Sunday, 10 June 2007

Dennis Hayes examines some arguments about the demise of subject teaching in a report from CIVITAS

The Corruption of the Curriculum, a new book from CIVITAS, argues that schools are used to promote political objectives, and fashionable values, whether or not they relate to the discrete subjects that made up traditional education. If a teacher does not pass on the particular ‘grammar’ of the ‘corpus of knowledge’ applicable to subjects, argues the editor, Robert Whelan, then pupils will be forever denied access to those subjects and, we should add, to the knowledge and understanding that constitute our essential humanity.

This theme is pursued by Frank Furedi, in his introduction, who argues that the contemporary crisis in education is unique because education has become politicised. There are three destructive tendencies in this politicisation: the loss of faith in knowledge; a philistine pedagogy that rejects standards of excellence in education as ‘elite’, and the infantilisation of children and young people brought about by seeing them as vulnerable and, therefore in need of therapeutic, or emotional ‘education’. Furedi suggests that we need to depoliticise education, and reverse these destructive tendencies, by arguing for knowledge, for elite education, and by taking children seriously and not denying their potential.

This is the context that explains the dire state of subject teaching in English (Michele Ledda); Geography (Alex Standish); History (Chris McGovern); Modern Foreign Languages (Shirley Lawes); Mathematics (Simon Patterson) and Science (David Perks).

Furedi’s identification of the destructive tendencies that constitute the contemporary crisis of education is a useful starting point as the authors that follow identify several specific instances of these in their own subjects. Ledda shows, by reference to the literature from examination boards, that what has been taken out of the English Curriculum is the canon of English literature, along with standard English, which is now treated as just another dialect. Standish details how geography is a vehicle for environmentalist propaganda and global citizenship training. McGovern tracks the impact of the ‘new history’ from 1972 to show how it brought about a rejection of history as a body of knowledge, particularly its chronological aspect, leading to political selection of topics and the fragmentation of understanding. Lawes criticises the dull instrumental approach that puts pupils off foreign languages and argues that, unless they are defended as giving access to high culture, their decline will continue. Patterson looks at the repetitious and incoherent subject that mathematics has become in the national curriculum, the structure of which precludes student understanding, and puts them off maths. Finally, Perks pulls to pieces the new science GCSEs and argues that, by approaching science through the contemporary academic prism of relativism, they make science uncertain rather than objectively true. He ends his paper with what is a six point manifesto for science education. It should be on every science teacher’s classroom wall.

This book does something different from the mass of works bemoaning the overwork and stress caused by an over-assessed and bureaucratised curriculum. It exposes the anti-intellectual political manipulation of the curriculum that is destroying education.

A young adult exposed to this new curriculum could have no idea who Milton is, be unable to speak standard English, point out important places on a map, know nothing of many major historical events, be unwilling to learn a foreign language, not understand basic mathematics, and see magic as an acceptable alternative to science. This disgraceful situation is not young people’s fault, but that of those who distort their education for political ends.

One general criticism of this book must be made. It is all well and good to describe the crisis of education and to assert that knowledge and the disciplines should be defended. It is another thing to provide a convincing case for what Furedi at one point calls a ‘faith in knowledge’. This book suggests that there is a need for another, In Defence of Knowledge, or the battle against the corruption of the curriculum will not be won.

Robert Whelan (Ed.) The Corruption of the Curriculum, London: CIVITAS: ISBN 978 1 903386 59 0. Price: £9.50. Published on 11 June 2007:

A summary appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 11 June.