In his elitism, his intransigence, his scorn of the masses, Michael Gove is a Coriolanus for our times

Wherever two or more people agree it’s time to worry. Wherever thousands agree it’s time to run

Howard Jacobson
Friday 18 July 2014 23:19

Howard Jacobson is a knob.” This pithy reflection on my character apparently appeared where pithy reflections on people’s characters routinely do. It was passed on to me by a “friend” and I am so enamoured of its pithiness that I pass it on to you. It will, I hope, prevent others from going to the trouble of posting something similar when they read what I have to say today. In particular, members of the teaching profession delighted to see the back of Michael Gove. I have no desire to pick a fight with teachers for whom, in general, I have the highest respect. No job is more important or more frustrating, and few are so miserably rewarded. We are with teachers all the way in this column. So it isn’t to spite them that I say I was all the way with Michael Gove too. People you respect can be wrong sometimes. That doesn’t make them knobs.

I have spoken before about the qualities I admire in Michael Gove. He is one of those men who look as though they can knit with their teeth. Whether this is to do with the speed at which he makes words, the subtlety of his thoughts, the controversial nature of what he is saying, the exigencies of an Aberdeen out of Edinburgh accent, or just the number of teeth he has, is beyond me to decide. But I am fascinated by the argument his face appears always to be having with itself. It is as though his eyes, which are kindly, don’t agree with his mouth, which is not. So when teachers marched carrying banners saying GOVE OUT, I wondered which Gove they meant – the Gove who could be so benign in a classroom that children must have longed to have him as their uncle, or the other one, who was too damn clever, too damn certain, too damn articulate, and too damn quick to damn, for his own and, some would say, the teaching profession’s good.

There was a time when I would have weighed in to the debate he was having with teachers. Intellectually, it seemed to me – though he studied English at Oxford, not Cambridge – we shared assumptions. We were both Arnoldians – “the best that has been thought and said” men. If you think Arnoldians are knobs – because who is anybody to say what is the best that has been thought and said – you will get short shrift from us. If you value teaching, as opposed to telling pupils, as Barrowford Primary School has just done, that travelling to “a really neat place” and “being there for your friends” is no less what learning is about, if you think the purpose of education is to inform and stimulate rather than console (sweet as those consolations are), then you must allow that the teacher is the repository and conduit of the best that has been thought and said.

This is not to be confused with tyranny or even dogmatism. Convey a passion for the best and you will pass on the passion, not the canon. The strongest-minded teachers produce the strongest-minded pupils. Thus, though truth will change from generation to generation, the love of it will not. It is not conviction that kills in education, but relativism. And Gove was never a relativist.

So when it came to insisting that there were some things children should not leave school without knowing, that a certain level of intellectual sophistication was to be expected from those who taught them, that education was in the doldrums and that we could fairly demand more from all parties to the system, he could not, in my estimation, be faulted. Thereafter I lost him. Not philosophically but in the nuts and bolts of the business – the academies and converters and free schools and whatever else. I’m of the Jesus persuasion when it comes to teaching. It doesn’t matter where you do it. A mountain top, a field, by the shore of a lake or even on the lake itself if you really are the Son of God. And I’m not a fan of paperwork either. No teacher should ever have to fill in a form. Socrates refused, and if the unions also refuse I’m sympathetic to their impatience.

But I didn’t like to see them marching against Gove whatever the justice of their grouse. Powerful in their unanimity, they were also weak in it. Wherever two or more people agree it’s time to worry. Wherever thousands agree it’s time to run. And if you think that contradicts my belief in the best that has been thought and said, let me tell you, in the spirit of Michael Gove, you’re wrong. For I haven’t said I want unswerving agreement on what’s best, only that every teacher should aspire to teaching it. It felt like mob rule, anyway, that massed hubbub raised against a single man.

And now he’s gone I hope some will be feeling as the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius felt when he betrayed Coriolanus. “My rage is gone; /And I am struck with sorrow”. I don’t light by accident on Coriolanus. Gove reminds me of him. It’s not a likeness I’d want to push too far. Gove is not an engine of war, and while I know nothing of Coriolanus’s teeth I doubt he knitted with them. But both are noncomformable, elitists, men who scorn the multitude, men incapable of emollience. Coriolanus promising to be temperate when questioned by the tribunes in the Forum – “The word is ‘mildly’ ... mildly be it then” – and at the first provocation turning on the people whose support he needs – “You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate” – calls to mind Michael Gove trying to remember what’s required of a politician in a television age, and forgetting.

Outstanding teachers favoured his reforms, he declared on Newsnight last week. So it was only the bad ones who didn’t? He took only a fraction of a second to decide to blow his own brains out. Yes, it was only the bad ones who didn’t. Heroism, I call that. In an age of lickspittle, all-pleasing, focus-group mediocrity we should cheer his principled intransigence to the rooftops.

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