The Problem With Knowledge Part 2February 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.