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Education, Twitter and the Herd Mentality

During my teacher training, Twitter proved an essential tonic. Sat at the back of the latest class in which some daft idea was ‘offered’ (I’ll keep it vague because, seriously, we do not have the time), I knew that I only needed to retreat to the digital community I had discovered through Twitter to be reminded that my doubts and objections were shared by a whole host of other teachers. And not just some digital rump of eccentrics (though that too), but dynamic, high quality professionals.

And so the lectures became bearable. Being a sceptic alone in a crowd is one thing – being supported with the arguments, language, data, evidence and anecdotes of a whole group who share that scepticism is quite another. And so the features of the teaching landscape became clearer and there stood I, keyboard at the ready, mockingly dismissing VAK, and NLP, and Brain Gym, and myriad other fashions as being the unmistakable marks of an educational regressive. If I’m honest this probably filled me with a sense of superiority (did I mention how high quality, dynamic and professional those on ‘my side’ seemed to be?), and more than once I guffawed at the apparent herd mentality of those on the trendy side of the teaching divide.

Now this is an important bit: I haven’t changed my views on those issues one tiny bit. If anything they have become more entrenched.

Now we have that out of the way (that I felt the need to say it will hopefully come to prove my argument), I can proceed with my main point, which is this: the iconoclasts have become icons. The non-conformists remarkably conformist. The radicals have become…. you get the idea.  

In other words, what started out as a loose band of folk seeking to challenge some of the dafter ideas permeating the education debate, has since become a remarkably homogenous tribe in itself which in many ways emulates that which it sought to replace. It used to be all about independent, critical, evidenced thought, and for many it no doubt still is – but it has outgrown its original brief and has come to resemble something more akin to a culture war. Which I suppose is fine, so far as it remains authentic. Grown around it, however, is a whole grammar of thought and debate which is becoming every bit as conformist, intolerant, credulous and quite frankly repetitive as that edifice which it sought to haul down.

This is not to say that the more mischievous, and weary, side of me is not still engaged by the debates taking place – hear that? He used ‘engage’, oh my God, that’s weasel word number 1! What a loser!  – but it can also be tiresome. If we’re going to insist ideas stand or fall by their merits, then discussion has to remain about ideas. Scanning through the Twitter timelines it seems the emphasis has become lost amongst a scrabble to retweet with scorn anyone who happens to use a proscribed word or show even the slightest glimmer of possibly, in some sense, now and again and in certain circumstances, depending on context, be mildly sympathetic to something which seems to be connected with an idea that has been defined as progressive. All too often it’s not about substance but catchphrase. It has turned tribal, with an incredible readiness to denounce, primarily (or so it seems to me) in order to assert one’s own ‘new traditionalist’ credentials.

I must, at this point, say two things. 1) I’m not thinking of any one individual in particular when I write this, and 2) I’m as guilty as anybody else. But it’s something of which I’m becoming increasingly aware. And increasingly penitent.  

Tories, conservatives and Gove

“We are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility. We have got to stop treating children like adults and adults like children. It is about everyone taking responsibility.
“The more we as a society do, the less we will need government to do. We will have to tear down Labour’s big government bureaucracy — ripping up its time-wasting, money-draining, responsibility-sapping nonsense.”

That from a speech by David Cameron in 2011, trying to reach out to those in his party, and out of it, who cling to traditional conservative instincts regarding the role of the state and the role of the individual.

And the words had power. The very presence of Blue Labour testify to that. For many, Labour had become statist, authoritarian, and were too often an obstacle to a family trying to get on in life, poking in their nose where it was neither welcome nor needed and often making things worse in the process. The Broken Society was real – it was the State, and its leeching of responsibility from individuals, which had caused it.

Indeed, often there was a more sinister edge to the analysis. Since people had lost trust in the state, so they had also lost trust in its motives, meaning that any move to insert the state into realms traditionally belonging to the individual or the family were treated with a mixture of suspicion and derision. As such, if Labour had ever suggested that schools open earlier, and close later, and have shorter holidays, and hold summer camps, and even offer sleepovers for children, then we could have expected to be greeted with cries of derision and uncharitable suggestions as to why the Labour government wishes to insert itself as surrogate parent to the nation’s children.

And yet, today, this is exactly what the Department of Education is proposing. And outrage/derision/mockery/suspicion came there none.

Why? Well, because the DfE is Michael Gove’s gig, and Tories tend to suspend all critical judgment when it comes to Michael Gove, primarily because they (wrongly) see him as a Burkean hero slaying the forces of Leftism with his sword of righteous radicalism. For them, what Gove says and what Gove does must necessarily be right, primarily because of whom it appears to upset. If they spent more than five minutes actually considering what Gove says and what Gove does, they would see that quite often it is they themselves who are out of tune with his political instincts.

And so, with an appeal to making being a parent fit more conveniently around working hours and a busy modern life, so the Tories propose to insert the state far more intimately into family life than Labour ever did. And those that call themselves Tory either stay silent or cheer wildly, convinced that he who pulls the rug from under the feet of their intellectual tradition is actually one of their own.