I have been reading a collection of intriguing articles entitled What Matters Most by the late Sir Chris Woodhead, a courageous and outspoken defender of real knowledge in a sphere where knowledge is not always given its due. Woodhead was a highly cultivated man, a former teacher of English, who was appointed Chief Inspector of Schools in 1994 during the government of Sir John Major. His appointment inaugurated a period of conflict between the Inspectorate and the collection of leftist educationists that Woodhead called ‘the Blob’ (after the 1958 horror film about an ever-expanding and all-consuming amoeba from outer space). The name, Woodhead writes, ‘captures the inert mindlessness and sullen, rubbery resistance of the professors and quangocrats and officials and consultants who make up the educational establishment’.
His combative articles reminded me not only of the great loss that we suffered when Sir Chris was finally pushed from his office by that very amoeba, but also of the days when Michael Gove, as education secretary, took up the fight. Woodhead was an inspiration to Gove, as he was to all of us who believe that the goal of education is not social engineering but the transfer of knowledge. I have spent much of my life fighting the Blob — not directly, but through attempting to rescue real knowledge from the grip of ideology. It was apparent to me from the beginning of my career in the University of London in the early 1970s that the educational establishment had become radically politicised, and that many schoolteachers and lecturers saw themselves as part of the ‘long march through the institutions’ that had begun in 1968. Such people held themselves to be working towards a new and equal society, by opposing old forms of privilege and by recruiting their pupils to the socialist cause. The important distinction, they believed, was not between knowledge and ignorance, but between the ‘relevant’ and the ‘merely academic’ curriculum. The tendency of the ‘reforms’ undertaken was to drive out those ‘merely academic’ subjects, since they belonged to the old structures of wealth and privilege which required just this kind of stuffy and irrelevant expertise as a badge of membership.
The class warriors therefore rewrote the history curriculum in schools as a story of the oppressed people against the powers that be, and of the unjust order of Old England, overthrown by the post-war triumph of socialism but threatened now by the ‘racism’ of the reactionary residue. They updated the study of English, with the classics confined to a corner and the literature of protest brought to the fore. Classical languages were rapidly driven from the classroom, so that today there is hardly a state school that offers Greek, and Latin is a marginal subject. In all kinds of ways hard subjects were expelled from the curriculum, and examinations downgraded. The purpose was to put equality and social justice first, and to marginalise knowledge as a threat to real education.
The process of dumbing down proceeded in that way from one government to the next, and it was only with the arrival of Gove in the position of education secretary that there was any serious resistance. Gove’s upbringing taught him that knowledge is the purpose of education and that education is useful only so long as you treat it as an end in itself. We do an injustice to children, he believed, if we replace real knowledge and skills with political posturing. Education should be a preparation for adult life, not an addiction to the playground, and this means reading books, doing sums, learning languages, and in general measuring your interests against a higher standard than the one you currently follow. Gove received all the bad press that The Blob can unfailingly deliver when its privileges are challenged. But, in establishing free schools and in showing parents and teachers how they could pull the children from under the belly of the amoeba, he brought hope to all of us who have been fighting for the survival of real knowledge.
One day, I trust, Gove will be back in place as education secretary, which is the post that the country needs him to fill. Meanwhile it is for the rest of us, parents and teachers especially, to bring back knowledge to the classroom. Some of us have got together to establish Parents and Teachers for Excellence, which is designed to discombobulate the Blob. Please join us. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org