Adam Robertson suggests that, while Daisy Christodoulou’s ideas about the cognitive power that pupils develop by learning knowledge hold great emancipatory potential for our pupils, her limited conception of ‘educational equality’ and uncritical acceptance of elite forms of knowledge threaten to undermine that potential and preserve the status quo.
Daisy Christodoulou, in her ‘Seven Myths About Education’, presents a compelling case for teaching young people knowledge.
To do so may seem commonsense, but expressly avoiding knowledge, instead focusing on group work, skill development and minimising the amount of time teachers spend talking to students have been considered best practice by Ofsted, and have been a widely held consensus, for some time.
Christodoulou dismantles this series of uncritically accepted myths by drawing on the work of cognitive psychologists and, particularly pleasingly, unpicking the underlying assumptions of Ofsted’s own published lesson reports, in doing which she shows that all of the aspects of these zeitgeisty lessons that Ofsted praised were predicated on students having strong knowledge which they themselves brought into their lessons, since their teachers weren’t teaching it to them once there.
But towards the end of her book, Christodoulou strays away from the fairly uncontentious territory of the cognitive power that comes with the ownership of knowledge into more overtly ideological waters.
In her seventh myth, Christodoulou tackles the vexed question of what knowledge students should be learning, and of whether or not teaching knowledge can be a form of indoctrination.
She concludes that it isn’t, and that teaching elite knowledge to deprived children is the surest route to securing ‘educational equality’.
As far as I can tell, by ‘educational inequality’ Christodoulou means little more than that the Times editorial is largely inaccessible to people who have left school with low cultural literacy, who chiefly come from deprived backgrounds, and that it would be desirable to give them access to it.
While of course it should concern anyone on the left that children from the poorest backgrounds be denied access to a collective discourse due to their lack of presumed knowledge, it is by no means the crux of the matter. Christodoulou, however, seems content that equality would be obtained should everyone leave school with a roughly equal grasp of this culturally relevant knowledge, and moves on with a few vague references to social mobility and economic benefits.
But this is a poor view of educational equality. Even if such an educational programme did succeed in unlocking social mobility by equipping the deprived to go toe-to-toe with their privately educated contemporaries, it would do nothing to undermine the brutally class-ridden nature of British society nor to erode the collective wealth and power of the privileged few.
Her naive Liberal conception of power is most evident when discussing Lords reform. She mentions that a large proportion of 16-24 year olds reportedly believe that the House of Lords is elected, which is indeed a shocking truth. But she then says that those young people are removed from any meaningful discussion on Lords reform due to their ignorance. Which they are, but the subtext is that Lords reform, and other meaningful political reform, would, should everyone be taught the requisite knowledge, be accessible for discussion on the part of the most marginalised in society, and that a more equal, fairer society would emerge from such discussions. Which throws into relief the extent to which Christodoulou’s theory of education completely ignores questions of power and structural oppression.
Perhaps I am being slightly unfair, but it is clear that, for Christodoulou, equipping the people who Freire would call ‘The Oppressed’ to join the society of ‘The Oppressor’, by giving them access to all of the knowledge required to be able to do this, is the goal of educational equality. It is for this reason that she rubbishes suggestions that elite knowledge is knowledge somehow owned by the elite, via some slightly curious anecdotes about how some working class people are more cultured than Prince Harry (as if there were nothing material in his being a Prince).
This sort of position, of a radical critique of unequal educational provision which does nothing to critique the status quo of a class-ridden capitalist society is well captured by a slogan often seen on banners at students protests around the world in the past few years: “A free university in a capitalist society is like a reading room in a prison”. There is no meaning to a radically free and equal educational system if it exists as nothing more than a prelude to or break from an otherwise exploitative, violent and unjust social order.
If we accept this, and see any iteration of educational equality that exists within an unequal society as being fundamentally meaningless, what problems emerge with Christodoulou’s ideas about elite knowledge?
It should be clear that giving oppressed children the knowledge of the society of their oppressors, so that they are able to move within that society, is no sort of liberation.
Christodoulou falls back on the age-old idea that hegemonic forms of knowledge have become hegemonic due to their innate superiority, again ignoring questions of class power. But an understanding of how dominant forms of knowledge help to reproduce dominant social forms was at the forefront of the Byt reform movement in early Soviet Russia. Byt, or ‘everyday life’, had to be reformed if the people were no longer to think like bourgeois, and would instead begin to think like communists.
Similarly, the ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ collective, based at UCL, suggests that one of the reasons that university curricula in this country remain overwhelmingly populated by dead white men is that “the only way we can succeed is by reproducing whiteness”. Knowledge that threatens the racist status quo is quietly pushed outside of the hegemonic culture. To deviate from this hegemonic culture is to be deemed a failure by the Academy, as Dr. -Coleman- has found, losing out on a job at UCL after proposing an MA course that was considered too critical of the White establishment.
The urge to immerse the oppressed in the culture of the oppressor, rather than in their own culture or a liberatory culture, and the manner in which this ensures that the dominant culture cannot be challenged by the oppressed, is precisely responsible for the reproduction of their oppression.
Instead of holding up the knowledge of the elite as the, somehow, best, or most powerful knowledge, real educational equality would instead require us to recognise the role that this knowledge plays in sustaining inequality.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that deprived children shouldn’t be exposed to what are considered to be great novels or films or music or poetry. Instead, we might take some time consider what knowledge might work to empower the oppressed, to enable them to become conscious of their oppression and to be able to articulate, and bring about, an alternative society freed from their oppressors.
What this knowledge might be I don’t know. But in history, moving away from a Whiggish ‘Island Story’, of the eventual and inevitable triumph of parliament over the monarchy, might be a start. Instead of learning about those in power, regardless of the social cachet presently attached to such knowledge, we might instead focus on the struggles of oppressed people, episodes such as the British Civil Rights Movement, or the Stonewall Riots, the Suffragettes, the Chartists, Slave rebellions, the Miners’ Strike. We also need to avoid sanitised ruling class narratives of these historical episodes, for instance that women winning the vote closed the book on the oppression of women in this country, or that the police acted as anything other than a paramilitary force doing Thatcher’s bidding during the Miners’ Strike. We might also introduce them to ideas such as Postcolonial Theory, Feminism and Marxism.
Our focus should, as Christodoulou suggests, be on the acquisition of knowledge on the part of our students, but the knowledge we teach them should be knowledge that is threatening to the status quo, that has the potential to enable them to liberate themselves.
While a greater focus on the acquisition of knowledge should lead to greater educational attainment on the part of our students, indeed might go some way to closing the gap between the poorest and their privately educated contemporaries, on its own this is a poor view of educational equality.
If we are serious about achieving educational equality we need to locate our ideas within a broader egalitarian politics. Teaching students knowledge which works to sustain the status quo is antithetical to this task.