He’s the founder of the Modern Review, an associate editor at the Spectator, a blogger at the Telegraph, and a co-founder of the West London Free School. Toby Young has obviously not been held back in life for want of energy. At the moment, however, Young is busily promoting his provocatively titled booklet assessing the state of education, Prisoners of The Blob: Why most education experts are wrong about nearly everything.
When we meet to discuss what motivated the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People to turn his attention to the seemingly more mundane world of British schools, his passion for education shines through. Still, he’s aware of the challenge he faces in taking on the educational establishment. The war over education has periodically ‘raged for over 2,000 years’, he tells me. ‘In many ways it’s the most important conflict in the history of mankind.’
So what of this current educational battle with The Blob? ‘The Blob’ was first coined by William J Bennett, a Reagan-era US education secretary, but has since been taken up by UK education secretary Michael Gove as a collective noun for teachers, union leaders, teacher-trainers and other professionals who, as Young puts it, have ‘a vested interest in preserving the status quo’. Young insists that The Blob refers to ‘a particular ideological outlook’, ‘a progressive educational philosophy’ based around ideas like child-centred learning. ‘It is this ideology that is the enemy, not those who believe in it’, he says.
‘The views of The Blob spread like the Ebola virus’, Young continues, ‘but instead of killing its victims, it enhances their careers. It’s transmitted primarily through university education departments, and a consensus develops that becomes quite difficult for people to oppose.’ Although so-called progressive arguments for child-centred, topic-based education, and self-directed learning, can sound really modern and radical, Young explains that nearly all of The Blob’s ideas have been around for over 200 years and ‘can be traced back to the Romantic movement’.
Young’s main argument against The Blob centres around the place of subject knowledge in the school curriculum. Many who buy into a progressive educational outlook deride the teaching of knowledge as Gradgrind-style drilling, an old-fashioned exercise in getting children to commit information to memory that can be easily Googled and is really only useful for competing in pub quizzes. Young says that these arguments have ‘gained additional authority in the last half-century or so from the rise of postmodernism, and, in particular, from the belief that what we think of as knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is just one way of looking at the world, with no greater claim to being true than any other’.