Knowledge matters


Knowledge matters

Michael Young and Johan Muller show how the Enlightenment link between knowledge and truth is vital to education.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Books Long-reads

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 In fact, when subject content is written off as being irrelevant, outdated or easily accessible, other goals come to be seen as more important to the purpose of schooling.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.

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.

Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, claimed that the objective basis of knowledge was to be found neither solely in the minds of individuals nor in sensory experience of the material world. In his 1912 work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, he suggests that knowledge is produced through people’s collective action upon the world. For Durkheim, truth as something external to individuals emerged from the social (and therefore essentially human) nature of its origins, and this gave knowledge an objective basis that allowed for the checking and critiquing of ideas as a collective act. This lent weight to the importance of academic disciplines as communities of scholars with shared goals and shared understandings.

As the pursuit of new ideas within the academy became possible, scholarship became less concerned with the capacity for individual reason and more concerned with the search for empirical facts. As science was afforded ever more authority, academics sought the same legitimacy for knowledge within other disciplines. This determination demanded knowledge be separated from individual reason and values. The positivist location of truth in the quantifiable rather than individual reasoning accelerated the professionalisation of the pursuit of knowledge within the university. Ultimately, however, the privileging of expertise reflected the erosion of knowledge as an end in itself; the more knowledge tended towards the empirical the more it was expected to serve a social or economic purpose.

The experience of the Second World War called into question the confidence with which academics asserted the significance and interdependence of truth and knowledge. Scholars such as Zygmunt Bauman presented the Holocaust not as an historical anomaly but as intrinsically connected to the project of modernity – in particular the drive for efficiency and rationality that lay behind the industrial division of labour, the attempt at the taxonomic categorisation of different species and the tendency to view rule-following as morally good. He suggests that after the Second World War, all ‘grand narratives’ including Enlightenment-inspired positivism were discredited.

The rush to abandon Enlightenment principles was led by academics on the political left who found it increasingly difficult to defend the ideals of reason, progress and universalism, upon which their intellectual tradition had been built. Critical theorists emphasised the temporality and context-dependence of truth in knowledge. In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse argued that knowledge is ideology, or simply a product of the dominant economic and social conditions that it arises from. The view that knowledge was socially constructed lent further weight to the view that there was no inherent connection between knowledge and truth. In a 1977 interview, Michel Foucault declared that there is ‘no truly universal truth’, a dictum that soon became widely accepted. The rejection of universal truth left only ‘standpoint theories’, and a curriculum decried for merely reflecting the knowledge of the powerful. As Young and Muller note, ‘after the 1960s, many humanities faculties in the USA rejected any notion of tradition and focused only on critique’, and this then ‘left them open to the most extreme forms of relativism and political correctness’.

Today, the perception of knowledge that dominates scholarship in the social sciences and humanities has become distanced from a concept of truth as it would have been understood by Kant and Durkheim. Young and Muller draw upon the work of the philosopher Bernard Williams, who identified a ‘commitment to truthfulness’ as an essential element of scholarship which was ‘increasingly paralleled by a no less pervasive scepticism about truth itself’. They point out that ‘Some strands of the sociology of knowledge have little doubt about what truth is or where it lies – it is identifying the corruption of the powerful. This is the basis for the kind of moral self-righteousness and moral certainty that we find in campaigning journalists such as John Pilger.’

Young and Muller argue that when ‘a commitment to truth is paired with scepticism about truth, the latter inevitably erodes the former’. When this is combined with standpoint theory, ‘the idea of objectivity in the social sciences seemed to be aligned with oppression’. In a bid to reveal a bigger truth about the workings of power, actual truth was jettisoned. In terms of education, the bigger truth sociologists, including Young himself at the time, saw was that the curriculum was socially constructed and promoted elite knowledge in order to reproduce inequalities. The actual truth – that this socially constructed curriculum could also allow all children access to universal or powerful knowledge – was often overlooked in the rush to recognise the experiences of the oppressed.


Defending the intellectual gains of the Enlightenment


In Curriculum and the Specialization of Knowledge, Young and Muller place the question of what to teach, rather than how to teach, at the heart of the educational debate, reinforcing arguments made by Young since 2007 regarding the importance of bringing knowledge back into education. In doing so, they offer a way to defend the intellectual gains of the Enlightenment for the benefit of everyone in society.

The significant intellectual insight of the volume Young edited in 1971, Knowledge and Control, is acknowledged: ‘All knowledge is in some sense “socially constructed” but at the same time can have an emergent reality of its own.’ This ‘represented an advance on the uncritical acceptance in England of the idea of liberal education’. The key question though is where this insight leads us. Young and Muller note that, in the 1970s, ‘particular conclusions’ were drawn from the assumption that the educational realities of curriculum and pedagogy were socially constructed and could be changed by teachers ‘almost at will’, leading to a strange ‘combination of indeterminism – everything is arbitrary – and determinism – everything can be changed’. This led to ‘a politics that linked constructivist ideas to the privileging of subordinate knowledge’. ‘Identification with subordinacy was linked to a celebration of the culture of those who were rejected by and failed at school. Their language and their resistance to formal learning were seen as at least potentially supportive of a new working-class consciousness.’ The upshot of this privileging of subordinate knowledge was that ‘Emancipation from all authoritative forms of knowledge was linked by many to the possibility of achieving a more equal or just world’.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Young and Muller note the ‘heavy price’ paid ‘for the small “moment” of emancipation that is expressed in the truth that reality is socially constructed’. However, they are rightly wary of throwing out the baby with the bathwater for a second time. Rather than rejecting the ‘new sociology of education’ wholesale, they retain its emphasis on the socio-historical character of knowledge. Exploring the curriculum in its historical context reveals that ‘the contemporary curriculum in the UK is remarkably similar to that found in most developed countries, despite their very different histories. Furthermore, the historical fact that this curriculum was developed by a particular fraction of the middle class in the late 18th and early 19th century is no grounds for describing it as a middle-class curriculum. It would be equally flawed to describe Boyle’s law as a middle-class law on the grounds that Boyle was an 18th-century upper-middle-class gentleman!’

Young and Muller outline two different ways teachers and schools have responded to the socio-historical character of curricular knowledge. They continue with an elite system as a basis for maintaining and legitimising power relations, while permitting marginal access to broader sections of society (this approach, they argue, was at least initially adopted by former education secretary Michael Gove). A second option involves the ‘denial of the special worth of expert knowledge’, and an ‘implied validation of all cultural forms as equal in their uncritical celebration of experiential forms of knowing’. This, they contend, leads parents to play the education system to secure individual advantages for their children, and to credential inflation: ‘If knowledge is not valued in its own right then its social worth can only be measured by its usefulness.’ Whereas the first scenario rests on the idea of education as a civilising device for the youth of the elite, scenario two emerges as a liberatory alternative emphasising the creative activity of teachers and learners. It ‘foregrounded activity and backgrounded what was to be learnt’. Young and Muller are critical of both options: ‘Neither recognise the growth of knowledge as the central issue both for the curriculum and for a more just society.’ Instead, they argue students need access to powerful knowledge rather than the knowledge of the powerful.

In Curriculum and the Specialization of Knowledge, Young and Muller define powerful knowledge as specialist, context-independent or theoretical knowledge. This is knowledge that makes claims to universality and provides a basis for making judgements. They acknowledge that knowledge of this kind is usually associated with the sciences; physics, for example, is the same everywhere. This universality makes powerful knowledge democratic because it does not rest on the cultural assumptions of any particular group, but only on the reliability and objectivity of its concepts and methods. However, this logic, Young and Muller argue, can be applied to branches of knowledge beyond the scientific. Cultural knowledge can be objective as it has ‘internal rules of solidarity, hierarchy and truth norms’.

Crucially, ‘expert social scientists learn how to make social-scientific inferences by learning the specialised knowledge base of the discipline and learning the observational and interpretive techniques taught by adepts’. They are ‘policed by a knowledgeable scholarly community’, which ‘returns as an executor and guarantor of professional and disciplinary judgement’. In this way, they argue, ‘society judges powerful from less powerful knowledge’. The role played by academic disciplines with a collective knowledge base comes to the fore: they possess ‘legitimate, shared and stably reliable means for generating truth. Truth is, by this account, a stable partnership between the objects of study and an informed community of practitioners.’

Young and Muller acknowledge that the concept of powerful knowledge is particularly problematic in the humanities: ‘cultural objects are not analysable like natural objects’. However, they argue that this does not ‘absolve the cultural sciences from the obligation to truth’. The obligation to truth in the humanities ‘involves an understanding of what is universal and a determination to privilege the universal over the particular and the identity-based.’ Only when the universal is understood ‘in the sense of connecting people to a larger humanity’ can students move beyond ‘uncritical respect for the cultures of subordinate and minority groups and those from non-Western societies’. ‘Great art works’, they argue, ‘are powerful because they engage with feelings such as guilt, remorse, regret, responsibility and joy that are emotions experienced in particular contexts but common to all human beings’.

Young and Muller make a passionate case for the teaching of knowledge that ‘frees those who have access to it and enables them to envisage alternative and new possibilities’. In doing so, they argue the need for teachers to be free to differentiate, defend and pass on knowledge that takes people beyond their own narrow experience in space and time, and speaks to universal values and our common humanity. The consequences of failing to pass on knowledge that represents universal values to a new generation can be glimpsed in today’s identity-obsessed student protests. In Curriculum and the Specialization of Knowledge, Michael Young and Johan Muller offer us a vital way out of this impasse.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. Her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, is published by Palgrave Macmillan UK. (Order this book from Amazon (USA).

Curriculum and the Specialization of Knowledge, by Michael Young and Johan Muller, is published by Routledge. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Kant: A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton, Oxford University Press, 2001

(2) The Conflict of the Faculties, by Immanuel Kant, Abaris Books, 1979

(3) An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?, by Immanuel Kant, Penguin Books, 2009

Picture: The School of Athens, Raphael, 1511.

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Topics Books Long-reads


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