“(Not) a reactionary nostalgist in the republic of letters”

John Rentoul

michael gove education martingodwin guardian 300x180 (Not) a reactionary nostalgist in the republic of lettersAnother furiously aspiring speech from Michael Gove today:

All of us who are parents would be delighted if our children were learning to love George Eliot, write their own computer programmes, daring to take themselves out of their comfort zone and aspiring to be faster, higher or stronger.

Unless, of course, we write for Guardian Education…

Jacqueline Wilson revealed that the fan letters she received from English boys and girls were invariably worse-written than letters from foreign students. Fans from abroad, she said, would apologise for their poor English. But their English was better than the English of the English.

Jacqueline Wilson is not – by any measure – a reactionary nostalgist in the republic of letters. Her work deals – unsparingly and in detail – with divorce, mental illness, life in the care system and growing up poor. We’re not talking pixies dancing under the Faraway Tree here.

Gove takes on Michael Rosen’s recent article in The Guardian, which argued against the idea of right and wrong in grammar because “there is lively disagreement among linguists about terminology and the functions of words in the context of real writing and speech”:

I could point out that the newspaper Mr Rosen writes for has a style guide, a team of trained sub-editors and a revise sub-editor as well as a night editor and a backbench of assistant night editors to ensure that what appears under his – and everyone else’s – byline is correct English. I could observe that it was a funny form of progressive thinking that held that the knowledge which elites have used to communicate with confidence and authority over the years – and which they pay to ensure their children can master – should be denied to the majority of children.

But I will abjure such Ciceronian rhetorical tricks.

And quote instead from John Blake of Labour Teachers [whom Gove has cited before]. He said Michael Rosen’s column should be renamed “Letter from a Conspiracy Theorist” and was “basically an argument that poor kids can’t possibly learn to write properly”.

Which strikes me as a fair summary. And a revealing insight into the depth of the low expectations on one side of the education debate.

But what is equally revealing – and much more optimistic – is that the person calling out Michael Rosen is not a Tory MP or a conservative commentator but a teacher – a Labour teacher.

Top marks, though, to my colleague Jane Merrick, who points out that the words that adorn the start of Gove’s text, “Truth is beauty and beauty is truth”, are a misquotation of John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Photograph: Martin Godwin, Guardian

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  • porkfright

    I will never learn to love George Eliot-a poor writer in my opinion. There are far finer writers in English and of English. However the hidebound simply can’t be bothered to find them.

  • Russell Child

    Here is a link to a much better response to Gove’s speech:

  • Timothy David Cruise

    Prescriptivism is false.

    Adherence to “correct English” is classist precisely because it privileges elites. What we call “standard english” is a prestige dialect maintained by a social fiction. There is no inferiority or incorrectness in any other dialect, including the dialects of young urban youth, many of which are fascinatingly complex and capable of great depth of communication. This is not saying “poor children can’t learn correct english”; most of them do. They shouldn’t HAVE TO because “correct english” only exists as a way of shaming and separating other people.

    Also, some people legitimately can’t learn correct english, because of mental disabilities. These people are doubly harmed by the advocacy of “correct English”. And then there’s the backhand that comes with it, which is “your english is INCORRECT”, stigmatising, or the quality of education argument – selection of schools is a privilege accorded to the middle and upper classes, and therefore attacking or denigrating those who had a worse education is classist and horrible. And, of course, let’s be clear; “standard english” is inconsistent and impossible to follow and largely based on Latin grammar rules instituted by people in the 1800s who thought that ending a sentence with a preposition “sounds common”; half of our grammar rules are literally based on classist slurs, and the other half aren’t real.

    And, of course, everyone since Johnson in the foreword to the dictionary knew that the very idea of trying to create a standard for a language was ridiculous and had never worked.

    Hi, Linguistics here. Just to let you know that nobody even vaguely related to this article has a clue what they’re talking about, and at least one of them is being thoroughly intellectually dishonest.

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