Thursday, May 24, 2012

Explaining bad things

The Jewish Chonicle reports:

Education Secretary Michael Gove has strongly criticised an exam board over a GCSE religious studies question in which pupils were asked: “Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.”

I’m quite baffled at why this question was included, partly because I don’t see how it could be answered “briefly” – at least, if you want to go beyond “some people are nasty”. You could describe the characteristic attitudes of antisemitism straightforwardly enough, but to explain the causation – political, cultural, psychological, historical, religious – would be a lot more involved.

And of course there’s the moral objection:

Mr Gove declared: “To suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.”

“Insensitive” and “bizarre” are right: the question was bound to be received badly. But Gove’s second sentence there demonstrates that asking somebody to “explain” something doesn’t imply that you think it might be excusable.


Shuggy said...

Very poorly-worded question, I'd agree. But I don't think the relationship between 'explicable' and 'contemptible' is a zero-sum game. A more straightforward question about the history of anti-Semitism would have been preferable. Why are some people anti-Semitic? Because the influence of a couple of thousand years of Christianity isn't discarded just like that. This does not imply it is somehow excusable.

Tom Freeman said...

Dead right.

It reminds me of John Major's remark on crime: "we need to condemn a little more and understand a little less". Not mutually exclusive at all - although of course he was trading on the double meaning of "understand".

john b said...

"couple of thousand years of Christianity" - sigh.

Among ordinary people: suspicion and mistrust of outsiders, in the days before empire and mass migration when the Jews were the only significant outsiders outside of major cities.

Among elites: cynical usage of popular suspicion to dodge paying debts.

"Christ-killers" was only ever a lame excuse, not a foundation for the belief. Incentives matter far more than doctrine.

...and that's why the question is interesting (I also don't see how it's poorly worded).