No substitute for knowing your stuff

Pursuit of knowledge should be at the cutting edge of education.

Alan Hudson

Topics Politics

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I understand the discussion about the school curriculum to be a battle about the relative importance of subject, object and process in education.

Subject or content is knowing stuff as a precondition for understanding and interpreting the world; there’s no substitute for it. An object-centred curriculum emphasises a prescribed set of outcomes or behaviour, like learning to drive and passing a driving test, or unthinkingly following orders and knowing how to slit someone’s throat in combat. A process-based curriculum is about the growth of the person[ality], now commonly taken to mean not becoming a responsible adult but being massaged in the hand cream of positive strokes for self-esteem.

In the present social and educational environment, I am unashamedly and onesidely for content. Arguments that suggest we still get the ‘content’ when ‘process’ and ‘object’ are privileged are mealy-mouthed and wrong.

Take the example of citizenship classes. Citizenship is not a subject at all, and has no place on an education curriculum. The aim of such classes is not knowledge and understanding of human societies – rather, it is to produce a conformist behavioural outcome (object) celebrated by both the teacher-as-counsellor and pupil-as-counselled as empowerment (process). On the other hand, a proper consideration of subject – let’s say Aristotle’s argument that humanity is pre-eminently a political animal – allows for a consideration of process as mature and critical reflection and at the moment I’m not worried about object. But suffice it to say, you might get a politics of keen debate and conflict.

Studying a subject, or body of knowledge, is a good thing in itself and perhaps requires no other justification than the satisfaction that comes from strenuous activity, rigour and truth-seeking. But to abandon subjects does not just wipe the slate clean with the possibility of alternative lifestyles, pursuits and pleasures lining up to divert us. It is also dangerous.

Albert Einstein once asked himself the question: ‘How did the West come to the idea of scientific discovery?’ He answered himself: ‘Development of Western Science is based on two great achievements – the invention of the formal logical system (in Euclidean geometry) by the Greek philosophers, and the discovery of the possibility to find out causal relationships by systematic experiment (during the Renaissance). In my opinion, one has not to be astonished that the Chinese sages have not made these steps. The astonishing thing is that these discoveries were made at all.’ (1)

So why do we want to give these incredible and difficult achievements up? Let’s remind ourselves here that the UK government’s response to a fall off of 21 per cent in the take up of A-level maths was the proposal to make the course easier! The integrity and pursuit of knowledge can only be maintained through the discipline of subject enquiry, and it’s difficult.

Let me give another example – not because of its historical authority, not even just because of the celebration of knowledge, but because knowledge, potentially, makes the world a better place and because the downgrading of the struggle for knowledge is reactionary. Many of us are familiar with Kant’s response to his own question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ It is ‘Dare to know’. Let’s instead consider perhaps an even more provocative statement, from Diderot’s editorial to L’ Encyclopedie: ‘All things must be examined, all must be winnowed and sifted without exception.’

There are no pre-determined outcomes and knowledge is no respecter of any prejudices or individual sensibilities. I think Diderot would hold that this was just as much a precondition of human freedom as his assertion that ‘man will not be free until the last priest has been hanged with the entrails of the last aristocrat’.

Many democrats and critics of the ‘skills revolution’ in education assume that it is merely a way of justifying an inferior education for most of the general population. They have a point, but this underestimates the corrosion of subject-based education throughout the system. I am struck by the lack of content in many Masters courses, particularly MBAs. Such courses will often emphasise sections of the programme such as ‘Leadership skills’, which amount to a bit of cod psychology, and the celebration of ‘people skills’, which endorse the process of personal manipulation for the object of company or individual success.

In one sense there is nothing new here. Degrees, or rather participation in elite institutions such as Oxbridge, have always provided the cultural capital or ‘right stuff’ to get on in politics and business. What’s new is the restriction of the credential to the technique of manipulation rather than the sense of what it’s for. In the past, Thucydides’s account of the Athenian destruction of Melos was read by men with the esprit de corps of an imperial mission. The same elite were convinced by Machiavelli of the need for public duty. If these two authors are read at all now it would be on how to spin the Iraq intervention in the forlorn hope of inspiring fear in the enemy and love in the consuming voter.

The most amazing feature in the curriculum wars is that even when the research of those institutions charged with promoting the ‘learning skills’ agenda demonstrates that there is no learning skill independent of the subject under scrutiny, there is no respite in the policy assault on subject knowledge. The Oxford Institute for the Advancement of University Learning says: ‘Attempting to follow note-taking guidance independently of the purpose of the lecture will inevitably lead to inappropriate study behaviour.’ (2)

Indeed. In a powerful piece of research into undergraduate learning conducted at Harvard, William G Perry Jr concludes that the most important moment in the development of an undergraduate is to do with content, not process or object. For some undergraduates it never comes and for others it is never resolved. It is the moment of realisation that the professor does not know everything. Some undergraduates pretend that this is not the case and continue to learn material to reproduce as objects and outcomes to achieve the credential. Some others conclude that since there is not a complete and single answer, then any answer is as good as any other. And yet others take the responsibility, and maybe a lesson from the habits of their professor, to search out the best possible answer to a given problem within their field and scope of enquiry. They learn to classify, compare, establish connections, analyse, modify and develop a body of subject knowledge. They learn to think rigourously about something.

A simple point in conclusion that I hope has been apparent from my remarks. The contention that knowledge is changing so fast that we don’t need to learn anything is stupid. I’m sitting in front of my computer screen using a complex piece of equipment as a word processor enabled to do so by a programme designer’s expertise, but the physics of this is and should be accessible to me. I may be able to function in this world because experience and common sense tell me I will fall if I jump off a high building. But only knowledge of Newton’s Laws of Motion and more sophisticatedly the Laws of Thermodynamics would give me the equipment to counter gravity and fly. With one bound he was free.

Unless we know things and, following Diderot’s advice on challenging and sifting without exception, impart the spirit of critical scrutiny to every new generation, society will regress both technically and socially. There will be no innovation if there is a restricted attitude to subject enquiry. There will be no sense of social engagement if the pursuit of knowledge is not at the cutting edge of education for all.

For me, there is nothing more irritating in the debate over the curriculum than the presumption that the discovery that education is about skills training and self-esteem is progressive and democratic, and that knowledge of Euclidean geometry and scientific experimentation is redundant and elitist. Dare to know is still, as it was at the time of Kant, the watchword of human progress. As far as I’m concerned, I am with Kant and Diderot, and the Department for Education and Skills is with the priests and the aristocrats.

Alan Hudson is director of studies in social and political science at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education.

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(1) Quoted in Cleopatra’s Nose, Essays on the Unexpected, Daniel J Boorstin (1995), New York: Vintage Books, p3

(2) ‘What are Study Skills?’ illuminatio, from the Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, spring 204, p2

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Topics Politics


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