Gove's Re-whiting of Knowledge

03/08/2016 11:04 | Updated 03 August 2016

In my last blog post I described how New Labour's neo-liberal recasting of education as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself which had left the question 'what is knowledge' wide open and handed the coalition government the opportunity to define what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts. Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, grabbed that opportunity with both hands and ran and ran and ran with it, elevating those things he, as a privileged white man, valued and disregarding everything else.

Gove saw the fallacy of New Labour's claim that knowledge had only instrumental value and took the opportunity to give a Conservative answer to the question what counts as knowledge which is now entrenched in Britain's educational policies and structures.

At a speech at Cambridge University in 2011 Gove praised:

mathematics, English, the sciences, foreign languages, history and geography ... [as] rigorous intellectual disciplines tested over time

whilst overseeing an educational policy which devalued less traditional disciplines like media studies. The 2013 National Curriculum focused on rote learning and emphasised the importance of Standard English and learning the chronology of British history. Gove was having direct influence on what counts as knowledge and he is conservative, with a small 'c'. Gove preferred the traditional in terms of culture, knowledge, and teaching method, commenting on Gove's approach to knowledge writing in 2013 John Yandell, of the Institute of Education, characterised Gove's view as:

Knowledge, like culture, is something to be preserved, transmitted from generation to generation, not something to be made.

He further argued that Gove's conservatism extended to his view of teaching methodology, holding that Gove prefers the traditional didactic methods with the teacher venerated to the 'sage on the stage'. This view of teaching methodology as the student being a passive vessel waiting to receive knowledge from the teacher is exactly what Paulo Freire was famously describing, and critiquing, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Freire frames a pedagogy of the oppressed as a system that must be co-intentional, that is one in which the student and teacher work as partners discovering reality and that there must be a praxis to education that is about transforming and recreating that knowledge as part of the process of liberation. Praxis, for Freire, is a combination of action and reflection, he argues that dialogue is not enough but that people must come together to act to change their environment by reflecting upon it.

It is in his second chapter that Freire sets out his infamous model of students as empty vessels that passively receive knowledge which he describes with an analogy to banking. In his analogy he describes the teacher as the subject and the student as the object of a system where knowledge is deposited by the teacher in the student:

This is the 'banking' concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

Freire is critical of this because it fails to generate real knowledge. Real knowledge, as Freire calls it, requires the teacher and the student to engage in communication, inventing and re-inventing knowledge and throughout the process being both teacher and student.

Gove's vision of education relates closely to the banking model described by Freire, further Gove favours this absolutist idea of knowledge with limited scope for more modern ideas of relativism and this is clear from the 2013 version of the National Curriculum which has as its stated objective the introduction of children to:

the best that has been thought and said

In his speech to Cambridge University Gove stated that:

Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding - intellectually, sensually and emotionally - than, say, the Arctic Monkeys.

He praised:

the genius of Pythagoras, or Wagner ... the brilliance of Shakespeare or Newton, ... [and] Balzac or Pinker

and he derided To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Lord of the Flies whilst lauding the work of George Eliot, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

That Gove is saying one form of knowledge is more valid than another is concerning, that he derides every form of knowledge that reflects a cultural history other than white Englishness is prejudiced against everyone who doesn't identify with white English culture. Being taught someone else's culture, rather than your own, is a form of emancipation, it is also less engaging and more difficult.

Gove's educational ideals are what Freire describes as cultural invasion. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is challenging and arguably racist but it does explore issues of migration and exposes the reader to challenging ideas. Lord of the Flies explores the juxtaposition of individual welfare as against the common good. To Kill a Mockingbird directly challenges the racism of the American Deep South, as well as challenging, through the character of Boo Radley, prejudices around mental health. Conversely George Eliot focuses on subject-matter that is undeniably provincially English, whilst Jane Austin explores the romantic lives of the English gentry, Charles Dickens, although often critical, only departs from exploring life in Victorian London to go as far as Paris in A Tale of Two Cities, and Thomas Hardy is described by Wikipedia as:

in the tradition of George Eliot

Gove's model of education has contributed to the growing disenfranchisement of minority groups, particularly young Black men, which in turn contributed to the London riots of 2011, yet the coalition government, and the subsequent Conservative government have pushed on with the reforms he heralded, as Professor David Gilborn noted in 2013:

despite growing awareness of the anger and resentment that lay behind the disturbances, the government's response has been to push ahead with an educational reform programme wrapped in the rhetoric of high standards for all, but delivering even greater inequalities of achievement between White and Black students.