classical liberal education: the downside

You might be wondering why I’m making such a big deal out of Robert Peal’s arguments. After all, as he points out in his responses to critics, opinions are important and categorisation aids discussion. If Robert were simply voicing his personal opinion to get a discussion going, I probably wouldn’t have commented on his book at all. But he’s not just doing that. Progressively Worse was written in his capacity as Education Research Fellow with the think tank Civitas. The book is published by Civitas and the front cover carries a personal endorsement from the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. Civitas also published Toby Young’s pamphlet Prisoners of the Blob. Young is co-founder of the West London Free School apparently the first free school in the country to sign a funding agreement with the said Secretary of State. Civitas have published a UK version of ED Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence and a series of textbooks and teaching resources. Civitas also runs a network of schools and is described by Core Knowledge UK (‘the official partnership in the UK’ – presumably with the Core Knowledge Foundation) as ‘an educational charity’. And that’s what bothers me.

a classical liberal education

As far as I can gather, a relatively small group of people share an opinion that what the English education system needs is a return to a Classical Liberal Education. I experienced one of these myself, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. (The ‘classical liberal’ label, that is. I was aware of the education). ‘Classical liberal’, like ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’, is something of a folk category – a label for a loosely defined group of concepts that’s useful for signposting during conversation. But, as I hope I demonstrated in my previous post, folk classifications aren’t generally up to tasks that require more exact specifications, like making comparisons between individual schools, or designing a classical liberal curriculum, for example. For tasks like that, you need a more precise definition.

In an article in The Telegraph in 2013, Toby Young says the head of the West London Free School asked the governors for “a relatively short statement of what’s meant by a Classical Liberal Education that could be included in the Staff Handbook“. Young then says “This is a phrase we’ve often bandied about, but never tried to define before – at least, not beyond shorthand phrases like ‘the best that’s been thought and said’”.

That’s a revealing remark. It suggests that the governors of a school apparently offering a classical liberal education hadn’t started with the question “What’s the purpose of education?” or “What do our students need to know and why?” but “What should be included in a classical liberal education?” without attempting to actually define it. The governors eventually came up with the ‘relatively short statement’ requested. Young quotes it in his article and you can read it on the school website here.

The relatively short statement looks relatively long to me (almost 800 words). There’s a lot of ‘we mean this, but not that’. A quotation from Daniel Willingham is juxtaposed with an extract from an essay by Bertrand Russell. The necessity for all this explanation suggests that a classical liberal education isn’t easy to define and maybe it would have been better to have side-stepped the definition completely and simply pointed interested parties to a summary of the school curriculum so they could assess it for themselves.

the conversation of mankind

The difficulty in defining a classical liberal education appears to revolve around a core sticking point; what constitutes “the best and most important work in both the humanities and the sciences.” This criterion is derived from a phrase in essay on culture by Matthew Arnold, the 19th century poet, who was also a school inspector. Arnold summarises culture as the ‘best which has been thought and said’. Few people are actually going to disagree with that as a broad aim for what should be taught in schools, but as both Robert Peal and the West London Free School point out, deciding what constitutes ‘the best and most important work’ is not a straightforward task, especially where the humanities are concerned.

The West London Free School statement concludes that what should be in the curriculum is “the background knowledge taken for granted by writers who address the intellectually engaged layman – the shared frames of reference for public discourse in modern liberal democracies”. Discourse, discussion and conversation are frequently mentioned by advocates of a classical liberal education. Clearly there are good reasons why it’s desirable for everyone to have “the background knowledge taken for granted by writers who address the intellectually engaged layman”. Whether all writers take the same background knowledge for granted, and who they consider to be an ‘intellectually engaged layman’ is another matter. This focus on the communication of ideas appears to originate in Michael Oakeshott’s reference to ‘the conversation of mankind’ (Peal, p. 209).

Earlier this week by chance I came across a televised seminar hosted by Nuffield College Oxford, on the results of the recent European elections. The seminar was the first of its kind, an experiment, and one in my view that’s well worth repeating. I learned more about European politics in two hours than I have in the past two years. One recurring theme in the discussion was the ‘rise of the meritocracy’, a term coined in the 1950s by Michael Young, Toby Young’s father. Vernon Bogdanor, whose former students include David Cameron and Toby Young, suggested that one of the reasons why UKIP and other anti-establishment parties were so successful in the recent election was because they were voted for by people who felt they’d been completely ignored by the meritocracy. The meritocracy are those who have benefited from higher education and whose decisions shape not only the knowledge that writers take for granted, but most people’s standard of living and quality of life.

Clearly, there are good reasons why everyone should be able to participate in the ‘conversation of mankind’. But human lives do not consist solely of engaging “fruitfully in conversation and debate – not just about contemporary issues, but also about the universal questions that have been troubling mankind throughout history”, as the West London Free School statement puts it. In order for some people to earn their living conversing and debating as philosophers, academics, politicians or writers, other people have to produce food, manufacture goods and maintain infrastructure. And they need to ensure that those things are done efficiently. It’s only through their doing so that the economy has enough surplus capacity to support philosophers, academics, politicians and writers, or indeed an education system.

enemies of promise

Before I’m dismissed as one of Michael Gove’s ‘Marxist enemies of promise’ I would point out that I’m not suggesting the people who grow food, manufacture goods or maintain an infrastructure don’t need to engage in important conversations and debates. Nor do I mean they don’t need a good education, or that education is only a preparation for getting a job. What I do mean is that those who do most of the conversing and debating should be well aware of what those involved in production, manufacturing and maintenance are up against.

The people who get their hands dirty, work in all weathers, use dangerous materials, and put their lives at risk on a daily basis are working at the interface between human society and the natural world. The natural world isn’t interested in having a conversation, it’s uncompromisingly and unforgivingly getting on with being the natural world. In order to work with it, we all – philosophers, academics, politicians and writers included – need to have a good grasp of how it functions. If we don’t, the conversation of mankind will be pretty limited.

a coherent curriculum

Broadly speaking, the content of the national curriculum whether informal (prior to 1988) or formal (since 1988) has been based on knowledge ‘trickling down’ from university subject areas. The content of undergraduate courses determines the content of A levels, which in turn informs GCSE content, which in turn informs what younger children are taught. The main problem with a subject-based curriculum is that isn’t integrated across subject areas. This has implications for students’ understanding of fundamental concepts that straddle several knowledge domains, and it’s this lack of understanding that I suspect has led to the recent emphasis in the national curriculum on knowledge-related ‘skills’ rather than on knowledge itself. I understand why there are calls for a return to a knowledge-based curriculum.

My concern is that framing the alternative in terms of participation in conversation and debate means that what we need to know in order to manage the sometimes nasty, sometimes messy business of maintaining a decent quality of life, will be marginalised. Using cultural references as a criterion means that the resulting curriculum might also lack coherence, since it won’t be based on the deep structure of knowledge, but on the references people make to specific items of knowledge, which isn’t the same thing. And if the curriculum isn’t coherent, that will impact on the sense it makes for students.

not making sense

For example, despite its lengthy explanation of classical liberal education, the West London Free School offers the national curriculum with Latin added, which to me doesn’t look like the same thing at all.

The Michaela Community School’s educational vision is expressed in the Matthew Arnold quote. The school claims to be inspired by Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence and emphasises the importance of cross-curricular links. But it then claims Maths and English are ‘fundamental to all other learning’ (are they?) and tackles History and English, but not other subjects, chronologically. I could find little evidence of a coherent underlying rationale.

I hoped that The Curriculum Centre might shed some light on the matter with its Future Curriculum™, but no joy. The Curriculum Centre is also inspired by Hirsch (and Michael Young) and is critical of the national curriculum but remarkably coy, for a curriculum centre, about what it advocates instead.

Civitas in contrast, has done a lot of work on the cultural references curriculum. It has prepared a UK version of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence for Years 1-6. Although I can see why schools might have found the UK Core Knowledge Sequence useful, like Hirsch’s original it doesn’t seem especially coherent. For example, Year 1 History begins with the pre-history of Britain in that it covers the Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, which makes internal sense but completely overlooks the formation of the earth itself, the formation and break up of supercontinents and the migration of early humans, an excellent opportunity to promote an understanding of how physics, chemistry, biology, geography and history are related.

Then, bizarrely, we skip to ‘Kings and Queens’ and a list of disconnected ‘historic events’ from the Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution, which it’s unlikely anyone, never mind children in Year 1, will be able to properly comprehend without knowing how those events emerged from events that preceded them. Even more bizarrely, we then skip to Prime Ministers (Robert Walpole is singled out for mention) and Symbols and Figures; the Union Jack, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament.

It’s important that children know what these cultural references refer to, but there’s no reason why teachers shouldn’t just explain them briefly if they happen to be mentioned, rather than to include them, out of context, in the core curriculum. Not only is this piecemeal approach to curriculum design based on what one person or group of people consider to be important cultural references, but it’s also unlikely to make sense to children without the requisite pre-existing knowledge.

If, by contrast, we frame the curriculum in terms of students having a good understanding of how the world functions, from sub-atomic particles upwards, our educational framework will be much better integrated. And what needs to be included in the humanities part of the curriculum (if the curriculum must be divided in that way) will no longer be solely a matter of value judgments. It would mean that the criteria for deciding which periods of history are important for students to study, in what order and which books and plays and poems they focus on, and in what order, would be based on what would best help them understand the world they live in, rather than just understanding what “Times leader writers, heavyweight political commentators and authors of serious books(Young, p.34) have to say.

A chronological curriculum, such as the one I used with my own children (I refer to it in more detail here and here) is not only coherent, but it makes sense of everything. The only drawback is that if teachers are subject specialists, a bit of work might be required on integrating the curriculum across subject areas. The curriculum’s narrative spine will consist initially of physics, followed by chemistry, then biology, geology and geography – the humanities are relative latecomers in the earth’s history. That doesn’t mean children can’t learn to read until they’ve reached the point where writing was invented, or they can’t be taught geometry until they’ve covered the ancient Greeks. What it does mean that simultaneously studying the American Civil war in History, Shakespeare in English, the Renaissance in Art and polyphony in Music, alongside Linnaeus and Tim Burners-Lee (sic) in Science in Year 6 as the UK Core Knowledge Sequence advocates means that most of the contextual significance of all those things is lost.

It’s clear from Robert Peal’s role, his association with Civitas and his endorsement by Michael Gove, that Progressively Worse isn’t just expounding his personal opinion. Civitas claims “our research seeks out an objective view of standards of education in Britain”. If what Robert presents in his book is what Civitas or, more worryingly, the DfE consider to be an ‘objective view’ of education and that view is influencing educational policy in general and the development of a curriculum in particular, the quality of education in English schools in the next fifty years is unlikely to get progressively better.

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4 thoughts on “classical liberal education: the downside

  1. ‘ That’s a revealing remark. It suggests that the governors of a school apparently offering a classical liberal education hadn’t started with the question “What’s the purpose of education?” ‘

    Another brilliant post. The only part I might even remotely take issue with is that quoted above.

    Those who advocate a “Classical Liberal Education” seem to me to have an unflinching belief that the past needs to be passed on to the current generation to ensure that the future is a close to the past as possible. They seem to see this as sufficient justification for their belief, maybe it is an appeal to nostalgia. “This aren’t what they used to be but soon will be”.

    Others seem to anchor their beliefs is the thoughts of Educational Philosophers such as Oakshott.

    They all seem to have the view that poor kids should have access to what the rich kids have, that poor kids today should have access to what the Ancient Greeks had, and often that today’s poor kids should have access to the education they had (or should have had but were denied).

    The Classical Liberal Educationists seem in the main to “just know” the purpose of education, because tarition tells them.

    One only has to reflect on their hysterical responses to “Shift Happens” and their panic whenever Ken Robinsons speak about the futuree being different to the past to see the pasion with which they seem to fear change.

  2. There are so many problems with the concept of a Classic Liberal education starting with epistemology; that there is a presumption that there is such as thing as a classic liberal education, or a discourse of the nation, or even a “best of the best”.

    How do we know what the “best of the best” is? When you ask that question you are met with some waffle about democracy, and when you challenge that with “How do you account for power?” and the influence of the ruling classes – you are labelled as one of Gove’s Marxist detractors.

    It’s really little more than the ruling elite foisting there own ideas onto others who then proceed to fail. As they have done for most of history except for periods of economic expansion when social mobility does increase.

    Then there is the notion that anyone who objects to everyone “being like us”, is the enemy of promise, which of course would have some virtue if “being like us” or the knowledge “of us” had any intrinsic value, which it doesn’t When the Queen drinks tea with her little pinky erect everyone knows she is the Queen; when I do it in Mc Donalds everyone knows I am someone with few, if any social skills.

    When I read Gove’s speech to Policy Exchange it could have been written in the 19th century. All intelligence seems to have been emptied from it and what you get is a state of the nation address circa 1849.

    Trouble is I’m getting bored with it now and I’m sick of writing about it on my BLOG so I’ve done it on yours instead. Apologies.

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