Thursday, 25 February 2010

A swift half with Martin Luther

My car journey this morning coincided with Radio 4's In Our Time. I'm always glad to be driving somewhere on a Thursday morning, as Melvyn Bragg's roundtable discussion programme passes the time in a pleasant and often stimulating way. (On the other hand, I dread having to go places on Wednesdays: Libby Purves' turgid Midweek can make the journey seem twice as long.)

Today's dissection of the ideas of John Calvin sounded promising. But I groaned when Melvyn introduced religious historian Diarmaid McCulloch as one of the guests. McCulloch is one of those academics who seems to be consciously remodelling himself as a celebrity intellectual, complete with a sing-song 'isn't this exciting' tone of voice and a tendency towards vacuous populism. Whereas Bragg's other guest experts did what they were supposed to, serving up detailed information about Calvin's life and thought that was genuinely enlightening, McCulloch responded with bland generalities whose aim appeared to be to get listeners to 'relate' to or 'empathise' with the past. So Luther became the kind of person you might want to go down the pub with, and Calvin someone you wouldn't want on the other side in a crisis. 'Media classicist' Mary Beard has a tendency to do the same kind of thing, often served up with a patronising use of Estuarian (though this is, of course, the least of Beard's offences). So devoid of content were McCulloch's answers to his questions, that Bragg often had to repeat them, in a vain bid to get the historian to say something substantial and informative.

I find this approach at once deeply patronising, in that it assumes that listeners couldn't possibly grasp complex ideas if delivered 'straight', and anti-educational, as it's founded on the notion that it's more important to have a 'feeling' about a topic than to know something concrete about it. Presenting itself as populist, it is in fact elitist, since it involves experts keeping their hoard of knowledge to themselves.

Yes, I know all about Lev Vygotsky and the need for knowledge to be 'scaffolded' by teachers. But what faux-populists like McCulloch do is withhold understanding, rather than guide others towards it. By contrast, one of the joys of a programme like In Our Time (usually) is listening to specialists, often in areas with which one is totally unfamiliar, do their specialist stuff - speak their expert discourse, if you want to be technical. It's in the struggle to understand, the grasping of nuggets of new and surprising knowledge mediated by those 'in the know', that understanding dawns and learning takes place. Not in the shallow attempt to imagine having a swift half with Martin Luther.


Brigada Flores Magon said...

Agreed. The other two were much more informative. And why the only part of these islands which adopted Calvinism as its faith got about three minutes of discussion....

Martin said...

Quite right. It was frustrating that Calvin's influence on the Founding Fathers got so much attention, while Scotland was dismissed in a passing reference to John Knox. And the story of Calvinism in these islands generally, and especially the way Presbyterianism mutated into radical Dissent, would have been much more interesting and relevant to British listeners (fascinated though I am by Jefferson, Adams, et al)