Teaching and Learning

Some thoughts on academic and non-academic subjects

blokes with trowel
Figure 1: Professionals applying and enacting knowledge

In his latest two blogs, Old Andrew defines an academic subject as:

(…)  one where mastery of it was best characterised by further study. The people who are best at history, are historians and they study history.

In this blog, I offer an alternative view. I do not suggest that Old Andrew is wrong in his definition of academic and non-academic subjects; rather, I would question whether the distinction is relevant.

Bernstein argued that there is a difference between a curriculum subject and the field it purports to represent; the former bears little resemblance to the latter. The work of a professional historian is not reflected by a school curriculum. One professional body describes the practice of a historian thus:

The practice of history is a professional skill. Historians are trained to critically assess evidence and events of the past and place them into a broader political, economic and social context. Good research and communication skills are essential.

I would argue that the professional historian achieves “mastery” of his field by applying historical knowledge to different contexts; an accountant applies accounting knowledge in a similar fashion. The archaeologist applies and enacts knowledge using rudimentary tools; as do brickies.  Differentiating between profession, academic subjects, and vocational subjects is not as clear as it may seem.

Of course, the extent to which knowledge is applied and enacted can differ between the various fields. A “brickie”, arguably, does not apply the same breadth of knowledge as an archaeologist (see Figure 1); however, that does not necessarily reflect the rigour of the academic field that underpins a “brickies” work.

Following Bernstein, I would argue that subjects require a field of knowledge and the relations of construction, application, and enactment. Academics, professional bodies, educational institutions, and practitioners interact to construct, apply and sometimes enact knowledge.

I crudely define the application of knowledge as a product of social interaction whilst enactment is the interaction between an individual and a natural object  (football, trowel or surgeon’s knife etc.). My definition of an (academic) subject would include plumbing as well as surgery and archaeology. Professions underpinned by academics, professional associations and recognised bodies of knowledge that constitute expertise.

The sharp distinction between academic and non-academic subjects seems to me to dislocate academic knowledge from any context and purpose in society. Bernstein traces this attitude of “dislocation” to the Church’s influence on the medieval education system; the Trivium, and Quadrivium. The Church wanted to protect the Christian “canon” from the scrutiny of an emerging scientific community.

The Trivium concerns itself with logic, grammar, and rhetoric whilst the Quadrivium with astronomy, music, geometry, and arithmetic. Bernstein describes this as the “inner” and “outer”; discourse is “dislocated from tightly controlled and classified subjects. The “inner” of the sacred, the “Word” (of God), is untouched by the worldly concerns of man. The purpose is to inculcate the individual into the faith; or to borrow a phrase from Hirsch, to be (culturally) literate in the word of God whilst insulating the “Word” from the scrutiny of worldly exploration.

I wonder whether echoes of these arguments underpin attempts to differentiate between a “sacred” academic body of work dislocated from the “profane” of vocational activity. The question is whether this kind of thinking is relevant anymore?

I accept the argument that vocational subjects have been of poor quality and used to “cheat” the league tables. I also accept that individuals should not be pushed towards what is perceived to be lesser professions at an early age; however, it is equally true that some would not benefit from an ever-narrowing curriculum based upon subjects that are dislocated from human endeavour. What exposure do those from lower socio-economic backgrounds get to professions such as architecture and archaeology?

Knowledge is not an abstraction but the “oxygen” of social interaction. I wonder whether schools should differentiate so sharply between academic and non-academic subjects. In many six form centres and FE colleges, subjects such as computing and business are offered both vocationally and at “A” level. If FE colleges and universities can offer engineering, business and accountancy alongside history and mathematics then why not schools?


Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogic, Symbolic Control and Identity: Theory, Research, Critique (Revised ed.). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Bernstein, B. (2004). Class, Codes and Control. London: Routledge.



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