In a twitter chat a few weeks ago, a tweeter, who was neither a scientist nor a teacher, insisted over and over again that children should not be taught knowledge in science uncritically. He kept repeating the point. No matter how many times it was pointed out to him that we had to teach them something, get them to understand it and then critique it, if that was appropriate at that point in time. But he was having none of it. If knowledge was taught, it had to instantly be criticised also. There was also the whole ‘I learnt by doing practicals so that is the only way to learn knowledge’ thrown in for good measure. The progressive ideological foundations underpinning his arguments got me thinking about Gramsci.
I don’t hear much from the progressive education camp about Gramsci. It seems his incarceration for a decade by Mussolini for his insightful Marxist inspired writing is not sufficient to be considered left wing. Yet, it was while he was in jail that Gramsci wrote his notebooks, containing among other opinions, his ideas relating to schooling, (the basis for Ed Hirsch’s work).
To summarise for those who have not come across Gramsci:
- He believed strongly that the intellectual had a place in all arenas of life. This did not mean everyone should be an academic but that everyone could participate in intellectual activity. Intellectual activity could enable the transformation of both individuals and society but in order to do so one needed to understand the society and culture one was part of.
- Gramsci ‘s critiqued the progressive education reforms in Mussolini’s Italy by Croce and Gentile centred on the knowledge-lite curriculum whose buzzwords were ‘educativity’ and active education.
- He believed that this new type of education system did nothing other than reinforce the existing power structure where the powerful and elite would maintain their ‘cultural hegemony’ precisely because the poor were cut off from it.
- He thought that it was necessary “to create a single type of formative school (primary-secondary) which would take the child up to the threshold of his choice of job, forming him during this time as a person capable of thinking, studying and ruling – or controlling those who rule”.
- Thus, he was advocating an education system which would produce intellectuals within all strata of society so that it was no longer the privileged domain of the elite.
The single greatest failure of left-wing educationalists, who support and promote progressive education, is not acknowledging the impact of knowledge on the individual. One cannot challenge from a position of ignorance.
If I were to teach the way that the tweeter had suggested then how would that work in practice? I chose the example of rocks as it was one of the last units I taught.
Teacher: There are three types of rocks – igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic but you shouldn’t accept this uncritically. Why might it be wrong to classify rocks in just these three categories? How many types of rocks do you think there are? Which theory is more accurate the current rock classification theory or your rock classification theory?
Child 1: ?????????????????? (silence, looks around and hopes others will answer the question)
Child 2: I know rocks are all hard but they come in different colours so there should be grouped into colours so there are 100’s of types of rocks.
Child 3: I think it’s wrong (in head because I want to please you and make you think I understand you but I don’t even know what you are talking about in the first place).
If we don’t know, we can’t think about it. If we are not able to think about it, we can’t really consider alternatives. If we can’t consider alternatives and weigh up the different ideas we can’t formulate our own views or indeed start down the path of creating our own alternatives.
Alhazen would have been unlikely to notice the contradictions and problems in Ptolemy’s planetary hypothesis if he had spent his time bogged down trying to critique every single piece of factual knowledge referred to. Additionally reading and understanding Ptolemy’s work did not seem to brainwash him into acceptance. Equally, being taught that the planetary system was geocentric did not prevent Copernicus from eventually coming up with a coherent Heliocentric model of the universe.
The idea that a traditional education can brainwash people into accepting knowledge, ideas and theories is reductionist and ignores the reality of the development of human knowledge and ideas in the first place. So as far as I am concerned, it is not problematic to teach children in an age-appropriate way and introduce them to more critical concepts later so long as we aren’t actually creating misconceptions and errors. That is the problem with the progressive tendency to devalue and distrust the teaching of knowledge. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, one ends up writing in a pit of one’s own ignorance.
This post was originally published on the Labour Teachers website.