The place of knowledge and the purpose of subjects

In advance of today’s workshop we read the following review of Michael Young’s book on the place of knowledge within Education:

  • Hartley, D. (2007) An Extended Review of Bringing Knowledge Back in by Michael Young, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28:6

We also looked at a series of papers through which Michael Young converses with Margaret Brown & John White (although Young only addresses his May 3rd response to White – I’m not sure why that is):

  • Brown, M., and White, J. (2012) An Unstable Framework – Critical perspectives on The Framework for the National Curriculum, April 5th, 2012
  • Young, M, (2012) The Curriculum – ‘An entitlement to powerful knowledge’: A response to John White, May 3rd, 2012
  • White, J. (2012) Powerful knowledge: too weak a prop for the traditional curriculum? May 14th 2012

I’ll start with Hartley’s extended review, which was a bit treacley. Classic schoolboy error in the first sentence – using ‘begs the question’ when he means ‘raises the question’. Young’s argument does beg the question at times – but not that question. Hey-ho, I got on with it, googling neo-Durkheimian and other references that assumed a breadth of knowledge and level of understanding only just in reach (I may have torn something stretching for it).

What I did manage to glean from the piece is that Hartley is a Young-sympathiser; he feels – as Young does – that there is such a thing as an objective ideal curriculum. I don’t find that idea problematic (depending on how we define the concept of ‘curriculum’), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that Young’s subject-based curriculum is the ideal. Hartley’s précis of Young’s rationale does little more than dismiss objections to it (from the postmodernists, the relativists and the critical theorists), which is disappointing. Even having read Young’s own response, I found Brown & White’s argument far more convincing. I’ll try to articulate my doubts and questions as follows:

  1. I think I may be one of those ‘purist’ critical theorists Hartley is rather scathing about, who value exposure to emancipatory critiques. I wouldn’t say it is all that is required for emancipation, but it’s a good start, surely? Throughout this review – and the 2012 response to John White – I find myself pushing back against Young’s rhetoric and picking holes in it. I feel that he is on the attack – against others, and some of my own core values and beliefs.
  2. Some of Young’s statements annoy me – for example ‘it remains an open question as to whether we can envisage a society in which the conservation of knowledge is no longer tied to the conservation of privilege’. I may be projecting, but he sounds a little too content with leaving it open for my liking. Also: ‘it has been painful [for me] to recognize that there are no easy or straightforward parallels between education and politics’. Newsflash…!! Does he think politicians are genuinely in favour of the emancipation and actualization of the masses?
  3. The focus on ‘powerful knowledge’ unsettles me. Hartley links it to the Enlightenment – a historical period of scientific advancement spearheaded by people like Isaac Newton, an exceptionally competitive man who – it is claimed – often behaved unethically, damaging the reputations of his peers in order to make himself look better (try
  4. Young argues for the maintenance a subject based curriculum because we’ve had one for ages, and people don’t like change. He claims that only a subject-based curriculum enables students to move beyond their own experience. It gets a little ridiculous when he slams White for wanting to base curriculum planning on logic. Is he implying that his own approach is illogical?
  5. Assuming that a subject-based curriculum does allow us to develop different ways of thinking, to what extent is it expected that these are maintained as we progress through life? Is the aim long-term empowerment to choose from different ways of thinking? Or is it accepted that, regardless of our education system, people will probably find their way into a groove – a geographer’s perception of the world; a political activist’s; a bricklayer’s; a folk musician’s – and stick with it? What is the risk that we will still pick the way of thinking that we think works for us (short-term) as individuals, rather than a perspective that promotes the holistic wellbeing of our current society and future generations?
  6. Again, I may be projecting, but Young’s rationale for basing a curriculum on ‘powerful knowledge’ seems to resonate more with the government’s ‘gainful employment’ agenda than with a desire for people to lead personally fulfilling, healthy and socially conscious lives. A society is more than just a collection of employees. I prefer Arnold and Bernstein’s arguments for theoretical knowledge that enables us to imagine alternative futures. If Young has hit on the objective ideal curriculum, I think he’s missed a trick in arguing the case for it. He hints at the need for us to develop the ability to think differently, or in different ways, but justifies this in terms of disciplinary development per se, rather than personal development in a broader sense. I am left with a sense that Young is genuinely attached to a subject-based curriculum, but can’t or won’t articulate exactly why. Is someone paying this particular piper and calling the tune?
  7. Maybe some people just get more conservative as they get older. I’ve seen it happen.

Let’s move away from the compulsory sector and consider what place knowledge has in the postgraduate sector in which I work; maybe take my own studies as an example…?

I am doing the EdD in order to access knowledge through a structure of specific content and activities. I want to engage with the best that has been thought and said in my discipline as I enjoy developing my own opinions and principles as a result of grappling with a range of expert perspectives. I enjoy this for its own sake, and I enjoy the more interesting (interdisciplinary!) conversations the knowledge enables me to have with friends and family. Less intrinsically, in applying this knowledge to my own specific practice I am gaining confidence in my own educational decisions and processes, and this – together with the research skills that I am developing – contributes to career progression. While I would like one day to own something bigger than a one-bedroomed flat, without which I have been told one cannot contemplate having children, the more intrinsic stuff is definitely in the foreground; embarking on a five-year doctorate at the age of 35 is a pretty arse-about-face way of starting a family.

I find this analysis quite interesting; it seems the ‘skill’ element of the course serves my more extrinsic motivations around ‘gainful employment’, while the ‘knowledge’ element speaks to my holistic personal development.  I think this is significant.

In (interim) conclusion; I’m not necessarily against Young’s subject-based curriculum; I believe, like Brown and White, that we cannot logically specify what students ‘need’ before we have agreed on what they need it for; in other words, what are our aims? I reject the assumption that gainful employment is the only aim of education, or even the most important one.

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4 Responses to The place of knowledge and the purpose of subjects

  1. Thanks for this Lindsay – a particularly detailed account this time of your thinking in progress. Not sure I have much to add at this point, other than to say keep it up as I enjoy the posts.

    “I wouldn’t say it is all that is required for emancipation, but it’s a good start, surely?”
    Indeed, and I’m not sure that this distances you too far from Young or (to the extent that I know of him, from this review alone) Hartley. The point is that for many social realists (including Young) an emancipatory critique is going to need to identify and explain the cause(s) of a real material or social situation, so that it can be transformed. This will require engagement with the knowledge-producing disciplines rather than simply a deconstructive technique.

  2. Graham Butt says:

    Just a brief and quick response to your blog post, made after the session on the ‘place of knowledge’ on 22 November.
    Firstly, it’s great to see how you have engaged with the available literature and not only Young’s work, but the various responses to it made by Hartley, Brown and White. I think you are right that Hartley has strong sympathies with Michael Young’s position – not only on the nature of knowledge and how it should be developed in education, but also with the role of subject disciplines in enabling this to happen.
    Secondly, to take some of your points and respond to them individually: in point 2 you state that some of Young’s statements annoy you (such as his thoughts on the ‘open question’ of whether ‘the conservation of knowledge is no longer tied to the conservation of privilege’) – I think that in making such comments he is aware of the bridge that he needs to build between his thoughts in the 1970s, when he published ‘Knowledge and Control’, and the change in direction he has undertaken in his more recent work. As John Morgan writes, in the Foreword to Young’s new book ‘Knowledge and the Future School’, Young was previously ‘one of the prominent figures when, four decades ago, an established curriculum orthodoxy was overturned’. He therefore has to tread a somewhat difficult path given that he has changed his position on the place of school subjects and their parent disciplines from when he was at the vanguard of the ‘new sociology of education’ in the 70s. This also speaks to your 4th point where Young argues for the maintenance of a subject-based curriculum – this was not always his stance! (and, indeed, HMI in the 1970s and early 80s were talking about the possibilities of a curriculum based on ‘areas of experience’ rather than subjects, something that remained in discussion even into the late 1980s as the National Curriculum was devised – although the New Right were strongly anti and ensured it remained a pipe dream! I think Young would admit that previously he had not clearly articulated how different subjects might contribute to the development of ‘powerful knowledge’ – this is why geography educationists, and others, have tried to engage him in discussion, symposia and writing to explore how a curriculum that takes seriously the notions of powerful knowledge might be developed. Young has a discussant section in a book I edited (‘Geography, Education and the Future’ (2011)) in which he (rightly) criticises geographers for not being clearer about what they believe to be key concepts that might underpin this). A co-author of his new book – ‘Knowledge and the Future School’ (2014) – is the geography educationist David lambert, who has a chapter in this publication, which seeks to articulate how powerful knowledge can be included in the subject-based curriculum.
    Thirdly, you ask whether a subject-based curriculum can allow us to develop different ways of thinking throughout our lives (point 5). This was a source of some frustration for me when I taught in comprehensive schools – that the school curriculum, which was heavily assessment driven, did not seem to support young learners in developing ‘ways of thinking’ and ‘ways of reasoning’ through different subject disciplines (which has some connections to concepts of powerful knowledge). So, very able students would still make quite wild and illogical statements as they were not secure in their knowledge of what could be reasoned within the parameters of their subject discipline. If this is a common problem, then the prospect of them being able to ‘think differently’ later in life is probably limited – especially as much of their education was based on rote memorisation that seemed designed primarily to allow them to pass exams.
    Your sixth point, about Young’s arguments for powerful knowledge seeming to resonate with the government’s ‘gainful employment’ agenda (a point which you return to at the end of the blog), I don’t think Young would agree with. My impression is that he is more concerned with education allowing forms of development and thought that go well beyond the instrumentalist aims of simply ‘getting a job’ – that is, giving children (of whatever class, social background, ethnicity, gender and ability) access to knowledge that will enable their social mobility (rather than social reproduction).
    In conclusion, I very much enjoyed your blog piece, and would urge you to look at Young’s ideas of Futures 1, 2 and 3 (addressed in previous publications with Johan Muller, and in his new book) – unfortunately we had little time to discuss this on Saturday, but I believe these to be Young’s clearest articulation of how powerful knowledge might be represented in schools.

    • Graham, thank you so much for this! I will definitely look up Futures 1, 2 & 3 – and thanks for these insights that go some way to explain the things I found puzzling, and reframe my annoyances. Yesterday I had a brief but excellent chat about Young with my colleague James Wisdom (who studied under Basil Bernstein), who gave me some pointers about how all this is relevant to the HE sector. I’ll post again in due course – thanks again 😀

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