Mr Gove, the orator, invoked the spirit of another famous orator, Gladstone, in his recent Cambridge speech
. He described how Gladstone flattered the intelligence of his audience by speaking of Pericles, Virgil and Dryden and how such a speech couldn’t be made today because politicians and the electorate are too thick to appreciate such erudition.
In his Midlothian Campaign, Gladstone spoke to crowds of thousands and was treated like a visiting celebrity. Mr Gove thinks that everyone in the “audience of [presumably only male] agricultural labourers and mineworkers” would have caught every utterance. Gladstone addressed his listeners with no modern communication aids – no giant screens or public address systems. It is impossible that every word was heard. It is more likely that the mass rallies would have been like the scene in the Life of Brian where those listening to the Sermon on the Mount from far away thought that Jesus had said, “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
“To aspire to be educated…” is a noble ambition – in this Mr Gove is correct. But his idea of education is focused too narrowly on the classics. It is the themes that are important not who advanced them. Readers can learn much about the promotion of national identity from the funeral oration of Pericles, yes, but there are other sources, literary, historical and topical, from which to learn the same lesson.
Mr Gove was correct when he said, “I think any society is a better society for taking intellectual effort more seriously, for rewarding intellectual ambition, for indulging curiosity, for supporting scholarship, for feting those who teach and celebrating those who learn.” But he undermines all this by insinuating that scholarship is only found in academies, only young teachers are worthy of being “feted”, and only academies, especially if run by chains, can help the disadvantaged.
If Gladstone were speaking today would he do what Mr Gove did – use data that he knows is disputed to underpin his argument? Would he imply that good practice can only be found in those organisations of which he approves? And did Gladstone give the impression that he was trying just a little too hard in mentioning as many intellectual heavyweights as possible?
Mr Gove mocked the discussion in classrooms of examples of contemporary culture. “English Language GCSE,” he says, “can include listening to tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers.” Mr Gove seems unaware that popular culture can lead to the study of heavier texts. Comparing a TV soap episode with Dickens, for example, can stimulate a discussion about how the emotional arc can hook readers. Listening to a pop song can give resonance to an historical event - “Masses against the Classes” by the Manic Street Preachers, for example, leads us to Gladstone:
“All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes.”
I wonder why that quotation wasn’t in Gove’s speech.