Friday, 11 April 2008

Defending abstract knowledge does not make you an epistemological dinosaur argues Mark Taylor

In an interesting debate at the Royal Society of Arts*, sociologist Michael Young made a rarely heard point, namely that the teaching of knowledge matters. More importantly, he pointed out that knowledge is neglected because policymakers assume that there is no connection between knowledge and the needs of the economy. In consequence, the educational system has become a vehicle for a kind of mass vocationalism, based on targets, league tables and outcomes, which have changed the character of schools into places that are no longer distinctive for attempting to give children knowledge that they cannot acquire elsewhere.

Young cautioned against assuming, in response to this change, that schools are democracies or that they should be used to resolve authority issues in the wider society. To understand the place of knowledge in schools today we need to understand that knowledge is both context-dependent and context-independent. With that distinction in mind, he counselled against conflating these two aspects of knowledge in schools, and noted that context-independent knowledge - in the form of abstract ideas - must sometimes be taught counter to the experience of the child. Indeed, the teacher must impose it on the child.

With arguments like these Young comes across as an epistemological dinosaur - if a welcome one - in the present climate of anti-intellectual governmental and academic approaches to education. These approaches were partly expressed in the response of Geoff Stanton. Stanton, in seeking a defence for the anti-knowledge shift observed by Young, claimed that vocational pedagogy is ‘more complex’ than its academic equivalent. It appears that the more the curriculum loses its previous connection (however poorly taught) with academic subjects, the more observers like Stanton claim that new methods are more sophisticated than previous ones. But Stanton’s defence really only justified the replacement of properly examined academic knowledge with the messy and ever-growing range of self-assessed ‘subjects’ currently being thrown at schools. In this sense, Young is indeed right that schools are losing their previously distinctive educational place in society and, with ‘subjects’ as diverse as ‘parenting’, ‘family learning’, ‘happiness’ or ‘health and beauty’, it is increasingly hard to know where school begins and family ends. Clearly, therefore, vocational pedagogy conflates educational process and content and mystifies the crucial fact that all schools ought to provide a rigorous education in academic subjects which - given that all topics of study have underlying academic principles - would then enable progression to their vocational applications to be made.

So has Young got it right in defending knowledge? Not quite. In focusing so much on knowledge per se, as opposed to subject knowledge of different academic disciplines, Young ends up debating the knowledge content of almost everything, rather than defending the distinctive subject content of a general academic education. Philosophically, this may be inevitable, but pedagogically it is problematic, because it allows the acceptance of the potential ‘subject’ in every newly assessed form of modern behaviour. So, instead of challenging the current approaches to education as he would wish, he ironically opens the theoretical door towards a defence of them. For example, in saying that the knowledge base of beauty therapy must be taught as seriously as that of physics and chemistry, he implicitly weakens a defence of an academic curriculum for all pupils, and ends up in the thick of the current contorted ‘debates’ about how many new undisciplined experiences can be thrown into the curriculum to make it ‘relevant’ to the 21st century. After all, through Every Child Matters, the government has transformed ‘enjoyment’, ‘engagement’, ‘health’ and ‘happiness’ into forms of knowledge which they seem to think can be measured. Indeed, the government appears to have a more radical approach to knowledge than some of the social scientists Young criticises.

Although knowledge should be defended in the form of the subjects that explain the world to us, if it is defended at too abstract a level, it parrots in the secondary sector the post-modern confusion evident at university level. The result is the increasing elevation of cross-curricular thematic learning and experiences above the teaching and applying of the core principles of individual academic subjects. Pupils who learn in this way are in danger of turning up at university intellectually confused and lacking in the real subject knowledge they need to challenge their tutors. This is the opposite of what Young intended. He forgot that even the defence of knowledge is context-dependent.

*What are schools for? A debate between Michael Young and Geoff Stanton, RSA, 30 January 2008: