To people not employed in education, it seems common sense that children should leave school knowing more than they did when they began. Likewise, there’s an assumption that students, after three years of lectures, will know more of the stuff that matters: important, powerful, specialist knowledge; knowledge they would struggle to learn if they had not gone to university. The lengths people go to to get their children into a particular school is about more than just social status; it shows parental aspirations for the next generation to have access to knowledge. The competition to secure a place at the best school or university intensifies the more access to elite knowledge becomes concentrated in socially elitist institutions. For many self-styled radicals, the problem is the existence of grammar or fee-paying schools and selective Russell Group universities. But campaigning against the best-performing schools does nothing to provide all children with access to powerful knowledge; worse, it further contributes to what has been a sustained attack on transmitting knowledge as the primary goal of education.
Knowledge under attack
Over the course of several decades, schools and universities have become so far separated from any broader project to conserve and transmit society’s collective knowledge that many policy documents, books and blogs about education demonstrate confusion as to what knowledge actually is. Despite national curricular overloaded with content to be covered and learning goals to be met, knowledge continues to be confused with skills or information, derided by some as useful only for participation in pub quizzes. In schools overburdened with expectations, teaching subject knowledge becomes relativised as just one goal among many. The determination to make education ‘relevant’ means that promoting employability, emotional wellbeing and healthy lifestyles, or getting children talking about sex and relationships, happiness and resilience are often considered just as important as teaching a body of knowledge. In fact, when subject content is written off as being irrelevant, outdated or easily accessible, other goals come to be seen as more important to the purpose of schooling.
In universities, the inability to defend teaching knowledge for its own sake has resulted in the introduction of modularised programmes and predetermined ‘learning outcomes’. Now, pressure to ‘internationalise the curriculum’ is leading to ever more generic and values-laden curricular goals. The relevance of teaching knowledge perceived to be white, Western and patriarchal to ‘global citizens’ is questioned amid demands that academics recognise alternative cultural perspectives as equally valid. The European Higher Education Area, brought about as a result of the Bologna Process, has replaced the subject-specific priorities of individual academics, departments and even universities with a range of political goals. Emphasis continues to be placed on widening participation and recruiting people from social groups who have not traditionally gone to university, but few questions are asked about what it is such students gain access to.
In schools overburdened with expectations, teaching subject knowledge becomes relativised as just one goal among many
The transmission of knowledge is being lost among a plethora of social, economic and political objectives as teachers and academics find themselves either unable or unwilling to differentiate and defend what is worthwhile to pass on to the next generation. How this has come about and what can be done to reinstate the importance of knowledge is the subject of Michael Young and Johan Muller’s new book, Curriculum and the Specialization of Knowledge. This timely bringing together of material previously published elsewhere allows for a sustained discussion of the consequences of schools and universities rejecting the project of transmitting knowledge.
Young and Muller argue that the ability to pass on collective knowledge from one generation to the next is what differentiates people from animals: ‘If educational institutions did not “conserve” and transmit knowledge, each generation would have to reinvent it and there would be no social progress and no new knowledge would be produced.’ This brings into sharp relief what is, for them, ‘the fundamental pedagogic issue’ of how to overcome ‘the discontinuity between the formal, codified, theoretical and at least potentially universalising knowledge of the curriculum’ and the ‘everyday knowledge that pupils bring to school’. The need to differentiate formal curricular knowledge from everyday knowledge forces teachers into politically unpopular acts of exclusion. However, Young and Muller argue that social justice demands schools and universities exercise this intellectual discrimination as privileging relevance denies children access to powerful knowledge.
Significantly, Young and Muller distinguish between two forms of conservatism, ‘the inherently conservative role of schools as institutions involved in the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another and “conservatism” as a tendency of all institutions to resist change and preserve the privileges of more powerful groups’. They suggest that in the rush to reject the charge of political conservatism, teachers and lecturers have also rejected the conservation of knowledge. Children are no longer enculturated into a national intellectual tradition and students are taught only how to deconstruct knowledge in terms of power relations. The pervasive attack on universal knowledge and the reluctance to conserve and transmit an intellectual inheritance can be considered symptomatic of the education sector’s contemporary challenge to the values of the Enlightenment. Exploring the concept of knowledge that emerged from the time of the Enlightenment provides a useful reminder of the basis for passing judgement and assessing objectivity in knowledge.
The challenge to Enlightenment values
The Enlightenment marked a paradigmatic break with the intellectual traditions of the medieval period. As empirical evidence and individual reasoning replaced religious faith as the source of knowledge, a secular understanding of truth to came to the fore. Immanuel Kant argued that objective knowledge was only possible through the synthesis of experience and reason, which ‘transcends the point of view of the person who possesses it, and makes legitimate claims about an independent world’ (1). Kant argued that knowledge could encapsulate an inherent truth derived from the objectivity of independent reasoning: ‘Reason is by its nature free and admits of no command to hold something as true.’ (2) By the same token, knowledge could only advance if people were free to allow their own inner reason to develop: ‘Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.’ (3)
Kant argued that the philosophy faculty in particular could play a role in protecting and promoting critical reason. But, for this to happen, it needed the freedom to make ‘its own judgement about what it teaches’. Despite Kant’s efforts, the intellectual advances associated with the Enlightenment were made primarily by intellectuals outside of universities. It was not until the end of the 19th century that scholars within the academy became increasingly confident in espousing a notion of secular truth, and had a strong sense of their own role in relation to its pursuit through knowledge. This brought the need for academic freedom into sharp relief. Scholars recognised that truth, although ultimately contestable, could not be pursued unless they had unrestricted liberty to follow the intellectual logic of their reasoning wherever it may take them.