Futures 1, 2 and 3…

On Graham’s suggestion I read this piece on Michael Young’s Futures 1, 2 & 3, which I felt presented a much more coherent argument than the first readings we were directed to (maybe trying to defend himself against John White didn’t bring out the best in him). The piece does a much better job of explaining how Young’s standpoint differs from the right-wing, traditionalist, knowledge-based curriculum.

Young presents Future 1 and Future 2 as extremes with which to compare his own happy medium that he calls Future 3.

Future 1 is the traditionalist, knowledge-for-its-own-sake approach. Access to knowledge is its core purpose, but its downfall is that the range of subjects – and their boundaries – are assumed, taken as given. Young claims that Future 1 denies the social and historical basis of the organisation of knowledge. Also that, while the more sophisticated, flexible versions surviving in ‘elite’ (private and grammar) schools are working well for these students, Gove’s vision is ‘trapped in its own elitist past’, with content reproduced from the 19th century. From my admittedly biased position as a massive leftie, I think Young’s argument against Future 1 is strong.

The Future 2 standpoint arose in the post-WW2 era; a time of rapidly changing social and economic demands. Future 2 rejects the ‘givenness’ of knowledge altogether and questions subject boundaries, arguing that – if knowledge is simply what powerful people have – its organisation is arbitrary. Young describes an extreme form of Future 2 is where the curriculum is based solely on learner’s own experiences and interests – supposedly equating to the interests of society.

Young’s dismissal of Future 2 stems from its status as an instrument of politics (i.e. social change) – rather than an instrument for achieving educational goals in a purer sense. This may be the case, but I would also describe Future 1 – particularly Gove’s vision – as an instrument of politics, and also there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what these ‘pure educational goals’ might be. Is Young suggesting that education can/should be value-free? David Held has (perhaps unintentionally) done the best job I’ve seen of describing what should be taught in his chapter on Critical Theory and Aesthetics, but you wouldn’t describe him as politically neutral.

Young certainly feels that there is a causal relationship between knowledge and power rather than a casual one, but he emphasises how his ‘objectivity of knowledge’ (Future 3) is different from the ‘givenness of knowledge’ of Future 1. He trusts that the academic community will safeguard the continued development of disciplines and subjects in accordance with epistemic rules (i.e. not in an arbitrary manner). This may be the case, but I’d like Young to acknowledge the part political pressure plays in the development of disciplinary knowledge (through research funding, etc). I’d also like him to give an example to illustrate the distinction between ‘the interrelated concepts of a subject’ and ‘everyday concepts’, and I’m certainly not convinced by his argument for teaching segregated subjects, however fluid he acknowledges them to be.

At the moment I am simultaneously wading through Held’s Introduction to Critical Theory (because I loved Chapter 3 so much), and paddling a little faster through Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Progress on the former is slow – thanks to the National Curriculum of 1988, my historical/political knowledge is very sketchy, so everything in the first two chapters is new to me – but one thing that stands out from the beginning is the interdisciplinarity of the Frankfurt School and the individuals within it. Horkheimer believed that reintegrating the disciplines was the only way to pursue the great philosophical questions and to teach about society. This resonates with my own feelings, explaining to me my unease about the segregation of subjects that Young supports. My concern is that, rather than enabling us to grow up capable of thinking in all different ways; this intellectual segregation actually disperses our thinking powers, blinkers us and distracts us from making valuable connections that will reveal the true nature of the world and enable us to liberate ourselves. I’ve only got a third of the way through Freire, but I think he would agree there is nothing revolutionary about teaching segregated subjects; certainly this is not how revolution is facilitated. I find the idea of disciplinarity quite oppressive in itself.

So what of Futures 1, 2 & 3? I would like to know more about Future 2, as it sounds to me that Young is reacting to an extreme version of it. I dipped into John White’s The Curriculum and the Child for my MA, and thought he was pretty convincing, so I’ll dip back into it and see if there is a stronger case in there for a type-2 Future (White may not be Future 2 at all; I’m simply assuming this is the case based on the little spat him and Young had a few months back).

It may be that my own position is none of the above, but a fourth Future – one that promotes the study of great works of science, literature and art, philosophical debate and interdisciplinary enquiry.

At some point I have to concede that my short career in the compulsory sector ended long ago, and decide what relevance all of this has for my role teaching lecturers and technicians at a specialist Arts university. Maybe it simply explains why I am happy here; a place where the vast majority of students – regardless of what their degree is in – do something called Historical and Cultural Studies, a mandate based on the quite reasonable assumption that in order to make meaningful art, you need to know some stuff about – and be interested in – the world and society. It’s also a place where interdisciplinarity is valued highly; we have research centres in areas like Sustainable Fashion (apparently not an oxymoron) and Design Against Crime. One of my favourite artist-professors at UAL – Rob Kesseler – works ‘in the liminal territory between Art and Science… creating images that lie between science and symbolism’. A key theme in recent educational development initiatives at UAL is the connection between creativity and academic practice; not so much what pedagogy can do for art, as what can art do for pedagogy?

I’ll finish off with a couple more Young-isms that ruffled my feathers a bit. When he asks – ‘Which students are likely to take up a craft instead of physics or history?’ – is this a rhetorical question? I have no idea which students he thinks are likely to do this, or what the implication is. I’d suggest that further study choices have a lot to do with family expectations these days. Perhaps this is off Michael Young’s radar, but most UK students remain dependent on their parents throughout University, and those who choose to study a craft tend to be those whose parents support them (ideologically and practically) in doing so.

Also, Young denounces Gove for looking backwards, treating trades and crafts as an unchanging ‘given’, and is clearly keen on change and development and new technologies. Page 5 does, to me, expose Young’s predisposition towards education for gainful employment, and economic and technological development. Economic development isn’t on my wishlist; I think we could all do with going backwards a bit, although I know I’m probably in the minority. At the risk of sounding like a self-righteous hippy, I am in favour of maintaining the tactile, traditional crafts, and I think they hold intrinsic value for many others too.

Young, M. (2011) The Return to Subjects: A sociological perspective on the UK Coalition Government’s approach to the 14-19 curriculum.

Freire, P. (1993) Pedagogy of the oppressed, 2nd edition. Penguin books.

Held, D. (1990) Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Polity Press.

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