Have the Right Hijacked Teaching?

I read with interest Daisy Norfolk’s recent blog post Tiger Teachers or simply the Fearsome Far-Right? in which she likens some elements of the teacher Twitterati to Nigel Farage and the rise of the far-right. Norfolk is a vocal critic of some of the more influential voices who cut their teeth in the Twittersphere and rapidly branched out into the real world. Vehemently opposed to the authoritarian methods employed by Michaela Community School, a London free school, Norfolk appears to have become even more critical following the publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way, edited by headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh and including chapters written by staff at the school. The school (and the promotional book) have been lauded by many of the influential teacher folk on Twitter.

The claim Norfolk makes is that support for Michaela and the growth of far-right ideology amongst the more vocal teachers on Twitter, is comparable with the rise of right-wing sentiment in the UK and the wider landscape. This is certainly a interesting suggestion, and one that perhaps warrants further investigation.

I must confess to having not read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, nor have I visited Michaela Community School, so I’ll try to avoid criticism of either. The only caveat, perhaps, is to comment on the title of the book, which early on struck me as controversial in its own right. The title is obviously taken from Amy Chua’s equally controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, espousing the authoritarian parenting style adopted by many parents in parts of East, South and Southeast Asia. Tiger mothering has been found to be beneficial for academic and professional success but damaging for mental health. For example, children raised in such a way are more likely to suffer from depression and addiction later in life and have higher rates of suicide. However, not all suffer and many flourish. Children respond in different ways to different parenting styles – I suspect this would be the same where teaching is concerned (but that’s an extrapolation of what we understand from parenting studies, not from teaching). My personal opinion would be that the title was chosen in order to be controversial and controversy is a good promotional tool.

But does an authoritarian ideology make you an agent of the far-right? Furthermore, can we equate this to the rise of Farage, Le Pen, Wilders and their fascist chums? The work of Theodore Adorno would certainly suggest that we can. Adorno proposed the idea of an authoritarian personality, characterised by the tendency towards hostility, dislike of lower status individuals, the need to control others and a rigid and inflexible belief system. He measured this using what he called the F-Scale (F for fascist). People develop an authoritarian personality, he claimed, partly by being raised by authoritarian parents.

Adorno’s theory of authoritarian personality is flawed on a number of levels, but does raise a number of interesting questions. The most recent and the most comprehensive analysis of the EU referendum result published by NatCen points to a country not divided by left versus right but by liberal versus authoritarian, in an adoption of the so-called culture wars that developed in the United States in the early 2000’s and has culminated in the election of Donald Trump (a battle based on identify and values rather than political allegiance).

Authoritarianism is, of course, a poor solution in the long term. Such regimes lack staying power because people don’t like their freedom to be undermined. David Cameron telling people to vote remain will have led some undecided voters to do the opposite because they wanted the freedom to make their own decisions (a psychological phenomenon known as reactance). The more authoritarian the approach, the bigger the backlash.

Societal differences are often played out on social media and I think Twitter is perhaps the best example. The authoritarian voice appears much louder than the liberal voice on Twitter and I don’t really know why this is the case; perhaps authoritarians are just more attracted to Twitter? It would also appear to me that those teachers labelling themselves as traditionalist are more likely to adhere to authoritarian values than so-called progressives. The added problem is that Twitter, while great for sharing ideas, is a poor platform for debate (140 characters just isn’t enough) and often results in ridicule and ritualised humiliation of the individual who dares to oppose the more powerful voices (many of us have been on both sides of this at one time or another and I’ll admit to tweeting nasty things in order to feel like one of the gang). An added complication is that some appear to use Twitter for self-promotion or to gain favour from the more influential teachers and semi-teachers (I have known some leave Twitter both permanently and temporarily for this reason). Farage is a chancer, a political opportunist, and there are many like him on Twitter.

I feel Norfolk’s anger and frustration. I venture onto Twitter with much more trepidation and caution than I once did – I must have a thin skin. The problem with this is that Twitter rapidly becomes nothing more than an echo chamber for the back-slapping brigade and the self-promotion clan and any kind of useful debate dies out completely. Of course, very few teachers use Twitter and I suspect few have heard of Michaela Community School, so in the end, the echo chamber is quite small with little real influence.

I suspect this situation, like European fascism, will run its course.

But that’s a very liberal way to look at things.

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5 thoughts on “Have the Right Hijacked Teaching?

  1. Toby French

    But Michaela is not authoritarian, and this is where the critique immediately falls apart. Michaela looks to instil respect for authority, but is not authoritarian: pupils understand why their school is strict because rules are explained to them and the purpose is very clear, namely to give them the absolute best chance to achieve at the very highest levels so they can influence and change the world for the better. An authoratian society, on the other hand, seeks to control for control’s sake and to further the power of those already in power: this keeps the status quo. Norfolk’s assertion that this is somehow ‘far-right’ is a lazy, hate-filled critique as it deliberately ignores the very purpose of Michaela: to give children from very deprived backgrounds the chance to challenge the status quo by becoming the status quo. That’s the point. Michaela is a revolution of the poor.

    Reply
  2. Raymond Soltysek

    Can one ‘instil respect for authority’ by insisiting someone pick up a grape spat out by another person? Name one person in the ‘status quo’ authority elite who accept that?

    I don’t necessarily see the authoritarian nature of schools like Michaela as being ‘right wing’ – though the Head Teacher of course rose to fame by rabble rousing a Tory Party conference – but more to do with the ‘anti-expert’ populism that has arisen from a conjunction of anti-state neoliberalism and post-truthism.

    Reply
    1. Michael Fordham

      Although the blogs written by several of Michaela’s teachers provide numerous references to the research base they’re drawing on. One might question the validity of the research base, but it’s not really fair to say they’re ‘anti-expert’ or ‘post-truth’.

      Reply
    1. raymondsoltysek

      The cognitive science might underlie the pedagogy (although even that is debatable) but nowhere in the cognitive science do I see any reference to forcing children to pick up grapes while tugging their forelocks and reciting ‘If’. That behaviour policy simply arises from cynical fear-based semi-imperialist bunkum, and it is that authoritarianism which is referenced in this article.

      Reply

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