Equity and knowledge

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In Australia, a section of the education community is still deeply ambivalent about the role of knowledge. For instance, David Zyngier, a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Monash University, felt the need to condemn a sensible article about the need to teach knowledge as ‘conservative neo-liberal nonsense’:

What is often lost in these periodic bouts of name-calling is that a common, knowledge-based curriculum is not only a statist solution of the kind beloved of social democrats, but it is also a far more equitable approach than the fashionable alternatives.

The transferability assumption

The dominant ideology in education is hostile to the idea of a common body of knowledge. This has its roots in educational progressivism and has been modulated by postmodern relativism. Progressivism, as John Dewey explained, is opposed to ‘imposition from above’, preferring to cultivate individual interests. Relativists, for their part, assert that there are many knowledges of equal value and that the knowledges of disadvantaged, subaltern groups are often overlooked. Teaching a common body of knowledge is therefore seen as a form of oppression.

As E. D. Hirsch has argued, this provides something of an existential crisis for educationalists. If teachers are not there to teach a common body of knowledge then what exactly are they meant to be doing? The answer comes in the form of various transferable skills such as critical thinking or learning how to learn. These can then be developed via many interchangeable contexts, side-stepping the problematic discussion of whose knowledge to teach.

The fact that there is little to no evidence that such skills exist, are transferable and can be improved through schooling (see e.g. here and here) is unimportant because the idea of promoting these skills is supported by ideological need.

A knowledge curriculum is more equitable

When Isaac Newton made the connection between an apple falling from a tree and the motion of heavenly bodies, he sat at a unique confluence of ideas, events and, yes, privilege. He was standing on the shoulders of giants such as Galileo and Kepler who had created the knowledge he then built upon. But it was also a confluence of technology: Some of Galileo’s discoveries depended upon the invention of the telescope which, in turn, depended upon the development of optical glass. And Newton was privileged. He wasn’t a noble and he even needed to supplement his early career at Cambridge by working as a kind of servant for other students. Nevertheless, his family had a source of independent income and his circumstances were far more privileged than the majority of people at the time who lacked his access to education and the opportunity to pursue it.

In a sense, Newton is therefore the quintessential dead, white, European male. And yet his ideas are worth knowing by everyone because they are so powerful. For the first time, the laws of the heavens were connected to the laws of the Earth and it is hard to underestimate what a shift in thinking this produced. Cutting students off from this birth-right on the basis that Newton is from a different time and culture would be like cutting Newton off from Aristotle on the same basis. We lose something and gain nothing.

And there are powerful ideas of this kind that sit across the arts, humanities and sciences. If you want to understand the world today, you must understand the second world war. If you want to understand theatre and literature then you must at least know something of Shakespeare. And this is only to take a limited view of these ideas. There are a vast number of key ideas that the writers of quality newspapers and books assume that their readers know, so missing out on these concepts cuts access to sources of information about the world. There’s nothing progressive about that. Knowing about an idea is not the same as accepting it – students can learn about The British Empire, for instance, and they can choose to disapprove of it. Good teaching will highlight the tensions and conflicts.

What’s more, if schools decline to teach this foundational knowledge then it is clear that the least privileged in society are the ones who will miss out. The wealthy will still want their sons and daughters to be doctors and lawyers and actors and journalists. They will take them to art galleries and museums and they will pay for private tuition or private schools if they think something is lacking. It is only the disadvantaged who will miss out as they sit in class, patronised and sanctified by middle-class intellectuals who are achieving precisely the opposite of liberating the oppressed.

We need a better national curriculum

A reformer committed to equitable education should focus on ensuring a common, rigorous set of curriculum objectives. Instead of the dull, knowledge-denuded Australia Curriculum, they should be fighting for a curriculum that represents the foundational knowledge that opens access to careers, opportunities and democratic engagement. This would not stop schools from also studying topics of local and cultural interest. In fact, this should be a stated component of the curriculum.

Sadly, such calls are few and far between. Those of us who put our heads above the parapet are likely to be summarily dismissed as neo-liberal conservatives with no further explanation necessary. We are not what they call us and history will prove us right.


17 thoughts on “Equity and knowledge

  1. The equity question rambles heavily amongst many pushing progressive edu ideology rather than what it should be focused on: ensuring all children have a very strong foundational grasp of the 3 R’s. A house isn’t really a house if it only has pretty windows; it first needs a foundation from which to build upon. Calling exams, letter grades and the memorization of facts and content knowledge as irrelevant in the 21st century is damning most significantly to disadvantaged kids.

    Good post. Will be sharing…

  2. Why would wanting to teach knowledge be “neo-liberal”?

    The actual (rare) neo-liberals have bought totally into the progressive theories of education. Silicon valley entrepreneurs are the worst for thinking that computers will solve people’s lack of knowledge. Neo-liberalism is opposed to set knowledge curricula, because it wants the market to decide. It is for “just in time” teaching, not an organised hierarchy.

    Not only does Zyngier know little about how people learn, apparently he doesn’t even follow contemporary trends in the politics of it. Throwing “neo-liberal” around in such a way just makes look ignorant. Another victim of I don’t need to know that, I can look it up — who does need to know something in order to know to look it up.

    1. …Why would wanting to teach knowledge be “neo-liberal”?…

      Because neo-liberal is essentially Academese for “anything I don’t like”.

  3. Good post. Careers are too often closed to disadvantaged children because they cannot even find out about them. Sometimes I think progressive education is a means used by neo liberals to prevent access to professional jobs.

    1. Do you ever feel that you are looking through the binoculars the wrong way around. Turn them around and you will see much more of the world.

  4. Another interesting contribution to debate.

    “If you want to understand theatre and literature then you must at least know something of Shakespeare.”

    I think the above sums up the quality of the assertions regarding “knowledge”. The idea that anyone would need to study Shakespeare to understand literature/drama is so pompus as to be unworthy of a detailed reply. In 80 years time, as few people will be reading and talking about Sharespeare in lessons in the UK as are talking about Confucious in the UK now.

    “Cutting students off from this birth-right on the basis that Newton is from a different time and culture would be like cutting Newton off from Aristotle on the same basis.”

    This is clearly unsupportable although it might be seen to some as having face validity. Most kids need never be taught about Newton and his laws of motion. Maybe people should be able to choose the giants on whose shoulders they stand but you come across as pompous in the extreme. Just because Newton may (I repeat may) have stood on the shoulders of Aristotle this does not in any way suggest that all kids need to be taught about Newton.

    The very idea that a “knowledge curriculum” will provide anything like an level playing field for kids who are less privileged seems either naive or disingenuous. I have no doubt that for a few students, an academic and “Greg Ashman designed knowedge curriculum” might give access to elite universities, but the idea that that will then provide access to some reserved occupations/professions is just silly. Surely for a few of those given access by your knowledge curriculum may end up rising up the social mobility ladder but this would be the minority of the minority.

    Trad teachers and those advocating for “no excuses/zero tolerance” ask the question why should the majority suffer due to the indulgence of the few who behave badly. Of course any sensible peron would agree, however we might debate the best way of avoiding the damaging effects on the majority.

    I would ask a similar question here. Why should the majority of kids be disadvantaged so that a chosen few might be able to progress to an elite university and then a privileged profession.

    I believe there is a need for the education system to be flexible and allow those who might follow one path to do so while allowing a different path for a different kid. I don’t believe a “knowledge centred curriculum” should be imposed on all in fact a knowledge centred curriculum should not be available unit A/level – undergraduate level.

    I truly believe that technology will be the leveller. Local/National/Global power is no longer reliant on the elites that you seem to aspire to. Kids have the opportunity to choose their curriculum with control by teachers, schools and Governments.

    We will see. But I think imposing a knowledge centred cirriculum on all will not work which is why the trad/alt-trads will remain a minority activity.

    1. If we do not teach Newton then we might as well not teach any science at all. Should we go back to an earth-centric solar system too?

      You’re actually arguing to keep people ignorant! That takes some chutzpah.

      Do we actually want a populace that believe in astrology because they don’t understand the distances involved? That won’t wear seatbelts because they don’t understand energy increases as the square of speed?

      I know some progressives tend to engage in magical thinking, but that is taking it to extremes.

  5. Hello Brian, You seem a little naive if you think global elites do not control the economy. What you are proposing is what? No knowledge curriculum until A level. So what are you going to teach? And how, at A level maths or history, are you going to stuff in all the knowledge you will need to pass an A level? I just ask in a polite spirit of enquiry, but I suspect that the basics of arithmetic and maths are absolutely necessary to a study of A level maths (or physics, come to that) and that knowledge of chronology and the history of your country are a basis for studying the subject at A level – and unless you are going to spend 4 or 5 years studying that A level then there is not time for using enquiry skills to find out that knowledge, and unless students have a groundwork of knowledge they are not going to be able to distinguish accurate information from fake.
    Also, in what way are any children disadvantaged by a ‘knowledge curriculum’? Is it not life enhancing, interesting and useful to know the causes of WWI, or why Charles I clashed with parliament, and the background to that – which is to be found in Elizabethan England btw, including in the works of Mr. Shakespeare? Is it not life enhancing to have some knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion or of Plato’s Republic (true, Plato and his undemocratic machinations are probably for undergraduates, but it surprises me how few people with degrees can make the jump to how Plato’s republic illuminates the workings of modern politicians, for example in the EU)? I am not saying alternative history or physics should not be taught, but if you live in country A the history of country A is your main priority. And why should the majority of children in country A be deprived of some or much of their history because there are some people from country C and it is considered that a large part of the curriculum should be spent on this?
    Lastly, you suggest we should be able to choose which giants’ shoulders we stand upon. That’s fine, I agree. But how will you choose your giants if you have no knowledge of them or what they did?

  6. Uh yeah…opinions are fine but informed opinions are better. A little ditty about what works best for disadvantaged kids, and one that still remains true to this day: here “Taking rigorous mathematics and science courses in high school appears to be
    especially important for low-income students. ” and here “Students who take rigorous mathematics and science courses are much more likely to
    go to college than those who do not” https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED415119.pdf …. technology is a tool, not a better way of learning. As so many nations that have already found out to their detriment.

    We may not know what works best, but we damn know what doesn’t work when it comes to children’s learning. Why not start there first?

  7. Think you kicked the hornet’s nest here Greg. Which is interesting because so many of your articles focus on the detail of the curriculum an don’t garner this response. But open up the whole and it’s an attack.

    While the idea of a knowledge curriculum sounds great it’s next to impossible to achieve at anything above a school level. This is because education is a political piñata of money-making, the moral left and right, tradition and necessity of time. Ask any group of 3 educators what should be taught and you will get 7 responses. Everyone thinks their part is the most important and has the biggest impact.

    Thinking just about Maths:
    1. How much needs to be taught as mental arthimetic? Most people use a calculator so Is it still required. Well a Maths teacher will say absolutely, but is all of it for everyone?

    2. The article for Ken Robinson had a comment about quadratics. How many people use quadratics? Not many and the argument of it teaches skills and techniques, well Greg has written many articles arguing that most critical skills are not transferable. Maths skills suffer from the same problem especially when taught with textbook approaches.

    3. An argument could be made that most Maths used in common day is taught at year 7 (Australian curriculum standards) If we are teaching “required” knowledge we save a lot of time stopping Maths then. Not something Greg is advocating (quite the opposite) but what’s the argument for more. Higher quality society, we’ve had organised education for at least 150 years, is anyone saying its better. Maybe we should try something else?

    Just some food for thought.

      1. Unfortunately they are, hence why so many music programs are cut from schools.

        Looking at history you have the biggest political football of the lot. Deciding what is taught and how plays a big part in how our next generation develops. Look at the war but focus on the holocaust of the Jews ignoring the polish and gypsy deaths? How about aboriginal history or the stolen generation? What about political activism, some schools look at black rights, but what about environmental or Mabo?

        Literature again is so difficult. Why pick that book over this book? Because the teacher likes it or it’s required. You mentioned Shakespeare in your article, so why Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and maybe Merchant of Venice or Othello are the study choices when the funny plays are missed that could engage young readers. Why for that matter is 1984 such a popular choice?

        It’s not that I don’t enjoy Maths or Science at incredibly deep levels but is it required for the general populace. More importantly if it is, is it okay for many to have limited or no working knowledge of it?

      2. I reject this impoverished and utilitarian view of education. A plumber may not need to know Hamlet to be able to function as a plumber but does this mean that these intellectual fruits of civilisation should be the preserve of only a small elite? Life is about more than work and counting out change at the supermarket. Of course, the choice of books that go into any curriculum will and should always be contested and a lively subject of democratic debate. But this fact does not require us to degrade the entire curriculum to a purely functional level. To do so is to dismiss the promise and possibility of education.


  8. I wonder how the optimistic outlook of Stephen Pinker applies to the trends in breadth and equity of education.


    Just looking at rates of university graduation it would see things are going well.
    All the trends here are upward.


    In Canada all universities seem to have breadth requirements.

    There specific problems in Canada due to declining rural populations and population aging that mean for smaller towns breadth is reduced in primary school for things such as music that require a specialist.

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