On the politics of pedagogy: the best that has been thought and said, “says who”?

Reading Martin Robinson’s recent piece in the TES I was intrigued by his reference to the Libertarian Left and Right. Individual knowledge has in effect been disconnected from social knowledge by both sides of the political divide. I agree though I think that one differs from the other. I also agree with much of the article. It makes a lot of sense .

Generally speaking concepts help to frame debates and cohere arguments . By that I mean the conceptual tools of eduBlogging and eduTwittery; progressivism, traditionalism and, of course the trivium. In effect they are knowledge domains, with their own philosophies, analytical tools and knowledge bases.

I think that it’s largely a positive thing. Framed discussion and argumentation can generate interest and drive arguments forward. Of course no one easily concedes they are wrong. Far from it most, but not all, will endeavour to improve theories or find unexpected common ground. No bad thing. So what are the politics of the different views?

The traditionalist view of learning

In the traditionalist view of learning knowledge is representational. Facts equate to some aspect of experience or otherwise. Mathematics is an example;1 apple + 3 apples = 4 apples.  It’s coherence resides in the rules of Mathematics however it’s truth is found in the relationship between Mathematics and the apples (or whatever) in the experienced world.

Think Hume. Hume asked the question of why philosophers had not made the progress in understanding human nature that “scientists have achieved in the physical sciences? His answer is that  in attempting to go beyond facts about experience philosopher’s claims had become unintelligible. These “airy sciences”, as Hume calls them, have only the “air” of science. Where are the facts, how can we know truths?

This is the basis of classic liberalism. Facts float free from social relations. Society consists of individuals who come to know the world through reason and science. Discovery is the essence of traditional thinking.

Neo traditionalism and the pedagogy of the neo-liberal right

 So far so good until, that is, you apply the theories of Ed Hirsch or DT Willingham; cultural literacy and core knowledge. The “neo” in neo-traditionalism

Cultural literacy considers how individuals are co-opted into culture. It’s a deficit view of Basil Bernstein’s language code theory. The working classes do not speak the language of middle class school life and suffer as a consequence. The solution is to make them more middle class and culturally (not socially – society doesn’t exist)  literate. As opposed, to say, trying to ascertain what knowledge is worth knowing.

In this world view knowledge is still representational but rather than having some correlational relationship with experience, it is a cultural fact. In the absence of any concept of power relations it makes perfect sense. The middle classes didn’t get to where they are without knowing a thing or two. As the middle classes are successful it must be because their facts represent the experienced world better than other facts. It has, if nothing else, a certain internal logic.

I wonder whether a view of knowledge that does not incorporate some concept of discovery can be described as traditional? This is really a political pedagogy of the neo-liberal right politicised to the point of incoherence.

Progressive Knowledge: through a cognitive lens

Knowledge from the progressive perspective is constructed by the individual in conjunction with social and natural facts. In this view the individual does not make a representation of a world external to their knowing but rather constructs a coherent view of the world using cognitive tools. Think Vygotsky. These tools establish the relationship of things. Truth is asserted in the context of its coherence to other things.

Business studies is an example. It most certainly isn’t a representational language. It is a set of tools with the purpose of describing and analysing human practice. It’s knowledge base almost entirely dependent upon experience.

And yet we can establish an apriori knowledge base as well. You can understand a certain amount about institutions and business relationships that can be said to be factual. If not facts, as Hume understood them, you could say they are social facts. Think Durkheim.

Progressivism, the liberal left  and child centric pedagogy

Progressive knowledge becomes problematic when it is disconnected from social facts and the relationships of things. A learner cannot discover the facts of things but can discover the relationship between those facts and the experienced world.

An accusation against child centred pedagogy is that the facts of the domain simply become that which is constructed by the individual student. Domain knowledge has no way of cohering itself or rather, it coheres itself framed by the cumulative knowledge of a 6 year old, to pick an age.

The facts of a domain are in a constant dialectical relationship with the facts of the past, and the requirements of the future. It doesn’t reside within the individual cognition of a six year old. A six year old can learn those facts and then, only then,  discover their relationship with the experienced world.

Resolving the issue of knowledge

A modern education system needs social facts as much as it needs facts about the natural world. Facts cannot float free from social relationships. The progressive way of developing a subject is to see domain knowledge as the cognitive cohering of a something, or other, using tools that consist of  different types of knowledge, skills and personal attributes.

The questions to be asked of knowledge is;  how has it been generated? how does it relate to the future? what are the relationships in the domain?

Progressivism and the pedagogy of the future

One issue in the TES article that I think is unhelpful is the refrain the “best that has been thought and said”. The challenge to traditionalism and to the trivium is to accept that canonical literature needs to earn its place into the curriculum. Inclusion needs more justification than “just because” or a list of the things that elite private schools do. You need to deal with the “elite” bit of the elite private school and then focus on the minutae of their day to day activities.

Education cannot be left in limbo in the 19th century. The simple fact is that many social groups were excluded in the past. New domains are emerging with their own representational rules and analytical tools. Only progressivism offers a viable way of shaping those domains. Or perhaps not. I’d like to hear how the competing ideas deal with these issues.

So for me I’d just like to know when the phrase “the best that has been thought and said”is used, in the words of the well known idiom, “says who”?


4 thoughts on “On the politics of pedagogy: the best that has been thought and said, “says who”?

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. I agree that we should not accept the ‘best of what’s been thought and said’ uncritically. Any canon which is offered up must be open to question and challenge. I also agree that knowledge can never be completely detached from its social, cultural and political context. But this is not to deride the idea of a canon or throw out the legacy of the past. We need to construct our own canon through critical engagement with the knowledge which is offered us as ‘the best…’
    In my post on a prog/trad synthesis here
    I offer 11 possible points of agreement for discussion, 2 of which are:
    *Can we agree on the importance of knowledge while recognising that there is a debate to be had about what knowledge matters and that the choice of what knowledge to teach is not neutral or value-free; it is shaped by culture, values, history and power structures of our society?
    *Can we agree that we need to select ‘canons’ from the culture while recognising their limitations and, having mastered them, our students need the skills to challenge them, contest them and reach beyond them?
    I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on this.
    I also think that Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ may be helpful, but haven’t yet read his ‘Knowledge and the future school’

    1. Great post Eddie thanks. Read your BLOG couldn’t find anything to disagree with albeit that the first comment suggesting that progressivism is all about equality highlighted the problem. Not sure that Herbert Spencer, Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner et al were all about equality but there you go. I’ll have a go at responding shortly

      Also read you piece on vocational education, which I will link to in my next blog about “vocationalism”.

      Thinking of writing more on the areas of conflict and the areas of synergy (if you will) within the different traditions.Ultimately though I agree with you that the fundamental non negotiable is the purpose of education.

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