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Robert Peal and Civitas: Shared Interests and Contempt

I’ve been blogging recently about the relationships that underpin certain ideas in education. Arguing that often ideas are co-opted for ideological, political and business purposes. I thought I’d re-blog a section of the recent FORUM review of Robert Peal’s book.

The passage is here and the full text is above. Make your own mind up.
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Robert Peal and Civitas: Shared Interests and Contempt

Civitas, a right-wing think-tank with an edu-business arm, brought out Peal’s book. He has been ill-served by his publishers. There are more errors in the main text (and in the bibliography and the endnotes) than I have listed, and the index is inadequate. But care in the production of the book has been of no more account, I suppose, than care in the production of its arguments. What matters seems to have been mutual aggrandisement. Civitas makes money out of textbooks, for example, and textbooks are a vital component in the ‘knowledge-centred’ approach to education which Peal advocates. As well as running Saturday schools (and employing people without teaching qualifications to work in them),

Civitas set up a company which now runs two fee-paying primary schools in London. Its website states: Our task of delivering a knowledge -rich education has been helped by the donation by Civitas of classroom sets of books published by them. Titled What Your Year (1/2/3/4/5/6) Child Needs to Know, they are British versions of the subject-based and knowledge-based textbooks pioneered by the Core Knowledge Foundation in the USA, set up by E.D. Hirsch. (New Model Schools website) Peal spends half-a-dozen pages lauding E.D. Hirsch (pp. 206-211) and he holds textbooks in high esteem. He neglects to declare his publisher’s interest.

Nor does he address obvious questions about who decides what it is that ‘your child needs to know’, and on what basis. For Peal, that which comprises necessary core knowledge is already fixe d, given and uncontentious. Teachers need only transmit it. His commitment to transmission-teaching culminates in a spasm of hectoring, during which he betrays a traditionalist version of the romanticism he is so ready to reprimand in progressives: Schools must rediscover the conviction that some knowledge about the world … is an invaluable inheritance to pass on to any pupil …Through pursuing a school curriculum that is unashamedly irrelevant, and pays little heed to a child’s immediate concerns, an education based on knowledge encourages pupils to look beyond the temporal and geographical parochialism of their own existence and understand their life within the greater story of mankind’s performances and capabilities. (p. 216)

Peal’s contempt here for what his pupils already know and are concerned with is not an aberration. Nor is the haughtiness which can label his pupils’ lives, or rather the lives he assumes they lead, as parochial. (Once again, how does he know?) Such a stance towards pupils, presumably including the pupils in his own classroom, is part and parcel of his general position. By adopting it, he burns the bridge before he can build it between the ‘invaluable inheritance’ of canonical knowledge to which every child is indeed heir , and that same child’s lived experience.

Or, as someone long ago better put it: ‘How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?’ (Dewey, 1938, p. 23). Peal flourishes a Core Knowledge textbook as the answer, and urges drilling and direct instruction as the means, when he hasn’t even recognised the scope and profundity of the question. Unless he looks beyond the circle of his current acquaintance, intellectual and political, he never will.

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