The Problem With Knowledge Part 1February 8, 2015
Because progressive education is actually a fairly loose set of ideas, and ones which are constantly represented as something new rather than the continuation of old arguments, traditionalism seems very monolithic and coherent by comparison. While there may be those who think traditionalism in education is about corporal punishment or selection, it is fair to assume that somebody is a traditionalist, if they see the following beliefs as central to the educational enterprise:
- There is a body of knowledge (a tradition) that is to be passed on;
- The teacher has the legitimate authority, and a personal responsibility, to do this;
- It is generally best to do so by direct means (such as explicit instruction or repeated practice).
Progressives will often seek to fudge some of this, usually redefining some of the words (“authority” or “knowledge” are particularly prone to this); adding qualifiers that actually undermine the points or claiming that they can’t be progressive if they acknowledge some subset of the points. However, it’s usually fairly clear what is a traditionalist point of view. Attempts to subdivide this into distinct ideologies have been fairly unsuccessful and largely ad hominem. The age, contemporary prominence, willingness to refer to science and empirical evidence, gender, routes into training, subject, years of time spent teaching, and political affiliations have all been used to attempt to identify supposedly important differences between traditionalists with the hope of identifying one group as a passing “neo-traditionalist” fad rather than the re-emergence of old arguments that had been temporarily suppressed in recent years.
But while I reject the idea that traditionalism of today is of some different stripe to the traditionalism of the past, and will not look for generational differences, I do wonder if there are fundamental disagreements that might be important among those who, nevertheless, still subscribe to the axioms of traditionalism I identified above. In particular, I have started to wonder about the aims of traditional education.
Progressive education has always adopted new aims, and recycled its old ones. So much so that lists of the aims for schools written by progressives can seem almost endless (e.g. our old National Curriculum or Every Child Matters) and yet say very little about anything that is clearly the responsibility of teachers rather than parents. Progressives frequently disagree on what education is meant to achieve, or alternatively they accept that it has many purposes and refuse to acknowledge the necessity of choosing between them. By contrast, because traditionalists support knowledge-based education, there is quite a clear belief that education is about the academic and the intellectual, and I had assumed that this limited the scope for disagreement. While some caricatured traditionalism as being about passing tests (an utter straw man) and others have suggested it is about the needs of the economy (a position I suspect might actually be held by a handful of traditionalists, but still far more common among progressives) most traditionalists seemed fairly consistent. While some traditionalists considered knowledge to be “power” or “capital” I could still accept those as referring to the powerful, or well-endowed, intellect that resulted from knowledge. So much so that I, perhaps, had failed to realise that not all traditionalists agreed with my position, which I shall now elaborate.
My position, (which I have laid out at length before) is that just as it is better to be healthier, or physically fitter, it is better to be cleverer. My position is that there is an intellectual domain, familiar to all of humanity, and it is a good thing to have a more developed intellect. My belief is that this development, this process of making kids cleverer, is as clearly the purpose of education, as it is the purpose of a hospital to make people well, or a gym to help people get fit. Trying to nail down a specific purpose for being cleverer is as pointless to me as trying to find one for being healthy or physically fit. Education might help you get a job, but just as a hospital has not failed if a patient they treated is well but doesn’t return to work, a school has not failed if their students do not take particular career opportunities. Similarly, our personal lives and future happiness might be affected by our teachers and our doctors, but they have no responsibility for any aspect of them that is not derived from our intellects or our health, respectively. I valued cleverness for its own sake, and if I accepted it as having any instrumental value it was in the broadest possible terms. It might give one more humanity, autonomy or opportunity but these were remarkably generic values rather than particularly specific ends for education.
By contrast, I valued knowledge, not for its own sake, but because I was convinced by specific arguments that knowing things makes us cleverer. Precisely what we need to know might vary between cultures, but knowing more of those thoughts, ideas and discoveries that are considered best in one’s culture made one cleverer by the standards of one’s culture. And it is here that I think there might be other traditionalists who disagree. I think there might be traditionalists who, while being equally sceptical about education as a means to the non-academic ends so beloved of progressives, might actually think that I have gone too far by seeing knowledge as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I think there are some traditionalists who value knowledge because it is worth knowing for its own sake, rather than because knowing it leads to a developed intellect. I consider thinking, rather than knowing alone, to be the highest end of education, I’m just convinced that knowing leads to thinking.
In my next post, I will explain why I have come to believe this difference actually matters.