Letters: Michael Gove, master of bluster

These letters are published in the print edition of The Independent, May 15th 2013

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I note that Michael Gove has some problems with sources and evidence in his chaotic attempts to meddle with our education system (“Guess where Michael Gove’s been getting his educational facts from”, 14 May); I discovered his tendency to bluster and obfuscate some years ago.

Just before the last election, at a fundraising dinner, I asked him a question regarding his evidence for the ability to teach being in any way related to the level of degree gained, following David Cameron’s announcement that those with lower-second degrees would be barred from receiving state funding to train as teachers. After five minutes of classical political evasion, and failing to answer the substance of the question, the audience were none the wiser.

A subsequent inquiry to his office resulted in a researcher sending me a document that I was told formed the basis of Mr Gove’s plans to improve our schools. I was slightly surprised to receive a report by McKinsey and Company; a company not noted for their educational expertise but whose alumni include William Hague, Howard Davies and many other political and business figures. More worryingly, “How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top” (2007) was co-authored by (now Sir) Michael Barber, educational adviser to a certain Tony Blair.

What have we done to deserve these people who are clearly “all in it together” in more convoluted ways than we can imagine?

Dr Clive Nuttman, Department of Zoology, Cambridge University

I think the Education Secretary’s recent remarks about wishing a child of his to read George Eliot’s Middle-march shows clearly how out of touch with reality he is.

I am a retired English teacher and have taught set texts (including Chaucer and Shakespeare) up to Advanced level for many years, and it is clear to me that Middlemarch would prove too difficult for most teenagers. First, the width of reference is a stumbling block: a glance through the first five chapters gave these: St Theresa, Peel on the Catholic question, Bossuet, Milton’s “affable archangel”, Southey, Chloe and Strephon, Pascal, Loudon and others. Most of these would be lost to many adult readers.

The erudite language used would bewilder many young readers: promiscuous (meaning wide), labyrinthine, neophyte, nullifidian and pilulous can be found in the opening chapters.

Finally, the concept of her main character (Dorothea) embodying the idealism of St Theresa would prove difficult for younger readers to grasp.

Yes, it is a wonderful novel but it is not to be recommended as enjoyable reading for teenagers generally,

Dane Young, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire

So teenagers believe Delia Smith was one of Henry VIII’s wives? Have the pollsters – or Mr Gove, for that matter– never encountered  adolescent irony?

Jen Parry, Didcot, Oxfordshire

Europhobes love a country that doesn’t exist

First Ukip and now an EU in/out referendum. When will Little Englanders realise that Little England doesn’t exist?

Harrods and Canary Wharf are Qatari; the London Stock Exchange is American;  Rolls Royce is German; Thames Water is Australian; Chelsea FC is Russian; and the Church of England will soon be run from Nigeria, judging by the last Lambeth Conference. I could go on.

The point is that the independent nation state is dead. “Britishness” is a feeling, not an economic or political reality. We are all supra-national now, and it really is about time we started embracing it a bit more positively.

Bob Gilmurray, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Has the Tory party gone collectively mad or does it just have a death wish to lose the next election? Most people I know are not concerned with EU membership but with unemployment, job insecurity and job prospects for students with large debts, and care of the very elderly and infirm.

I think the euro needs reforming, but if we leave the EU, we shall have no input into EU decisions, at the same time as having to abide by EU rules in many respects, as do Norway and Switzerland. More significantly, America has signalled they wish us to remain EU members to facilitate their relations with Europe. 

Valerie Crews, Beckenham, Kent

The rise of “fortress Britain” via Ukip and the backbenches of the Tory party demands a vigorous challenge based on facts that resonate widely with the experience and understanding of voters. Thus far, this challenge is conspicuous by its absence, while the European naysayers continue a barrage which is more propaganda than fact. 

Almost three quarters of a century without a major European war is a signal achievement of the European Union which we forget at our peril. In a complex world, threats of all kinds – including economic threats – cannot be addressed in isolation. Isolation breeds ignorance, paranoia  and ultimate decline, with all manner of hardship and conflict along the way.

Ukip and those who pander to it would set us on a course where the strength, vibrancy and security of a diverse, outward-looking society would slowly but surely be lost. “Johnny foreigner” would be back, to be avoided, excluded and feared by the isolated people of Britain. Ukip’s agenda is a xenophobes’ charter.

Paula Jones, London SW20

Let us imagine that a UK Parliament conducts a referendum on EU membership. Let us imagine that the vote is “Out” and that after several years of tricky negotiation (which will cost a lot of government time and money) we leave.

When the UK continues to roll down the post-empire hill and does not bounce back to the 1930s, who will they blame then?

Simon Allen, London NW2

Music can have  a morality

It seems rather odd to argue, as does Dominic Lawson (14 May), that music is never intrinsically moral, either in intent or effect. It’s even odder to cite performances of Beethoven in support of that argument.

That composer was intensely idealistic, and his instrumental music often conveys a moral intent – the third and ninth symphonies and the fifteenth string quartet explicitly so (it’s strange indeed of Lawson to cite the ninth symphony, with its setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, as evidence for his argument).

As for opera, the whole of Fidelio is a matchless paean to freedom and marital fidelity. And what better conveys the essence of evil intent than Iago’s credo in Verdi’s Otello? 

Max Gauna, Sheffield

I think that Dominic Lawson fails to take account of the fact that opera consists of words as well as music, and it is as possible for an opera to be anti-Semitic as it is for a play or a novel, and in a way that a piece of instrumental music cannot be.

Paul Lawrence Rose argued in his book Wagner: Race and Revolution that Wagner’s mature operas, including Tristan und Isolde, had an anti-Semitic message; this view, of course, is controversial, but his book represents a challenge to everyone who loves Wagner’s music.

John Dakin, Toddington, Bedfordshire

Ancient women on the seashore

You report that academics are gathering to discuss the possibility of an aquatics ancestry for humans.

Inspired by the works of Sir Alistair Hardy and as a response to Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, Elaine Morgan wrote The Descent of Woman in 1972, which was a well-researched and reasoned thesis in favour of an aquatic origin for humans.

In it she argues that the main driving force for human evolution was not the male-centred Tarzanist model but that females adapted to a littoral lifestyle and that male evolution responded accordingly. So reasonable were her arguments that I incorporated her ideas into my lectures on possible human origins to my students.

Patrick Cleary, Honiton, Devon

Why we tekkies dislike Windows

Frederick Stansfield (letter, 9 May) thinks that Windows “has symptoms of a product developed  with excessive influence from  ‘tekkies’ ”.

I agree with his points about usability testing. User interface designs should, of course, be exhaustively tested before being put before users.  Any “tekkie” like me will tell you that. However, I don’t know why he would think that greater input from marketing would help. 

The problem is that user interfaces, and Windows user interfaces in particular, are developed not by “tekkies”, but by graphic designers and the very marketing department he thinks would do a better job. Windows has always been more about marketing than good technology, which is why, as an operating system and from a technical point of view, it is so badly structured and insecure.

Tekkies avoid Windows like the plague, given the choice.

Peter Bradley, Cardiff

No cash to spare for the cathedral

Before anyone jumps in with a comment about the supposed “riches” of the Church of England and the problems of financing repairs to Canterbury Cathedral, can I make three observations?

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris: maintenance funded, as with every other cathedral and parish church in France, by the (supposedly secular) French State. Cologne Cathedral: maintenance funded by the German taxpayer through the Church Tax. Canterbury Cathedral, and every other cathedral and parish church in England: maintenance funded by vigorous and arduous fund-raising, mostly by unpaid but enthusiastic volunteers.

John Williams, Chichester

Stay out of jail

I very much look forward to reading Vicky Pryce’s “hard-hitting” book on the costs of keeping women in prison. Of course one way of reducing these costs is for women not to be convicted of perverting the course of justice. Or am I being too simplistic?

William Roberts, Bristol

New country

Derek Chapman (letter, 14 May) asks what the remainder of the UK will be known as if Scotland leaves the fold. Any advance on Ruritania (offshore)?

John Wess, Malvern, Worcestershire

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