David Cameron’s “elitism” – is it any good?

19th January, 2010 4:03 pm

CameronBy David Beeson

In writing these posts, I have to admit that on occasion I do engage in what, in some quarters, might be regarded as criticism of David Cameron. Whenever I do, many of those who post comments on my pieces accuse me of engaging in “class war”. Each time this happens, my mind fills with images of pots and kettles tumbling around.

David Cameron confirmed my feelings again yesterday. He’s announced new plans to encourage graduates with “good” degrees from “good” universities into teaching. All this hinges on just what one means by “good”.

Cameron’s main concern is with science and mathematics teachers, but it’s clear that he wants “good” teachers in other subjects too. I’m a French graduate, with a “good” degree (in the sense he means: the class obtained) and though it isn’t from one of the universities he would no doubt regard as the “best” (Oxbridge) but from London, at least it wasn’t from a former Polytechnic (former polytechnics have, it appears, become universities that are generally far from “good” in Cameron’s estimation).

Now I loved the subjects I studied. It’s almost shaming to admit my degree of geekiness, but I enjoyed the 12th century Song of Roland; the poetry of François Villon who simply disappears from the historical record in the middle of the fifteenth century, presumed hanged for unspecified offences; the great seventeenth century playwrights; and, my personal favourites, the giants of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, Voltaire, Diderot and their associates. Excellent stuff. But would it have made me a good teacher?

The aim of French teaching is to get our young people up to a level of knowledge of the language that allows them to communicate in Paris or, indeed, Brussels. It’s far from clear that the best way of doing that necessarily lies through talking to them about the limitations of Leibniz’s teleology and Voltaire’s assaults on it.

I also have difficulty imagining, say, a fourth year boy from Hackney wanting to tell his Lord that he found his life painful, and even if he did and chose to do it French, I’d hope that he would refer to God as “Dieu”, the 21st Century word rather than ‘Deus’, as Charlemagne does in the Song of Roland, and he would describe his life as “pénible”, the modern term, rather than “penuse”, as in the twelfth century version.

In fact, I’m far from convinced that simply having excelled academically in one of the grander, older universities necessarily makes you a better teacher. What it does, though, is make you much more attractive to someone whose world view is essentially that of a crashing snob.

So who’s waging class war? Me or David Cameron?

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