Professor Stuart McNaughton: the flight from cleverness to stupidity

I remember Stuart McNaughton when he was a young academic: and did he look the part! – we in teaching looked to him for some relief from the harsh reading ideas of Bill Tunmer and Tom Nicholson. And for a short while he did meet high expectations but, sadly, only briefly.

The tenor of the man became only too apparent when I stood to praise him – both Tunmer and Nicholson in the audience – and I chanced to look across to him and there he was gesturing to me to tone it down.

I knew then he was a saggy academic.

I was not surprised to follow his dismal decline into the pit of quantitative ignorance and arrogance, expressed in fervent tones a few years ago when he declared he had solved the matter of reading (as the end of history had been declared because democracy and liberalism had triumphed), it was the end of reading because he had cracked it.

And now he is New Zealand’s first Chief Education Advisor, looming out of our screens like a Big Brother, uttering quantitative trash talk, and bearded to cover his shyness, ambition, and porkies.

McNaughton does not believe the standards have been a failure. What else could he say? But then knowing him what else would he say?

He illuminated:

‘I think they are helping. They enable us to have a collective wisdom about where we think children should be. It is important to have a very clear shared understanding about what we expect children to do.’

‘In fact, Professor McNaughton believes if anything, we should have the same ‘collective wisdom’ about all areas of schooling, including science, arts and social skills.’

And you have the scientific evidence for this do you McNaughton?

By the way, are you expecting any contracts to come the way of the institutions you represent?

‘Collective wisdom’ – what a hypocrite and what a loaded word ‘wisdom’ is.

And who is ‘us’?

Your words bleed education harm.

You know what neoliberalism is don’t you, you plonker? You know it means cutting teachers out of genuine policy making because they would act self-interestedly if given any power. Whereas you McNaughton, as a quantitative academic, can be assured to act as if speaking for the angels?

Lo we have another Hattie! One gets unmasked, now another. An out of Auckland once again.

You are just another quantitative academic who blames teachers for not being up to the solution to whatever education miracle you have wrought in your overheated mind.

The flight from cleverness to stupidity (on the wings of ambition, per usual) is a journey achieved with spectacular speed by quantitative academics.

McNaughton – I’m going to let you into a great learning truth – it goes as follows:

Undertaking a curriculum activity for measurement is not one of first teaching that curriculum activity then measuring it – it is to change substantially that curriculum activity both prior to the teaching and during it. Those who support national standards cannot have it both ways: when an area of children’s learning is measured in a national high stakes environment, what children learn is not learning occurring, then being measured, it is learning being changed for the measurement – and always for the worse.

You are a disgrace to New Zealand education, not I think because you are any bigger disgrace than most other quantitatives but because I still have a lingering in my memory of the academic we thought you were, in fact I genuinely thought you were – meaning for me you could have been so much more and in not being – being so much less.

What follows was going to be Attack 40! And will be put there in its turn – but today is being used to reflect on another quantitative academic gone feral.


The scene used below is from James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It is an inspired piece of writing in which a Jesuit director uses the blandishments of religious power to try to entice the Stephen Dedalus to the Jesuit life. I have taken the liberty to change the situation to that of a university professor using the blandishments of academic power. A powerful symbolism throughout the writing is the way Joyce plays with light: light being blocked from the window, the control of light through manipulation of the blindcords, the playing of shadows, and the waning light of the long summer’s day.

Portrait of a professor … 

The psychology (education) professor stood in the embrasure of the window, his back to the light, leaning on an elbow on the brown crossblind, and, as he spoke and smiled, slowly dangling and looping the cord of the other blind. The young man stood before him, following for a moment with his eyes the waning of the long summer daylight above the roofs or the slow deft movement of the professorial fingers. The professor’s face was in total shadow but the waning daylight from behind him touched the temples and the curve of the skull.

The young man followed also with his ears the accents and intervals of the professor’s Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 10.27.08 AMvoice as he spoke gravely and cordially of indifferent themes, the holidays which had just ended, overseas conferences, changes in faculty personnel. The grave and cordial voice went on easily with its tale and in the pauses the young man felt bound to set it on again with respectful questions. He knew that the tale was a prelude and his mind waited for the sequel.

Ever since the message of summons had come for him from the professor his mind had struggled to find the meaning; and, during the long restless time he had sat in the office waiting for the professor to come in, his eyes had wandered from one sober picture to another round the walls and his mind wandered from one guess to another until the meaning of the summons had almost become clear. Then, just as he was wishing that some unforeseen cause might prevent the professor from coming, he had heard the handle of the door turning.

The professor had begun to speak of the various differentiations in his field of psychology, then moving to the community of interest between them.

The matters were prosaic.

A question was asked, but of little moment.

The young man’s face gave back the professor’s indulgent smile and, not being anxious to give an opinion, he made a slight dubitative movement with his lips.

The professor continued.

The young man smiled again in answer to the smile which he could not see on the professor’s shadowed face, its image or spectre only passing rapidly across his mind. He gazed calmly before him at the waning sky, glad of the cool of the evening, and the faint yellow glow which hid the tiny flame kindling on his cheek.

Then the professor said something that made him start.

The phrase on the professor’s lips was disingenuous for he knew that he would not have spoken loosely on such a theme. The phrase had been spoken lightly with design and he felt his face was being searched by the eyes in the shadow. During all his years with the professor, and professors like him, he had never heard a flippant word. Lately, though, some of their judgements had sounded a little childish in his ears and made him feel regret and pity as though he were slowly passing out of an accustomed world and were hearing its language for the last time.

The tiny flame which the professor’s allusion had kindled upon the young man’s cheek had sunk down again and his eyes were still fixed calmly on the colourless sky. But an unresting doubt flew hither and thither. The echoes of certain expressions used by the professor sounded in the remote caves of his mind. His ears were listening to those distant echoes amid the silence of the room when he became aware that the professor was addressing him in a different voice.

– I sent for you because I wished to speak to you on a very important subject.

– Have you ever felt that you had a special vocation?

The young man parted his lips to answer yes then withheld the word suddenly. The professor waited for an answer and added:

– I mean, have you ever felt within yourself, a desire to join the profession of which I am a member? Think.

I have sometimes thought of it, ventured the young man.

The professor let the blindcord fall to one side and, uniting his hands, leaned his chin gravely upon them, communing with himself.

– In a department like mine, he said at length, there is one student or perhaps two or three who have the attributes for the calling. Such a student is marked off from his companions by his intelligence and tenacity, by the good example he shows to others. He is looked up to by them. And you have been such a student in this department. Perhaps you are the student with such a calling.

A strong note of pride reinforcing the gravity of the professor’s voice made the young man’s heart quicken in response. To receive that call, eventually to become a professor of a department such as this is a great honour, the greatest academic honour. The power you have, as a result of your position, will be immense: the power to proclaim your ideas and have them listened to; the power to have your ideas affect the affairs of society. You will, if you do things the right way, be in the company of the great and the powerful. You will be on many boards, councils, and consultative groups. And when you do something for the public good, garner tributes for what you have done. By your very support what might have been dismissed for any number of reasons, will command attention as significant. What an awful power: the power to issue ideas with the authority of being derived from research, the latest research, and all the more powerful for being psychologically anointed.

A flame began to flutter again in the young man’s cheek as he heard in this proud address an echo of his own proud musings. How often had he seen himself as an academic icon wielding calmly the power of those who know – those who know from their special insight? His very being had loved to muse in secret on this desire. He had seen himself ascending to the lectern, sought by the media, carrying out the acts of a high academia. In that dim life which he had lived through in his musings he had assumed the voices and gestures he had noted of his professors, especially this professor.

But then, he had, in his musings, shrunk from the grandiose. It had pleased him more to fill the second place in those dim scenes of his imagination. He moved to a longing for a minor role; to stand aloof from the formalities that ended in the person of a high academic. What he seemed to want to do was not talk over the heads of people to the powerful but to stand aside with the people, talking quietly when he adjudged he had something of value to say.

He listened in careful silence to the professor’s appeal and through the words he heard even more distinctly a voice bidding him approach, offering him secret knowledge and secret power. He would know obscure things, hidden from others. He would command a special language which would protect and enhance his position, and set him aside from the ordinary forever.

– I will speak to the others about you. But you must be quite sure. It is before you must weigh well, not after.

He held open the heavy door and gave his hand to the young man as if already to a companion in the academic life. The young man looked out the corridor window and imagined the caress of the mild evening air. A quartet of young men were striding along with linked arms. He heard music from somewhere; it passed in an instant, as the first bars of sudden music always did, over the fantastic fabrics if his mind, dissolving them painlessly and noiselessly as a sudden wave dissolves the sand-built turrets of children. Smiling at the trivial air he raised his eyes to the professor’s face and, seeing in it a mirthless reflection of the sunken day, detached his hand slowly which had acquiesced faintly in that companionship.

The shadow of the high academic life as represented by the professor’s, passed gravely over his consciousness. It was an ordered life without real material cares. He would be bound by rules of the institution and the discipline. A feverish quickening of the pulse followed, and a din of meaningless words drove his reasoned thoughts confusedly. Some instinct quickened within him at every near approach to that life, an instinct subtle and hostile, and armed him against acquiescence. What had become of that pride of his spirit which had always made him conceive of himself as being apart in every order?

Professor …

His name in that new life leaped into characters before his eyes and to it there followed a mental sensation of an undefined face or colour of a face. The face was eyeless and sour-faced and devout, shot with pink tinges of suffocated anger.

He was passing at that moment before the main university building and wondered vaguely which window would be his if he ever joined that world. Then he wondered at the vagueness of his wonder, at the remoteness of his own soul from what he had hitherto imagined his sanctuary, at the frail hold which so many years of order and disciplined obedience had of him when once a definite and irrevocable act of his threatened to end for ever, in time and in eternity, his freedom. The voice of the professor urging upon him the proud claims of his academic discipline and the mystery and power of the academic office repeated itself in his memory. His spirit was not there to hear and greet it and he knew that the exhortation he had listened to had already fallen into an idle formal tale. He would never mount the rostrum as a high academic. His destiny was to be elusive of such a fate. The wisdom of the professor’s appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.

He crossed the bridge over the stream, then, bending to the left, he followed the lane which led up to his house. The faint sour stink of rotted cabbages came towards him from the kitchen gardens on the rising ground above the river. He smiled to think that it was this disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father’s house and the stagnation of vegetable life, which was to win the day in his soul.

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8 Responses to Professor Stuart McNaughton: the flight from cleverness to stupidity

  1. Noeline Anderson says:

    Thank you

  2. Kelvin says:

    Your brevity both today and yesterday is somehow lyrically eloquent. Thank you.

  3. Noeline Anderson says:

    Your writings, which I have only recently discovered, have moved me to tears. I am speechless. In the present day education landscape I have felt alone. You give voice and meaning to all this sadness. But better still you inspire me to work harder, to continue to talk and write about my experiences as a NE teacher in the 70’s so the things we knew so well about teaching are not lost.

  4. Kelvin says:

    I read all that in your thank you.

  5. Kelvin says:

    Noeline – perhaps try some your writing out on me for a posting.

  6. Kelvin says:

    A reader writes: I bloody loved that post. Brilliant. I could feel your rage.

  7. Kelvin says:

    Another reader writes: OMG. That made my day. My favourite words: Plonker and feral. Take that Stuart. Feel the burn.

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