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.