I’m meant to be perking you up here. That’s the brief. Well, lately, I’m having a hard time perking myself up. I’m glumming down. Why? Clots still rule, dunderheads are still in the ascendance. Catastrophes are blooming, psychopaths are honoured, Jewish schools are threatened, mosques are burned, the Daily Mail reveals that my old school hatched several jihadists – and now a Commons Committee tells us that the Coalition’s flagship multi-million education policies are an utter omnishambles.
Well, knock me down with feathers.
I gaze at the drizzle outside my kitchen window. A figure jogs by. It is Michael Gove in motion. It’s not poetry. I’m not hallucinating. Honest. The great man is a neighbour. He runs by at a fair clip. I expect to see a stampede of raging teachers in hot pursuit.
My goodness, the world’s in a grim pickle. I have darker thoughts. Might our education system be complicit in this pickle? Is all this whizzo progress just a hype? With all these trillion of A*s, all these flash academies and glass palaces, how come there’s such brainless behaviour out there, such an absence of thinking? To what extent are the present fundamental phobias a consequence of an incurious, unquestioning system?
I gaze at more drizzle.
Surely education’s meant to be an antidote to this nonsense – especially my subject, English. Literature. It surely trades in complexity, ambiguity, empathy, sensitivities, no easy solutions. A shot of Swift could well render you immune to cant. A shot of Blake to dullards. Animal Farm to flogging kings and crazed oligarchs. To Kill a Mockingbird to vile racists. And Shakespeare, well taught, could surely see off all dogma and might just make us kinder. You can’t keep a good book down. “A book can be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” said the fabulous Franz Kafka, whose work tends to destroy any easy comfort zones. I often saw all this in my classes, these thrills and lightbulb moments. Teaching could be so thrilling.
Well, no more. That stuff’s romantic delusion. Who says? Terry Eagleton. A Marxist Big Wig and English Professor of All Known Thought. “Academic institutions are now mere accomplices of corporate capitalism,” says he. They’re “intellectual Tescos”. Literature is now used as mere cultural capital. Intellectuals and academics have betrayed us. Is he right? Are schools in the same boat? Is our exam system also complicit in this? Are teachers trapped in it? Mere facilitators? I fear so. We tried fighting it and failed.
The drizzles thickens. The Gove has quite gone. He is no more – along with my silly idealism. I go back to feeling mighty glum.
Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.