Monthly Archives: March 2015

Tower of Babel: Where ED Hirsch Gets It Wrong


“Those who in the Elysian fields would dwell Do but extend the boundaries of hell.” Oakeshott – Tower of Babel

In his book ‘Cultural Literacy, What Every American Should Know’ ED Hirsch writes that:

The complex undertakings of modern life depend on the cooperation of many people with different specialties in different places. When communications fail, so do the undertakings. (That is the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel).

I’ve been puzzling over this because as far as I’m aware this isn’t the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel.

Genesis 11:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech…

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth…

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they all have one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech

From there the Lord scattered the people and ensured that they did not ‘understand one another’s speech’. What is the moral? Isn’t it that what failed here was man being ‘one’: having one culture and one language? The great cultural policy that was the Tower of Babel was one in which man assigned himself to reach unto a place in heaven whilst on earth, a place in which there would be no restraint on man, a place of ultimate power, indeed that man would be equal or, heaven forfend, more equal than God. Clearly our jealous Lord didn’t like this so He destroyed the tower and set about scattering mankind and confounding our language. It wasn’t communication failing that caused the downfall of Babel. In modern parlance Babel was ‘on message’ and all were ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’; they felt that they were ‘unrestrained’ and nothing could stop them! Oh the arrogance but when Babel played God, God confounded the hubris. It would be quite a paradox if Hirsch were to use a Biblical tale as a pivotal example in his book to justify Cultural Literacy but use it in a culturally illiterate way…

Hirsch wrote that:

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… My aim is to contribute to making that information the possession of all Americans… Only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community.

[Cultural literacy] is the background information, stored in their minds, that enables them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension… relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they have read.

In this Hirsch is akin to the biblical Nimrod beginning his tower of Cultural Literacy. The story of Babel is a warning against the undertaking that Hirsch wishes to take on. Hirsch’s goal is an instrumental one ensuring that all will be able to be better people by having access to knowing the same stuff. This is delivery of a promised people, homogeneously educated, in which all will be able to join the elite. Hirsch’s American Babel is based on a ‘coherent system of fundamental values and principals’, though ‘tolerant of diversity,’ it enables cultural change to take place in a way that is conservative as to its ‘glacial slowness’. This seems to belong to a Statist view in which ‘we know best’ what is good for you – the type of politics that insists on top down measures such as the Common Core or The National Curriculum.

How conservative would this seem to the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott? I wager he would see this as too much of a pursuit of a utopian vision, he preferred an unfixed, ever changing world governed by habits through interactions with others, adventures, conversations, a tradition in which: “There is a freedom and inventiveness at the heart.” Habits are always evolving in which no tradition: “Ever remains fixed; its history is one of continuous change… But it is not deliberate, controlled, directed change…” He resists the ideologues who once they have hit on a right way of doing things set it in stone because they know best. Oakeshott denigrated education as socialisation, complaining about its functionality. He railed against extrinsic motivations to systematise education to serve the needs of Babel. Education, to Oakeshott, sees ‘newcomers initiated into the world which they are to inhabit…’

This is a world of understandings, imaginings, meanings, moral and religious beliefs, relationships, practices – states of mind in which the human condition is to be discerned… Thus, an educational engagement is at once a discipline and a release… when to teach is identified with socialisation, education becomes the engagement to teach nothing.

Notice the use of the plural – understandings, imaginings… these are cultural literacies through which we discern our very humanity and rather than have a common culture imposed through school it is established and reestablished through initiation into an intellectual adventure that is bound by our cultural inheritance(s) with which young people become conversant, adding to the inheritance and not restricted by the idea of it having a utilitarian or utopian purpose. Because, like it or not, we are part of society whether society likes it or not.

Oakeshott would be against the Common Core and the National Curriculum, rather a curriculum that is diverse built through continuing conversations through a tradition we inherit and pass on. Part of this tradition is how we do things here, we do not build Towers of Babel for we are not arrogant enough to be Gods who pretend to know what every person needs to know.

As Noel O’Sullivan puts it: “The education in question is not a matter of training; it is, rather, a matter of critical induction into the on-going tradition of self-interpretation which constitutes a society’s culture.” This ongoing tradition is not stable it embraces flux that is kept in check by tradition, change here is not revolutionary, it is organic and the best way to engender this in schools is to have teachers in conversation deciding what to teach, deciding how to bring in critical voices where important and being prepared to initiate and then engage with their pupils in the conversation that continues throughout the ages. These conversations should be organised through the tradition of subjects and a pupil should be initiated into an understanding of a wide range of different voices through these subjects. The voices should be drawn from teachers’ current thinking as to what was and is the best that has been thought, said and done in their subjects and pupils should be inculcated in a way that allows them to absorb, argue, pass on and add to the best that has been thought said and done. There also needs to be a way that students can bring together these voices and bring in their own voices, conversationally, a space in which to make a sense of things. This will enable students to be truly culturally literate because this would be a curriculum that is not imposed by those in the Elysian fields.

A Load of Pollocks?



“Beauty, which is what is meant by art…is no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life…” William Morris

Are we all Luddites now?

In the dim and distant past some people suggested that pupils wouldn’t have to learn their times tables as a calculator could relieve them of that burden. Others worried that the moment a computer ‘Deep Blue’ beat Kasparov at Chess it was all over for human chess players… As for encyclopaedic knowledge that was defunct when google became a verb and that as humans can now google for information they no longer need to know anything…

This freedom, it was said, would allow us to be more free to be creative, critical, team playing, thinkers and school a place in which we can express ourselves! But… just as the machines threatened the workers, the mathematicians, the chess players and then the knowing… they went further…

Soon there will be no need of lawyers or GPs some say, you’ll just go online and follow a logical sequence of questions and answers that will tell you your case in law and cast judgement on your symptoms in health and you’ll be able to book your day in court, in hospital or even the morgue…

But we’ll still need surgeons, they cry! Maybe… but robots and lasers might do the job better…

But we’ll still have ‘Art’ they cry! Creativity is our last bastion of humanity!

Now they’re going to take that from us too. Artificially intelligent, artificially creative creatives… computers will be able to make art one day they say! And Jackson Pollock will be the first to fall.

In a world where machines become human, what need have we for humans? What purpose the art class, the chess class, the times tables and, indeed, why ‘know’ anything? An eccentric child who wants to compete with the machines might act as a robotic artist and cut off their right processor in a fit of artistic pique… A driverless car might punch its invisible robotic driver when it only gets cold fuel rather than the top gear it is used to…

For if computers become human then they will be as flawed as we. Computers are flawed, they crash, they are temperamental, they don’t recognise bar codes, they tell us we have placed too many items in our bags when we haven’t even begun to fill our shopping bag… And we argue back, as irritated with the machine as we are with any mere human… Computers are crap! Everything is a load of Pollocks! And then we cry: Schools aren’t needed! Why educate for a world in which humans will just get in the way of the inadequate machine? As William Morris put it:

“That pretence of art, to wit, which is done with machines, though sometimes the machines are called men, and doubtless are so out of working hours… and in short the whole civilised world had forgotten that there had ever been an art MADE BY THE PEOPLE FOR THE PEOPLE AS A JOY FOR THE MAKER AND THE USER…

…And how then can you really educate men who lead the life of machines, who only think for the few hours during which they are not at work, who in short spend almost their whole lives in doing work which is not proper for developing them body and mind in some worthy way? You cannot educate, you cannot civilise men, unless you can give them a share in art…

What else can we do to help to educate ourselves and others in the path of art, to be on the road to attaining an ART MADE BY THE PEOPLE AND FOR THE PEOPLE AS A JOY TO THE MAKER AND THE USER?”

Schools exist to spread joy, and in them we should encourage people to be the makers and users of knowledge. Machines may be our servants but never our masters, if we think the machine should replace our need to know anything or do anything, if we surrender our art, our purpose, then what are we?

We are the robots.

Of course we should learn our times tables! It would be inhumane not to.


Voices: An Initiation Into The Conversation Of Mankind.

978-0-271-05407-0mdFor Oakeshott: “…education is not a technocratic process of creating future workers, or even a simple transfer of knowledge. It is an adventure, an initiation into what he called “the conversation of mankind”. It is how we learn to be human.” Jesse Norman MP

How refreshing to think of education, not as a journey but as an adventure; if we jettison the idea of journey and the obsession of getting somewhere ‘worthwhile’ and on time, we can also jettison such concerns as the need for grit and resilience to endure this journey. Yes, there may be danger, we might have to take risks but we all have the wherewithal for adventure, especially when it is of itself and not a way to something else. This is an adventure, an exploration about what it is to be human.

Voices joined…

This is very different to the ‘student voice’ idea trumpeted by David Hargreaves that was central to the work of reforming the education agenda in the ‘noughties’. Hargreaves wrote that:

“Student voice is mainly about how students come to play a more active role in their education and schooling as a direct result of teachers becoming more attentive, in sustained or routine ways, to what students say about their experience of learning and of school life.”

How mundane; how unadventurous, no wonder this became about teachers talking less and students expressing their opinions via toothless schools councils and about snotty nosed kids saying One Direction are better than Shakespeare when you’re trying to learn ’em a Sonnet or two.

Conversation is from the Latin conversari: ‘To live with, and keep company with.’ It is a conversation that begins with mankind’s first utterances and continues through the now; from all our yesterdays to all our tomorrows. This conversation allows us to live and keep company with all our fellow women and men from time immemorial to the time yet to come.

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Why did the Lord ‘confound ‘our’ language?’ Maybe He didn’t trust the one direction, one voiced version of mankind beloved of some curriculum planners and middle managers: a single voice where all agree – a utopian place where mankind is at once at rest and lacking in adventure. This world would be inhuman: a utopian dream where everything is understood, what would be the point of that? Be born, have a look around, get bored, die. It is our differences that hold our interest. A conversation between interesting people talking about surprising, interesting things is a delight. And in order to initiate students into this world we have to ensure they are ready to be both interested and interesting. In our fascinating, complex, world a student who is constantly carping ‘this is boring‘ is herself boring for she is not taking part in the conversation, she is indulging in an act of cultural vandalism and we should not indulge her. In order to take part in the conversation a student needs to respond to the: “Manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect…”

Oakeshott differentiates between the ‘real’ and the ‘ideal’ conversation of mankind. In the ‘real’ one he regrets the domination of a few voices, those of politics, and “science… with its eristic tones…” He wants a plurality of voices; the voices of humanity – akin to what Hannah Arendt described in this way: “The fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world… We are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.” The human condition is infinitely variable and complex, and invigorating. How much of our contemporary education world is trying to silence voices? How much of what we do has become deafened to other voices? Oakeshott’s ideal conversation allows no hierarchy and gives valuable space for the newly involved and the non-conformist voices, indeed it includes ‘the other’… In this we can find echoes in the words of Edward Said: “The renewable, almost sporty discontinuities of intellectual and secular impurities – mixed genres, unexpected combinations of tradition and novelty… No-one today is purely one thing… Labels are no more than starting points… In Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the other echoes that inhabit the garden.” These echoes are the different ideas and thoughts of different peoples that, as Oakeshott put it: “Take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions.”

This is the job of education to bring new people into the conversation, to get them to listen to different voices, to enable them to join in and help them to articulate so that they may be understood by fostering their voices. The teacher passes on the inheritance, as Hector puts it in The History Boys: ‘Pass it on boys, pass it on’… but also sets the younger generation off not as inheritors of a fixed body of knowledge but as participators in an ongoing conversation. This is revolutionary stuff in these days of ‘British Values’! Oakeshott understood the need for: “A plurality of discourse… As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of… a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”

The teacher ensures this conversation “does not deliver… a clear and unambiguous message,” the teacher ensures there is delight in doubt: “Certainties’ are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other ‘certainties’ or with doubts, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order.” Here the challenge and possibility of new thoughts and ideas are always one utterance away. This conversational classroom does not want to hear students’ certain voices where they close down the answers to facts or opinion, we want fewer answers, but not necessarily more questions, maybe more thinking aloud allowed, and far more playful…

“Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian… Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation.”

Liberal learning is an education in imagination, listen to its voices.