‘We must take students beyond their everyday lives’

Professor Michael Young on why knowledge must be put centre-stage in schools.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

‘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.’

However, selecting which theoretical concepts will best move children beyond their everyday knowledge involves ‘making judgements that some things are more worth knowing than others’. In turn, he says, this means ‘you are discriminating. And that is a very unfashionable thing to do: you can easily be accused of being sexist or racist.’ Young stresses the importance to teachers of the concept of the curriculum, a declaration of what is worthwhile knowledge in each subject area: ‘Without the boundaries of subjects, teachers cannot have confidence in their knowledge; with just topics or themes, it’s difficult for students or their teachers to know whether they are progressing in their learning.’

Young is critical of the notion, often picked up by teachers while training, that rejecting knowledge in favour of respecting what children already know is somehow egalitarian: ‘If you take knowledge seriously you have to recognise people who come to school do not know very much. Children may have enormous potential, but this is not the same as having knowledge.’ Such views have resulted in Young being labelled by some as a ‘deficit-theorist’, but he is unrepentant: ‘Teachers sometimes need to be able to say to their pupils “you’re wrong”; otherwise they are not really teachers at all. Most teachers know intuitively that pupils who join their class want new knowledge; they expect teachers to pass judgement. They can’t understand why teachers don’t. The question is do they and their parents trust the basis of a teacher’s judgement.’

Having confidence in one’s own subject knowledge is crucial to being an effective teacher, Young argues. One reason for this is that ‘knowledge is actually more fragile, less fixed than those who are scared of knowledge make out’. Young’s concept of knowledge is not one that is fixed for eternity and beyond challenge: ‘Any aspect of knowledge should be seen as fallible and open to debate. A teacher sufficiently confident in their subject knowledge and well educated in their field will know that it is not all tied up. They will be able to handle any challenge their pupils pose and encourage them to go on asking questions.’ Having a belief in the importance of the subject content they are teaching is also important because ‘acquiring worthwhile knowledge is difficult, it’s a sweat, and it’s hard. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to convince kids that it’s worth it; not just because it’s something they have to do, but because it’s emancipating; it frees them to think about alternatives.’ Young is adamant that there is nothing liberating in the rejection of knowledge. ‘It just leaves children where they started’, he says. ‘It’s as if society hasn’t progressed and we don’t know any more than our ancestors. But we do.’

I suggest to him that imposing a body of knowledge upon students is often considered conservative rather than liberating, but Young is clear: ‘Conserving knowledge is a part of any human society. We need to hand on to the next generation the knowledge of previous generations. If you know what the previous generation thought you can go beyond it. It is important for schools to be conservative in this sense. If it wasn’t we’d have to learn everything anew each generation. We’d be like animals.’ Young concedes that schools do play a role in conserving privilege, ‘but these two senses of conservatism have been conflated. Fee-paying schools are very socially elitist. But it’s not their curriculum that’s elitist, it is the basis on which they select pupils; many in the educational community are confused about this.’

Many educators fall into the trap of rejecting the curriculum of elite schools alongside the social divisiveness. Young remarks that, ‘The Labour Party has always been committed to opening access to schools, but it’s been ambiguous about what it wanted to open access to. This is why the left are so threatened by Gove, because he argues for foundational knowledge for all and they don’t know how to deal with this. In endorsing the competency model of vocational education, the trade-union movement has unwittingly lent its support to anti-knowledge ideas in education.’

For making such arguments, Young has even been accused of being a ‘class traitor’. I find it far more treacherous to deny some students, under the guise of relevance and anti-elitism, access to the knowledge that could free them from the narrow terrain of their own experiences.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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