On Right-Wing Consultants, the Totalitarian Movement and Trad Versus Prog

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?’ You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Jesus Christ[1]

“You’re a troll.”

“No, you’re a troll.”

“No, you are.”

“That proves you’re a troll.” 

The contribution to the sum-total of human knowledge of many interactions on Twitter[2]

People have made (sometimes lucrative) careers out of finding ways of obtaining Twitter followers, and this has problematised areas of educational policy. Whereas in the past, governments would take soundings from senior academics or head teachers with superb records – experts, in short, with superb histories of achievement, people you might want to listen to, heavyweights – in the last ten years, we have sourced our experts based on the amount of time they spend on a specific social media platform. Let us briefly consider the stupidity of this …

Let us also briefly consider what it might tell us about intellectual depth of a government that would select its advisors based on the amount of times they have contributed populist opinions to what is, at times, quite a vituperative and ugly place of conflict, based on the level of their own venal self-interest such contributors display. Perhaps it is an appropriate pairing.

In the earlier days of Twitter, it was possible to put together a seemingly reasonable argument that social media had democratised influence, that it had given ‘real’ teachers a voice and, in the early days of the erection of educational totalitarianism, this was certainly true. Influential voices such as Andrew Old (@OldAndrew) were, and are, teachers. It was at least the partial base of an alliance of such, and the platform for the well-organised voice of an impassioned sector of the profession who had powerful things to say about the place of knowledge on the curriculum amongst other things. This may not be true entirely anymore. Many of the most influential of them became so influential that they were able to leave the classroom and find a more profitable way of going about their business.[3]

One of the more profitable accusations at the time of the early days of the ‘insurrection’ was to call out consultants (who had probably become overly influential and many of whom were speaking based on limited recent experience in the classroom) and point out that they were not, or were no longer, teachers. There is an example of this in Tom Bennett’s ‘Running the Room’, referencing, I think, academics but perhaps taking on consultants too. Tom writes, “most of these people have never taught a class of even moderately challenging children with any success or know which way up a child goes. Such people should return to writing long, unreadable and unread essays on Freire and Foucault and leave teaching to people prepared to actually do it.”[4]

While it was standard right-wing practice, possibly building on Gove’s use of the same technique, to identify people fighting for social equity as some form of unelected elite, broadly, it was a fairish cop; and, also broadly, it seemed the accusation was motivated by a desire for greater social equity on the part of those teachers making the accusations. Worked dried up for some consultants, and those of the consultants who were able to shrugged their shoulders and trudged back to the classroom where they found, after a couple of years of relearning their trade, that their love for teaching was extant.

Yet the accusations continued well past the time they were necessarily true. They continued after the rise of traditionalism had resulted in many/most of its most influential names leaving the classroom for consultancies. Being a consultant is a guilty pleasure. It is not without its difficulties, and I’ve done quite a bit of it over the years. You are on substantially more money than the teachers you’re advising, and you’re advising them how to do something that you may no longer do. It is an innately hypocritical position but, at its upper levels (and below), people who may still be in social housing see the possibility, if they work with focus, of making enough money to substantially change the lives of their families. Given the possibility of this and the realities of daily bread, most swallow the guilt or, crucially, deflect it.

So, we are now in the weird position where a different set of former and non-teachers are publicly accusing teachers of being non-teachers. To those in receipt of those accusations, it is certainly irksome, but it is also, at its worst, evidence of the amount of projection that has come from certain voices.

As Andrew Old rightly predicted in the early days, people will fight with every ounce of power they have to maintain lucrative consultancies whether they are based on any real credibility or on a veil of smoke, bluster, publicity and thick skin. The same is true now as it always was. We have now left the last days of Rome in terms of the party that governs us. There is the scent of 1997 in the air and, with a change of political direction, those who have thrown their lot in with the previous administration and have enjoyed some closeness to the levers of power may find themselves, like the generation of consultants before them, unwanted as advisors. There are good things about being freelance (not having a boss telling you what to do is a big one), but to inhabit the role is to inhabit a near-permanent desperation. The work can be lucrative, but it can also run out, and you find you have no income for months at a time.

This sense of desperation will, by now, be becoming acute for some people. In all probability, they will seek to reposition. They will probably find this surprisingly easy able to do since their initial position may not have been inhabited with any deep conviction, more from a desire to be near power and patronage. Where one’s motivation is merely being rather diligent about one’s own personal advancement, an ideology is just a set of clothes that can easily be taken off and replaced with a different colour or style and, as the thrust of government changes so, possibly, will their views. To have been able to have worn a cloak of arguable moral defensibility, they have found themselves able to have twisted their opinions to justify possibly unjustifiable things. As Conrad says of the colonial agents in Congo in a sentence which might also be applied to education’s hollow men, “they believed in nothing and could get (themselves) to believe anything.”[5] Everything is possible, and nothing is true.[6]

One cannot expect their convictions to remain as integrity for the true believer is a malleable object, and their ‘fanaticism’ will not survive any collapse of the movement. Belief itself is, or can often be, adaptive to a change in the prevailing conditions. The beliefs of most of the followers may evaporate, and people who were happy enough to line up behind one ideology will likely find themselves equally able to line up behind an opposing one. If you have spent your last decade or so enjoying the patronage of a Conservative minister and that minister is no longer even an MP, the former minister stands a good chance of survival, but you may well be just so much flotsam in the canal.

While the argument that Twitter has democratised comment and influence has some substance, so does the counterargument that it has ‘moronised’ it. Anyone, regardless of their track record in the profession, can, with effort, become an ‘influencer’. There is no hierarchy of opinion anymore, no checks and balances to see if the opinion is that of an expert who you might want to listen to or just of someone with a social media following and eyes on the dollar. Indeed, being an expert and having nuanced views, having some authority behind your opinion has been made somewhat useless, a bit of an inconvenience. Everyone’s voice has become equally important, so no one’s voice is. As Roger Scruton would have it, we live in a landscape in terms of the quality of debate where “nothing has authority and nothing is objectively right or wrong.”[7] We are now in a situation where we have a phalanx of influencers, some of whom have had to go into such roles because either no or few schools would employ them based on their teaching abilities or professional records, who have spent a decade or so spouting lofty tautologies about how to teach from a delusional perch they were never able to sit upon at all comfortably.

Trad versus Prog

This tiresome war that never ends relies completely on the misrepresentation of the views of the other, the gullibility of the mob and their propensity to always believe the worst.

If you do not agree with totalitarian voices, you are a progressive and, therefore, to be dismissed. Totalitarians, after identifying the great danger, then go on to identify the enemy: someone or a group of people who can be held responsible for the continuation of that great danger, an establishment on whom you can superimpose your delusion of theirdominance. All tools are useful to the totalitarian, and there are people on both sides of the debate more than happy to inhabit the role of thought police seeking to somehow control what other people are allowed to believe and to say.

This is, yet again, the use of the wonky syllogism. 

Premise A – If traditionalism and progressivism are opposed, 

Premise B – And you disagree with aspects of traditionalism,

Conclusion – Then you are a progressive

This is a confusing position to be put in. Despite never having performed a card sort in our lives, despite arrogantly regarding ourselves as front-of-class firebrands, many of us were forcibly, against our will, because of our age or minor place in recent educational history, put into a box that didn’t fit us. This is characteristic of the totalitarian means of conducting business: “You believe this, and, no matter what your public pronouncements are, we will twist them so you are adapted to our view of you.”

Primo Levi identified that the human need to reduce people to a binary based on two pronouns, ‘we’ and ‘they’, perhaps because drawing the protection of the ‘we’ is such a strong driver that it dominates all other instincts. This binary – friend/enemy – causes blindness to the qualities of the other. It may be that there is good and there is evil, but they are no one’s sole possession.

The totalitarians in the education debate have become what Freire would describe as a “dominating bureaucracy”.[8] A mildly tyrannical minority have become close indeed to an authoritarian, right-wing government and have been inclined to use many of the ‘Trumpian’ or ‘Johnsonian’ techniques.[9] The chief of these techniques is a thing called lying. Mendacity is a characteristic of totalitarianism, and the extreme right of the profession find this way easier to do than should be comfortable for anyone, perhaps in the understanding that in the pedagogy wars no one asks the winners if they told the truth. It costs you nothing to spread falsehoods on Twitter, and the benefits can be substantial (either in career terms or, if you enjoy hurting others, there may be some perverse psychological pleasure involved too). 

The deliberate misrepresentation of opposing or dissident views – those of people who speak up for the child’s right to have some form of voice in their own education and who are despised as they are not initiates of the movement – is a favoured tactic. This is the rhetorical technique of ‘othering’, making the opposition’s views appear ludicrous and then laughing in public forums at how silly they are. As Madeleine Albright suggests, it is “vilifying one half [of the profession] in search of the applause of the other.”[10]

Why they do this is obvious but multifaceted. We are all of us interested in our own survival and advancement, and teaching, while not extremely poorly paid as it is a profession, has never really been the path to great riches. There is the sense that the greater public profile that can come with being an active voice on Twitter who is pleasing the high-ups of the inner circle might bring influence and, perhaps with it, money. But there is something both more complex and simpler at the same time: the need to belong, “the prize of membership in a club from which others, often the subjects of ridicule, are kept out.”[11] People are generally not that bright. They just want to believe in something, whatever that something may be. A belief in educational totalitarianism is a belief in something. Being part of a movement will give one a sense of belonging to something, and it is far easier psychologically to be a member of an in-group than it is to be part of the opposition.

Those who are subject to these distortions can find it emotionally challenging to be the focus of a mob pile-on from a coordination of ‘Philistines with degrees’, a spirit brotherhood of the soulless, vandals who, delighting in their sameness and proud of their narrowness of opinion, make up the outer circle of the in-group where one is subjected to a full English breakfast of the “two minutes hate”[12] variety, in which the hate goes on for rather longer than two minutes and one gets a smidgeon of an idea as to what it might be like to be held an enemy of the people. One becomes, in certain eyes, an unperson, an enemy of the movement, an opponent, a detractor. The atmosphere of fervid sabre rattling during these, in which some mostly imagined sin from a mostly imaginary sinner who has questioned the pedagogic orthodoxy of education is publicly upbraided and ‘thought rectified’, seems reminiscent of the mob fervour that might have occurred when people attended public hangings for entertainment.

During these pile-ons, people are subjected to what Orwell might have described as “an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it.”[13] Junior members of the in-group who aren’t part of an inner circle and are of such little consequence in terms of achievement that the most they might hope for is to one day appear as a footnote in a forgotten Policy Exchange document, perhaps to obtain approval from more senior players (as around the foot of even the very poorest throne are weak men, acolytes and midget hierarchs who, as they are power-worshippers, will do anything for the smallest smidgeon of power) – and learn something here, there are two types of totalitarians: those giving the orders and those taking them – (“satellites orbiting a totalitarian sun”)[14] – slag off entirely innocent texts, deliberately edit interviews to piant ‘progressive’ views in a negative light, twist language, write unadulterated lies. It’s playground stuff and entirely unsuitable public behaviour for members of a noble profession.

It is also cultish behaviour. These subjects of the corruption of the will to obey have had the naked intent of delegitimising any opposing opinion, to erase it from validity. Anyone who rejected their worldview was themselves made subject to abuse. The aggressors played the victim, and the sum-total of human knowledge moved forward not a jot. 

You will note, with some glee I hope, that the preceding paragraph is in the past tense.


[1] Jesus quoted in Matthew 7.3-5

[2] Most conversations on Twitter.

[3] At the risk of being rightly accused of hypocrisy, I know. I still make a few grand a year from delivering quasi-inspirational addresses and training events. The hourly rate is rather better than it is for teaching, an activity in which I make vastly the most of my living.

[4]Tom Bennett, Running the Room: The Teachers’ Guide to Behaviour (John Catt, Woodbridge 2020) p102. You will note that you are currently reading a quite readable text that references Freire and Foucault that is written by a serving teacher.

[5] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p??.

[6] Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Penguin Random House UK: London 1966) p500.

[7] Scruton, Roger, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, New York, 2007) p83.


[8] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin: London 1996 [1970]) p.39

[9] Of interest here is that “drain the swamp” is a phrase directly taken from Mussolini. Trump or, more likely, his advisors had studied the history. One wonders whether Gove’s reference to the moral mainstream of the profession as ‘the Blob’ benefited from the same research. Making activists and fighters for social justice appear as if they are somehow privileged, part of some vaporously defined liberal elite, an establishment is taken directly from the totalitarian playbook.

[10] Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning p127.

[11] Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning p10

[12] George Orwell, 1984 – The Jura Edition (Polygon: Edinburgh, 2021) p13.

[13] George Orwell, 1984 – The Jura Edition (Polygon: Edinburgh, 2021) p15.

[14] Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning p3

Added Fri, 5 Jul 2024 08:10

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