The pedagogy of serfdom

Recently, Tait Coles criticised my old blog on Twitter. I have therefore decided to repost this article from December 2013, in order to give context:

I recently read this post by Tait Coles. I am pleased that it was written. Not only is it erudite, diplaying a sophisticated knowledge of the works of Gramsci, Giroux and others, but it is exciting to read an actual denunciation of E D Hirsch and all of his works. Most critics fail to take Hirsch on in this way, prefering to argue that there is no debate about the importance of knowledge and so they don’t know what Hirsch is going on about. Instead, Tait Coles chooses to play it pretty straight and with an eye for detail.

I would therefore like to take the opportunity to refute the argument that is presented. I must insist that this is not simply a different point of view or a matter of opinion. We should all be aware of the importance of these debates to the future of our education systems and I am afraid that, in this case, the argument that is put forward is simply wrong.

I have not read Gramsci and so I do not intend to comment on the Gramsci quotes. What is clear, however, is that Coles is projecting onto Hirsch positions that Hirsch does not hold.

Firstly, “the pedagogy promoted by Hirsch often becomes reduced to a transmission model of teaching which instils a culture of conformity and passive absorption of knowledge.” This is false. I don’t think Hirsch is a particular champion of a didactic teaching style – and I grant this is not what the quote says – but I personally have no problem with the need for knowledge to be transmitted. I’m pretty sure that this is one of the reasons that talking evolved. It is, however, demonstrably false that Hirsch’s curriculum ‘instils an culture of conformity’.

I have yet to hear the case made that you can argue against something that you know little or nothing about. I am afraid that Coles slips into the fallacious assumption here that teaching students about something is equivalent to promoting it. This was the argument put forward by conservatives in England in the 1980s when they tried to ban teachers from teaching kids about homosexuality; they didn’t want it promoted in schools. Clearly, when we teach our students about Nazi Germany, we are not promoting it and to say so would be daft.

However, this is exactly the argument against, “Hirsch’s compilation of knowledge for and by the middle class.” The middle classes happen to know a lot of useful and profound things. Moreover, knowing these things seems to cement their wealth and influence in society. It is for this reason that middle class parents go to great lengths to try to ensure a middle class education for their children.

The inverse of this argument is the truth. If you learn about Churchill at school then this does not turn you into Churchill. More significantly, you are more likely learn about the disaster at Gallipoli or Churchill’s involvement with the black-and-tans at school than you will through the romantic lens of popular culture (unless you’re Irish). Knowing about Churchill enables you, should you wish, to explain exactly why you think he was an utter bastard and to be able to support this with evidence. Knowing nothing facilitates nothing.

How could you have a curriculum ‘designed for and by the students’? They don’t know what they don’t know. It is an abdication of our responsibility to withold knowledge from them.

According to Coles, Hirsch, “argues that the real enemy of student learning is its failure to endorse rote learning, a core curriculum and uniform teaching.” The core curriculum part of this is true and with good reason. The other two points are false. Hirsch does not promote a uniform teaching style and this is what Hirsch says about ‘rote’ knowledge in The Knowledge Deficit:

“Today our schools and colleges of education… are still the nerve centers of an anti-intellectual tradition. One of their most effective rhetorical tics is to identify the acquisition of broad knowledge with ‘rote learning’ of ‘mere facts’ – in subtle disparagement of ‘merely verbal’ presentation in books and through the coherent explanations of teachers. Just like Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Dewey, our schools of education hold that unless school knowledge is connected to ‘real life’ in a ‘hands-on’ way, it is unnatural and dead; it is ‘rote’ and ‘meaningless’. It consists of ‘mere facts’. But nobody advocates rote learning of disconnected facts. Neither Milton nor Thomas Jefferson nor any of their more thoughtful contemporaries who championed book learning advocated rote learning. What they did advocate was the systematic acquisition of broad knowledge. And such knowledge is precisely what it takes to become a good reader.”

So Hirsch is not advocating rote learning. Rote learning implies the memorisation of facts without understanding. To accuse a core knowledge curriculum of being about rote learning is to conflate the learning of knowledge with the learning of knowledge without understanding. It is perfectly possible to learn knowledge and to understand it. Those who make this claim therefore need to point to some evidence to suggest that Hirsch’s curriculum has some inherent flaw that prevents students from understanding what they learn in a way that other approaches do not. If they cannot do this then they should remove the term ‘rote’ from their lexicons.

In reality, flawed notions of relevance and of the limiting of a curriculum to that which already lies within a child’s experience; these are the ideas that oppress subaltern groups, keeping them in their place and denying them access to both information and power. With the best of intentions, it is these ideas that create a servant class that is unable to argue about that of which it knows nothing, let alone foment revolution.


2 thoughts on “The pedagogy of serfdom

  1. “I happen to think that progressive education does the most harm to the disadvantaged; the ones whose parents cannot mitigate the effects.”

    A thousand times this ^. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that the biggest promoters of progressive education are themselves products of the middle class. They have no idea what it’s like for the rest of us.

  2. My Grandad was born in 1911, about 10 miles from Dublin. Growing up, he used to tell me all about the Black and Tans and Auxilaries. They beat a man to death ouside the local shops. He remembered the occupation. The British pulling out. A soldier pointing a machine gun at him from the top of a car just to scare him for a laugh. The Civil War afterwards where he had a brother on either side. Amazing really. I didn’t realise growing up how incredible it was to be told these stories by someone who was there.

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