Gove, Goody and Gramsci: equity cannot come through elitism

Written by Heather. Posted in Featured, News

When Jade Goody manoeuvred her body through an elastic band in her 2002 UK Big Brother audition video, little can she have imagined that a mere 11 years later she would be cited alongside Italian neo-marxist Antonio Gramsci as the twin inspirations for government education policy. She was inscribed thus, within UK Minister Michael Gove’s speech this week to The Social Market Foundation. Gove’s speech is in this and other ways remarkable as he presents himself as standing up for equality and social mobility against the forces of educational progressivism. In this post I argue that he does this through a doublespeak in which he simultaneously reasserts elitism.

Reading Gove’s claim that his government’s educational philosophy is not conservative at all but “uncompromisingly radical”, the day after his Conservative-led coalition led a vote in favour of gay marriage, one has the feeling of having travelled through the looking glass. Gove argues that the key to social equity is widening access to the canon of knowledge via traditional pedagogies:

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.

Gove selectively appropriates not just Goody and Gramsci but also the work of many others who would not support his call to traditionalism. This includes implicit references to the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (“cultural capital”), revolutionary educator and thinker Paolo Freire (“liberation theology”) and innovative state schools such as Holland Park. So, while I experienced some pleasure at seeing Jade Goody acknowledged as inspirational and intelligent, my dominant response to this speech is anger.

Bourdieu’s work calls on us to see privilege as going beyond economics to who you know (social capital) and what you know (cultural capital). This undoubtedly invokes teachers to make available to those from working-class backgrounds the cultural capital of knowledge and taste that are valued in society. However, stopping there is at best disingenuous and at worst deceit.

Bourdieu’s position is that schooling’s function in society is to create inequality: “to penalize the underprivileged and favour the most privileged, the school has only to neglect, in its teaching methods and techniques and its criteria when making academic judgements, to take into account the cultural inequalities between the different social classes”. This happens when we base our curriculum on ways of being with which not all young people have the same levels of familiarity and comfort: “by treating all pupils, however unequal they may be in reality, as equal in rights and duties, the educational system is led to give its de facto sanction to initial cultural inequalities” (1974, p. 37). Education, within capitalism, has a selection function. If everyone passed their examinations with A* grades then we’d need to invent new grades and new assessments.

Bourdieu – and Goody and Gramsci – ask us to question how some knowledge and tastes come to be valued – as high culture, worthy of inclusion in the national curriculum etc – and some don’t. Perhaps Gramsci’s most famous concept is hegemony. He argues that there’s a process by which particular accounts, ways of beings, truths, and so on, win out over alternatives and come to be thought of as the one, the best, the hegemonic. This crucial point, that knowledge is contested, is absent from Gove’s speech. Mathematics is often viewed as the most uncontroversial subject, yet there have been fierce arguments about what maths children should be taught and massive changes in the school curriculum even between my mother’s and my own generation. When Gove praises the private school attended by Stella McCartney’s children, where “the narrative of British history [is] properly taught”, we have to ask: whose narrative?

It is good to see conservative Gove noticing that our state schools do amazing work. However, his positioning of the private school system as a model of practice is problematic because it presents state schools as only ever second best. It’s also a misrepresentation of private schooling. Summerhill School, where lessons are optional and which is run democratically with the voices of the headteacher’s and the youngest child worth the same, could only exist in the private sector. Speaking yesterday on Newsnight, the headteacher of Wellington College, one of the UK’s most elite educational institutions, stressed the importance of young people finding things out for themselves, a key tenet of progressivism. Research shows that many so-called progressive approaches are effective. Thus it’s not surprising that a large number of the middle classes want these for their children. If Gove is so concerned about equity why should working-class children and young people not have the right to experience these tried and tested techniques? Why are they stuck with learning to read via phonics and to do long division by rote?

In fact Gove is working with a caricature of the left. For example he positions the left as suggesting: “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”. Yet, many of us have been working for years to show this is not true. However, we’d also want to ask about how Goody’s memory is being used to construct aspiration as leaving the working class behind. Goody invested in her children’s education and accumulation of middle-class knowledge, but how does this position working classness? Organisations like the Workers Educational Association have a long history of promoting working-class education not as a route to social mobility but as part of a way of being working class.

On the left there have long been debates about education (and everything else). Paul Ernest (drawing on the work of Stephen Ball) has identified two different policy positions: progressive educators, who favour child-centred approaches, and public educators, who have a more political analysis of education and how it reproduces inequalities. There are also debates about how to balance giving oppressed people access to socially-valued knowledge with focus critiquing this. Paolo Freire talks about “reading the word and reading the world”, advocating that literacy always being related to emancipation. Others, like Marilyn Frankenstein, have applied this to mathematics. I would recommend Gove engage with the richness of this and other thinking on the left rather than cherry picking from it to support his own agenda.

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