The Problem With Knowledge Part 2

February 9, 2015

In my last post I argued that there may be a split between traditionalists who see knowledge as the ultimate end of education, and those who see it as a means to develop the intellect. Here I discuss how differing positions on this issue may affect how we approach education.

Traditionalists do seem to agree on a lot. However, I think that there are a number of debates that change depending on whether knowledge, or cleverness, is the aim of education.

To begin with, the question of how we select which knowledge is worth learning changes. While progressives have always challenged the body of knowledge to be learnt (the tradition) on a wide variety of grounds such as political incorrectness, obsolescence, irrelevance and the nature of those making the selection, I’ve never really had much time for these arguments. There is knowledge that is considered the best in our culture. There is knowledge that, in our culture, is undeniably associated with being educated or clever. As long as one doesn’t hope to socially engineer a new culture using children as the means (which does seem to be the aim of some progressives) the tradition in our culture is not difficult to locate. While one might seek to change or add to culture, that does not have to be done through schooling, and so the debate about what should be considered best in our culture is a distinct one from the question of what is considered best in our culture. By keeping those debates separate we can accommodate both cultural difference (e.g. by accepting that, say, a British Muslim might include Arabic in their tradition or a British Jew might include Hebrew) and keep a distance from the more difficult debate about what has value rather than what is valued. While the realm of the intellect is recognised in all cultures, the best way to develop the intellect can still be dependent on culture and we have a frame of reference for what is to be taught that can be explored but doesn’t have to be justified from first principles.

If, however, knowledge is being learnt for its own sake, I think the question of “which knowledge?” becomes more complicated. Is the knowledge valued in one’s own culture better to learn for its own sake than knowledge valued in another culture? Will it become necessary to justify directly what is the best knowledge in the world rather than what is considered to be the best knowledge in one’s own culture? This is not necessarily something that an advocate of knowledge for its own sake would shy away from. I have heard many people explain why Shakespeare is correctly held in such high esteem, or why Latin and Greek literature is the greatest inheritance that can be received from past civilisations. However, it is a more difficult argument to have, particularly when any argument that could be used to justify the value of a particular type of knowledge which suggests that learning it is valued as a way to achieve another aim would inherently undermine the idea that knowledge is valued for its own sake. Is it even possible to argue about what is the best knowledge if knowledge is only valued for its own sake?

There is, however, a way in which seeing knowledge as the aim of education might simplify arguments. If one adopts the view that knowledge is an end in itself, it becomes impossible to argue that the ends of teaching can be achieved through ways that are not focussed on knowledge. In that sense this could almost be seen as the strongest form of traditionalism. Those of us who see knowledge as a means to an end allow progressives a means to challenge us over whether there are alternative, and better, means to the same ends. We might end up having to justify our viewpoint by considering empirical evidence rather than through the adoption (usually on ethical grounds) of particular goals. There are relevant empirical questions over whether (as many progressives claim) learning in particular ways improves thinking, or how thoroughly we must know something for it to be useful in our thinking which I do not think can be answered without considering empirical evidence.

Alternatively, if the communication of particular knowledge is the only aim of teaching, it might be possible to view teachers only as people who know what is worth knowing and are able to judge what is worth sharing. From such a point of view, in which teacher knowledge and judgement form the basis of all teaching, it might be possible to argue that these are the only important aspects of teaching. This might seem an odd step, but there are those who believe in the centrality of knowledge to education who reject almost any discussion of the most effective ways to teach, rather than of what to teach. In particular, they reject the use of research to establish how best to teach and how best to learn. For teaching to be informed by evidence of what works is, from this point of view, a distraction from teaching informed by judgements of what is worthwhile. This may seem to be a false dichotomy, but it is the best (and I think fairest) description I can give of the position of those who consider themselves to be advocates of knowledge and teacher authority who reject the use of evidence and research to inform teaching.  However, even though I think this is probably the best possible case against being informed by evidence that a traditionalist teacher can give, I still think it goes nowhere towards discounting the value of research into how memory works.

But I do think the simplified argument for traditionalism has an appeal. I think most traditionalists (and also many progressives) are very suspicious of “instrumentalist” views of education. The idea that education is a means to an end (or ends) that is (or are) not inherently an aspect of education can lead to many dubious suggestions about what and how to teach. By arguing that we should approach education as a goal in its own right, not a means to some other social, political, economic, moral or religious goal we avoid many bad ideas. I think, however, this may have led to an excessive anti-instrumentalism that also seeks to reject any intellectual goals for education. There may be a point of view that people like me are giving too much ground over to the progressives. My talk of intellectual development may have created a space where people start talking of creativity, deep understanding, critical thinking, higher order thinking, independent thinking, i.e. all the vague terms that progressives use to distinguish their view of the intellect from one that revolves around knowledge. From this point of view, I am simply not traditionalist enough; I lack true faith in the importance of knowledge. My defence, however, would be to ask where would the most extreme anti-instrumentalism actually lead? Could we actually argue that knowledge serves no purpose? I think that in eliminating all space for instrumentalism in the argument for knowledge we would end up having to argue that we gain nothing from knowledge. We’d have to argue that it does not give us the capacity for anything greater than we could achieve without it. We’d insist that it gave us no insight, wisdom or happiness. We’d claim that we gained no moral, spiritual, intellectual, social or practical advantage from it. In doing so, we’d have eliminated many arguments against knowledge, but only by accepting that there is no particular reason knowledge had value to us in the first place.


  1. Reblogged this on teaching knowledge and creativity.

  2. Thank you very much. I appreciate these dense philosophical musings – they are painting an interesting landscape of subtle difference in viewpoint. I particularly like your ending pondering where extreme anti-instrumentalism would lead. This points for me towards the difficulties of trying to meaningfully separate education from any external hierarchy of values. And I really don’t think you can distance it from the debate between what has value and what is valued. They draw from the same source.

    Great stuff though! I’m so inspired that, rather than contaminate your comment stream any more this time, I’m going to use this as the theme of my first blog post this coming weekend. I’ve been planning to start a blog pitched towards the theory end of things for a while now, and have plenty of bits to muse over, but this for me is the best possible starting point. Particularly when I’d been wrestling specifically with the notion of ‘what is the point of education?’ during this last month. Perhaps you’d do me the kindness of reading it? I think I could present a lucid stream of alternative rationality, and would welcome it getting clobbered.

    Thanks again.

  3. […] in British schools « Nick Hassey’s Views on The College Of Teaching The Problem With Knowledge Part 2 […]

  4. Seems to me that the last paragraph is concluding that becoming educated is a wide ranging mixture from the instrumental to the purely academic that could well be different for different individuals. If that is the case, it’s balance that matters in individual contexts and the reductio ad absurdum blanket extremes coupled to labels like “progressive” and “traditional” don’t get very far because they men different things to different people and are simply missing the point pretty well by design.

    • Do you really want to pursue the idea of dividing people into the “useful” and the “academic”?

      But you are right that “progressive” and “traditional” labels don’t get us very far if “traditional” or “progressive” is okay for some, but not others. I’ve very little time for those who would preserve traditional education for an elite.

      • On the contrary I’m saying a balanced education requires err..balance from instrumental right across to academic employing the normal definitions of those words. I don’t see this as an elitist issue at all, I think certainly to age 14 all should get such a balance. Beyond that a lot will depend on individual choice because motivation is likely to be the main determinant in the learned outcomes of adolescents and young adults. Making eg maths compulsory for 17 year olds is unlikely to be very effective and could well be counter-productive if it engenders resentment in those that really hate it. It might be good for them, but so is exercise yet I see few fit people who are forced to go to the gym. It might work in a prison or totalitarian state but not in the sort of liberal democracy we have in the UK.

        • You do love to make your argument vaguer by bringing “motivation” into it. And given that we do force children to exercise, I’m not sure where the gym analogy comes into it.

          • Motivation is a key variable that can’t be simply dismissed as vague. It makes a very big difference. I was talking about young adults. AFAIK we don’t force young adults to exercise except perhaps in the army and those people are volunteers. That is the point, what is practically achievable is what matters and I don’t see forcing people over the age of 14 to learn particular subjects against their will as having much success. It has never worked in the past even when draconian sanctions could be employed so I don’t see why it would work in the future. Take something you don’t do but you know would be good for you eg running half marathons. I bet you would resent being forced to do it especially if you were rubbish at it and the outcomes simply reinforced that. It’s easy to say other people should be motivated to do the things you like doing and are good at.

            • I didn’t dismiss it as vague, I just pointed out that its vagueness means that you don’t really have a clear position. We are all motivated by many things, both intrinsic and extrinsic. Talk of “forcing” and “motivation” really don’t help here. There’s no clear boundary between desires children have as autonomous individuals and the desires they have because of their culture, peers and communities. There’s certainly no clear taxonomy of choices given to young people in which we can clearly distinguish between those granting enough choice to motivate and those demotivating by providing too little choice. If the best argument somebody has for a curriculum/learning activity/area of study is that it might motivate then it usually means its of little intrinsic worth. It’s like when the selling point of an educational fad is “the kids really love it”, it actually means “there’s little point to it”.

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. […] 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. […]

  7. Well the whole point is that you can’t assign false precision to things simply because you like exact and non-ambiguous results. There are ways of motivating people to do things they would not normally do but it is an inexact process. Motivation is a means to an end it is not an end in itself so “the kids love it” might or might not be a good indicator. The kids loving it is not necessarily bad but the kids hating it probably is because few people do much meaningful learning when their emotions are geared to hating the subject.

    • I’m not asking for false precision but for a coherent argument. We can all claim that considerations about motivation favour what we want.

  8. The coherence of an argument that misses out fundamental factors is flawed before it gets off the ground. You can make a coherent argument that all objects fall to the ground at the same rate but that is only true if you ignore air resistance and the fact is in most practical circumstances you can’t.

    • I’m not asking you to miss out anything related to motivation, I am asking you to be more specific about it. There’s a world of difference between what kids do because they enjoy it; what they do because everyone else is doing it; what they do because it’s expected; what they do because it’s less effort than the alternatives; what they do because they are made to; what they do in order to achieve a particular goal; what they do to avoid something; what they do by instinct; what they do to be awkward; what they do by habit, and so on. To class all this as “motivation” and talk as if it related to the academic content of the curriculum just makes the resulting argument meaningless.

      • Classing it all as motivation is no different in principle to classing all learning as “knowledge”. Motivation is clearly related to learning the academic content. It’s a strawman to imply I’m saying motivation is the content. There is not enough time or space to go into detail of how motivation affects learning but there is a lot of evidence that it does. https://sites.google.com/site/motivationataglanceischool/achievement-motivation-theory

        Its just as meaningless to make arguments about academic content in the curriculum without considering how it will be learnt, what makes it more likely to be learnt and why. Otherwise you might as well just give out the URL for Wikipedia because most of the academic content is there. The thing of interest is how much of that is essential, at what age and how it is going to be learnt especially if it is important but the people you want to learn it couldn’t care less.

        • Nobody claims that motivation doesn’t affect learning, the point is that you just seem to say “motivation” then explain nothing and make no coherent argument.

  9. […] Old Andrew sums up the neo-traditionalist view: […]

  10. […] fairly heavy couple of posts about disagreement between traditionalists. (Part 1 and Part 2). Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have sparked the debate I was looking […]

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