Does Knowledge Have Any Value in the 21st Century?

by Lisa Hansel
April 3rd, 2013

In the UK, a debate is raging about Michael Gove’s proposal to implement a Core Knowledge–style curriculum. The discussion largely parallels criticisms and defenses of Core Knowledge in the US, so it’s both interesting and relevant to those of us who would like to see American students become more knowledgeable.

Sadly, strong opposition to the new curriculum is coming from the National Union of Teachers (NUT).  I don’t know anything about teacher preparation in the UK, but if it is anything like teacher preparation in the US, then the teachers are not to blame for their own lack of understanding of the many benefits of a rich, broad, carefully sequenced, knowledge-building curriculum. The UK teachers have probably never been taught about the decades of cognitive science demonstrating that knowledge and skills develop together; they probably have no idea that the higher-order skills we all want students to possess simply cannot be developed without simultaneously ensuring that they also have lots and lots of knowledge.

Now would be a good time for them to learn. As David Green (the director of Civitas, which is publishing a UK Core Knowledge Sequence) points out, the NUT is appropriately concerned about the de-professionalization of teachers—but it fails to see that the new curriculum is an opportunity to right that wrong:

Michael Gove’s planned national curriculum, heavily influenced by American reformer E.D. Hirsch, came under strong attack over the weekend. Critics claim that it will de-professionalise teachers. NUT activists and their allies insist that teachers will have to abandon the ideas that were prevalent when they were trained, and teach in a different way, which risks alienating and demoralising them.

There are good reasons for being concerned about the de-professionalisation of teachers, but Hirsch’s curriculum for the UK is not one of them….

Two main forces have contributed to the de-professionalisation of teaching: the politicisation of performance targets; and the impact of falsely named ‘progressive’ education that assigns a diminished role to teachers. Assessment is useful as a guide to teachers, parents and pupils about how much young people have learnt. However, assessment became dysfunctional in the last few years…. An official report in June 2011 … recognised that narrow ‘drilling’ had become common, squeezing out real learning and denying children a broad education. Lesson time in primary schools was used to rehearse answers instead of deepening and extending knowledge. The focus on results in English and maths meant that other subjects were neglected.

Critics of Hirsch have not realised that his work is an alternative to rehearsal and drilling, not an extension of it…. Cramming for exams is not the same as equipping the memory with useful information that will aid future understanding. Learning times tables, for example, involves memorisation in order to increase fluency in the use of numbers. It is about acquiring knowledge to make analysis and critical thinking possible.

Confusion over the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and skills is so widespread that the sociologist Frank Furedi decided to weigh in too. He sees very basic misconceptions in teachers’ objections to the new knowledge-building curriculum:

Education has been so instrumentalised that its main function is now to ‘provide skills’. The teaching of knowledge itself, for its own sake, is frequently dismissed as an old-fashioned custom that is not relevant to the twenty-first century….

In any discussion about the relationship between analytical skills and knowledge, it is easy to become one-sided. Often, too much of a polarising distinction is made between knowledge and its application. It is possible to make a distinction: knowledge is accomplished through learning principles, concepts and facts, while skills represent the capacity to use that knowledge in specific contexts. But in reality, these two things are inextricably bound together….

Knowledge is not simply the sum total of a body of facts; it is based on concepts, theories and specific structures of thought. So even if some of the content of knowledge changes in line with new developments, its structure and concepts can retain their significance for very long periods of time. Geometric theorems may be contested over time, but they nonetheless express a body of knowledge that transcends centuries….

A liberal humanist education is underpinned by a conviction that children are the rightful heirs to the achievements and legacy of the past. It is precisely because education gives meaning to the human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right.

Anyone who takes a careful look at the Core Knowledge Sequence for the US or the UK will see a curriculum that builds broad knowledge of the world and engages students in grappling with ideas and questions that are central to the human condition. As Green explains, it is a curriculum that could fully restore the teaching profession because it restores teachers to their rightful position as guides to the world:

Many young teachers are still being taught that lessons should be 10 per cent the teacher and 90 per cent the children. Teachers find themselves being criticised for being ‘too didactic’, which is a bit like criticising a doctor for being ‘too medical’. There were two sources for these attitudes: child development theories and political theories that saw teaching as no more than a kind of authoritarianism….

We now know that theories which devalue the teacher are especially harmful to children from poor backgrounds.  The bottom quarter of young people, whether defined by their school attainment, or by their parents’ income, are badly served by ‘progressive’ methods….

Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum is designed so that every child from every background can benefit. It represents what children from all social groups can be taught. And it is based on the belief that teaching is a vocation. Teachers are custodians of the best interests of children. Their role is not to facilitate learning defined by the children themselves as interesting or relevant to their lives. The teacher’s calling is to open up new possibilities that children simply don’t know about….

Content-rich education offers a broad curriculum for every child. Expectations are high. They are not just taught the three Rs but a wide array of subjects to prepare for modern life. Out of six chapters in Hirsch’s UK primary school curriculum, one is on the visual arts and one on music.

Trade union activists assume that to be a professional is be autonomous, essentially free to do as you wish. But teaching is not only a vocation, which implies dedication to bringing out the best in every child, it also has much in common with the ‘learned professions’, occupations that are constantly open to the discoveries of science or experience. No true professional would resent having to abandon ideas taught in early training. The self-conception of the teacher as a learned professional is of someone constantly developing a better understanding of how best to teach and what to teach. It’s normal to be asked to do things differently because earlier ideas have been discredited by practical experience or the sciences. This idea of the learned professional is closely linked to autonomy. But it does not mean never having to change your ways unless you choose to; it means being guided by an independent search for the truth and being willing to change pre-conceptions when necessary.

True professionals do not object to applying their craft in a different way when new methods have been shown to be more effective.

Educators should be celebrating knowledge for its own sake and should be fighting for this new curriculum. It offers students the best of what humanity has discovered and created—and it builds knowledge and skills in the only way that really works: together.

Antonio Who?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 13th, 2013

Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Education, is a man who reads serious books on education and follows their arguments. In a remarkable speech the other night, he mentioned some of the intellectual influences that have caused him to shake up the British educational world by insisting that students begin learning facts again. One of those influences was our own Daniel Willingham, and he even quoted from a 1996 book by me. But he said that the greatest intellectual influences on his educational thought were the writings of Antonio Gramsci. So here we have a Tory cabinet minister singing the praises of one of the most revered Communist thinkers of the 20th century. What gives?

I don’t doubt that Michael Gove might have an impish sense of humor and take pleasure in suggesting to his shadow opponents in the Labour party and in the anti-fact party of educators: “Look I’m just supporting what the most profound leftist thinker of the 20th century had to say about education.” But Gove’s main aim was deadly serious. Gramsci was an astonishingly prescient and penetrating thinker whose work is all the more remarkable since it was written under depressing conditions—in prison, where he languished because his writing and journalistic work in the 1920s were so cogent and influential that Mussolini’s fascistic regime seized him in 1927 with the avowed purpose of silencing him. There he remained for eight years, until his ill health brought him to a sanitarium in 1934, and to a clinic in 1937, where he died. He was allowed to write, but not, of course, to let anyone see his writing. It’s only because his sister-in-law, visiting his clinic room in 1937, smuggled out his 33 prison notebooks, unpublished until after the war, that we know some of Gramsci’s profound ideas about society, politics, and education.

He rightly predicted that in the future, most work would entail intellectual work, and that political and economic power would reside with the educated. Especially notable was his critique of progressive education, which became the official educational doctrine of the fascist regime. Despite progressivism’s high claims to “child-centered natural development,” “deep understanding,” and “independent thought,” its anti-bookish tendencies, Gramsci said, were socially retrograde. “Il bambino non è un gomitolo di lana da sgomitolare, ma la parte del complesso mondo storico su cui l’ambiente e la società esercitano la loro coercizione”. “The child is not a ball of yarn to be unwound, but part of a complex historical world in which the environment is a society that exercises its own coercions.” Under progressivism, the children of the rich would continue to possess the knowledge they needed to wield the levers of power (because they would always have multiple opportunities for bookish learning), while the children of the poor would remain in their subordinate poverty.

Hence, what was needed, Gramsci said was a single “formative school” for all students rich or poor that would stress foundational knowledge in literature, science, history and the arts, in a demanding common curriculum. Only in later grades should there be practical trainings in technical and job related subjects. What Gramsci was in fact proposing was the American Common-School idea of the 19th century. And in fact his scuola formativaunica is sometimes translated as “common school.”

In sum, Gramsci favored the kind of knowledge-based schooling that Michael Gove is proposing. He would also favor the Common Core State Standards in the United States, so long as these were implemented as a specific knowledge-based curriculum, and were freed from the anti-intellectual and socially retrograde effects of what Gramsci disdainfully called “teoria dello sgomitolamento”—“the unravelling theory,” best translated as “constructivism”—the anti-broad knowledge, anti-guided learning theory that still dominates many teacher training schools in the United States.