Core Knowledge: the orphaning of knowledge

In the opening lines of the Qur’an, God, in the form of the angel jibreel (Gabriel) exhorts the prophet of Islam to read. Iqra! Bismi Rabbik Al-Ladhi Khalaq, read in the name of your Lord. Situated in a cave in Hira this veritable echo chamber, must have reverberated with the sounds of embryonic Islam, the Clot.

Invoke the name of your Lord for that He created created man out of a clot. Invoke! For your Lord is most noble-minded for that He taught by the writing cane taught man what he didn’t know.

Or in Arabic:

Iqra’ bi-smi rabbikalladhee khalaqakhalaqa l-insaana min `alaqin iqra’ wa rabbuka l-akramulladhee `allama bi l-qalami`allama l-insaana maa lam ya`lam

When I consider the ongoing Core Knowledge debate, I am minded of the cave at Hira, just above Mecca. Not least because God promised to teach man, that which he does not know, but also because of the relationship between knowledge and knowing.

The perspective that a more powerful being can imprint knowledge onto the minds of the “common people” has persisted with us. The enlightenment, it seems has failed to budge it. Today, you meet young Muslims earnestly memorising the Qur’an. When they have successfully done so, that are awarded the epithet, Hafiz. Often, though when you try to discuss their Islamic faith, with them it is not as easy as it might seem. They don’t know an awful lot. You see a Hafiz learns Arabic, which often is not their native tongue. They simply do not understand the knowledge they are acquiring.

From a Core Knowledge perspective this must seem like something of a triumph. A veritable encyclopedia of knowledge stored in long term memory. Learning, as we are told, is that which is committed to long term memory. I get the point of learning the Qur’an in Arabic. How, you are told, can you expect to understand a text, if you cannot read it in it’s original form. Translation can be haphazard nuances missed. We need to protect our heritage, the word of God, understanding is a secondary factor.

It’s also a convenient method of subjugation. A ruling elite that can make knowledge sacred, rendering it effectively beyond the means of most people to understand is a powerful lever of control. Teach them Arabic I hear some bloggers cry. Of course, if that was possible it would be one solution, saying it doesn’t make it achievable. It would also presume that it’s worth learning and that it is a good thing that we all speak, think and know the same things. The profane would be made sacred. Of course, the suspicion is that the profane is not meant to be sacred.

So what is  Core Knowledge:

The idea behind Core Knowledge is simple and powerful: knowledge builds on knowledge. The more you know, the more you are able to learn. This insight, well established by cognitive science, has profound implications for teaching and learning. Nearly all of our most important goals for education–greater reading comprehension, the ability to think critically and solve problems, even higher test scores–are a function of the depth and breadth of our knowledge.

(Core Knowledge Foundation, 2014)

Apparently knowledge builds on knowledge. You presume that the knowledge alluded to in the Core Knowledge manifesto is not Arabic. So what are the justifications for it? It seems to me that Core Knowledge is built on three fallacies:

The Cultural Capital fallacy

This seems to stem from the belief that knowledge has some intrinsic value as a “thing in itself”, described wrongly in my view as cultural capital. In other words, the middle classes have some body of knowledge that is intrinsically valuable, whether it is Dickens, Shakespeare, or whoever.

Cultural capital is essentially the value placed on certain types of knowledge or representations of knowledge by society. This does not mean that knowledge as a “thing in itself” is valuable (though it sometimes is), quite the opposite; a degree confers the holder of the degree with cultural capital it does not necessarily mean that the knowledge the degree holder has acquired earning the degree is worth knowing. Attempting to identify core knowledge is in my view simply not possible in a rapidly globalising world.

David Didau on his interesting blog, The Learning Spy seems to argue from this perspective:

“For me, the point about cultural capital is that it isn’t subjective, or at least, not very subjective. It’s based on the body of knowledge which collectively and over time we, as a culture, have decided is worthwhile” Learning spy (16th of December 2013).

I think most people would find that statement to be contraversial to say the least. Knowledge is never “not subjective”. It does not exist in society because over time it has deemed to have been found worthwhile.This argument seems to me to assumes that, in fact, there is no society, no historical or social context for knowledge,  no hierarchical power structures, in effect an orphaning of knowledge. The only knowledge that has value is the knowledge that has value. Or as Teachingbattleground puts it the question of value is “irrelevant, it is already valued”.

Is it possible knowledge has cultural capital because it is somehow intrinsically more worthwhile than other knowledge? That is clearly not the case. As Bourdieu argued, cultural capital is a means of symbolic exchange. In other words, it is a commodity, its value is defined by its worth to those that know it, not in its inherent wisdom. A Masonic handshake may have cultural capital but it has no essential meaning to those who are not Masons.

The cultural literacy fallacy

Cultural literacy is, at its most basic, the ability of individuals to engage with the discourse of society. In his research, Ed Hirsh quoted experiments, which provided evidence that Indians were better at interpreting information about Indian weddings and Americans about American weddings simply because cultural familiarity helps an individual interpret text. Who would disagree?

The problem starts when you have to decide what aspects of culture you find important. Famously in Hirsch’s case, it was knowledge of Ulysses S Grant and Robert Lee. This is no doubt purposeful knowledge in “middle class” middle America”, but of little interest to much of the rest of the world.

Of course some bloggers seem to think this is easy. The value of knowledge is somehow decided democratically or because that’s just how it is. Ironically at the same time as arguing that they have been victims of a progressive elite.

The fallacy from the perspective of cognition

This really relates to the work of Daniel T Willingham. Of course, if you know “stuff” when you read it, it will be easier to read. If you have pre-existing cultural conceptualisations, it will help working memory, if you can associate new material with old then even better. Again, who would want to argue with that?

However even if you accept all these premises, the argument still exists that you need to create cognition that reflects the reality of daily life rather than try to pretend that daily life reflects the reality of a school curriculum. The world is not constructed from core knowledge (although plenty of cultures and religions have tried to impose it throughout the years); individuals have to acquire the skills to manage knowledge in all its complexity. Stripping out the complexity does not lead to better learning it just makes it easier.

The purpose of core knowledge

I think the argument that if you know the cultural concepts that underpin text makes it easier to read is indisputable. The science backs up the view but in reality I wonder whether “spoon feeding” knowledge to learners so that it makes understanding and passing exams easier, is just a sophisticated form of dumbing down. The real world is not like that; sifting through lots of information and conceptualising that information into useable chunks are key skills in the 21st century and certainly ones that no generation has ever had to face before.

Daisy Christodoulou (again another interesting blogger) may:

…..fail to see what is so uniquely 21st century about them. Mycenaean Greek craftsmen had to work with others, adapt and innovate. It is quite patronising to suggest that no-one before the year 2000 ever needed to think critically, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, create, innovate or read

I think most people would recognise that the amount of information available in the 21st century far outweighs that available to Mycenaean Greek craftsmen. No doubt they did have to think critically, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, create, innovate or read but that’s not really the point. Of course if we could replicate Mycenaean Greek society then I would agree but we can’t and whilst you can offer a reduced curriculum in schools, is the point of education replicating Mycenaean Greek society?

The discourse of education is also reflected in the discourse of other cultures, faiths and even the odd global religion or two, who are facing the same dilemmas. How do we prepare for a future we cannot know? We may as a profession struggle to teach transferable skills but that does not mean we should abandon the project and embrace yet another form of “dumbing down”; rather we should embrace complexity and re-double our efforts to teach the skills that are required for the future that lies beyond the horizon.


This blog is an update of one I wrote in January. Laziness it seems to me is next to Godliness

4 thoughts on “Core Knowledge: the orphaning of knowledge

  1. Lovely post, a joy to read.

    The fallacy of the common core was brought home to me as I watched UAE National teenagers cramming for a multiple choice test on topics such as “Bessie Smith” and “the charleston”. When I asked whether they were able to do the charleston they “don’t know what the charleston is exactly but it is the answer to the question”.

    This was a US curriculum school who were rapidly adopting the common core and were already teaching against a number of state standards containing knowledge which was essential to live a productive life. Hence Bessie Smith.

    I find it quite funny that when one suggests to others that knowing about good old Bessie is unlikely to improve your life experiences to a great extent, one is accused of being anti-knowledge, anti common core and of doing ones best to undermine the life chances of the disadvantaged.

    Where I think you have done the wolrd a disservice is to suggest that there are challenges in the 21st century not faced by those who went before. Not because this is untrue, but because the twitternet is likely to be hot with jibberish nonsense over the next 12 hours. I hope you realise that you will likely prompt a torrent of abuse from many of the bloggers you quote above who will be quoting “Shift happens”. The “echo chamber” will be rife with bloggers congratulating each other for identifying various statements made in the short movie which do not stand up to scrutiny. Before long we will be onto Ken Robinson and Michael Rosen. You also mentioned the “s” word (skills).and dissed the messiah (Dan Willingham).

    You are brave I give you that.

    1. I like Bessie Smith, of course Bessie Smith would not have been on any Core knowledge curriculum when she was alive. Allegedly also a bi sexual. Another topic that would have been frowned on back in the day,

      Some ideas of the ruling classes are not acceptable, it seems. Or at least not any more.

      How would the world change if we only valued what is valued?

      Thank you for your comments as usual. I appreciate them.

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