I have never had any particularly strong views on Tristram Hunt other (naturally) than finding it bleakly hilarious that he should be the Labour party’s Parliamentary representative for Stoke. But a point needs to be made in his favour.
The shadow education secretary was on Andrew Marr's sofa this morning and found himself asked six times about this thoughts on nuns and education (see clip, above). For several days now, he has been berated for alleged anti-Catholic hatred and a new thought-crime of ‘nun-dismissal’. The precise words which are deemed to have created this great maelstrom were uttered in response to the right-wing Catholic journalist Cristina Odone talking on Question Time about how wonderful her schooling was. Tristram broke into this with the words ‘These were all nuns weren’t they?’
You might have thought from some of the reaction that he had said more than this, but he didn’t. ‘These were all nuns weren’t they?’ was the limit of it. I should think it is the right of any citizen, including a shadow education secretary to say the words in question. But this has been disputed. Cue real and confected outrage, and several notable ironies.
The first is a sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander point. This election looks likely to be fought in exactly this stupid and trumped-up fashion. But it will bite everybody. One day it will be the Conservative’s claiming that Ukip shouldn’t have dared to say something because it is derogatory of some minority or other. Another day it will be Conservatives doing the same trick on Labour. Yet another day and Labour will be able to whip up the same confected outrage against Conservatives. ‘Ooh look at him’, ‘He’s a hater’, ‘The true face of X has been revealed’ etc etc.
In the same manner one day Catholic journalists like Odone will complain that they are being shut down by gays who object to their opposition to equal civil rights for gays. Then on another they will try to shut down discussion which they think is offensive to Catholics. It’s like the political correctness issue. ‘Political correctness’ is always the speech codes and thought codes others want to impose upon you. The speech codes and thought codes you want to impose upon others meanwhile are always simply the right ideas and good manners.
Which brings me to my second point. Which is that one might notice (as comrade Cohen pointed out in a similar context the other day) that absolutely nothing gets properly discussed, let alone practically advanced in this manner. The intemperate response to Tristram Hunt’s nuns words have been so played up that you might think this country was on the verge of an anti-Catholic pogrom. And so it appears that in order not to be deemed a hater everybody is now meant to be wildly pro-nun. In which case why not come out with a plan to train up a whole new raft of nuns and send them across the nation’s schools? I haven't heard anyone suggest that. If I had it might dampen my feelings that this is about confected outrage rather than anything more serious.
I am sure there are some nuns who are good teachers, as I am sure that there are some nuns who are bad teachers. For what it is worth I was briefly taught certain subjects by monks at one point in my education and my recollection is that they were noticeably bad teachers. Their attempts at teaching sex education were particularly awful, to the extent that I would suggest as a rule that men who, if they ever have had sex have only ever had sex that they have forced on children are a rather bad group of people to educate the next generation on sex.
But my point is that they may have been bad teachers without being monks. Being monks certainly did not help them teach better. In the same way, simply being a nun does not make one a better teacher, even if it does not necessarily make one a worse teacher. They are neither an unalloyed good nor an unalloyed bad. But the question of who should teach in schools and who should not is an important one. And it is a discussion we have once again avoided. Tristram Hunt would like the nation’s children to be always taught by properly qualified teachers. There is much to be said for this, and something to be said against it. But we haven’t just had that discussion. Instead we have had another stupid ‘…gate’ outrage, a lot of sentimental talk, a whole heap of double standards and a debate on education which has done nothing to improve the next generation’s prospects.
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