If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, quite a few people seemed appalled to discover from a survey for the Independent that most British adults are remarkably ill-informed about the European Union. Personally, I wouldn’t be too critical of the 95% who couldn’t name their local Member of the European Parliament. That’s mainly because I am among them (one name springs to mind, David Coburn, who is an oaf), and anyway the elected Parliament has hardly any powers, and the constituencies are huge.
Some of the other misconceptions were rather more significant, though most were rather less dramatic than the Independent‘s headline suggested. Shortly afterwards Michael Gove, a leading figure in the Leave campaign, triggered another Twitter storm by telling an interviewer that ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’. Or did he?
Certainly that is how he was quoted by many commentators, including the academic and university leader Ferdinand von Prondzynski (you can read his blog here). I’ve read the interview transcript, though, so here is a longer quotation. You decide whether the quotation is so selective that it was misleading:
GOVE: The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal. I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …
Faisal Islam: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?
GOVE: … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …
FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?
My own judgement is that a lot of people think it is fair to twist and invent stuff in referendums, and that the selective quotation was produced in order to discredit Gove (something he usually seems perfectly capable of doing for himself). It’s not something I expect to see academics doing, but I don’t want to make a meal of it. And anyway quite a few people mistrust at least some experts for some of the time.
More interesting by far is the narrative that this “quote” helped to create. Like the widespread misinformation uncovered by the Independent, it feeds a story of the Leave voter as not only ignorant, but as wilfully ignorant. Usually, this ignorance is blamed on a biassed media, whose blatant mistruths are swallowed wholesale by those too stupid to ask questions.
This narrative is based on pretty naked class contempt, of course, as well as the sense of superiority felt by the well-educated over the less-educated. I also think it reeks of rank hypocrisy. Universities across Britain have set about demolishing their contribution to an educated citizenry, closing adult education departments and rushing to recruit ‘world class researchers’. The University of Leicester recently told its local newspaper that it was shutting its adult education programme because it was “committed to focusing on its world-class strengths”, which sounds laughable in terms of logic, and short-sighted in the extreme.
If we want to know why we have ignorant citizens, Rupert Murdoch is the least of our problems. We should start by looking at the failure of nerve that led our universities to walk away from the role of educating local citizens. If some of those citizens now reject the academy, then I can’t resist the temptation to say: Schadenfreude. We are reaping what we have sown.