Powerful knowledge

On powerful knowledge, extremism and the legacy of Gove’s insular approach to curriculum

In my last blog I tried to show how the classic education of the Greeks was adapted by the church and, as a consequence, the education system became a tightly classified two tier system consisting of the trivium and quadrivium. Based upon a scriptural canon the knower was inculcated into the knowledge of the scriptures. The canon, arguably, evolved into a more generic concept of the “best that has been thought and said”.

I would also argue that the current education system is based upon that medieval re-interpretation of a classic Greek education. It consists of subjects that are jealously guarded singulars: biology, physics, chemistry etc, which are de-contextualised from their academic disciplines and often removed from the discourse of the everyday. Whilst singular disciplines in academia may create “powerful knowledge” it also creates a problematic deference to expertise that can be exploited by marketing organisations or those with extremist views.

Michael Gove, until recently the education secretary, started a movement represented as a return to a classical education. It is somewhat of a struggle to see anything traditional, or classical, about the neo- traditionalists who favour direct instruction and multiple choice questions. Gove, like many politicians, sought evidence to vindicate his own views. His fondness for the American education system is well known particularly the work of Ed’ Hirsch and DT Willingham. Both are proponents of a new educational canon known as “core knowledge“, which has been widely criticised because it is so western-centric. It is, in effect, the knowledge of the powerful.

Canons, it seems to me, are an issue. I worry that Gove’s traditionalist approach to the curriculum will leave young people susceptible to extremism whether it be politically or commercially motivated. Few in the Christian or liberal secular west can have failed to notice that there is an alternative narrative that is playing out in the social media and on our television screens.

In the recent past, a hapless concept of multi-culturalism conflated with an anything-goes cultural relativism has offered the idea that all canons should be valued equally. Unfortunately, that further encouraged an uncritical view of knowledge. It has left extremist discourses unchallenged. I think the simple fact is that many in the West simply assumed the superiority of the Western canon would be sufficient. A mistake Gove maybe replicating. An unhelpful assumption that what we know is the “best that has been thought and said” and what they know isn’t.

I would argue against a canon more in favour of a classic education that values knowledge but places a greater emphasis on the skill of discernment using powerful socio-cultural tools that have the power of explanation. Expertise requires considerable subject-specific knowledge. Inexorably most people, most of the time won’t have it. Of course, it would be better if we were all experts in everything but is it a feasible aspiration? If it isn’t then what?

Learning is not just about acquiring knowledge it is also about constantly challenging assumptions, both individual assumptions as well as the cultural assumptions that exist in the everyday. I would argue that central to learning is the deeply held view that others might know something we do not. Challenging assumptions does not, of itself, create expertise but it does offer more protection against extremism in all its forms. Something to be valued as the world globalises and the various ideologies compete to fill the cultural spaces of the everyday.

Powerful knowledge is progressive. It is not the minutiae of a cultural past that some share and others do not nor is it the knowledge of the everyday. Powerful knowledge has the ability to help us to explain “what is” and envisage “what could be”. Living in a knowledge museum is not the answer to our cultural crisis. Engaging with issues armed with an open mind and an educated scepticism will help us to subject cultural norms, both our own and that of others, to democratic scrutiny.

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