My old history teacher was a byword for political incorrectness yet was loved by his pupils. Would he survive in today’s harsher world?
How long has it got to go, do you think? This age of intolerance: is it just a passing phase like Sixties hippyism or Eighties materialism? Or are we stuck with it so that we have to carry on walking on eggshells for the rest of time, remembering that it is OK to refer to a person of colour but not to a coloured person, even though the latter usage is probably ingrained in us, like poor Amber Rudd, because we were told that was the polite term when we were young? My friend the Corbynista film producer has a theory that certain behaviours only last so long because after a while the satirists pile in and point out how ridiculous they are and suddenly it will be very uncool to virtue-signal—I was urged to write it as “to signal virtue”—by posting vegan propaganda on social media and being all wokier-than-thou. God, I hope he’s right.
The worry, and the flaw in his argument, is that it is now so hardwired into our education system that we are spawning a generation of sanctimonious witchhunters in our schools who will be taking over running the country from us baby-boomers in no time at all.
Take the case of Graham Pike, a science teacher from Llanelli. Mr Pike was the head of chemistry at Coedcae School, where he had taught since 1997. He has been suspended for two years—the wheels of justice obviously grind slowly in South Wales—while being investigated by the Orwellian-sounding Education Workforce Council for making “inappropriate comments”. He may lose his job. He is accused of calling an Asian pupil “Stan” because he couldn’t pronounce his name; of telling another, presumably obese, teenager that they would break a stool if they sat on it; and of deploying risqué double entendres in his banter with the girls in the class. It is important to stress that he denies many of the allegations made against him, but even if they are found to be true they pale into insignificance when compared to the collected sayings of the late, great Michael George MacDonald Kidson, the man who taught me never to split an infinitive.
‘The baby-boomers were so fond of Michael Kidson that some of his ex-pupils looked after him in his dotage and crossed continents to attend his funeral in a packed country church’
Kidson, I should explain, was a schoolmaster—he deplored the word teacher—at Eton (please don’t let that stop you reading) in the dark ages before the Blairite salvation. He took political incorrectness to extremes that his pupils found shocking even in the 1970s. His banter included accusing an African boy of wanting to eat his spaniel and calling a Scottish boy “a Hebridean cave-dweller”. He deliberately disorientated all of his pupils by getting their names wrong. A half-Persian boy named Darius Guppy (later notorious) he called “Abdul the Camel Driver”. And the Care Quality Commission would have raised more than an eyebrow at his habit of occasionally conducting tutorials from his bath while his pupils sat outside the bathroom drinking enormous gin-and-tonics he had generously told them to pour themselves from his drinks cupboard. One of my favourites was when I heard him tell a rather diffident boy that “he needed rogering by a large black woman”, thus risking accusations of both racism and sexism in the same sentence.
The critical difference is that whereas the snowflakes dobbed their man into the thought police, the baby-boomers became so fond of Michael Kidson that some of his ex-pupils looked after him in his dotage and crossed continents to attend his funeral in a packed church in Gloucestershire four years ago. Rather than compiling an abstract of evidence for the prosecution, they—including the aforementioned African boy and Guppy—sent me treasured memories of his legendary rudeness by the barrowload so that I could weave them into a book about him. My book, The Enigma of Kidson, Portrait of a Schoolmaster (published by Quiller, available on Amazon and in all good bookshops) hit the streets in 2017.
While the liberal elite normally go to extreme lengths to ostracise anyone breaking the rules of political correctness by saying anything provocative (will Liam Neeson ever star in another film?) it was heartening that the more robust members of the British establishment did not distance themselves from Kidson. For all his unapologetically reactionary faults, they were unafraid to associate themselves with him by turning out for the book launch. David Cameron even gave the warm-up speech.
I don’t know the full details about Mr Pike, although his case has been splashed across the media. But I think we can safely deduce that today eccentricity is no longer tolerated in schools, that children now have the upper hand and are displaying an almost East German awareness of thought crime, and argue that we should be seriously worried.
Kidson, who taught history with gusto, was in fact deeply liberal behind the gammon façade, one reason perhaps why his pupils did not take his outrageous remarks too seriously. He was an outspoken critic of apartheid, and 40 years later ex-pupils still remember his lecture on “why we must never bring back the death penalty”. In the brutal atmosphere of a 1970s public school, where beating was still very much the accepted norm, Kidson was a liberal opponent of the Head Master’s punishment of choice. He told a bruised pupil (Charlie Mortimer, aka Lupin of Dear Lupin) that corporal punishment was “anachronistic, barbarian, repulsive and very revolting”. Our schools have become kinder, safer places since those days, but boy have we lost our sense of humour in the process. And, though we pride ourselves on our tolerance, Kidson would not be tolerated today, even in the private sector, where parents are becoming sceptical of the way that Ofsted regularly denigrates just the characteristics in a school that they hoped they were making huge sacrifices to pay for.
Worse by far, the disappearance of the eccentric schoolmaster from our children’s lives makes conformity to a collective identity and the suppression of individualism that much easier to engineer if they have no maverick iconoclasts as role models. As Jordan Peterson reminded us in a tweet the other day, political correctness is a classic Marxist doctrine, not a modern fad. There is a disturbing connection between the wokeyness in our schools and the no-platforming of free-thinkers such as Peterson and Sir Roger Scruton on university campuses.
Mr Pike’s travails were not the only news item recently to make me think of Kidson. A report from the Moscow Times, repeated in the British press, stated:
A record 70 per cent of Russians approve of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s role in Russian history, according to a poll published by the independent Levada Center pollster. Stalin’s image has been gradually rehabilitated in the 2000s from that of a bloody autocrat to an outstanding leader. President Vladimir Putin has revived the Soviet anthem, Soviet-style military parades and a Soviet-era medal for labour during his presidency. Forty-seven percent of Russian respondents aged 18-24 told the pollster that they were hearing about Stalin-era repressions for the first time.
Have you ever heard anything more terrifying? And yet, can we be sure that a survey of British youth would show them to be any more aware of Stalin? Seeing my children go through school, I wondered whether there had been a deliberate conspiracy to ensure that they only knew what the educational establishment wanted them to know. Centralised control has given the Guardianistas in the Department for Education and the exam boards the opportunity to assist the Long March of the Left through the syllabus.
It has always been a Marxist aim to wipe clean our folk memory, so that they can reprogramme us. Artfully and disingenuously, they have successfully argued that what is important is not in knowing any history per se but in developing the skills of a historian. There is a subtle deceit in the emphasis on process. It is easy to argue that learning narrative history for its own sake is less important than developing the skills of textual analysis.
Most insidiously, social history provides an excuse to insert “social-ist” history. Undue emphasis on various “movements”—Labour, trades unions, suffragettes, civil rights and so on—important though these are, creates the impression that the whole exercise could be retitled: “How we arrived at the smug Guardian/BBC consensus that underpins the doctrine that all right-thinking people subscribe to now.”
Kidson’s great hero was Gladstone because he was the most “progressive” politician of his age (though Kidson would have deplored the disingenuous newspeak of that expression). Gladstone believed in leaving money to “fructify in the pockets of the people”, and he actually tried to abolish income tax. In an era when there is a consensus between all the political parties that 50 per cent of all income above a certain level should be expropriated by the state, in defiance of Adam Smith’s unseen hand and Arthur Laffer’s curve, it would appear that the apparatchiks of the educational establishment think that the less known about him, the better.
Hitler is studied assiduously, because he was a right-wing monster. Those other, and more prolific, mass-murderers of the 20th century, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, are airbrushed out of the syllabus. Hence, perhaps, why Conservatives like Robert Halfon have argued recently that we shouldn’t call Jeremy Corbyn a Marxist because it has no resonance for the young. It was from Kidson’s lips that I first heard about the failures and evils of Stalinism: the famines, the show trials and the gulag. Do today’s teenagers receive the same lectures, I wonder?
Political correctness and historical ignorance: they are both tenets of the same doctrine, one that we thought had been defeated and was buried deep in the mud when the Berlin Wall came down but which has been stalking the corridors of our schools all along. It has now clothed itself in a rainbow cloak of environmental activism and neo-Rousseauism and found a receptive congregation among a younger generation whose schooling has prepared them for just this moment. Michael Kidson held what I thought was a rather pessimistic Cold War world view. He would tell us that he thought communism would win in the end and that during our lifetimes we would end up living in a communist state. We must all look closely at what is happening in our schools and universities, and agitate for a broader syllabus and the tolerance, nay, the celebration of eccentricity to ensure that he isn’t proved right.