“Professor Moriarty: the Napoleon of Crime!” – Sherlock Holmes.
In the whole of France, apparently, there is not a single cultivated hedgerow which is over six foot in height. Any hedge which serves as the boundary between properties can attain a maximum height of two metres, and no more.
And the reason for this is Napoleon. Or, more precisely, it is the Code Napoleon, the body of laws put in place by Napoleon. You see he was more than Austerlitz, Josephine, and Waterloo (somehow the thought that he also made the stagecoaches run on time surfaces from somewhere, but we’ll skip that for now).
The fact is that Napoleon couldn’t imagine a reason for any person in the entirety of the French Empire to want or need a hedgerow that was more than six foot tall. So he passed a law about it. That’s the amazing thing about the Code Napoleon: it is a body of law which is coherent, complex and flexible enough to run a modern state that essentially emerged from the brain of a single individual.
Perhaps I overstate my case. But it is a fact that Napoleon insisted that every law should be seen and approved by him, that it should pass through the prism of his mind.
And much of it is good. Much of it survives to this day as the foundational law of the modern French state as the Gallic leviathan woke from the near-anarchy of its feudal, monarchic slumbers. (Hums: #Red, the blood of angry men…#)
But there are oddities which stem from the predjudices, habits of thought and visceral likes and dislikes of a single, flawed individual. The hedgerow is one example of that.
And the point of this discussion? Well, it struck me the other day that Michael Gove is attempting to do the same thing. He’s doing a Napoleon. He is midway through what can only be described as an attempt to make himself the Napoleon of Education. He is instituting a Code Goveon whereby he sets up a body of educational law and a framework of assessment where every element of which has passed through (and been approved by) the ideological prism of his mind.
It is a significant ambition. Will he succeed? The truth is, he just might. Gove’s equivalent of the Napoleonic Hedgerow Decree is, I think, the insistence on assessment by terminal exam. At first sight, it is vaguely sensible. But the truth is, there are times when a modular exam structure (like a seven foot hedge) might be a good idea. Maybe not for everybody. And maybe not all the time. There is a grain of truth to the fact that examinations and resit culture were consuming too great a proportion of school resources.
However, a man’s still a man for a’that, and my fear is that the Code Goveon will emerge with the indelible stamp of one person’s vagaries and peccadilloes running through it like cracks in a plate glass window. Undoubtedly, like the curate’s egg, it will be “good in parts”, but there are some tasks that it is quite simply hubristical for a single human being to attempt. Even a literate and well-educated human being who (possibly) means well and who has a panel of carefully chosen experts (perhaps too carefully chosen a panel in Gove’s case) to advise him.
I shall follow events as they unfold with interest, but – alas! – not with much optimism. And I would be willing to bet that at the end of it all the trains still won’t be running on time.