All politicians were once at school themselves, and they seem to believe that this means they know what is wrong with the modern educational system and how it should be put right. A prime example is Michael Gove, who in May 2010 became Secretary of State of Education. He had told The Times newspaper, in an interview published on March 6th 2010, 'I'm an unashamed traditionalist when it comes to the curriculum. Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That's the best training of the mind and that's how children will be able to compete.'
Perhaps that is what he did. It is certainly what I did, starting about seventy years ago, and I can recite the kings and queens of England as far as William II – William I, 1066-1087, William II 1087-1100 – and that's it. I left school with an A-Level equivalent in French and German, too inhibited even to order a drink in a café or buy a railway ticket. I wonder how good Michael Gove himself is on the Kings and Queens of England, and how well he can manage in a foreign country. Perhaps he has forgotten much of what he was taught, but feels his mind has been well trained and that makes him 'able to compete', whatever that may mean.
His scientific education seems to have failed him. He recently announced that all children should learn Newton's laws of thermodynamics. He had himself apparently never learnt even the name for Newton's laws of motion, let alone understood any of them.
Gove is impressed by the fact that the Prince of Wales has expressed concern about the dumbing down of the curriculum. He shares his worry about traditional subjects being replaced with themed lessons on social issues such as global warming, and children being encouraged to learn blogging rather than studying historical dates and classic books.
It is surely more important to be well-informed about global warming than to be able to recite the Kings and Queens of England, and blogging is a highly motivating way of learning to express your opinions in writing. Classic books were not written for children, they were written for adults, and to be forced to read them when you are too young to enjoy them is only too likely to put you off reading for ever.
In 2011 Gove suddenly introduced what he called the English baccalaureate, to be taken at the age of 16, apparently not having known that the French baccalaureate is taken at eighteen. (Perhaps he did not do too well in French at school.) In order to get Gove's new qualification, candidates have to get good grades in exams in English, Maths, Science, a language and either geography or history.
Compulsory classes in a foreign language are justified on the grounds that English people are ashamed when they meet Dutch people or Danes who speak several languages fluently, and they can only speak one. This is of course not because the English people weren't taught a language at school – most of them will have had four or five lessons a week for at least five years. The reason so few of us can speak a foreign language is that so few of us have ever had any need to. In the Middle Ages the only language you needed if you wanted to travel through Europe was Latin, and now the only language you need is English.
And it is not true to say that English people in general cannot speak any other language. Well over ten per cent of children in British schools speak Panjabi, Arabic, Urdu, Somali, Polish, Yoruba, Welsh or some other language. These languages, though fluently spoken, do not seem to count as academically valuable. Apparently our politicians do not understand that what is valuable about learning a language is not so much the usefulness of the language itself as the discovery that there are other ways of thinking. If you speak different languages at home and at school, the lesson is self-evident.
Gove, before he had been appointed to his Cabinet position, said that he was amazed to discover that science was not divided into physics, chemistry and biology, but had 'these hybrid headings about the chemical and material whatever and the Earth, the environment and this and that.' His incoherent 'whatever' and 'this and that' do not disguise the fact that he is endorsing exactly the kind of learning of unconnected facts that drove John Taylor Gatto, twice New York State Teacher of the Year, to leave teaching. (See link to Seven Wrong Lessons below.)
The list of changes Gove desires reaches far back into the past. History should be taught 'in order', just as it was when I was at school, all those years ago. Children should be taught to be proud of the British Empire, just as I was taught. Shakespeare should be taught in primary schools. Children should have to learn French, German, Italian or Spanish.
Michael Gove claims that 'most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows.' Perhaps he has forgotten that children who sit in rows chat and misbehave and throw things at each other. They do as little work as possible, because they are not working for themselves but only to appease their teachers. All too many of them learn to hate school, just as their parents and grandparents did.