If you want to understand the thinking behind the government’s education reforms, you need to read E D Hirsch’s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them (1996). Hirsch had been thrust into the education debates following the success of his Cultural Literacy (1987). He was astonished to find so many who vehemently opposed making a shared body of knowledge the centre of public education.
As a professor of Romantic literature, Hirsch was extremely well placed to identify the ideological sources of the opposition to clear, explicit teaching of well defined knowledge, in works such as Rousseau’s Emile. However, the existence of the idea that it is tyrannical to impose adult knowledge upon the young is not sufficient for explaining how such notions became so widespread, to the point where young people could spend many years under the care of expensive professionals, and emerge lacking even the most basic knowledge of the history, geography and literature of their own country.
Hirsch realised that it was necessary to look in more detail at the practical ways in which progressive theories gained dominance. This happened through the construction of a professional milieu which excluded laypeople from educational decision making. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, parental influence was too strong for a widespread progressive revolution to take place. Most parents wanted their children to receive a traditional education, like the one they had received, and were uninterested in the obscure theories being promulgated by self-appointed experts such as Dewey. The only parents who did take such an interest were wealthy bohemians who established the first progressive schools, all private and filled with their own children. C S Lewis’ Experiment House is an entertaining fictional example of this kind of middle class bohemian progressivism.
For progressivism to become a mass phenomenon, most ordinary parents had to be pushed out of educational decision making, because the vast majority of them stubbornly clung to conservative notions about hard work, discipline and knowledge acquisition. These stubborn parents had to be told that the experts knew better. It was therefore necessary to create a class of educational experts who would become the high priests of the new gnostic religion. The key institution through which this was achieved was Columbia Teachers’ College. Staffed by the leading lights of the progressive movement, such as William Heard Kilpatrick, Columbia sent tens of thousands of teachers out into the hinterlands, filled with evangelical zeal about the new ideas, and determined to usher in the new age of education, liberated from the dead facts of tradition and enlivened with Kilpatrick’s ‘project method’.
Hirsch explains how the education departments of universities deliberately distanced themselves from subject knowledge, because this domain already contained many venerable professors in other departments of the universities, who looked down upon the education professors as cranks and amateurs. In order to carve out their own territory, the education professors had to find something which was uniquely theirs. Progressive pedagogy triumphed because it exactly suited their ambition to establish an independent republic within academia. The comments still frequently made by professors of education echo their battle cry down the last century: pedagogy is a science, a science to which we have the key; all of you subject experts may know more about your subjects than us, but we have this magic tool which unlocks the minds of the young: pedagogy! By definition, this supposed pedagogical science must be divorced from any specific content, or how could the professors of education rule supreme over it? To allow knowledge a central role is to undermine the basis of their power and prestige.
Given that the first professors of education built their academic empire on the basis of anti-knowledge theories, and then produced scores of thousands of teachers in their own image, a situation emerged where the whole education establishment could be threatened by anyone who modestly proposed that children needed to learn subject knowledge, as Hirsch discovered in 1987.
Another factor which entrenched progressivism was the growing ignorance of the teachers themselves. As the twentieth century progressed, the vast majority of American high school teachers, having experienced a knowledge light curriculum at school, then went on to study a knowledge light curriculum at college, majoring in education rather than any specific subject. A similar trend emerged in Britain from the seventies onwards. William Bagley, the thorn in Kilpatrick’s side who was a lone voice in the wilderness at Columbia, insisting on the value of knowledge, repeatedly called for an increase in well qualified teachers in American schools. By well qualified, he meant teachers who were experts in their subjects, not experts in the ‘science’ of pedagogy. His calls went unheard.
Those in government who continue to implement the policy direction initiated by Michael Gove are well-versed in this background. They know that the educational establishment is wedded to progressive ideas so deeply that a kind of creative destruction is needed. It’s really not too hard to understand why they would force all schools to become academies once you have grasped the historical and ideological background. Academisation separates schools institutionally from the influence of the educational establishment: universities, unions and local education advisers. That is why it is the structural model of choice for the current government.