Posted tagged ‘Michael Gove’

A quest for ignorance?

June 20, 2016

One of the more curious things to come out of the current British EU referendum campaign is the debate about ‘experts’. For some time the Remain side have been producing economists, political scientists, financiers and others to explain why a UK exit form the EU – so-called ‘Brexit’ – would be a bad idea. The Leave side have been much less successful in getting well known figures to support their case. And so, in the course of an interview on Sky television, leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove offered this: ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’.

However, this is not a completely new suggestion. Some years ago in 1981 I attended a conference as a young lecturer. One of the invited speakers was one of Mr Gove’s predecessors as Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. In the course of a questions and answers session at the end of his talk, he was invited to consider the line-up of prominent economists then publicly criticising the Conservative government’s economic policies. ‘Ah, the experts,’ he mused. ‘”Expertise” is just a fancy word for “bias”. We don’t need all these self-proclaimed experts.’ And before him still, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan complained that ‘we have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts’.

In the current EU campaign, the dislike of expertise and a lack of trust in experts has become one of the characteristics of the Leave population. According to a recent poll, Leave voters actually don’t trust many people generally, but particularly not economists, academics, people from the Bank of England, and think tanks. Instead they prefer to rely on the common sense of ‘ordinary people’.

It is tempting for an academic to be dismissive of all this. However, that would be wrong. Far from being dismissive, we should be concerned that the pursuit of knowledge is so little valued by so many people. Is it because Lord Hailsham was actually right – that becoming highly knowledgeable in a particular field desensitises us to the validity of challenge from those not in the inner circle of expertise? Do we need to look more closely – as a research project is doing – at the idea of intellectual humility?

On the other hand, we should be vigorous in defence of knowledge and discovery, without which we can achieve neither progress nor a civilised society. Those of us who make some claim to expertise should do so without arrogance, but also with confidence in the importance of scholarship and the contribution it makes. Common sense is a traditional British virtue; but it is not a substitute for expertise.

And this is how it’s playing in the UK

March 3, 2010

Just as we are getting ourselves all worked up about grades in Irish schools and higher education institutions, the issue has also come up again in the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party’s education spokesperson Michael Gove has drawn attention to some research apparently conducted by Durham and Coventry universities (though I have not been able to find any direct details of this) which, he says, shows that it was ‘easier to secure good pass marks at A level now than a generation ago.’

Whether this accurately describes the research is something that we will need to check when details of the study are released, but in the meantime the Tory Party is proposing certain steps which may have a significant impact on universities. What Michael Gove is suggesting is that the universities should be charged with setting the curriculum and the examinations for A levels:

‘So we will take control of the A-level syllabus and question-setting process out of the hands of bureaucrats and instead empower universities, exam boards and learned societies with the task of ensuring these qualifications are rigorous. The aim of the next Conservative Government will be to have a school examination system which is the most rigorous in the world, safeguarded by the nation’s guardians of academic excellence.’

It is difficult to see exactly how this would work, but on the other hand it would be interesting to consider how universities, which often rightly complain that the final school examinations don’t properly prepare students for higher education, might influence the curriculum to overcome issues that now affect secondary education. Perhaps there might be some merit in having this discussion in Ireland.