I am periodically drawn back to a quote by John Maynard Keynes that has featured in a number of recent books about education:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas… it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
It was while reading a new book by E. D. Hirsch that I began to ponder Pierre Bourdieu and whether he might be playing the role of a, “defunct economist”. If you search ERIC, the database of education research, for his surname it returns 929 results. This would be unsurprising to anyone who has been involved in education research. Bourdieu, Derrida and Deleuze are common sources of authority appended to otherwise rather mundane sociological research or commentary papers.
Yet I wonder whether people stop to ask whether it is a good idea to apply his ideas to education.
Hirsch’s thesis is that a curricular shift away from teaching a common body of knowledge towards attempts to teach transferable skills such as critical thinking and reading comprehension led to a decline in U.S. educational performance. Moreover, it made it less equitable because the disadvantaged are affected most by this change. However, the kinds of causal relationships that Hirsch discusses are hard to test in short trials*.
So the argument has rested on long-term correlations. By around 1950, progressive education, roughly embodied by organisations such as the Progressive Education Association, had made its way out of American private schools and had started to infiltrate the government school system. This involved a de-emphasis on teaching a common body of knowledge in favour of transferable skills. The change correlates with a large decline in student scores on a range of national tests such as the college preparatory SAT and ACT tests. Unfortunately, this data is not clean. The student population also changed and so it is hard to figure-out how much of this change was due to curriculum and how much was due to a changing population, with most authors tending to conclude that it is a mixture of both.
More comprehensive testing did take place within some relatively stable populations and this shows a similar result but the data is patchy.
This is why Hirsch draws on a more recent data set from France. In the 1980s, France performed extremely well on international comparisons. Relative to their 1980s performance, France’s subsequent decline has been nothing short of ruinous, with a large increase in inequality between the advantaged and disadvantaged. The French have managed to capture the assessment profile of their students in more detail than in the U.S. due to a centralised education bureaucracy. If you can read French – or, like me, you are happy to persist with the abstruse utterances of Google Translate – then you can find the data here.
Interestingly, France passed a law in 1989 – “Jospin’s Law” – that set-out the path of future curriculum reform. A national committee was formed by the French government with the express purpose of informing the writing of this law and that committee was headed by Pierre Bourdieu (Jacques Derrida was another member). The committee drafted a set of principles that make for an interesting read.
The committee placed a great deal of emphasis on critical thinking, computer skills and other transferable skills. They suggested that teachers should work across subject boundaries and that, “the curriculum should be capable of simultaneously addressing science and the history of science or epistemology”. Stress is placed upon decontextualised ways of thinking such as the use of logic and the scientific method. Amusingly, an increase in group work is proposed which they suggested would “best fit into the afternoon”. The fourth principle sought to exclude the “premature transmission of knowledge” and they expressed a similar idea to current proponents of 21st century skills i.e. that the expansion of knowledge is so rapid that it renders “encyclopaedism” and perhaps even subject boundaries invalid. Instead, there should be open, flexible and changeable programmes that act as a “framework not a prison”.
These principles are closely analogous to those promoted by progressive educators in the U.S. and their advent coincides with a similar, if better documented, decline in national performance. It therefore seems quite likely that the adoption of these principles caused some or all of the decline.
The enduring popularity of Bourdieu among educationalists is perhaps surprising. He does indeed seem to be one of Keynes’s “defunct economists”, with the evidence suggesting that his ideas are a force for evil rather than good.
*Hirsch’s view is that schools – particularly elementary schools – should systematically teach a curriculum of powerful knowledge. This is because he contends that, once children have mastered decoding, reading comprehension is largely a function of vocabulary and background knowledge, and vocabulary is best taught through immersion in a knowledge domain. The knowledge that we need to teach is therefore the knowledge required to comprehend texts such as serious newspapers so that children can engage in civil society. However, if you were to run students through such a curriculum for a couple of terms so that they studied e.g. Ancient Egypt and Rivers and then set a standardised reading test which asked questions that were unrelated to Egypt or Rivers then you would see no effect.