Is bleating shrill?

Having taken on the controversial question of the significance of ascribing shrillness (shrillity? shrillth?) to ones opponents, I feel obliged to wade in on the pressing issue of “bleating”.

The occasion is an open letter by a group of British education experts, pointing out the well-established fact that the UK obsession with getting children learning arithmetic and reading at ever earlier ages — formal schooling starts at age 3 1/2 — is counterproductive, and that children would be better off with age-appropriate education. The education ministry has responded with an extraordinarily unprofessional (shrill, or perhaps “spittle-flecked” would be the vernacular description) ejaculation of mostly generic insults, including the charge that

We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer – a system freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop-psychology about ‘self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.

I can’t fault the alliteration of “those who bleat bogus pop-psychology”, but what does it mean? It sounds like an insult, but I’m not sure what is insulting about it. Presumably it’s supposed to make you think of a flock of sheep, dumbly repeating some meaningless sounds. And, bleating is sort of a shrill sound, so maybe it also is meant to have effeminate overtones.

The term “pop-psychology” is interesting in this context. Given that the letter is signed by professors and senior lecturers in psychology and education, I have to assume that, right or wrong, what they’re talking about is real psychology, not “pop”.  So it’s interesting that the bureaucrats felt that they couldn’t take on the reputation of academic psychology directly, but only by insinuating that it is all just self-help pablum. (And is “bogus” a modifier of pop-psychology — to say, this isn’t even the top-drawer pop — or a redundant intensifier, as when one refers to “disingenuous government propaganda”?)

I never would have imagined that the thinking at the top levels of the education ministry was quite so primitive. They seem to have literally no idea what the issues are. (Or they are cynically beating a populist drum.)  They can’t imagine that there could be any reason to delay teaching arithmetic, other than that you don’t want children to learn arithmetic. It reminds me obliquely of an interview I heard many years ago, on the BBC World Service, with the infamous Arizona sheriff Joe Arapaio, on the occasion of an Amnesty International report condemning the brutal conditions in his county’s jails. He commented something like “They want the cable TV and weight rooms. If Amnesty International is so concerned about prison conditions, why don’t they look at prisons in other countries.” (To which the interviewer, somewhat flustered, replied “They do.”) I found the lack of broader perspective in his comments both amusing and frightening. And similarly, the response to the educators is so ignorantly contemptuous as to make me despair of the future of education in the UK.

What the really disadvantaged need is not more arithmetic drills at age 4, but high-quality childcare at age 1, 2, and 3, and schools that teach to the abilities that they have at age 4 and 5. But that will never happen as long as we have a government trying to apply neoliberal economic principles to early-years education.

There are a lot of things I like about public education in the UK, but I’m glad my children weren’t here at age 4.

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