive education's disastrous legacy

by Michael Gove

News Weekly, March 16, 2013

So-called progressive education betrays the most deprived in society, argues British Conservative education minister Michael Gove in a keynote speech he delivered recently to the London-based Social Market Foundation. This is an edited extract of his speech.

 British Education Minister Michael Gove MP,

speaking at the Social Market Foundation, London.

Parents — especially poorer parents — want their children to get up and get on. And that means acquiring a proper, rounded and rigorous education, in the hope that they can choose to go to university.

In the recent Millennium Cohort Study, 97 per cent of professional parents and 96 per cent of mothers who identified themselves as working class said they hoped their child would go on to university. The overwhelming majority of parents know academic excellence when they see it, and want it for their children. The idea that there is a significant number of parents who lack ambition for their children, who are not aspirational, who scorn book learning and are hostile to academic excellence is just not true.

So what is holding children back?

Well, for an analysis of those forces which do stand in the way of liberating young people from the chains of ignorance, I would recommend close attention to the work of the Italian Marxist thinker — and father of Euro-Communism — Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci was a powerful critic of the power structures of his time which entrenched the dominance of traditional elites in Italian life. And one of the greatest concerns he had was that one increasingly fashionable ideology, which was being sold in 1920s and ’30s Italy as progressive, would only end up reinforcing the inequalities and injustices he hated.

The ideology he so feared in inter-war Italy was what we have come to call, with tragic inappropriateness, progressive education.

Progressive educational theory stressed the importance of children following their own instincts, rather than being taught. It sought to replace an emphasis on acquiring knowledge in traditional subjects with a new stress on children following where their curiosity led them. And that was usually away from outdated practices such as reading, writing and arithmetic.

This approach was deemed democratic — because it replaced the rigid formality of the traditional schoolroom with the teacher as authority figure and placed everyone in the classroom — teacher and child — on the same footing as co-creators of learning.

It was called progressive because it moved away from a set hierarchy of knowledge — literary canons, mathematical proofs, scientific laws, musical exercises and artistic traditions — towards a new emphasis on “learning to learn”. And one did not need to study a subject discipline to acquire these abstract skills.

Progressive educational theory had its roots in the teachings of Rousseau and other Romantics, and their belief that man was naturally good and corrupted by civilisation — and became the dominant world-view of many of the institutions of the educational establishment during the last century.

But Gramsci saw that — far from being progressive or democratic — this new approach to education risked depriving the working classes of the tools they needed to emancipate themselves from ignorance.

As he wrote, “The new concept of schooling is in its romantic phase, in which the replacement of ‘mechanical’ by ‘natural’ methods has become unhealthily exaggerated…. Previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order.… The most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but crystallise them in Chinese complexity.”

He could have been describing what has happened in Britain in the last 40 years. The nation which invented the concept of meritocracy, where the idea of the career open to talent had propelled social and economic progress has seen social mobility stall. And then move backwards. Wherever you look — Cabinets or Shadow Cabinets, newspaper editorial conferences or FTSE 100 boardrooms, the nation’s galleries or bishop’s palaces — the positions of power and influence are overwhelmingly held by the privately-educated or the children of middle-class professionals. The social differences which existed in our society before the 1960s have, in all too many cases, not just been perpetuated but crystallised.

And it is impossible to reflect on this entrenching of inequality without also reflecting on the educational philosophy which has been so dominant during this period.

Throughout the 20th century, the new educational orthodoxy was progressive. The role and authority of the teacher and traditional subject knowledge were undermined. The teacher was demoted from being “the sage on the stage” to a “guide by the side”. Didactic become a pejorative term.

One of the most effective analysts of the dominance of progressive theory has been the American academic E.D. Hirsch. Himself a man of the left — a liberal Democrat and campaigner for social justice — Hirsch has consistently highlighted how important Gramsci’s insights are for understanding why society has not become more equal in recent years.

In his book The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them, he explains that Gramsci, “held that political progressivism demanded educational conservatism”.

Hirsch continues: “The oppressed class should be taught to master the tools of power and authority — the ability to read, write and communicate — and to gain enough traditional knowledge to understand the worlds of nature and culture surrounding them.

“Children, particularly the children of the poor, should not be encouraged to flourish ‘naturally’, which would keep them ignorant and make them slaves of emotion. They should learn the value of hard work, gain the knowledge that leads to understanding and master the traditional culture in order to command its rhetoric, as Gramsci himself had learned to do.”

Hirsch develops the argument, going on to point out the following: “There is not only a practical separation between educational conservatism and political conservatism. There is an inverse relation between educational progressivism and social progressivism. Educational progressivism is a sure means for preserving the social status quo, whereas the best practices of educational conservatism are the only means whereby children from disadvantaged homes can secure the knowledge and skills that will enable them to improve their condition.”

Cultural capital

There used to be an almost instinctive understanding on the Left of the liberating power of traditional education. Cultural capital, like every other kind of capital, should not be the property of an elite. The rich should no more have exclusive access to the means of intellectual enlightenment than they should have an exclusive hold on the means of economic production, distribution and exchange. And the desire to give working people access to the best that has been thought and written — very far from being an idealistic enterprise doomed to failure — ran entirely with the grain of working people’s aspirations.

Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is revelatory about the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people. It provides both powerful statistical evidence and moving personal testimony which underlines just how hungry working people were for culture.

In 1940, on average, boys from every background were reading six books a month and girls over seven.

When I suggested recently that school students here emulate school students in some American charter schools and read 50 books a year, it was regarded as either hopelessly utopian or dangerously Gradgrindian. Amongst working class boys in 1940 it would have been regarded as slacking.

A 1944 survey of unskilled workers showed that almost half had grown up in homes with substantial libraries. And these working-class readers were not only reading widely — they were reading deeply.

As Rose points out in his work, housemaids read Dickens and Conrad, and kitchen maids saved up money to attend classical music concerts. The servant girl Dorothy Burnham, who grew up in care, “found herself in Keats, Tennyson and Arnold”, confessing:

“Communication between these poets and myself was instantaneous. I saw with delighted amazement that all poetry had been written specially for me. Although I spoke — in my backstreet urchin accents — of La Belly Dame Sans Murky, yet in Keats’s chill little poem I seemed to sense some essence of the eternal ritual of romantic love. And Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur bowled me over. So the poets helped me escape the damns of communal living which now, at 13, were beginning to be intolerable to me.”

Working men too sought out high culture. The Labour MP J.M. Clynes started his adult life working in an Oldham mill — and became politicised after he was nearly sacked for sneaking a look at Milton’s Paradise Lost during his shift. V.W. Garratt set up a mirror on his work-bench, while he soldered gas fittings in a Birmingham factory at the beginning of the last century, so he could see the foreman coming and hide his copy of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.

The Labour party activist John Ward had a library of almost 700 books which he shared enthusiastically with other working men, and his encouragement of their reading led him to proclaim, “today navvies are amongst the keenest and most intelligent critics of political and social questions, and I am proud to think that my work amongst them has helped to awaken them”.

And that experience was empowering, because the accumulation of cultural capital — the acquisition of knowledge — is the key to social mobility.

When those who have money choose an education for their children it is, almost without exception, in institutions where the acquisition of knowledge and immersion in traditional subject disciplines is central to the school’s mission.

Visit the most exclusive pre-prep and prep schools in London, and you will find children learning to read using traditional phonic methods, times tables and poetry learnt by heart, grammar and spelling rigorously policed, the narrative of British history properly taught. And on that foundation those children then move to schools like Eton and Westminster — where the medieval cloisters connect seamlessly to the corridors of power.

Those who enjoy wealth and power in our society — however bohemian their lifestyle, artistic their circle or ostensibly progressive their politics — over and over again find themselves choosing schools with the most traditional of structures and academic of curricula for their own children.

Model primary school

Thomas Jones Primary is one of a tiny minority of schools where every child achieves at least a Level 4 in Maths and English when they leave year 6.

It is a school where 10-year-olds can compare the tragic flaws of the heroes in Julius Caesar and Macbeth with the confidence and fluency of adults twice their age. It is a primary school where children are called scholars and are encouraged to think of themselves as heirs to all the achievements of Western culture.

And it is also a school with a majority of children eligible for free school meals, a majority of children who come from homes where English is not the first language and a majority of children who live in social or subsidised housing.

Children from every background are as capable of success — as able to grasp for the glittering prizes — as children from the wealthiest backgrounds, if they are given access to the sort of education which the rich have always felt they should enjoy by right.

The Downton Abbey party

But despite the abundant proof that children from every background can succeed academically there is still a remarkable resistance — especially among many on the left — to asking our education system to ensure more children do succeed.

The current leadership of the Labour Party react to the idea that working-class students might study the subjects they studied with the same horror that the Earl of Grantham showed when a chauffeur wanted to marry his daughter.

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.

Is knowledge redundant?

For the self-styled educational progressives nothing could be as redundant as imparting knowledge. If you want knowledge, they argue, Google it.

Well, it is true that Google is open to all comers. Just like the National Gallery. Or The Hollow Crown on BBC2. Or Seamus Heaney’s verse.

But unless you have a stock of knowledge — about our nation’s history, European history and art history, about Biblical stories and classical myth, about colour, line and perspective — then many of the works on display in the National Gallery will just be indecipherable cartoons.

Unless you have a sense of our nation’s political development and a decent vocabulary, and an appreciation of concepts like anointed monarchy, usurpation and legitimacy, then Shakespeare’s history plays will just be fighting and shouting.

And unless you know something of Ireland’s history, its people’s sufferings, its ecology and iconography as well as a scientist’s vocabulary, then Seamus Heaney’s poems may be little more than spoken music.

And unless you have knowledge — historical, cultural, scientific, mathematical — all you will find on Google is babble.

To make sense of a turn of phrase from Polly Toynbee or a literary reference from Martin Kettle, to interrogate a political argument from a Daily Mail leader which references Thatcher or Churchill, to follow Stephanie Flanders on economics or wrestle with Richard Dawkins on genetics, you need knowledge.

And unless that knowledge is imparted at school, in a structured way, by gifted professionals, through subject disciplines — then many children will never, ever, find it, no matter how long they search across the borderless lands of the internet.

Indeed unless that knowledge is imparted in school, then students from poorer homes will continue to perform less well in the exercise of every basic skill that one needs to be employed in the modern world.

There is no skill more central to employability than literacy. Whether it’s reading the instructions accompanying a deep fat fryer, running through the health and safety drill on an oil rig or processing an application for citizenship, literacy is the absolute precondition for holding down any job today.

But literacy is not a skill learnt in abstract isolation from the culture around us — it reflects the accumulated learning of our civilisation. And if we want students to be literate in English we have to introduce them — early — to the knowledge which allows them to be culturally literate.

Professor Daniel T. Willingham is one of the world’s most respected cognitive scientists. In his book Why Don’t Students Like School?, he synthesises the best recent rigorous scientific research on teaching and learning. And the definitive conclusion of all that research is that “the sort of skills that teachers want for students — such as the ability to analyse and think creatively — require extensive factual knowledge”.

It is only when knowledge is secure in the long-term memory that it can be summoned up effortlessly and the working memory can be freed to deal with new and challenging tasks.

Cognitive science also reveals that critical thinking skills — such as analysing evidence in scientific experiments or interrogating sources in history — depend on extensive background knowledge — about what should be the expected outcome of an experiment or what might be suspicious omissions in a contemporary account of events.

This accumulation of evidence — from schools, states and scientists — comes as close to being irrefutable as anything in public policy.

Uncompromisingly radical

I began by arguing that for those of us who are political progressives it is also necessary to be educational conservatives. And there is a sense in which all great education has a conservative element. We wish to pass on — protected and if possible enhanced — the whole repertoire of human accomplishment to our children.

But while I am proud in many ways to be a conservative, I think — in a spirit of proper candour — that I should actually come out and accept that the educational philosophy of the Government in which I serve is not really conservative at all — but rather uncompromisingly radical. Because conservatives have always tended to suspect that many of the things which need to be protected from generation to generation can only be protected if they’re enjoyed by a minority.

I don’t look at the world that way. I think the things we need to protect and enhance — a love of literature, pride in our history, scientific curiosity, beautiful written English, innovative and creative mathematical thinking, joy in discovery, colleges and universities, liberal learning and openness to the world, female emancipation and social mobility — are all better protected if we make them as universal as possible.

And I suspect that even if not every Conservative agrees with me, Antonio Gramsci would.

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP (Conservative) is Britain’s Secretary of State for Education. This article is an edited extract from a keynote speech he delivered on February 5, 2013, at the Social Market Foundation (SMF) in Westminster, London. The SMF is an influential British cross-party think-tank, which aims to promote policies which marry markets with social justice. The full-length version of Michael Gove’s speech is available from its website at:

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