In his post, “The Ideas Behind Forced Academisation,” Radice uses Hirsch to create a kind of apologia for the policy of forced academisation being pursued by the government. I do not really want to get into my own views on this issue, save to say that the process tramples on much democratic accountability and needlessly removes co-operation from the school system. Instead I want to focus on why Radice’s argument does not stand up to scrutiny, whether it is closely based on Hirsch or otherwise.
Radice begins by taking Hirsch’s assumption that progressive notions in education “became so widespread, to the point where young people could spend many years under the care of expensive professionals, and emerge lacking even the most basic knowledge of the history, geography and literature of their own country.” This assumption rests on an unstated belief that there must have been a golden age of some sort before progressives took hold of education in schools when all children left with a clear grasp of all required adult knowledge. The simple fact is that this is not upheld by historical investigation. For a really detailed study of how history education in particular has performed and developed over the last century, Radice may wish to look at Cannadine’s “The Right Kind of History.” One core aspect of Cannadine’s findings of history teaching in the 20th century is that the idea that there was a golden age of history teaching is largely a myth. What he does show is that more and more children have been given access to history education as time has moved on, resulting in a thriving discipline which values both pedagogy and knowledge.
Radice goes on to suggest, in line with Hirsch, that the spread of progressivism was the result of parents being “pushed out of educational decision making” to make way for the educational experts. Even a cursory glance at the Academies programme shows that parents are being completely sidelined in the new world of MATs. Indeed, the CoOp who have suggested an alternative MAT model, in which parents maintain a democratic role, has been rejected multiple times by the DfE. Radice also suggests that parents values of hard work and discipline were overridden by progressive teachers. Once more, I am not sure the realities agree. To go back 75 years, my grandmother’s brothers both opted not to attend school, not because of the “crazy” educational theories being peddled there, but because they were seen to be more valuable if they put their hard work and effort into earning a wage to help the family survive. I don’t doubt that if they had gone, they would probably have found the experience much more rewarding in the long run, but the simple fact is, that was not a choice they could make. In many ways, progressives sought to encourage a generation of children to stay in education. Granted, they may not have always got the balance right; and granted, they may have at times denigrated the value of subject knowledge; but to term them “high priests of the new gnostic religion” is stretching the truth somewhat. One might also criticise the “dusty guardians of pointless facts”, but I won’t because I don’t believe that!
Not content with his attack on progressive teachers, Radice continues to show how Hirsch proves that university education departments were also part of a master plan to control the teaching of subjects and claim their academic credibility. What is interesting here is that there is seemingly no engagement with the current state of university education. Whilst I am sure I could find examples of people in education departments playing down the role of knowledge, I have yet to meet one in person at any HEI I have been in. A brief glance at the course of the Cambridge History PGCE would reveal a course steeped in knowledge, but also supported by pedagogical thinking. Indeed, I have spent every PGCE session since joining my current HEI showing how knowledge is a core around which meaningful pedagogy is practiced. To say that there is no pedagogy worth knowing trashes decades of fantastic work by professionals dedicated to developing pupils’ knowledge. It is also interesting that Radice does not note that history as a discipline had to establish its own place in universities during the nineteenth century, and that almost all subjects barring theology have had to fight to validate themselves as worthy of study. Just as historians spent a generation or more arguing over whether history was a science or an art, so educationalists have debated the role of knowledge within their field. What we see today is diversity, but certainly not a group of people who are endeavouring to “rule supreme” over a domain divorced from knowledge.
Later, Radice echoes Hisrch in characterising progressives as “anti-knowledge” in an absolute sense. This again does not hold up to scrutiny. More accurately we might say that many progressives are against a particular type of knowledge, or value other forms of knowledge in addition to that cultural capital Hirsch is so keen on. An important point here is that cultural capital is of course a currency set by the dominant culture. Whilst traditionalists might say we can liberate students by giving them this capital, many progressives argue that we should change the currency. I wonder if Radice believes that we should still learn our church history and catechisms by rote? This was definitely the cultural capital of the pre-Enlightenment world, but it is no longer! To take another example of the above, many of the problems which have come about in the Deep South of the USA in the last decade might be traced back to the fact that education authorities there are controlling what has currency. Texas textbooks tell the tale of loyal slaves fighting for the Confederacy, whilst a recent McGraw Hill publication referred to slaves in the C18th and C19th as “workers.” The cultural capital here is controlled by interests which seek to create a particular type of society. It is this blind acceptance of the currency of education which many progressives seek to challenge.
There are however two points on which I will agree with Radice. First, I think that there is an issue in the teaching profession in terms of awareness of educational debates. For me, this has been caused by two main factors: an excessive focus on high stakes, nationally published examinations; and the decline of educational theory as a core part of university courses. The former has been driven by successive governments of all colours. The latter has come from a demand for more “practical” teacher training and a push for teachers who can be deployed to deliver externally controlled curricula. Whilst there is some truth in the “knowledge light” classroom claim, it is certainly not driven solely by extreme progressive agendas.
Finally, I would agree with Radice that forced academisation is a kind of “creative destruction” (incidentally not really connected to the points being raised before). However, I would take this in the way Schumpeter originally intended: that Capitalism is fundamentally a process of change, and that in being a process of change it is ultimately doomed to fail. I will outline Schumpeter’s explanation here in brief because I believe it illustrates nicely why the Govian approach to educational reform is also doomed to fail:
- Capitalism, and therefore the free-market forms of dealing with schools, relies on a process of continual change and innovation.
- The process of change “incessantly revolutionises” and destroys the structure from within. That is to say, what is now seen as good approaches in schools will necessarily need to change for them to remain competitive. The destruction of old approaches will create new ones.