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Curriculum and Power

For an educational context so absorbed by the pursuit and possession of knowledge, one wonders why it can be so hard to find people willing to talk about the purpose of having it. On the traditionalist side, it can sometimes feel that those advocating for ‘cultural literacy’ (or any of its iterations) do not quite realise how radical their position demands them to be; for the progressives, it can seem like their desire for disrupting power structures stops at the point that their own privilege comes into view. As such our curriculum discussion too often risks superficiality: a way for lots of people to show they think knowledge is important, but for few people to drill down and say why it matters that kids have *this* knowledge, and what they should do with it when they get it.

Yet this matters. It’s fundamental. What we want our kids to know is shaped ultimately by what we want our kids to be.

One unhelpful trend is the (mis-)treating of ‘curriculum’ as a self-sufficient concept. After all, there is no such thing as ‘curriculum’ per se – instead there are a thousand answers to the questions ‘what should we teach? When should we teach it?’ And it is the (transient) answers to these questions that comprise the curriculum, the components which are later embodied in the composite.

As such, if we wish to articulate the power of the curriculum, we must cast our eyes to the components – it is in those thousand answers that the real conflicts lie. After all, why this and not that? Why always this and why never that? The answer is not linear – those decisions are the articulation of a process, the staging post of countless uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) variables: the decisions of leadership, the knowledge of the Heads of Department, the expertise of the individual teachers, the desires of governors and parents, the assertion of politicians, the hue of available resources, and all the way to the cultural and moral contexts in which all of them were formed.

The curriculum, then, is really the shadow cast by those who deliver it – and of the society in which they live, or the society in which they wish to live. It is the song of the cultural and moral norms of those that develop it (as opposed to those receiving it – a serious issue in a world where all teachers are graduates and there exists a huge values divide between graduates and non-graduates). In this sense, schools will nearly always conform to dominant political culture, and the prestige worldview to be found there, even when that dominant political culture sees itself as revolutionary or disruptive – and the curriculum is the principal tool by which that conformity is expressed.

For this reason, those who argue that the curriculum is a tool for transmission of a progressive politics, for the pursuit of activism and social justice, are at least cognisant of its power and thus the importance of its ownership. The error is to think they are alone in thinking this: self-described traditionalists may have a more genteel language to describe it, but ‘social justice’ and social mobility have long been the justification for the education revolution drummed up by a certain liberal Gramsci-loving Tory. Each want to make the world anew; each wishes to do so by tearing up what came before it.

One suspects this latent progressivism inevitably hampers the traditionalist cause. In short: if cultural literacy is really the aim then they can not achieve what they desire, since they are not really willing to desire it, but will instead create their own templates every bit as partial and political as the progressives they deride. They will default to utility and social mores as the two categories within which to discern curriculum content, and reject as an order to be consigned to history that culture in which much of that content was borne.

In this sense, they too pursue a rootless engagement with knowledge, one that is not rooted in a place or culture as such, but is instead a theoretical and fundamentally ahistorical process of knowing, an act performed rather than a reality absorbed. Here, then, cultural literacy is less about coming into possession of a lived and living inheritance, and more about creating a spreadsheet inventory of what that inheritance might be. This is the Hirschian dilemma – it risks a commodification of knowledge, a conglomeration of things put together without a unifying story to tell to justify their inclusion, or to justify the exclusion of anything else; something possessed, not possessing.

When this happens, the decision of what to include becomes little more than a power game, a way to express the dominance of one group or other at any particular point of time. Progressives accuse traditionalists of indulging the misogynistic and the colonialist, whilst traditionalists accuse progressives of fetishising the provocative and the political – and each stand unable to articulate their defence against such charges, since neither has an alternative beyond whim and utility to explain what enlivens their curriculum choices.

In the UK context this is particularly pertinent, as we have been subject to a curriculum debate in which knowledge has very much become a sort of capital, the gluttonous accumulation of which has been preferred over any attempt of explaining why it is worth having. And this is why any talk of cultural literacy, or cultural capital, is destined to fall flat: it would require a broader ecology of thought that few evangelists of the cause would be willing to accommodate. As I have written previously:

if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.’

There is little hope of cultural literacy when the framework used to form it sits so uncomfortably with the culture and context in which its core content was developed. One can possess a mental gallery of loosely related experiences, one can experience having engaged with them, but without the web of meaning that brings them together into a unified whole, so one’s knowledge is really mere akin to an acquaintance, a sort of cultural pastiche, where these things instead sit as sterile artefacts to be gawped at as an aesthetic exercise, though essentially indifferent to purpose and focussed instead on the more superficial values of skill or utility.

Of course some will defend this, pointing out that it is inevitable, and it is the task of each generation to give fresh meaning, to rediscover anew our cultural inheritance and make it speak for our times. Which is true, though to the extent that this process is carried out in cultural and historical vacuum, a hermeneutic of rupture from the very stories one is trying to tell afresh, so this starts to look very much like that progressive account of curriculum as disruption we might ordinarily expect a traditionalist to reject.

Sure some will defend the project, pointing to the aesthetic as criterion of judgement (‘the best that has been thought and said’), but without that criterion clearly explained (I’m yet to see it) then it seems to me that the progressive claim that cultural literacy is really just the projection of dominant-group prejudice or presumption is perfectly valid.

As such, when Christine Counsell points out that English teachers can not realistically teach all the knowledge required for an in-depth understanding of texts in the English classroom – the theology, the archetypes, the Scriptural knowledge – then the answer can not simply be teaching more R.E., since R.E. is simply not in a place to deliver it. The kind of R.E. that would be required for that is not the kind of R.E. the mainstream would be willing to accept, any more than it is the kind of curriculum that the mainstream would be willing to accept. All that knowledge, that background understanding, that complex web of meaning, a sort of infrastructure for thinking – not only would the time required to develop it be dismissed out of hand, but the desirability of doing so would face the insurmountable problem of a culture that no longer really sees the desirability of doing so.

Which is fine for some – even if one might quibble whether or not it is capable of developing cultural literacy. Though it does bring to the fore the contemporary traditionalist paradox: at heart it is liberal, not conservative, a project of individual empowerment (‘Knowledge is Power’), formed from a desire to overthrow the status-quo every bit as much as the progressives whose project it claims to reject. It identifies knowledge as desirable not for teleological reasons but for its usefulness in that pursuit of power – be it economic, social or political – yet it simultaneously rejects the tradition that both formed the content and would provide the most profitable window for its understanding.

In other words, contemporary traditionalism runs up against its fundamental rejection of tradition, and in so doing outs itself as a progressive project, different in style more than substance.

As such, the difference between the (largely secular liberal) traditionalism in contemporary education, and the (largely secular liberal) progressivism, is one of branding more than DNA. There is nothing radical about either, since each articulate in their own way the same thing, and mostly just have endless disagreement on the route taken to get there. Alas, neither seems to offer a compelling account of the end to which they aspire – or indeed why any journey is worth taking at all.

Maybe, then, we need to look elsewhere for a truly radical account of curriculum, in both its components and its composite.