In response to my last post, ‘Against Enlightenment’, Daisy Christodoulou asked for my views on how a core knowledge curriculum is best defended. Should we be appealing to reason and science, and the proven cognitive value of teaching, for example, classic literature? Or does this scientific approach evade the more important question of the moral value of teaching the great writers of the Western tradition? It was such a good question that it deserved a post of its own.
Firstly, there is the important consideration of pragmatism in our efforts to reform education. We need to gather as many allies as possible for educational improvements, even if those allies think very differently about philosophy. In the current relativistic cultural climate, arguing from reason and science will probably be more successful than arguing from tradition and morality.
The scientific approach is also attractive because it defeats progressivism on its own ground. For example, Hirsch points out that if we want to equip pupils with critical thinking skills that will enable them to adapt to future changes in the workplace, broad general knowledge has been proven by cognitive science to be the best way of achieving this.
For those who wish to defend the teaching of great literature on moral grounds, Hirsch’s approach allows us to say that their desired goal can be reached using pragmatic arguments that should be non-controversial. It’s a clever way of defusing debates about, for example, the validity of the canon, with all of its dead white males, because one can say to a feminist that, like it or not, it is these authors who are culturally significant. Hopefully even the most radical advocate of canonical revision will understand that their well intentioned campaigning, if applied at the level of the school curriculum, will reduce the life chances of pupils by depriving them of knowledge which they need in order to take a full part in our society. As Hirsch points out in Cultural Literacy, ‘given our newly gained understanding of literacy, we must be traditionalists about content. For we have learned the paradox that traditional education, which alone yields the flexible skill of mature literacy, outperforms utilitarian education even by utilitarian standards’ (p127).
Ultimately, though, there need be no conflict between reason and science on the one hand, and tradition on the other. We’ve seen repeatedly in recent years that in the sphere of education, scientific findings back up traditional common sense. Everybody knew that education involved the laborious acquisition of essential cultural knowledge until the Romantics attacked this truth, replacing it with an idealisation of nature and natural development which has never been rationally defensible. The resulting attack on common sense then became so culturally ingrained that it took cognitive science (and the evidence of generations of educational failure) to begin to restore what people had always known prior to the onset of Romantic lunacy.
Although it may lack the impressive paraphernalia of modern science, it turns out that tradition is reasonable. But when the enticing idea of painless, ‘natural’ learning was first proposed, traditional educators did not have the scientific evidence to prove that their methods worked. They simply had the cumulative wisdom of the generations, and this proved to be an insufficient defence, at least in the English-speaking world. Professors like William Heard Kilpatrick, with his pseudoscientific talk of ‘neurones’ and so on, were too many for them. What followed was rather like the sad tale of Birmingham New Street station. A beautiful inheritance from the past was flattened by the enthusiastic prophets of the modern era, and replaced by an ugly and depressing edifice that fails even to perform its function well.