Adam Robertson provides a radical justification for a knowledge-rich, subject-based curriculum by moving away from the social mobility based justifications for teaching subject knowledge employed by the likes of E.D. Hirsch and instead foregrounding social justice, and equipping students to fight for it, as the goal of such a curriculum.
In the often circuitous ‘Traditional’ v ‘Progressive’ debate a point keeps being made by those in favour of a knowledge-rich curriculum but which keeps being glossed over: E.D. Hirsch is a man of the left.
It has been glossed over, however, for two good reasons.
The first is that in recent years the knowledge-rich curriculum seems, to many eyes, to have ridden into public view on the back of Conservative ideologues, notably Michael Gove and Nick Gibb. This has led the idea to be sniffed at with suspicion by many on the left, some of whom can be prone, at times, to skin-deep tribalism. Nothing can be done about this association, even though it is circumstantial, not essential.
But what can be addressed is the broadly liberal framing of the rationale for a knowledge rich curriculum which has limited the ability of its proponents to counter accusations of conservatism – indeed, has prevented people from pointing out how radical and potentially liberating a knowledge rich curriculum could be.
Hirsch is clear as to the purpose, for him, of teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum. In his understanding of literacy, knowledge is essential to be able to read. There is no purely abstract skill of ‘literacy’. Letters signify words which signify things in the world, and if students don’t know what these things in the world are then all they are reading is a collection of sounds. Moreover, we don’t decode every word we read letter by letter; we recognise words and phrases that we know and we chunk them together into meaningful fragments of language. That’s why it’s easy for the average person to read a newspaper article but extremely difficult to read, for example, Critical Theory – when reading Critical Theory many of us are reduced to decoding each word letter by letter because we don’t know them already.
Hirsch suggests that we should teach this knowledge which enables students to become culturally literate, that enables most of us to read a newspaper article with relative ease, because “cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents.” We need to teach knowledge, then, because teaching knowledge leads to social mobility. If children from poor backgrounds have access to the shared discourse in society, ie are culturally literate, then they will be able to get better jobs and therefore some of them will be able to improve their life chances.
But the problems with this schema should be self-evident – teaching children a knowledge-rich curriculum enables them, according to Hirsch, to raise themselves to a more salubrious social class than their parents, but those same parents must remain wallowing in their drudgery. Indeed, if the sole purpose of teaching a knowledge rich curriculum is to unlock social mobility then it will merely leave the same number of people living on the lowest rungs of society’s ladder in just as foul conditions as before. The only difference will be that, with social mobility apparently functioning as it should be, these people who find themselves thus immiserated will be seen to deserve their fates.
To make a radical case for teaching subject knowledge, then, we need to go beyond Hirsch’s social mobility-based justification. We need to frame a justification for teaching subject knowledge that foregrounds social justice, not social mobility.
The foundation of such a radical case for a knowledge rich curriculum must be a critique of the status quo – of capitalism, and of the structures in society that oppress people because of their gender, race, sexuality, or any other basis. Hirsch’s social mobility model rests upon the presumption of uncritical acceptance of things as they presently are. Oppressed people should, according to Hirsch, be enabled to rise as far as possible within this system by making them culturally literate. But any such mobility would be close to meaningless if those oppressive structures are left untouched. However good a job they might get, however wealthy they might become, they will still suffer forms of oppression, and those who have remained at the bottom of society won’t even have the palliative of a bit of extra cash to make up for it. Any radical education must foreground the dismantling of these forms of oppression and enabling its students to do so.
Freire famously outlined what such an education might look like. The model he proposed draws on lessons from radical left ideas about hierarchy and organisation and applies them to process of learning. The teacher should not dictate, should not ape the hierarchical structures of society that contribute to the students’ oppression, and should not pour new knowledge into the brains of their students. Instead the teacher should facilitate, should enable their students to find out for themselves how the world around them works and what their place in that world is, so that they might begin to articulate ways of dismantling these oppressive structures themselves. But such an education tends towards the parochial. If students aren’t taught anything, how can they know anything beyond their own horizons? The history of the left has been one of collaboration, internationalism, solidarity, of joining up struggles and fighting together. Freire’s pedagogy works against this trend.
The manner in which such a content-less education fails to equip its students to fight against oppression is thrown into relief by one of the phrases that most often passes the lips of young radicals, particularly people of colour, women and LGBT+ students – “Why did no one tell me about this (writer/book/essay/film/idea) before?” Such a moment of frustrated revelation comes when newly encountered knowledge, written by someone else in another time and place, sheds light on the reader’s own experience of oppression and equips them with new tools to think about and act against that oppression. The new knowledge that they have stumbled upon themselves is, in their hands, powerful. It is equipping them to liberate themselves.
Powerful Knowledge is a term, popularised by the sociologist Michael Young, that has come in for much criticism, most of which misses the point. Often it is criticised for being the same thing as ‘knowledge of the powerful’ or the high culture that economic and social elites in society enjoy. Critics rightly point out that simply teaching this elite knowledge and culture to deprived and oppressed children does not do them any good. They lose their own culture in an attempt to smuggle themselves into the society of the wealthy.
Superficially, this critique also seems to cover Hirsch’s ideas. Cultural literacy can be read as enabling deprived students to participate in elite culture by teaching them the knowledge that this culture is predicated upon. By doing this they will hope to move up the social ladder.
But this criticism is wide of the mark.
Firstly Hirsch. Hirsch’s suggestion is not to take the poor and oppressed and soak them in the culture of the wealthy elites, so that they lose their own culture. At heart, Hirsch’s thesis is merely a recognition that any communication within a community requires a shared corpus of presumed knowledge. To take an obvious example from today’s headlines: “David Cameron intends to stand for re-election as MP”. This only makes sense as a headline if you know who David Cameron is, what an MP is, what re-election means, and why it is newsworthy that David Cameron would stand for re-election, since it wouldn’t be news if any other sitting MP announced such an intention. Knowledge of these things is assumed so that the writer can communicate with the reader. Hirsch attempted simply to figure out what knowledge, at the time of writing, most American writers assumed their readers knew. To be literate, then, a reader would need to have that knowledge otherwise much of what they read would be meaningless, mere sound. Every community has a corpus of presumed, shared knowledge.
But Hirsch’s work shouldn’t be seen as a prescription, of the only things that any student in the USA should learn. Rather, it should be seen as the absolute minimum knowledge that a student requires in order to be literate. If they don’t have that knowledge then they can’t communicate with others in their community, and so they become isolated and intellectually dependent upon those who do possess that knowledge.
Any young person needs this knowledge to thrive, and there is no reason why it can’t sit alongside their own culture, their own identity, non-elite stories and knowledge. Society is predicated on some degree of commonality between its members – there is space beyond that commonality for a myriad different identities and cultures. He is not prescribing an entire curriculum, but is pointing out that if they don’t possess this bare minimum of shared knowledge they will be unable to become part of society.
Secondly Young. Powerful knowledge isn’t the knowledge that is used by those who are powerful in society. It is not knowledge that enables you to gain social power. It is knowledge which is powerful, knowledge which enables you to do something. According to Young, it is knowledge which makes the knower capable of “transforming, predicting, controlling aspects of the material world”, which “frees those who have access to it and enables them to envisage alternative and new possibilities.” Powerful knowledge is knowledge that enables the knower to make sense of and make generalisations about the world around them.
For Young, this knowledge has historically been produced by academic disciplines. It is distinct from the everyday knowledge that students pick up as a matter of course in their everyday experience – this is the parochial knowledge that Freire limited his pedagogy to working with. Powerful knowledge is instead made up of “theoretical concepts” which are produced “in specialist knowledge-producing communities”, ie Universities. These theoretical concepts enable us to make generalisations about the world around us and test those generalisations, and they “are systematically related to each other (in subjects and disciplines) and are acquired consciously and voluntarily through pedagogy in schools, colleges, and universities.” Parochial, everyday knowledge is the knowledge that you seem to be working quite hard for not much pay while your employer seems to be getting rich; powerful knowledge is an understanding of the logic of capitalism and the intrinsically exploitative nature of wage labour, an understanding which can be applied to people doing waged work everywhere. The former leaves the knower disillusioned; the latter equips the knower to organise an alternative.
One way, then, of teaching children powerful knowledge is teaching children academic subjects. But different powerful knowledge is powerful in different ways.
STEM subjects, according to Young, provide “the nearest we can get to universal knowledge”, inasmuch as they enable the knower to understand the physical world around them in a way that is the same everywhere for everyone. But it is the social-context specific knowledge of the social sciences (and Young includes history in this classification) that hints at what powerful knowledge might do for a radical education. The generalisations that the social sciences enable their knowers to make “are tied to specific contexts,” ie specific social contexts.
Therefore, in addition to ensuring that pupils have the bare minimum knowledge enabling them to understand or communicate with any other member of society, a radical knowledge-rich curriculum might then dedicate significant time to teaching students knowledge which is powerful in their specific social context, that being the context of their own oppression. For young women, for example, this might be knowledge of how women have been oppressed in this society and in others, in the past and in the present, along with how women have organised themselves in order to fight against this oppression and to ameliorate its effects. This knowledge would enable young women to generalise about their own experience of oppression, and to learn how to fight against the oppression that they face for themselves. Powerful knowledge is the knowledge that young activists wonder why no one taught to them sooner.
Why should a radical education be based on a knowledge rich curriculum?
For it not to be oppressive to teach the knowledge that Hirsch suggests is essential for cultural literacy it needs to be only a small portion of the knowledge that students learn. We all have and use this shared knowledge in common; but as a national, constructed culture it is necessarily something produced by a cultural elite. This shared knowledge is therefore, to a degree, necessarily elitist. But students need to learn that knowledge to be able to be independent, literate members of a society that assumes that all of its citizens have that knowledge in common.
But they also need to learn the knowledge of their own cultures, communities and social groups so as not to be subsumed into a unitary, dominant culture. To learn both requires them to learn a lot of knowledge, which requires them to start learning a knowledge rich curriculum from an early age.
They similarly can’t just rely on learning about the history of their own people as a source of powerful knowledge. For students to be powerful within a society which oppresses them they need a lot of knowledge. They need to be able to both theorise and understand how and why they are oppressed in society, often in more than one way, and they need to work out how to fight against that oppression in order to liberate themselves. The means to do that won’t always come from only their own stories, from learning of how their own people struggled. Lessons can and must be drawn from other sources, other stories from other times and places – ones that lift them beyond their own contexts while also illuminating those contexts through wider comparisons. Moreover, to fight effectively against oppression in society will require our students to join with other people in solidarity and to fight together. The ability to realise how divergent experiences of oppression can be fought against in tandem can only come from the possession of a large and varied corpus of powerful knowledge, knowledge that enables the knower to make generalisations about what they experience, generalisations which necessarily depend upon abstract thought based in something bigger than the everyday knowledge of their experience.
A radical curriculum would be knowledge-rich, and would leave its students empowered by the knowledge they were taught at school, not perplexed, years later, as to why nobody thought to introduce them to it while they were at school.
 E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know (New York 1988), p. xiii.
 Michael Young & Johan Muller, ‘On the powers of powerful knowledge’ in Review of Education, vol 1 no 3 (December 2013), pp. 4-5 & 24.
 Michael Young, ‘The future of education in a knowledge society: The radical case for a subject-based curriculum’ in Journal of the Pacific Circle Consortium for Education vol 22 no 1 (December 2010), p. 26.
 Young & Muller, ‘On the powers of powerful knowledge’ pp. 4-5 & 24.