In yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, Michael Gove explained what he thinks is holding back education in Britain: communism, Marxism, anyone who is against his curriculum – that sort of thing. ‘I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools,’ the headline ran. ‘Education Secretary berates “the new enemies of promise” for opposing his plans.’ The article began:
Exactly 75 years ago the great English writer and thinker, Cyril Connolly, published his most famous book – The Enemies Of Promise. Connolly’s work explores the ways in which the talented individuals of his time were prevented from achieving their full potential.
Enemies of Promise? As precis go, that barely merits a mark of any kind: it could just as well be said of, say, Homage to Catalonia, also published ‘exactly’ 75 years ago. Enemies of Promise (no ‘the’), as anyone who has read it will know, is part literary criticism, part autobiography, part lament for Connolly’s own lack of achievement, which he blamed on himself. He was candid: he called himself ‘a lazy, irresolute person, overvain and overmodest, unsure in my judgments and unable to finish what I have begun.’ The enemies were mostly of Connolly’s own making; he called the book an ‘ideology-autobiography’. Auden wrote to him after its publication:
I think ‘E. of P.’ is the best English book of criticism since the war, and more than Eliot or Wilson you really write about writing in the only way which is interesting to anyone except academics, as a real occupation like banking or fucking with all its attendant egotism, boredom, excitement and terror. I do congratulate you.
Perhaps the book’s best-known line is: ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ Which makes it the more surprising that a secretary for education would refer to Enemies of Promise in an article on children’s schooling. Another of Connolly’s fears was journalism, which he thought interfered too much with a writer’s thinking. ‘Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice,’ he wrote. ‘Journalism what will be read once.’ Gove in his Mail piece doesn’t once refer to poetry or to literature or to a novel, but he does write about the importance of a ‘stock of knowledge’ that children should have, so that they can ‘communicate in formal settings, appreciate the arguments in newspapers’ leading articles and understand the context behind big political decisions.’ Learning to read the newspaper – you’d hardly say that was one of Connolly’s friends of promise, or anyone else’s either.
‘The fight against the Enemies of Promise,’ Gove writes, ‘is a fight for our children’s future. It’s a fight against ideology, ignorance and poverty of aspirations, a struggle to make opportunity more equal for all our children.’ Pretending to have read books you haven’t read – perhaps that’s something else the secretary of state wants to promote. Or getting other people to do your homework for you.