The Curriculum- ‘An entitlement to powerful knowledge’ : A response to John White

Professor Michael Young of the Institute of Education, University of London here offers his response to John White co-author of the paper “An Unstable Framework – Critical perspectives on The Framework for the National Curriculum.” Professor Young is not a member of the New Visions Group for Education

The previous Labour Government in the period 2007-2010 undoubtedly expanded access to education but it does not follow, as Alison Wolf’’s recent report (Wolf 2011) on 14-19 vocational education clearly shows, that this expansion was equated with expanding access to knowledge or to improving what the distinguished South African philosopher of education, the late Wally Morrow referred to as ‘epistemic access’ (Morrow 2009) . As Morrow argues, from an educational perspective ‘epistemic access’ is what a curriculum should entitle students to. From a political perspective , the concept of epistemic access raises questions about social and educational justice. We live in a deeply unequal society so it is no surprise that ‘epistemic access’ is only assured for the few. However, that is not an argument for giving up on it as a curriculum principle for all. If epistemic access, as Morrow suggests, refers to ‘how we shape and guide enquiry… in the discovery of truth’ (Morrow 2009), it seems unarguable that it must be the primary, if not the basis of the curriculum.

Where then are we most likely to find such ‘guides to enquiry’(and therefore to learning)? It is difficult to think of a better source than the ‘disciplinary communities’, or as the philosopher Charles Pierce referred to them , the ‘communities of enquiry’ found in universities. These communities, like other social institutions, are of course open to self interest of various kinds that may have little connection to the search for truth. However what distinguishes them has close parallels with Polanyi’s account of account of science. Science for Polanyi, consists of sets of institutions, with their rules, codes, traditions and core values. Their distinctiveness as institutions is the unique value they place on innovation and the creation and defence of new knowledge. It is primarily through the peer review system, that the institution of science distributes rewards, shapes research priorities and, albeit indirectly, influences the school and university curriculum (Young 2008;chapter 6)) . It is these characteristics of disciplines, notwithstanding their long history and religious origins, and the differences between disciplines that relate to different domains of knowledge, that makes them fundamentally modern. Without them we would not have had any of the economic and social progress of the last two centuries.

Subjects, which despite counter pressures and the efforts of their critics, still constitute most school curricula, are different from disciplines. They are not a source of new knowledge; they are different from disciplines but draw on disciplinary concepts and organize, sequence and select from them in ways that have proved most reliable pedagogically. Through the links that have been established by specialist subject teachers in schools with disciplinary specialists, subjects are the forms of social organization of knowledge that best guarantee that pupils will have ‘epistemic access’. This does not mean that they are fixed or did not originate in particular contexts. Nor does it mean, to repeat an earlier point, that a subject based curriculum necessarily guarantees ‘epistemic access’ for all pupils or that subjects do not vary widely in the form this access takes. Furthermore, we can acknowledge that elite schools are much more likely than other schools, even with the same subject-based curriculum and specialist subject teachers, to guarantee such access. Such differences reflect the distribution of political power; they are not educational issues or issues of curriculum principle. The evidence, I would suggest, supports the argument for school subjects rather than against them, as White suggests in his response to the Framework document.

Subjects and disciplines have a long history, taking us back 150 years and earlier, as White points out. However, this again is as much an argument for rather than against a subject –based curriculum. The relative stability of subjects and their boundaries is partly why parents trust schools and partly why employers invariably prefer subject-based(or academic) to vocational qualifications when recruiting new staff. It is also why new fields of knowledge take on many of the features of subjects and their links with disciplines if they are successful in becoming part of the school curriculum. Finally, subjects, as Basil Bernstein has argued, play an important role in establishing pupil’s identities as learners.

It is therefore disturbing, to say the least, to find White so easily dismissing a subject-based curriculum and the idea that it represents the ‘powerful knowledge’ that we want students to have access to. He is not alone, of course, and regrettably he is supported by many in the education community. It is therefore worth asking why such an attitude to the school curriculum has such widespread appeal. I want to suggest two reasons-one political and one academic. I will then make the positive case for a subject-based curriculum and the underpinning idea of entitlement to ‘powerful knowledge’ as the primary aim of schooling.

The political reason why many follow John White in dismissing a subject based curriculum maybe that it has a number of features that make it difficult for those associated in any way with the Left to support. Firstly, a subject based curriculum in this country has long been associated with educational inequalities-especially, elite institutions. It is therefore is a curriculum that appears to quite overtly favour the children of the upper and middle classes. Although the proportion of each cohort succeeding in terms of a subject based curriculum has expanded dramatically over them last 30-40 years, it is still a minority. A subject-based curriculum, therefore, can appear to be at odds with the needs and interests of the majority of pupils. It is partly for this reason that governments of the last 30-40 years, particularly, but not only Labour governments, have introduced ways of modifying the subject –based approach for those who consistently fail in its terms. It is as if it is access or participation itself that is important and that ‘epistemic access’ which is, at least in principle, guaranteed by the subject-discipline link, can be dispensed with. Subject-based programmes are therefore replaced with curricula based on criteria such as ‘individual choice’, ‘personal interest’ and ‘career relevance’ , on questionable assumption that even if curricula with such goals are unlikely to further the intellectual development of 14-19 year olds, they will give them a certificate and may possibly lead them to employment. It was not until Alison Wolf, in her report that was commissioned by the present Conservative-led Coalition government, that the evidence and arguments were brought together to show that such a strategy does not promote equality or mobility, let alone intellectual development.

Secondly, a more subject-based approach to the curriculum is undoubtedly the goal of the Conservative-led Coalition who do not fail to cloak it in a return to traditional values . No doubt it is inconceivable to White, and many on the Left, that a Conservative-led Government could have a curriculum policy that those opposed to its broader political goals might need to take seriously. This has been a problem for me too, as a lifelong Labour voter. It has been painful to recognize that in contrast to what I once thought and hoped, there are no easy or straightforward parallels between education and politics. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist leader, recognized this in his defence of a subject-based curriculum for working class pupils but it is hard to find a reference to his argument among those Left educational writers who have adopted him as one of their heroes (1). It is ironic that it took a Conservative , Michael Gove, before he became Secretary of State, to quote Gramsci’s ideas with approval in a speech he made about the curriculum. He did not , of course, endorse Gramsci’s politics.

Schools(and of course, colleges and universities) are peculiar institutions. They have both a conservative and an emancipatory role in society; they are, as Basil Bernstein once observed, ‘disrupters’ as well as ‘reproducers’ of social relations. They are conservative in reproducing social class inequalities, but they are also conservative in an almost universalising sense- they ‘conserve’ knowledge and ensure that the next generation has access to the knowledge that has been established by earlier generations. Without institutions representing the universalizing conservatism, we would still be like the societies which had no schools; they hardly changing from century to century and had no basis for progress of any kind.

Schools and the curriculum and subjects which constitute them, as well as the hierarchical relationships embodied in pedagogic relations between teacher and taught(even in its most radical forms) can be conservative in both senses that I have referred to; hence it is vital to distinguish them. It remains an open question as to whether we can envisage a society in which the conservation of knowledge is no longer ties to the conservation of privilege.

It is not surprising that both pedagogic and curriculum conservatism – an emphasis on the boundaries between subjects and between teachers and taught- finds echoes in political conservatism. What political conservatives must be at least implicitly aware of is that the curriculum conservatism which they endorse is also the condition for Bernstein’s disruption- through providing access to new knowledge in literature , history and science- the sources of disciplinary knowledge. The present Coalition government invokes a notion of subject knowledge for all at the same time as knowing that such a goal is unrealizable in what they refer to as a ‘Big Society’ (or reduced state) , based on volunteers, charity and philanthropy. Nor is it surprising that many on the Left have been led to opposing pedagogic conservatism as a mirror of political conservatism and to imagining that an emancipatory curriculum must do away with the old boundaries between subjects and disciplines as relics of an elitist and hopefully a bygone age. It was an approach that I and many of those involved in the ‘new sociology of education’ of the 1970s well intentionally but, I now think, misguidedly endorsed. What White does not appear to grasp is that in giving students the tools to ‘think the un-thinkable’ –whether through literature, physics, history or the ability to speak and read a foreign language, subjects, as forms of curriculum conservatism are both boundaries of constraint- because subject-based learning is difficult and some will fail or get bored, and boundaries of possibility . Furthermore, as Gramsci well recognized, the upper and middle cases will never give up a subject-based curriculum for their children; intuitively at least they ‘know’ what ‘powerful knowledge’ is and it can do. However, it is powerful knowledge partly because it is not their knowledge.

The fact that schools have contradictory roles in modern societies that are expressed in the two types of conservatism I have referred to points to difficult lessons for those of us schooled in the Enlightenment version of progress. It is seductive to assume that democratic politics points not just to the democratization of access to education but to more democratic pedagogies and curricula. This contradiction poses problems for both the Right and the Left. For example, subjects are both part of the traditional elitist curriculum and tools for anyone with access to them to ‘think the un-thinkable’, and as Bernstein once put it, ‘participate in a ‘society’s conversation about itself’; for example the debate as to whether cuts in public expenditure are the best route to economic recovery. Likewise it is the inability to resolve this contradiction that may have led some educationists to be drawn to the dystopian vision of post modernists such as Lyotard and Foucault.

White’s escape from the contradiction that all of us in education face leads him to aims, sub-aims and sub-sub aims. However, such a form of rationalistic form of curriculum planning is never likely to be realized except in the kind of authoritarian society to which he would certainly be opposed. I will return, later in this paper to the problems that White’s aims based approach leads to.

What about the academic reasons White gives for rejecting a subject based curriculum and the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ that I and others have argued, underpins it? White’s starts with the assertion that the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ as a rationale for a subject-based curriculum “crumbles into dust once subjected to critique” and becomes ‘ little more than a veneer to justify what is already government policy”. Maybe White would have modified this comment about ‘justifying government policy’ if he had read my critical analysis of the Government’s reforms of the post compulsory curriculum (Young 2011). Let us move on, however, and look briefly at White’s critique and whether idea of ‘powerful knowledge ‘crumbles’ quite so easily as he hopes.

He makes two claims. The first is that that neither I nor the authors of the Framework document (DFE 2011) give reasons why knowledge acquisition should be the main aim of schools. Secondly he states that I never adequately explain ‘what powerful knowledge is’ (or, I would add, how we might distinguish it from ‘powerless knowledge’). These are legitimate questions and I am far from denying that further work is needed if ‘powerful knowledge’ is to be the basis for our thinking about the curriculum.

In his paper, White takes the list of the characteristics of ‘powerful knowledge’ which he found in a talk of mine on the internet and says that my list is “is less than clear…. (and) makes the term(‘powerful knowledge’ ) pretty useless when discussing what the school curriculum should be”.

In prefacing my list in the talk he refers to, I indicate that the list describes (a) the purposes of ‘powerful knowledge’ and (b) the conditions for its production and access; the first four characteristics refer to the purposes and the last three to the conditions. I would have thought this was reasonably clear, whether you agree with the approach or not. I then distinguish the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’- which focuses on the knowledge itself- from a related idea, ‘knowledge of the powerful’ which can be traced back to Marx’s famous statement that ‘the ruling ideas in any society are always the ideas of the ruling class’ . ‘Knowledge of the Powerful’ seeks to identify those who define and dominate access to the knowledge. It is perhaps ironic that White himself uses the idea (though not the term) in his historical account of the subject-based curriculum (White 2009). Both concepts can be used to describe the curriculum of elite schools such as Winchester and Harrow. However, it does not follow that such schools have an ‘elite curriculum’ or that it should be rejected as the basis for the curriculum of non-elite schools..

In commenting on one of my characteristics of ‘powerful knowledge’, that it is ‘conceptual’, White ask the question “What knowledge is not conceptual? I am aware that I could have expressed myself more clearly here. I am not saying that there can be un-conceptual knowledge that is therefore ‘powerless’. McDowell and other philosophers have made the point that there is an important sense in which all knowledge is conceptual. My argument for ‘powerful knowledge’ rests not upon it being conceptual but upon the distinction between two types of concept- the theoretical(or scientific in Vygotsky’s sense) and the everyday or common sense. There is a long tradition in the educational and sociological literature from Bernstein back to Vygotsky and earlier (Young 2008) that emphasizes this distinction and its crucial role in curriculum decision making. It is everyday concepts which constitute the experience which pupils bring to school. On the other hand it is the theoretical concepts associated with different subjects that the curriculum can give them access to. The importance of this distinction is brought out in an example of White’s misunderstanding me. He comments on a paper of mine that in offering “ the New Zealand city of Auckland as an instance of a geographical concept” I am showing my shaky grasp of epistemology. Readers of the paper (Young 2011b) will notice that this is exactly what I do not say. In the paper I state that;

“It is important that the pupils do not confuse the Auckland
that the geography teacher talks about with the Auckland in
which they live….. the pupil’s relationship with it (the
concept) in the two cases is not the same.”

Pupils know Auckland through their everyday concepts as the place where they live, whereas for the geography teacher Auckland is also known through the lens of the geographical concept of ‘city’ (2).

The opportunity provided by schools for pupils to move between their everyday concepts and the theoretical concepts that are located in school subjects lies at the heart of the purpose of schools and aims of any curriculum. The crucial difference between the two types of concept is that a pupil’s ‘everyday concepts’ limit them to their experience, whereas the theoretical concepts to which subject teaching gives students access enable them to reflect on and move beyond the particulars of their experience.

Subjects are an example of ‘powerful knowledge’ in two senses. First they consist of concepts with meanings that derive from their inter-relations that are located within specialist disciplinary communities and not from particular contexts. Secondly, these inter-relations between concepts are defined by the boundaries that separate subjects from each other and from the world of experience that students bring to school. Subject-based concepts necessarily constrain thinking in particular ways. However it is the nature of the constraints that is important. To draw on a well known example, it was Galileo’s scientific concepts and the boundaries that separated them from prevailing everyday concepts that enabled him to exclude religious concepts and so take a step nearer to the truth about our place in the universe, at least as far as he could at the time. For a similar reason, in today’s curriculum, biology as a school subject sets boundaries between the concept of evolution which it includes and creationist ideas about the origins of mankind which it excludes. This does not mean that subjects, their concepts or the boundaries between them are fixed in time or that the degree of agreement on concepts and their meaning within different subject communities does not vary widely.

White concludes his paper by arguing that the subject based curriculum supported by the Framework Report “risks reinforcing a view of the curriculum that has been with us since 1858 and might just need updating”. A traditionalist view of the curriculum may well have influenced the Coalition government’s thinking, and there is some evidence for this in the list of authors that Michael Gove thinks appropriate for the English curriculum. However, the argument for ‘powerful knowledge’ and a subject based curriculum does not imply that the curriculum has not and should not have changed since 1858. The argument for a subject-based curriculum is structural ; it is about the relations between concepts not the contents the concepts refer to. It is certainly true that if we found the content of the curriculum being proposed for the EBacc being similar to that found in the 19th or even 20th century we would criticise it as being in need of updating as White suggests. However the argument for subjects is about the role of boundaries between related concepts with their specific rules and criteria. Subject boundaries are important for two reasons. Firstly they represent the relationship between the school curriculum and the academic disciplines which are the main source of new and reliable knowledge. They are, in other words, the guarantee to parents that they can trust the school with the intellectual development of their children. Secondly, the boundaries for arguments and questions associated with subjects, as I mentioned earlier, provide a basis for pupils to establish their new identities as learners. This is likely to be especially important for those pupils who have had limited opportunities at home .

It is not surprising therefore to find that the history, geography, mathematics and chemistry that White found in a 1858 list are also found in today’s curriculum (as well as new subjects such as computer science) and that they are given additional emphasis in the EBacc today although their content will be very different. The stability of subjects plays an important role in the necessary transmission of one generation’s knowledge to the next.

Subjects are one of many examples of specialization and the division of intellectual labour which have underpinned the growth of knowledge in the last two centuries at least. My argument does not preclude inter-disciplinary or cross subject enquiries; they have led to many important discoveries and new disciplines like biochemistry and cultural psychology and many curricula innovations. However it is an argument that such forms of enquiry presuppose substantial subject-based knowledge and and so are unlikely to be appropriate early in a student’s educational career.

‘Epistemic access’ means access to the institutions through which enquiries in the search for truth are undertaken. These institutions are the academic disciplines which are transformed (although not their content) for pedagogic purposes into school subjects. To the extent that the Framework Report supports epistemic access as the primary aim of the curriculum I welcome it as a step forward from the existing National Curriculum lunched in 2008. This over-prescribed the activities of teachers and was over ambitious in what it thought schools could actually do. Furthermore the way the Report interprets epistemic access is at least partially consistent with my argument about ‘powerful knowledge’ (Young 2012). How could anyone not endorse ‘epistemic access’ as an aim for their children’s education and hence for the education of all children?

White rejects this argument or at least the subject-based curriculum that it leads to. His alternative is what he refers to as an aims-based curriculum and complains that the previous government in their 2008 National Curriculum when some way towards a fully aims-based approach but lacked the political will to ditch subjects altogether.

It is worth looking briefly at White’s alternative. In an earlier paper (White 2010) criticizing Richard Peters’s support for a subject based approach to general education, White appears to replace what he sees as one taken for granted view- the traditional subject-based curriculum- with another, his aims-based approach. Whereas Peters argues that a subject-based curriculum can be justified intrinsically- ‘for its own sake’, White gives a brief history to demonstrate that a subject-based approach is no more than a contingent outcome of various political interests over the last 300 years. His alternative is that “Logically curriculum planning has to start with aims, not with vehicles( subjects-my addition) whereby they may be realized(White 2010)”. However, just as he questioned Peters’s claim that a subject-based curriculum could be justified intrinsically, we can ask why should logic be the starting point of an approach to the curriculum as a ‘genuinely aims-based enterprise’?

It is as if we can step back from and outside of history, learn nothing from previous generations about that most human of activities, handing down to the next generation the successes and failures of the past, and by some mysterious intuition come up with ‘aims’ from which logically we can derive sub- and sub-sub aims….It just seems unlikely that, when in almost any other activity one can think of , theoretical or practical, we progress by engaging critically with the past and going beyond it, in education we can disregard it. However well intentioned his aims-based approach undoubtedly is, and however unlikely it is to be adopted, there are dangerous consequences in how it might be used. Those inclined to endorse White’s ideas would do well to take a careful look at what such an approach, however different its origins and intentions, can lead to. As Cuthbert points out:

however important individual aims are, they lack substance and coherence without being shaped by a deeper understanding of the nature of education. Without a firm grasp of what education really means, aims simply become imposed on it in a piecemeal fashion – and tend to take on an extrinsic, instrumental character.(Cuthbert 2012)

Her point about aims-based approaches “tending to take on an ….instrumental character” is graphically illustrated in the case of South Africa (3). Given the history of apartheid and Bantu Education it was hardly surprising that the first elected government in 1995 wanted to make a break with the past, as is also suggested by White’s aims-based model. However, they drew on the related idea of outcomes to establish what became known as an Outcomes-Based Curriculum. It was launched with much fanfare and expressed many of the worthy ideals which find echoes in White’s papers- especially the claim that it would free the teachers to be ‘creative’ and ‘imaginative’ . The result became universally recognized as a disaster; teachers were confused and had no idea what they were supposed to be doing. Schools have barely recovered since and South Africa still sits at or near the bottom of Attainment Tables for African countries. After much research, debate and criticism, a new more subject-based curriculum was introduced. Outcomes are not the same as aims. However the process of breaking down broad outcomes into learning outcomes that teachers and students can work with in the classroom is remarkably similar to White’s proposal to move from aims, to sub aims and sub-sub-aims.

White might reply that South Africa with its unique history is a special case; furthermore, it can be argued that the outcomes (or aims) in the South African case were poorly defined and most South African schools lacked the qualified teachers to take advantage of the ‘freedom’ that an aims (or outcomes) based curriculum offers. The origins of the two concepts ‘aims’ and ‘outcomes’ are of course different. No doubt there are some who would argue that the essential aims of education can be identified without recourse to its institutional history . But can they? And if such aims could be identified, as some Soviet Marxists claimed in the 1930’s for Marxist Leninism, what would be their connection, if any, to the knowledge we have though the various specialist disciplines? Different in origins though aims and outcomes are, I conclude that there are fundamentally similar flaws in each This is not to say that schools or countries should not have broad aims for their schools. The problem is that ‘aims-based’ approaches, when put into practice, lead in one of two highly problematic directions. They may remain very general and express very broad values which can be widely endorsed. Such breadth and generality have the advantage of leaving maximum scope to teachers. On the other hand they provide very little of the direct guidance which teachers need, and no explicit connection between what pupils learn in school and the sources of the knowledge they are acquiring- in the university-based disciplines. Furthermore, they provide no guarantees of continuity for students either as they progress from year to year or if they move schools. Even in well resourced education systems, teachers in different schools will inevitably interpret broad aims differently. Not surprisingly such aims-based approaches rarely move outside the realm of academic debates. The second direction in which an aims-based approach might be taken is to translate aims into outcomes, as in the 1995 curriculum in South Africa. Outcomes attempt to set out what a student can know or do on completing a course. This leads inexorably to the increasingly detailed specification of outcomes on the assumption that to be confident that aims or outcomes have been achieved they need to be assessed. When this new curriculum collapsed in South Africa, and it was clear that pupils were not learning anything, curriculum planners had no alternative but to return, at least to some extent, to subject specialists and the development of syllabuses for different subjects. In other words they had to recognize the substance of education and ‘what it really means’

Curriculum debates in England has been so over- politicised in recent years that we forget that improving it requires us to see how like it is to most other institutions. The concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ with its roots in our education systems institutional history is a way of reminding us that, as in fields where we have far more precise knowledge, such as medicine and engineering, curriculum development and planning must build on the proven successes that we have. In the case of the curriculum these proven successes are subjects. They have not of course been successful for all students. In recent decades that take us back to the Schools Council in the 1970’s we have had endless curriculum innovations- especially in programmes for low attainers, all seeking alternatives to subjects. The urgent task, in my view, is not to devise a new curriculum. The task is primarily a pedagogic one of finding ways of extending the tried and tested subject-based approach to a progressively wider proportion of each cohort. The critical issue for educational research is to see the limits of what a curriculum can do in setting the purposes or goals for teachers and students In Vygotksy’s terms, this involves enabling students to move through the ‘zone of proximal development’ from what they already know to engaging with, coming to share ( and even sometimes going beyond) the subject knowledge of their teachers. Curriculum debates are important to the extent that some teachers and sections of the educational community have lost confidence in subjects and the potential of epistemic access that they offer. Powerful knowledge is a way of reminding teachers that their subjects really matter for all students and that they are not just a relic of the past.

(1) Harold Entwhistle (Entwistle 1979) in his book on Gramsci’s educational thinking brings out Gramsci’s argument extremely clearly.
(2) This example is taken from a paper by the French sociologist ,Bernard Charlot(Charlot 2012)
(3) It is worth stating that the curriculum designers in South Africa made no reference to White’s work-either for or against

I would like to thank Joe Muller(University of Capetown), Geoff Whitty, Jane Green and Jan Derry( Institute of Education) for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Charlot.B(2012) School and pupils’ work in Lauder.H, Young.M, Daniels.H, Balarin.M and Lowe.J(Eds) Education for the Knowledge Economy? Critical Perspectives, Routledge, London

Cuthbert.A(2012) Less about Aims in Towards a subject-based curriculum, Institute of Ideas Education Forum, London.

DFE(2011) The Framework for the National Curriculum (report by the Expert Panel)

Entwistle. H( 1979) Antonio Gramsci : conservative schooling for radical politics, London, Routledge.

Morrow.W(2009) Bounds of Democracy: Epistemological Access in Higher Education, HRSC Press, Pretoria, South Africa.

Wolf.A(2011) Review of vocational education(14-19), Stationery Office, London, 2011

White.J(2010)Why General Education? Peters, Hirst and History, Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol 43, 1,

White.J(2012) Critical perspectives on The Framework for the National Curriculum (report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review) Part 1 19/04/12)
Young.M(2008) Bringing Knowledge Back In, Routledge , London 2008

Young.M (2011) The Return to Subjects:A sociological perspective on the UK Coalition Government’s approach to the 14-19 curriculum, Curriculum Journal, Vol 20, No 2

Young.M(2011(b) The future of education in a knowledge society: The radical case for a subject-based curriculum, Journal of the Pacific Circle Consortium for Education
Vol. 22, No. 1, December 2010, 21–32


Leave a Reply