Category Archives: Curriculum

School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.

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Late last year I had a long conversation with Peter Hyman in which we looked at areas of agreement in our education philosophies and areas where we disagree. This conversation took place within the walls of Windsor Castle, a most un-revolutionary backdrop, steeped in history, a place beautifully unencumbered by 21st Century thinking, unless you count the aeroplanes preparing to land at Heathrow that must disturb a good night’s sleep for various Royals, their servants and staff. Peter and I agree on many things but we also have some significant disagreements too.

In today’s Observer Peter has an article, It Is Time for a Real Revolution in Britain’s Schools, in which he sets out many of our agreements but also hints at those significant disagreements too. The article begins at an event which I attended in the House of Lords, a pupil gave a beautifully crafted speech, the need for eloquence is something about which Peter and I wholeheartedly agree. Peter was formally a speech writer for Tony Blair and shares with me a passion for the Art of Rhetoric, though, perhaps due to Blairite revisionism, he calls it ‘Oracy’. I contributed to the English Speaking Union and School 21’s book called ‘Speaking Frankly’ (Available for free: online edition, here) In the book I make my case, in a piece called ‘the Age of Rhetoric’, for argument, debate, logic and eloquence but also for the teaching of judiciously selected texts and a well thought through curriculum. It is on these points that Peter and I have real disagreements.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Peter when he says:

An academic education (the head) starts with the basics of literacy and numeracy, then builds out to a deep love of words and facility with the English language. It then develops a depth of knowledge of key concepts and ways of thinking in areas such as science, maths, history and creative arts. This knowledge should be empowering knowledge – knowledge that draws on “the best that has been thought and said” from the past, as the cultural critic Matthew Arnold advocated, but importantly is shaped and applied to the needs of the present and future.

I’m not sure that he means the same thing as me when he writes this. To me this means emphasising subject based teaching, teaching knowledge explicitly so that children remember it and, importantly, it also involves the need for reflection, absorption and silence. Peter prefers a project-based approach to finding the ‘best that has been thought and said’, the problem I have with this is that it doesn’t tend to find the best. Let children free too early on the task of academic knowledge acquisition and they are more likely to find stuff that isn’t that good and also quickly pass over stuff which is difficult to understand. This stuff needs to be taught in a systematic way, it needs to unfold in a carefully constructed narrative, so that children learn in real depth. For this to occur, it needs to be chosen by teachers, presented in a specific order, and referred back to often. It should not be left up to the child to construct, not if you want them to truly learn.

I also worry about Peter’s idea of a ‘noisy’ classroom. If he means a classroom in which children talk and are questioned as well as questioning, where the ‘noise’ is purposeful, then great. If this is just a rhetorical flourish to get a reaction, that this is not the default position, and that if he saw children working silently and diligently on their own in a classroom he wouldn’t worry about it, then fine,  because sometimes we really do need to work alone and quietly, if we want to reach insight and understanding.

As a drama teacher, I love group work, yet I can also see its many problems and weaknesses. It is not a great way to learn stuff. Certainly not for every child in a group. It also suffers as an approach because a teacher can’t keep track of the ‘learning’ that is going on in a group and often quite fundamental concepts are distorted through a ‘Chinese whisper’ approach in which a nugget of knowledge is reshaped into a prize piece of nonsense.

However, we do agree that there should be debate, dialogue and conversation, these things have an important role to play. I worry that Peter has a slightly Utopian idea that his approach will make the world a better place, I’m not sure that we ought to try to make children more ethical and liberal, but we should certainly offer up the great issues of our time as well as the past so that they might be more informed but free to make their own decisions and, yes, mistakes as well as successes.

The great liberal arts tradition is, of course, an education that provides children with the means to learn valuable knowledge, to value discussion and thought, and appreciate the need for beauty and eloquence in their communications with the outside world.

It is great that we have a system in which a school like ‘Michaela’ and a school like Peter’s ‘School 21’ can coexist. I wonder if there is room for a school that seeks to put both approaches together and whether that would satisfy Peter’s desire for innovation?

Don’t Educate the Working Class

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Not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class.

says Garth Stahl, the author of Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration… emphasising that education is about changing people and not everyone wants to change. We are defined by where we are in the rat race and that is where we feel most secure. This fear that education might change people, who they are at their very core, is something that eats away at some people’s fears about schooling. ‘Shakespeare is not for our kids,’ might be the cry of some secure in the knowledge that teaching Macbeth to the oiks might see them rise up to Upper Middle Class rectitude and result in them indulging in dark arts at the golf club or even, God forbid, in the Labour Party.

Stahl might have a point, imagine an education that sets out to change Upper Class people into Working Class toilers… What would the timetable consist of? The school lunch menu would be relatively simple: KFC. The lessons could comprise the subjects of gambling, tabloid reading, beer swilling, football (playing as well as the pride and prejudice), Brexit fear of foreigners and all sorts of other such stereotypical nonsense. How would the Upper Class like that?! Do we really think that the working class are a morass of people who indulge in such behaviours that define who they are and if they are subjected to opera, fine dining and JMW Turner their entire world view is shattered and they are left bereft?

This is the problem with the model of education that purely celebrates identity. Firstly we rely on the idea that there is a broad ‘type’ of people defined by their job, or lack of it, their gender, fluid or not, their race, culture and creed. This is useful for Marxist sociologists, snobs , advertisers and algorithm designers – and, indeed, it becomes ever so sophisticated as we are all seen as ABC1s D2s and CD borderlines… but do we really fear teaching and learning things that are of human value beyond our algorithmic echo chambers? If we want education to worship at the altar of our own identities then we will never learn to look beyond.

Rather than change people education refines our understanding of who we are as human beings, it adds to our knowledge not through social engineering; neither meritocratic or anti- aspirational, a good education should expand the self. If education is about the rat race then rats are the only ones who will benefit. If education is a personalised, Narcissistic look at trying to make ourselves feel better about who we are or have chosen to be then it will never be about who we truly are. We don’t have to change who we are, but in order to find out, we might have to take a broader view than the one we think justifies our personal proclivities. An education in ‘high culture’ is for all, not just a supposed elite. Shakespeare is for everyone, whether they like it or not.

Teachers Should Pass Knowledge On

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To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity

Hannah Arendt

According to the sleeve notes of their new album, Blue and Lonesome, Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, wants written on his gravestone:

He passed it on

The gnarled rockers’ latest album returns to their roots, echoing their first LP, it is a homage, a love story, a dedicated exploration of the blues. With each of the twelve bars and harmonica blow the Stones pass it on and if they hadn’t ever bothered what would our musical culture be like now?

It is not for us, it is not for them, it is for the love of the music itself that they pass it on. From Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry the Stones helped introduce these guys to our shores. Nowadays some may complain about cultural appropriation, I prefer to call it cultural education, conserving and adding to our culture. From the swamps of the Mississippi and Can’t be Satisfied to Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) and the Thames Estuary, the flow of time and the Hoochie Coochie would bring the bluesmen together, it is the music that they are servants to.

As Hannah Arendt said, education must be conservative, in the sense of conservation and this is an important part of the job. Pass it on, from oral, to written, to online; we have a duty to conserve the things that matter and even some of the things that don’t just in case that, one day, they might.

As Hector says in The History Boys:

Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

The late great Alexis Korner the ‘father’ of British Blues said of the time just after the war:

In those days, between the ages of 12 and 18 you meant nothing. You were the extra place at the side table if someone came to dinner. You were too big to be petted or fondled or thought pretty and you were too small to work and you were of no interest to anyone, and you had a chance to learn—this is what’s missed today

In many of the arguments about what to teach many talk about what might be good for the child, what might be useful, accessible, engaging, fewer talk about what might be for the good of the subject itself. Maybe if the ‘needs’ of the child were to become less of a concern, instead of worrying about their destinations and putting their every piece of work under scrutiny, we could rebalance things. Teach what is good for the survival of the subject, one day it might make a difference to someone.

Teach Shakespeare’s plays for the intrinsic gift of the plays themselves. And play the Blues, because of the intrinsic gift of the blues. The chance encounter between Richards and Jagger on platform two at Dartford railway station, found the old school chums brought together by a mutual love of the blues, a band formed with the need to pass that love on, to add to it, and, now, on their latest album back to their roots again as they go full circle back to the tradition.

Teachers pass on the stories of their subjects, not because it is intrinsically good for the child, for the job market or for the betterment of humanity, but because they have to. This is the gift the teacher gives, every day. This is why what you pass on has to be qualitatively superior, as it is for the good of the art, and those arts, in turn, survive because they are the saviour of someone, somewhere, sometime, even though the charges in front of you in a lesson don’t get it, one day a child of a child of a pupil in front of you might, and that’s why you keep going.

Muddy Waters had no idea the satisfaction his music would create for two teenagers in Dartford, but thankfully he just passed it on. Changed it and passed it on.

Arts Education has a “Low Impact”

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If you click on the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’ webpage the first thing you come across is:

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click on this and you are informed that:

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What is the point of this? Why should the arts even be expected to work for the glory of other, maybe, more important subjects? For example, I cannot find out how participation in maths benefits arts learning, which is not surprising: Imagine the furore there would be if it was discovered that studying Maths made a child worse at writing poetry and making pots, maths departments would be immediately closed all around the country!  I jest. The whole point of studying maths is to get better at maths, is it too much to ask that people study the arts in order to get better and know more about the arts?

If it is true that some schools are squeezing their arts provision the EEF toolkit is just the sort of thing that gives ammunition to the utilitarian philistines who think the arts get in the way of ‘proper’ learning. What is the point of this sort of research? As the EEF say: transferability of learning “is not automatic and needs further exploration.” So why the Arts should be charged with such a task God only knows.

Please can we value the Arts for their own sake, a rich way to examine the human condition and our concerns rather than as a means to some other ends?

 

The Scapegoating of Teachers

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In his book, Why Knowledge Matters, ED Hirsch Jr. writes that:

Teacher effectiveness is contextual

At first sight this seems completely commonsensical and, indeed it is in theory. It is just in practice where too many involved in education undermine this simple adage. Hirsch goes on to say:

We are blaming teachers because of our disappointments with the results of our reforms.

How many times do we hear that we have the best generation of teachers ever as yet another round of top down management or governmentally driven accountability measures undermine that very concept?

Hirsch sees that the disappointing result of reforms is more likely to be structural in nature rather than down to the characteristics and proclivities of teachers. He puts this in the following way:

Educational success is defined by what students learn – the received curriculum.

Hirsch sees that the fundamental problem with the curriculum is the replacement of content with the notion of skills that can be developed by any suitable content. Instead of blaming teachers, apart from those who are obviously incompetent, Hirsch thinks one should ‘blame the ideas’ if you have an incoherent curriculum it is extremely hard for a teacher to be effective. As he puts it, most succinctly:

A more coherent system makes teachers better individually and hugely better collectively.

A coherent curriculum also ensures that teachers can master the content they are teaching. If you know what you are doing sometime in advance of course you can ensure you know it better rather than being a slave to whatever is in the stock cupboard or on a resources webpage.

Which brings me to tech. Hirsch is not convinced that technology will transform teaching, especially in the primary school where:

Young students rely on an empathetic personal connection that not even our most advanced computer-adaptive programs can deliver.

He sees computers as supplemental and, sensibly, not transformative.

It is the scapegoating of teachers through an obsession with their quality that most exercises Hirsch. He points to the idea that teacher quality affects the quality of learning more than anything else as being problematic. He cites research by Dr. Russ Whitehurst as  evidence that:

A better curriculum can range from being slightly to dramatically more effective than a better teacher.

The whole ‘value added’ teacher effectiveness programmes instituted through evaluations, incentives, and a few sticks to beat teachers with, might be better off looking at quality of curriculum than obsessing about targeting a teacher’s performance.

In the light of my previous post about Hirsch’s book it is heartening to see that he writes here:

My plea to teachers – for the sake of their students, and themselves, – is to rebel against the skills delusion; to insist on coherent and cumulative multiyear content; then cooperate and consult.

Collaborative curriculum planning is essential and this planning should take the long view. This is not to say that skills should not be taught just that they should not be in dominion over knowledge. A mainly skills focus would see, say, ‘collaboration’ being the central thing to be taught and any old content thrown at pupils sitting in groups harbouring under the illusion that they are learning about collaboration or, indeed, anything else.

I agree with Hirsch that great teaching relies on the coherence of the school system which supports it. Even the most gifted teacher struggles to teach if children have received no coherent grounding in subjects, aren’t supported by a safe environment in which to work and are constantly distracted by gimmicks which teachers are drawn to to try to enthuse children who are tired by having to struggle through months and years of incoherence desperate to find nuggets of wisdom by which to justify their investment of time.

In the UK we have been obsessed with outstanding lessons, outstanding schools, outstanding headteachers and have used various measures to try to put all this in play. As a result we often see layers of middle management tracking and targeting pupils and teachers, working them to the bone, observing them, judging them, tracking data, and adding layers of bureaucracy including performance management goals that are linked to potential pay as though these obsessions with personnel will change the system radically. There is evidence that not much has changed qualitatively in the last thirty years, and this is despite externally imposed National Curricula from 1988 onwards. Does this prove Hirsch wrong? Maybe, but I would argue there is an important difference, it is not just curriculum, it is how that curriculum is arrived at that makes the biggest difference. England has had a National curriculum, yes, but this has not been created through teachers’ professional collaboration. Arguably it has added to the problem by divorcing teachers from their central concern of curriculum design and how best to teach it. Instead teachers ignore or struggle to fathom any curriculum logic, are expected to follow it uncritically, and are left bereft expected instead to muck around with pedagogy as though how to teach can be divorced from what to teach.

Teachers understand what is working or not with a curriculum design if they get to work on creating and reviewing it. By putting curriculum design into the hands of the State or even in the hands of a pupils pursuing project work too early on in their education, we will forever see teachers struggling to do their jobs properly. When I work with schools I often point out that a coherent curriculum, one that is broad, academic and interesting will do much to ensure the teaching and the learning will be successful. I also emphasise that teaching is a team pursuit and each part of that team has a role to play in ensuring that the pupils can do their very best.

Instead of layers of management telling teachers what to do staff should have time to collaborate and the responsibility to  come up with great curricula, this might be school based, MAT based or through other networks; collaboration is key but with a shared sense of purpose in the first instance to discipline and shape the approach to be taken, for me this is provided by the trivium.

Forget about outstanding teachers, it is the wrong obsession, obsess about an outstanding curriculum instead, one that is designed and reviewed by teachers who aren’t forever obsessing about their own performance but instead are thinking critically about what is being taught, when, and how they and their colleagues should go about teaching it.

Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

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ED Hirsch Jr.’s new book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ is a good read. It covers some old ground, focuses on areas in which his mind has changed and clarifies others in the light of experience and research. I am pleased to see, in his acknowledgements, that we share some similar philosophical interests, especially Husserl, Hegel and Gramsci. Hirsch is no lightweight and, at his great age, he still cares very much about the education of the young.

This book matters. In it he argues for the importance of curriculum and that this curriculum should be grounded in knowledge that should be imparted systematically and, in answer to the chaos mongers oft repeated question ‘ah, but whose knowledge?’ he replies it should be ‘the knowledge that is commonly possessed by successful citizens…’ Success is defined as being: “a person with autonomy, who commands respect…”

The book is much concerned about the French revolution, not the one that so exercised Edmund Burke but the more recent one in which the French have moved from a curriculum of which Hirsch greatly approved to one that is more akin to the American one, which he abhors. From Condorcet in 1790 and his ‘common education for children,’ through to Giscard d’Estaing in 1977 who trumpeted: “The defining and acquiring of the very same knowledge by all French children, who from now will all go to the same primary school, and the same middle school, will be an essential element in the unity of French society, and in the reduction of inequalities of opportunity;” the French have had a national belief in uniformity – egalité. It was the conflict between this and another part of the French raison d’être, ‘liberté’ that was, maybe, behind the 1989 change to this approach. The ‘Loi Jospin’ set up local curriculums in which more attention was to be paid to the individuality of the pupil. Hirsch emphasises the progressive buzz words, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘learning to learn’, that began to infect these ‘projets’.

Hirsch points out that, buildings, budgets and teacher quality remained pretty constant in France and the excellent early years education stayed the same. What changed significantly was the curriculum and the pedagogy of the elementary or primary school. French education ministry data reports: “An astonishingly steep decline in achievement in each demographic group… Each group was academically harmed by the new system…” And that harm hit the poorest the hardest. This is what motivates Hirsch, the damage being done to social justice. Hirsch is a creature of the left. In France, Hirsch notes, this decline in education standards is called the ‘crisis of the school.’

To allay this crisis in France, in the USA and, indeed in other countries including the UK Hirsch recommends the following three points:

“Early education should be chiefly communal – focused on gaining proficiency in the language and the conventions the public sphere.

Every child in each locality should study basically the same early curriculum.

The unifying aim of early schooling is autonomy and equality of opportunity: to impart to every child the enabling knowledge that is possessed by the most successful adults in the wider society.”

Hirsch sees the dispute as being between the ‘naturalists’ and the ‘communalists’, the naturalists extol the virtues of following the child’s natural development, (though Hirsch points out this is a highly disputed area) this is a child centred approach, the communalists are against individualisation, his key point is this:

‘Elementary school is a time for building socialisation as the only means through which individuality can ultimately express itself.’

The communalist teaches shared language, codes of behaviour, to give children shared memberships of the ‘tribe’. He dismisses ideas that this becomes a ‘factory’ type schooling pointing out the high stakes soulless testing factories are a feature of schools where the lack of basic knowledge of the pupils has led to extreme measures being adopted to over compensate for badly thought through curriculum and pedagogy.

It is this communal principal that is the heart of his book, in which children should have a ‘shared, enabling knowledge, and language.’ the ‘taken-for-granted knowledge’ of the ‘standard language’. He calls this ‘communal knowledge’, this is a change from what he used to refer to as ‘cultural literacy’.

In a talk I attended last year Hirsch emphasised that,”self actualisation” is an important purpose for schooling but that this should be more of a feature of secondary schooling rather than primary.

Hirsch complains that schools often boast in their mission statements that they will provide a personalised education for children.It is this fragmentation of the curriculum that has led, Hirsch suggests, to the idea of the need for skills education, usually in the form of: “critical thinking, creative thinking, problem-solving, and co-operative thinking.” It is the hope of individualism, argues Hirsch, that these skills will render the lack of coherent curricula unimportant as the skills will be such that the free individualised human being will be able to discover curricula for themselves as they will have the ability to critically think for themselves about any content. Hirsch can see the logic of this argument, but it is because no-one is forthright enough to challenge the individualism at the heart of American society that means that a logical, sequential curriculum is not going to occur and children have to be given the tools to cope with this lack of coherence. The problem is, the tools can’t cope. This is where the domain specificity of skills comes in. One can try to critically think one’s way around a multiplicity of fields, but the less you know about an area the more difficult it is to think critically about it. He suggests the ‘skills’ pioneers are right to seek an overarching approach to education, for what is the desire for creativity, critical thinking and collaboration for all but a unifying approach to curriculum design and pedagogy? The problem is this unifying approach doesn’t work. The only unifying approach that can hope to succeed is one that is based on a coherent curriculum.

With this argument Hirsch sets up his wonderful book.

I agree with so much here but, if I may, I wish to lend a cautionary note. The French top-down approach to their language, to their society is very different to the approach of the English speaking world. We baulk at French policing of the Burkha and, even the Burkini on beaches. Rather than having egalité and liberté in a slogan around our necks we, in the UK, understand the tension between these laudable aims and as ever try to muddle through. I would argue that a national curriculum is a most ‘unBritish’ affair, its introduction into this country solved some problems and created others. By making the curriculum the plaything of politicians we have the more child centred curriculums ‘for Excellence’ in Scotland,  and the new curriculum in Wales, and the short lived 2007 national curriculum in England. By making a curriculum national doesn’t mean we get a coherent knowledge based curriculum, it can mean the opposite. The problem with it being national is then all children in a Nation have to suffer an incoherent curriculum with the only escape from it being open to those who are wealthy enough to be able to opt out and put their child into the independent sector.

A national, top down, approach is ‘Fragile’,  it is likely to break due to the inevitable outside pressures on it. By making it a political tool, politicians keep making headline additions to it, more drugs ed, sex ed, porn-ed, British values, you name it in the Daily Mail one day it’s in the curriculum the next. This inevitable tinkering with the curriculum leads to it being less coherent by the year. On top of that if attainment measures show a marked decline a crisis is announced, wholesale changes are made, the system cracks under pressure and because no-one has any expertise in doing things in different ways, as everyone has been teaching in similar ways because of the central diktat, this shock is more because it requires wholesale changes to methods. By having people already working on different ways of delivering a curriculum we keep generating expertise. As there is probably ‘not’ just one way to deliver a ‘coherent curriculum’ it is important to keep our options open. It is the importance of the idea of coherence that should permeate the system not a command from on high telling teachers what that coherence is.

This brings me to my next point. If teachers are told what the curriculum contains they are left to concern themselves with pedagogy. How to teach things starts to exercise our minds and we end up looking to ‘engage’ pupils, we try to be ‘creative’ and look for a myriad of tricks; because we do not have an underlying stake in the curriculum itself we do not fully understand its logic or, worse, we disagree with it and try to undermine it in some way. Hirsch is right to emphasise the communal aspect and this should be in teaching also. A coherent curriculum needs to be designed by those who are to teach it, not individually but together, review it regularly together, and see pedagogy as inextricably linked to the curriculum. For me, the trivium approach, is an extremely useful way of seeing this connectivity and is the way forward to help teachers see that the way and the what over a whole curriculum from ages 3-19 has an internal logic which they understand completely as they have been involved in the creation of it. The trivium approach also has the added advantage of bringing arguments about what and why to teach certain texts and events into the curriculum itself; a trivium approach recognises that these things can be highly contested and that this ‘dialectic’ can be an invigorating part of teaching and learning. It is not satisfactory to merely state that one should teach: “the knowledge that is commonly possessed by successful citizens.” This means that Latin, for one, would never be in any curriculum, nor the finer aspects of architecture, music or making a bookshelf. And as for defining a ‘successful’ citizen… Donald Trump? Wayne Rooney? We need teachers to think about the qualities of their subject rather than some abstract notion of what constitutes a successful citizen and trying to prove what they ‘know’.

That this curriculum creation can be done in one school or, even in a Multi-Academy Trust brings me to my last point, if a parent and/or child doesn’t like the curriculum offer of a particular school they should have the choice to go to another. We need this choice. If one school offers Latin throughout and the IB at 16 I might prefer it to one that only has French and A levels. I might prefer a school that recognises the importance of the Arts to one that is all STEM obsessed and in which business studies takes centre stage rather than music. In a Primary I might prefer a school that teaches subjects from 7 yrs old to one that insists on project-based learning. If all these choices are dictated by central government and I have no choice but to try to vote them out every five years the education of my child will be sorely affected.

A National Curriculum is great if you agree with it and it suits your child.

In summation: I say yes to a communal, knowledge based curriculum, just not one imposed from above. Rather one that is written communally as well as offering a rejoinder to excessive individualisation.

NB: This commentary is based on the prologue, I will write further about this excellent book in the coming days and maybe adjust my thoughts as I read further.

 

Tower of Babel: Where ED Hirsch Gets It Wrong

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“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.