On the problem of knowledge – part one: a progressive perspective #blogsync

copy simpsonsIn this BLOG I’m going to offer a view of knowledge from a progressive perspective as a contribution to the #blogsync Knowledge debate.

In this BLOG I’m going to offer a view of knowledge from a progressive perspective. My definition of progressive is here . I’ve BLOGGED before about the differences between traditionalism and neo-traditionalism.  It’s important to differentiate because there are arguments from a traditionalist perspective that are valuable.

Orphaned knowledge

Govian pedagogy: Hirsch, Willingham, Christodolou et al and the  core knowledge project has little to offer. Neo-traditionalists need to develop a view based on traditional scholarly activity not a mish mash of modern day ideologues.  You would expect neo-traditionalists to have a view on new knowledge and cultural change, but they don’t seem to have anything substantive to offer on that either.

The aspect of a traditionalist approach that I would accept as purposeful is something akin to Martin Robinson’s dialectic, that is to say, what we “know and say” is in a conversation with the past and has some intent towards a potential future. Education is engaged in a constant cycle of problem identifying, and resolving, to some pragmatic end. I blogged about Dewey’s purposeful epistemic perspective here.

There is a danger that opportunists will exploit those intentions. Pedagogical discourse rooted in scholarly activity makes it harder for the opportunists, even if, it can’t stop them. In reality the dialectic is the relationship between objective knowledge and subjective knowing. Objective knowledge being defined as being external to the knowing of one individual. It could include history or other types of knowledge domains; vocational, technical or even the professions.

The neo-traditionalist view, the “best that has been thought and said”, doesn’t account for; how knowledge is generated, what utility it currently has, and it’s potential for future development. Almost invariably neo-traditionalists cannot give an account of why “something or other” is worth including in the educational canon. Knowledge cannot exist as a “thing in itself”, orphaned from social relations.

Saussere, post structuralism and the orphaned knower

The debate about knowledge goes back thousands of years but for the purpose of this BLOG I will start with Ferdinand Saussure, a linguist, who was the catalyst of what is now known as structuralism. What Saussure did, and didn’t, say is the source of much disputation and not really the point of the BLOG. Saussure’s impact, on the other hand,  was one of the factors that led to the development of post modernism and is also a reason why knowledge is currently the subject of much debate.

Saussure’s point was that most language bears no relation to what it purports to depict. There is no way of recognising, the signified, a dog, from the signifier, the word, “dog”. Language is not representational in the real world. There are exceptions but let’s accept the point that most language exists in a relationship with other “language, and thought”. I BLOGGED about the problem of what we know, and say, here. A five pound note is entirely socially constructed. It needs a human mind to bring it into existence and its meaning is relational to how the human mind thinks about it.

The idea that what we “think and say” bears no relation to reality, but is relative to other thoughts, had a huge impact. Thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, Rorty and others began to challenge the nature of knowledge and how it is derived from a post modernist perspective. Quite rightly, if we are to really value knowledge we have to have some notion of its utility. We cannot make the constructed, concrete, simply by referring to “the best that has been thought and said”.

A relativist position developed from the postmodernist mind set, which viewed “language, and thought” as relational with no representation in the real world. In effect the knower became more important than knowledge itself.  The consequence of this, in educational terms, has been an assault on knowledge and a focus on the knower. Or child centred pedagogy, if you will.

The issue of the two traditions: neo traditionalism and post modernism

Post modernism was developed to critique modernity. As valuable as it is, it did leave an issue. Knowledge cannot simply be viewed as a “thing in itself” but nor can the knower be allowed to float free from social knowledge.

If Neo-traditionalism views knowledge as being sacrosanct but cannot account for it then post modernism’s de-construction of objective knowledge had the effect of trivialising knowledge. Both knowledge and knower have become estranged from one another in each tradition: neo-traditionalist and post modernist.

The Progressive Solution

Reclaiming knowledge from Post Modernism

More recently there has been an attempt to reclaim knowledge based on the works of  Bourdieu and sociologists such as Bernstein and others who have been influenced by him; Moore, Maton  arguing from a social realist perspective that both knowledge and the knower structure reality. Take any educational institution as an example. Schools or colleges are created by individuals. They also exist external to each individual structured by, and also structuring the knowing, of those that work within them. One cannot exist without the other.

The question therefore is whether knowledge can be said to be objective from a progressive perspective. And the answer is yes but  with the proviso that we are talking about social realism. For example, we can certainly say that a £5 note is socially constructed and under certain conditions it has causal properties. We know what a £5 note is going to do and how it works. It is a social fact and we can infer certain things about it. You could say the same thing about a natural element such as water, which is only H20 under certain conditions.

Social knowledge maybe less stable than aspects of the natural world but we can infer certain things about a £5 note. It also has constraints we cannot think of a £5 note and buy a car. A £5 note does not equate to that much of the planets resources.

It’s also true that institutions are hierarchical to some extent or other. My guess is that there has never been an institution (of any size) that doesn’t display some common features of hierarchy. We can therefore say that although most knowledge is socially constructed it does make reference to the real world and has some causal or structuring properties.

Rescuing the knower from the Neo-traditionalists

I would also argue that subjective knowledge is both a structure and structuring. No one has ever had a truly original thought. Once we use language to describe our ideas we have to accept that they are being structured. The ideas of the knower are imprisoned by social circumstances, which Dave Elder Vass describes as norm groups.

Relationships with family, friends and professional colleagues create social and cultural norms that mediate individual knowing. Even so the knower has agency. A principle or head teacher has structuring knowledge. Their subjective knowing has much influence on an organization for good or ill.

Reliable means of generating knowledge

I also acknowledge the virtue of fields of expertise and Bernstein’s herarchical knowledge structures that generate knowledge in reliable ways. However I would also argue that there are many fields that derive reliable sources of knowledge other than Physics, Geography, History and the traditional school subjects. Politics, philosophy, business, medicine, computer science and many other areas of human endeavour have reliable ways of generating knowledge.

So why the argument for traditional subjects? There is no answer to this question other than a general antipathy to the humanities from certain quarters. Philistinism aside there is a general view that the humanities do not derive reliable knowledge. I would refute that from the perspective I outline above. Aspects of the social world are causal society couldn’t function otherwise.


Neo-traditionalists seem to have no means of establishing a knowledge base other than the rather ephemeral notion “the best that has been thought and said”. A swish of the traditionalist wand does not disappear problems. The fundamental issue of how to value knowledge remains. Even the most ardent neo-traditionalist has to admit that there is a possibility of reifying the very thing that defines traditionalism.

Education has to ask fundamental questions about knowledge; how has it been derived? What is its utility? Has it achieved some kind of objective acceptance? Has it been generated by reliable fields working within recognised methodologies? The list could probably go on.

A place within any canon needs to be viewed from those perspectives and not just “traditional subjects” with some ephemeral notion of  “the best that has been thought and said”.

The Knowledge debate

  1. CavMathsSkills vs Knowledge – Is it really a contest?
  2. Tom Sherrington: Some Knowledge-Skills Interplay
  3. Chris Hildrew: It’s not skills – it’s know-how
  4. David DidauSome dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’ and Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having
  5. Chris Chivers: The Search for Quality and Experiential Learning
  6. TDRE Boss: Knowledge vs Skills (An RE Perspective)
  7. Benjamin EvansFHM Knowledge and Loaded Skills
  8. Geoff PettyTeaching skills is vital: why God doesn’t agree with ‘Seven Myths about Education’
  9. Michelle Budge: Knowledge Vs Skills

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