‘Many teachers today have an actual fear of knowledge. They find it frightening, threatening, dominating, and oppressive.’
Michael Young, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education in London and author of Bringing Knowledge Back In, is determined to challenge what he sees as a turn against knowledge in education. ‘The crucial role of schools is to give pupils access to knowledge that they won’t get from their experiences and that takes them beyond their everyday lives’, he tells me. ‘As society gets more complex, this becomes ever more important.’
Although this connection between knowledge and education may seem obvious to people who do not work in schools or universities, today many teachers and lecturers consider the idea that they should impart knowledge to their students to be contentious. This was recently demonstrated in the outrage expressed by members of the teachers’ unions over UK education secretary Michael Gove’s plans to increase the academic rigour of the subjects children are taught in schools. As we sit in his greenhouse-like office on a hot day at the end of the summer, Professor Young wryly acknowledges: ‘What’s most important about kids going to school is being forgotten.’
Professor Young has a longstanding interest in the relationship between knowledge and schools, although his own views have shifted considerably over the years. Following the publication of his influential book Knowledge and Control in 1971, Young came to be associated with ‘the new sociology of education’, a movement which questioned the role of the education system in reproducing social inequalities through imposing a curriculum that only served the interests of the elite. Since the 1990s and the experience of trying to put the new sociology of education’s ideas into practice in South Africa, Young has consistently challenged this position, resulting in the publication in 2007 of Bringing Knowledge Back In. In the book, he argues for knowledge to be at the heart of education and decries its replacement with either skills training or relativist assumptions that there are only individual experiences and viewpoints.
Perhaps one legacy of the movements in sociology and teacher training in the 1970s is that today there is a great deal of confusion among teachers over what knowledge actually is. Teaching knowledge is all too often perceived as drilling children with facts in a Gradgrind-like manner. But Young is clear that knowledge is far more than just facts or information, although he sees no problem with children being encouraged to learn things by heart. Perhaps greater confusion, Young suggests, arises with the tendency to ‘collapse everyday knowledge with other types of knowledge’. Young agrees with the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who ‘distinguished between everyday and theoretical knowledge. Vygotsky didn’t argue that children come to school to reject all their everyday concepts, but instead that they learn how to build upon and develop their everyday knowledge and move beyond it.’