The Light of Knowledge

I recently read a piece by Tait Coles promoting the need for “critical pedagogy,” as though such a thing is the sole domain of punk teachers, catalysts, and system disruptors; it is taken as a foregone conclusion that traditional, knowledge-based education centered on a canon of any domain is not only ineffective in our brave new world, but racist.

Deliberate Strategy

Deliberate Strategy 2

This is beyond problematic. I’ve differed with many a “progressive” educator. I’ve sometimes come away feeling that a colleague may have drunk the Kool-Aid, a victim of an ITT programme of indoctrination that’s perpetuated in schools across the province. At worst, I’ve suspected that some such educators (those who are quick to do away with standardized curricula in an effort to blow open the whole system in deference to the whole child) are more interested in padding their own resumes as they climb the increasingly corporatized ladder of the world of education. However, I would never suggest that any of them are so maliciously motivated as to want to knowingly perpetuate an education system that ostensibly creates a caste-system wherein inequality is deliberately nurtured.

I quoted a link to Mr. Coles’s blog post via Rory Gribbell, along with a tweet regarding my initial impressions. Mr. Coles replied to my tweet by asking which part of his argument is “extrapolative” and “quasi.”

Twitter Start

While I’ll admit that Mr. Coles cites research, I’d hardly characterize his references as “evidence and data.” I’ll attempt to address my key points of disagreement.

First point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 1

First of all, I’m not sure anyone is suggesting that the Common Core and Cultural Literacy approach is the only way to improve oneself through education. However, given that resources are always finite, I’d argue that it may be one of the best ways. Further, jumping from Hirsch’s premise that a common core would enable students to adequately participate in society to the idea that it’s a ruse designed to produce passive consumers is a non-sequitur. There’s not a hint of conspiracy in Hirsch’s vision unless one is twisting its interpretation to make it so. If we allow that, we could find conspiracy almost anywhere.

Second point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 2

The most fervent proponents of Hirsch’s notion of cultural capital make the explicit argument that knowledge is arguably one of the best mechanisms whereby the marginalized can gain power. Having knowledge and understanding of the history of one’s oppressors, to use Coles’s paradigm (borrowed from Freire), is exactly what allows students to “understand their world.” How could they do so were they not familiar with how it came to be?

I would further suggest that Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy doesn’t simply end with knowing the works of dead white men. I would posit that it goes much further: knowledge should serve to expand the student’s mind, both physiologically, through the building of neural pathways and networks, and intellectually, through the critical analysis of the material learned. Just because one reads Othello does not mean he must share Elizabethan views on race; in fact, this is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to students the tenuous relationship between art and the culture in which it is produced.

I doubt that anyone is arguing that a canon can’t evolve, but to suggest that the absence of a common, shared knowledge and understanding of how we all got here somehow makes true freedom and equality possible is simplistic and lacks a nuanced treatment of the range of what makes us human, for better or worse.

NOTE: Greg Ashman unpacks a bit of Freire quite nicely here – much better than I could.

Third point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 3

I would suggest that this is another extrapolation. To argue that black and minority ethnic students can only succeed in school when they “promote white self-interest” is offensive. Could it not be due to a studious work ethic? Could it not be due to intellectual ability? Could it not be due to having been inspired by “the best that has been thought and said” (a phrase used pejoratively in Coles’s blog post)?

I currently teach a bottom set English class comprised entirely of boys, albeit a rather diverse group. We read Othello in March and April – the actual Shakespearean text. For a month, I read to them every class, out loud, as they followed along. Their attendance was the most consistent it had been all semester. I’m not blowing sunshine when I say that EVERY ONE OF THEM loved it. We travelled back in time to Elizabethan England through language, culture, prejudices, and Shakespeare’s genius. They were all reluctant at first, but by the time I explained what “making the beast with two backs” was, they were hooked. They were hooked not because of some “Faustian bargain” I’ve taken to “de-culturalise” them, but because it’s a great story, and they were proud to have been trusted to handle the level of rigour we associate with the study of Shakespeare. The knowledge of this text, and the context in which it was created, now informs their knowledge, and their knowledge informed the reading of it. Learning requires such interaction. Nothing nefarious here, nothing that was “contaminated by power.” In fact, if I may be so bold, the whole endeavor is a perfect example of how traditional knowledge can be and often is transformative.

Fourth point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 4

I would submit that this is another non-sequitur. I doubt that anyone is arguing that we should refuse to acknowledge that knowledge outside an approved curriculum exists. Also, I would suggest that by teaching students the history of human civilization, necessarily far from exhaustive, we are writing them into that history, not out of it. If nothing else, they become aware of it, and only then can they think critically, or think any way at all, about it, thus enabling them to participate more fully in democracy.

I would submit the U.S. system as an example, with apologies to my esteemed colleagues and all the lovely folk down south. For more than a hundred years, education in the U.S. has been de-centralized, in order to address the unique character, culture, and identity of each state. Few, if any, national standards existed, other than the SAT, but that was only for university-bound graduates. We now see a nation where science is often a matter of opinion, or political orientation, as seen in this clip from a recent “Scientific American” article:

Scientific American

Or this clip from a “Live Science” piece:

Live Science

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but in an education system where “anything goes,” where’s the line to be drawn? In the absence of a common core of knowledge, whose degree of evolution can be negotiated, how can we avoid such a piteous situation?

Fifth point of extrapolation:


While I’m not quite sure what is meant by “transformational knowledge,” I’m going to assume it’s the notion that when we truly learn and absorb something, it becomes part of us, and informs our being in the world. By suggesting that only knowledge grounded in one’s own culture (or experience) can precipitate this lovely sentiment is illogical. For every 50 students, you’d have 50 uniquely-designed curricula. I know this sounds like the Holy Grail for many trendy educators these days, but it’s not only impractical, it’s irresponsible.

Many years ago when I started teaching, in those few minutes before the bell would ring to signal the beginning of class, I’d often chat with my students about the previous evening’s television programs. Many of us had common tastes, and the students spoke with interest and excitement about their best-loved programs. I could connect with them, because we could discuss this area of common ground. Today, few of my students watch conventional television. They binge-watch series on Netflix or surf YouTube videos. There’s a sense of disjointedness that’s palpable as students watch these programs at different times, on-demand, or don’t watch the same programs at all, due to the myriad choices. The notion of common experience, even when it comes to something as banal as pop culture, is deteriorating. The effects, I’d argue, are more far-reaching than we might like to admit. I’ve written about that here.


Why is Mr. Coles’s blog post, then, a “quasi-argument?”

I use that term because saying something doesn’t make that thing a fact. Arguing a position wherein the original premise is extrapolated so far beyond its intellectual position doesn’t constitute an argument. While it’s evident that Mr. Coles is intelligent and well-read, his conclusions do not logically follow from his premise in this piece. He has employed the structure of argumentation, but not its essence, which must be grounded in systematic reasoning.

I believe wholeheartedly that a traditional education based on knowledge-rich curricula empowers and liberates all of us. I don’t think that those who disagree with me just want to watch the world burn. I’d appreciate the same courtesy.