Social justice and knowledge

In my previous Labour Teachers post, I argued that taking a political stance did not necessarily imply views on how to teach. However, if our priority is social justice then there are a number of arguments of which left-leaning teachers should be aware.

Continues here at Labour Teachers


4 thoughts on “Social justice and knowledge

  1. Left Left Behind

    [I follow the blog “Filling the Pail” by Greg Ashman and am commenting to his latest post — Social justice and knowledge. However, to get his full thoughts on the matter you have to first go to another site where Greg hopes to stimulate some discussion with his Labour Teachers audience ( My comment is for Greg and his blog audience at “Filling the Pail”. ]

    Left Left Behind

    I am grateful to Greg Ashman for continuing to insist that we read E D Hirsch because as a parent and grandparent I find Hirsch eloquently speaks to my condition. I would rest a lot easier if my grandkids would have the benefit of “core knowledge” schools as outlined by Hirsch. I am in Canada and I believe there are parents/grandparents in the UK, USA, NZ and Australia who would agree with this style of education.

    Hirsch, in his book “The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them”, poses a puzzle which he does not answer. He wonders why left social activists chose the Freire route vs the Gramsci route to pursue their agenda.

    Freire “called for a change of both methods and content — new content that would celebrate the culture of the oppressed and new methods that would encourage intellectual independence and resistance.”

    “Gramsci took the opposite view. He held that political progressivism demanded educational conservatism. The oppressed class should be taught to master the tools of power and authority — the ability to read, write, and communicate . . . Gramsci was not the only observer to predict the inegalitarian consequences of ‘naturalistic,’ ‘project-oriented,’ ‘hands-on,’ ‘critical thinking,’ and so-called ‘democratic’ education.”

    I wonder how it happened that the Freire direction came to pass — who, why, what literature, etc. was responsible for this direction?.

    If genuine social justice was the aim, it is not being served by Freire approaches. Hirsch concludes: “Educational progressivism is a sure means for preserving the social status quo.” (p7)

    What then are the payoffs gained by the progressive Freire approach — for children, for society or for the eventual progressive endgame?

  2. Striking a balance between teaching ‘knowledge’ and thinking skills is one that we’ll probably never see the end of, however your post seems to imply that there is a zeitgeist of ‘the left’ that opposes the teaching of ‘knowledge’. Where do you get this idea from?

    • Firstly, I am not convinced of the need for a balance between teaching knowledge and teaching thinking skills. The latter construct is problematic. Where such skills exist, they operate mostly as a useful heuristic rather than something to be practised and mastered. Willingham writes well about critical thinking skills and demonstrates how critical thinking cannot really be taught:

      Click to access Crit_Thinking.pdf

      Bereiter analyses the concept of thinking skills more systematically in the chapter, “critical thinking, creativity and other virtues,” from the book below but unfortunately it is not available online:

      I think there are two answers to your specific question. The first is largely unrelated to politics and represents conventional thinking in education (although conventional thinking in education is not politically neutral). This is to assume that knowledge is interchangeable and really acts as a ‘context’ in which to develop particular skills. In her book, “Seven myths about education”, Daisy Christodoulou gives the example of a lesson where the objective is to get students to construct an argument. The context is then chosen to be as straightforward as possible; students are to write a letter to the principal about whether there should be a school uniform. The idea is that students will already have the knowledge required and so can concentrate on the skill of argument.

      However, there is no one skill of argument and your ability to argue depends a great deal on your knowledge of the subject matter. Why not use this as an opportunity to build knowledge? Daisy suggest that, instead, students could write an argument on whether the House of Lords (UK equivalent of the Senate) should be elected. In the process, students would gain knowledge of the political system; knowledge that many students would probably lack and knowledge that is important to become an active citizen. They would also be likely to have to construct a more sophisticated argument.

      Daisy’s book is available here:

      The more obviously political argument is made by those who criticised Hirsch’s ‘cultural literacy’ when it first came out in the 1980s (and who make similar criticisms today). This is basically an argument against Hirsch’s idea that there should be a set of core knowledge taught to all children in public schools. Although Hirsch suggested an empirical approach – he analysed the New York Times to see what knowledge was required of a reader in order to comprehend the articles – his opponents characterise him as wishing to impose knowledge of dead, white males on everyone. He is white, male and middle-class, they note. Taking a Freirean line, they would argue that we should start from what is relevant to the students. Hirsch’s approach is even sometimes described as a form of colonialism, I think.

    • Hi Capitan. As an advocate for the direct teaching of ‘knowledge’, there are plenty of left-of-center folks who advocate this (most of the principal figures of ResearchEd, for example, and Hirsch himself). But my experience is that we have an open door at right-of-center think tanks in North America but not a SINGLE left-of-center policy centre or think tank will give us the time of day. In our advocacy work at WISE Math work hard to work with those on all points of the political spectrum because we feel that this issue is *not* attached to any political perspective; it is a universal concern. Yet, there it is — the large, organized political advocacy groups feel very uncomfortable with us, and give plenty of space in their reports etc for the “progressive education” agenda and its advocates. I don’t think Greg need produce numerical stats to support that notion — it’s all around us. I hear this all the time from education advocates for core knowledge education. Many of these people (such as Greg himself) are left of center. Yet they will often “complain” to me: “Why are all the public figures/organizations willing to support my work conservative?” It’s a good question, and I have no clear explanation for this. Yet the observation strikes me as unassailable.

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