On Michaela Community School: knowledge imprisons you whilst doubt sets you free

Where I come from there is a tradition of drinking Benedictine. For those not in the know Benedictine is a herbal liqueur developed by Alexandre Le Grand. I don’t know how many on eduTwitter drink “bene “n” hot” but I do, it’s a tradition. Apparently, soldiers from East Lancashire used to drink benedictine to keep warm during the first world war. Tradition is the means by which we are socialised into ways of knowing.

Of course, we all have reason. The power of reason enables each individual to escape their circumstance; only to an extent, or as Marx put it ” (wo) men make their own history but they do not make it as they please”.

Knowledge is power became the byword for the enlightenment. Subsequent thinkers such as Foucault and other postmodernists challenged the theory that knowledge is power, or rather, they agreed that knowledge is power but it carried the power of those who seek to oppress us, keep us subservient.

Postmodernists argued that the enlightenment concept of “the self” is a myth. Individuals do not use knowledge to think but rather are conditioned by it. Power is implicit to legitimised knowledge and language structures. Arguably society is a complex infrastructure of power relations at the heart of which is the “will to power”.

Each individual is seeking some means to exploit a position to achieve better in the competition of life. The left would argue that it is true of an Eton educated politician exploiting contacts to further their own career. The right would make the same point about progressive feminists or race campaigners over-exploiting the plight of others to establish some academic point or other. Power is ubiquitous. Like carbon monoxide, it is all around us, lethal to human emancipation.

This particular train of thought began with @surrealanarchy’s eduBlog about Roger Scruton and Michaela Community School. Roger Scruton is a well-renowned philosopher. I am not familiar with his work. I have read his polemics in the media and can only assume his scholarly work is much more insightful. The school strapline is “knowledge is power” and it’s vision “to know the best that has been said and thought”.

We believe all pupils, whatever their background, have a right to access the best that has been said and thought. This includes a variety of writers, from all parts of the world, and thinkers from all the ages. The curriculum at Michaela Community School ensures that pupils are knowledgeable enough about the world around them to transform it in the future. 

The source of the the vision is the deficit knowledge model of Ed Hirsch.

Our curriculum will provide a contemporary approach to these timeless principles by utilizing best practice from across the world. In particular, we are inspired by the work of E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum in America. This curriculum has had great success in placing a traditional body of knowledge at the heart of its curriculum.

And therein lies the problem. Ed Hirsch has been widely critiqued, not least by @surrealanarchy himself in the blog Tower of Babel: Where ED Hirsch Gets It Wrong.

Knowledge is not power. Knowledge is a challenge to our ability to think. Descartes did not say “I know therefore I am,” he said, “I think therefore I am”. The enlightenment was not built with foundations based on knowledge but upon skepticism. If we do not understand and challenge knowledge; it imprisons us. That is the essence of the dialectic. The tradition, of tradition, is to challenge knowledge structures; to re-construct them in better ways.

I was still thinking about this as I read tweets by @imagininquiry about Foucault.  Implicit to Foucault’s thinking is a challenge to modern forms of knowledge, rationality, social institutions, and subjectivity that seems given and natural but in fact are contingent socio-historical constructs of power and domination. For Foucault and Freire the essence of education is not to accumulate knowledge as a “thing in itself” but to learn how to challenge it; build upon it progressively and avoid creating new power structures even where they seem to have progressive foundations.

9 thoughts on “On Michaela Community School: knowledge imprisons you whilst doubt sets you free

  1. I’ve been on a similar track since reading Martin’s article… He reminded me of Raymond Williams, which got me onto Norman Fairclough and discourse analysis, and how any and every utterance is invested with power, and so on. There is no neutrality. So as a teacher, that makes striving for fairness in treatment of children pretty difficult to reconcile. Then on the Roger Scruton line, I got into The Salisbury Review and the Ray Honeyford debacle. It was quite a challenging morning’s reading!
    I’m gathering momentum for a new blog, essentially about the ‘character education’ debate for Labour Teachers – but I’m getting tied up in knots along the way.
    You’ve helped me get one or two ideas straight, though, so thanks for this post!

  2. Like many of your Tweets and blog posts, you’re struggling with the classic problem faced by postmodernists of having ‘no Archimedean point’ from which to advance your critique. It’s a regress problem – you want to advance a critique of knowledge, but you need some knowledge on which to advance a critique, but that knowledge is itself up for critique, and so on. I do get your arguments: they’ve been made by many in the postmodern camp before, but as such they’re also subject to the same logical problems. Often this can best be revealed by asking postmodernists (as I’m now asking you) to advance a positive argument – if you want to challenge prior traditions (e.g. the liberal tradition) then fair enough, but what would you, or indeed could you, advance in its place that could not also be undermined by the argument you are advancing.

    If you want to go anywhere with this, you need an Archimedean Point. Good luck finding one!

    1. Thanks for this post. I did not read it to assume you were eschewing the acquisition of knowledge – which I see on many of these blogs when anyone raises the questions that you have about the value of knowledge without further action. I think that Michael has rather missed the point you were making (at least the point I think you were marking) that we should be critical about those who will, “placing a traditional body of knowledge” and might ask more critical questions about the choices made and by whom they have been made.

      1. Thanks for the comment. I think I was making two points: firstly exactly as you say it is about the choice of knowledge. We have to be sceptical about that but also I as making another point about scepticism, which is that scepticism drives knowledge forward. That was the point of Descartes, Hulme et al.

        And yes I am familiar with the “everything needs knowledge ergo knowledge is everything” argument. It’s not so, as you say it is action on knowledge, which is key not knowledge itself.

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