In the first line of his epic poem, metamorphosis, the Roman poet Ovid sets the scene for the themes that he intends to cover, in nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora, my mind leads me to tell of forms changed into new bodies, or similar, myth and change is Ovid’s concern.
Later, much later, George Bernard Shaw borrowed a central character from the poem, Pygmalian, to name his most famous play. If you recall, Pygmalian falls in love with one of his own statues and with the help of Aphrodite brings the statue to life. I sometime wonder if you can fall in love with ideas in the same way, become blind to their flaws.
I was pondering Pygmalian, the play that is, when reading Daisy Christodoulou’s BLOG about Ed Hirsch. His critics accuse his Core Knowledge Foundation of being, well to be impolite, little more than a tool of state indoctrination. In the play, a young cockney flower seller becomes the object of a bet made by phoneticist Henry Higgins, to the effect that he could teach the unfortunate Doolittle the ways of the ruling classes and pass her off as a duchess. The joke, in so far as there is one, is that a linguistically perfect flower seller is no more authentic than the foul mouthed cockney flower seller. Shaw is lampooning Victorian values and middle class morality.
You see, I think that there are some bloggers who believe that if only the poor could be, well a little bit more like the middle classes, the world or at least this tiny part of the world would be, all the better. They believe that knowledge has intrinsic value and that there is a body of knowledge that allows people to be more successful in life.
Some knowledge does have intrinsic value and has a relationship with the real world. I suspect that medical knowledge has value in society and I am quite sure that it has some relationship with the real world, if I was to lose a limb , no amount of post modernist thought would grow it back again.
Of course the intrinsic value of knowledge does not give us any indication of it’s relative value. Medical knowledge is deemed to be more valuable than that of, for example, a binman, or Waste Disposal Engineer, if you will. We could argue forever about the relative value of knowledge, up to the point where the word banker is mentioned. Argument over, surely no one can consider that the knowledge of bankers is worth millions whilst teachers worth, well considerably less than millions. In this case, it is the markets that determines the relative value of knowledge. Good thing, or no I suppose is dependent upon opinion. Much much worse, in my view, is that the intrinsic value of educational knowledge is decided by someone like Michael Gove or, indeed, Tristram Hunt.
Relative value is not the only problem. Some knowledge is socially constructed, and has value only to the extent of the inter-subjective value placed on it by society. Knowledge is not so much power but the powerful own knowledge. As Bourdieu points out culture and the knowledge of it, is a means of symbolic exchange. The Queen waves her pinky in the air when she drinks tea, to differentiate herself from you and me, the knowledge of how to drink tea like the Queen only works when you are the Queen. It has no intrinsic value, if you, or I, try to waggle our pinky in Asda’s cafe we just look like social inadequates. And of course that’s the point, we are social inadequates, that is, if you believe, that the knowledge of the Queen is worth knowing.
Of course, Core Knowledge is fundamental to the work of Ed Hirsch. His view is that accessing the knowledge of the powerful would empower the poor. I think that Hirsch has a point, allowing the poor to develop a discourse far removed from that of successful professionals is an issue. In the short term, in the here and now, it sounds like a fine idea. Why shouldn’t we teach youngsters the cultural literacy that they need to interact with middle class discourse?
The question, though, is whether the discourse of professionals, is actually success, when measured in terms, other than the success of an individual in the here and now. The Core Knowledge discourse is embedded in a very individualistic ideologically driven form of classic Liberalism that puts the markets and the individual at the forefront of education.
The alternative to Hirsch, is Paulo Freire’s view that you have to challenge the discourse of the powerful to achieve a more democratic society. And whether that has worked is debatable. It depends on your politics. You see most of the great thinkers of Philosophy, sociology or anything else do not think that knowledge is at the centre of cognition. In fact, cognition comprises of many things but language is regarded as one of the most important aspects of thinking. It shapes the way we think. What would the world be without language? You do not become culturally literate, that presumes that culture exists external to thought, rather culture defines how you think.
And, if we are to teach our children the language and knowledge of the social elite, how then do we challenge society and change it, presuming of course that change is desirable. You see I think that Gove has adopted Core Knowledge not because he wants to change the world or even give the poor a chance. I think that is, an example, of a politician expediently adopting the discourse of the Left to sell his idea. Gramsci is another Govian victim.
I think the reality is that Gove finds himself in a world of change. In a nation that is multi-cultural, multi-lingual and increasingly fractured. Gove feels that what is required is less change, and more stability. I think he also thinks that improving the skills of the poor would make them more employable, less of an economic burden. Of course, you can see his point. If education was about resolving the social problems of the here and now, then Core Knowledge has some appeal. New Labour had Every Child Matters, whilst Gove has Core Knowledge. The success that Gove has had establishing the educational narrative that we currently have, is underlined by the fact that Gove has sold Core Knowledge as an educational policy, when in fact it is, in reality, a social one.
So the question is whether Core Knowledge is indoctrination? Well clearly it is. Is indoctrination always bad? That’s a difficult question. In strictly utilitarian terms you may argue that the indoctrination of the Liberal west is better than that of extremist Islam. Or the reverse possibly, depending on your stance.
Is it likely to improve social justice? I think not. I wonder how an education system that endorses the knowledge of the social elite could deliver social justice. This is not about evidence, in reality there is no evidence for one view or another. Hirsch argues that to access the power of the social elite you have to buy into their ideas and knowledge. You have to be culturally literate. This suggests that culture is fixed, a “thing in itself”. By his own definition Hirsch believes in indoctrination. By its definition, indoctrination is the process of inculcating ideas and attitudes. Hirsch, accepts that, he just thinks that it is a good thing.
I can actually see his point. What I fail to see is how anyone can argue that Core Knowledge is not indoctrination. My guess is that sometimes you can fall too much in love with an idea.