JohnbaldJohn Bald on breaking down class barriers to educational advance

Interviewed in The Spectator just before Christmas , Michael Gove mentioned his "new favourite book", "The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes", by Jonathan Rose, which has just run to a second edition. It sheds light on his thinking, which can at times be enigmatic. Just after the 2010 election, for example,  he gave a talk to the Wellington College Festival of Education on the theme of "Educating Rita". "Which is fine…" remarked a somewhat bemused Dr Anthony Sheldon, who had put on a tie for the first time in the proceedings in honour of the new Secretary of State.

But was it fine, most of us wondered?  Rita was surely "old hat"? Well, not to Michael, and this book shows why. From the beginning, the individual accounts of people moving from a working class background – defined largely in terms of lack of educational opportunity rather than work – speak with a personal voice that resists collectivism, either from the bosses who want to keep them ignorant – Henry Ford would sack workers for joining evening classes – or from the Leftist politicos, who saw them as Marxist cannon fodder.  One way or another, intellect and authority clash. Rose is pretty firmly on the side of intellect, and I think Michael Gove is too.

An early example of authority seeking to limit thought was Henry VIII's proclamation of 1539 limiting discussion and even reading of scripture to graduates of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Not a lot of people know that, and I certainly didn't before reading this book. It was followed by an Act of 1543 stipulating that "No women, nor artificers, 'prentices, journeymen, servingmen of the degrees of yeomen or under, husbandmen nor labourers" were permitted to read the English Bible."  There is a clear parallel with Iranian theocracy.

As the bonds loosen, we meet the eighteenth century philanthropist Hannah More, expecting deference in return for her support of the poet Ann Yearsly,  but having her hand bitten  - "You tax me with ingratitude, for why? You found me poor, yet proud…You helped to place me in the public Eye; my success you think beyond my abilities, and purely arising from your protection. I cannot think it ingratitude to disown as obligation a proceeding which must render me and my children your poor dependents forever".

Paradoxically, we find Marxist historians drawing inspiration from the historical vision of Lord Macaulay, and seeing even Sir Walter Scott as a critic of capitalism. As the nineteenth-century radical journalist Thomas Frost put it, "Working men do not like to be treated like children, or to have the books they shall read chosen for them; and they naturally resent any attempt to set up barriers between ourselves and other classes, when all are associated on the same footing for a common object."  

We also meet one or two Ritas (not many, as women were excluded from many nineteenth century mutual improvement societies), such as the Workers' Educational Association activist and millworker Alice Foley, who resented subservience and "the lack of human dignity accorded to our status as "hands" with appropriate check numbers", seeking instead the life of the mind, "where the spirit of freedom and joy shone through".

There are lots more comments and quotations along these lines, and they all make it clear that education is for the individual rather than the group. Family hostility, occasionally from sisters as well as husbands, accusations of snobbery for wanting to pursue a person's own course,  to stand on his or own feet, all the obstacles to what Burns called "the man o' independent mind", are met and overcome.

Nothing could be further from the intellectual rationing we've seen from Labour governments and local authorities, and to me it's a short step from these examples to Michael Gove saying at the Party Conference, "Don't let your ideology hold our children back."

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