I’ve tended to think about the importance of teaching specific knowledge in terms of effectiveness. Specifying a coherent body of knowledge, teaching it explicitly, testing it frequently, all help to build mental schema in long term memory, which are vital for advanced thought and communication. But until reading Hirsch’s latest, Why Knowledge Matters, I hadn’t thought enough about another vital aspect of building a clear, coherent, specific curriculum: the question of justice.
Once we have clarified the curriculum, we have opened it up to everyone who wishes to master it. We have made it available to all pupils, and to all teachers. Instead of a guessing game which will always favour the most advantaged, we have created a fair contest where the rules are known by all.
Imagine that footballing ability were made the major marker of employability and social prestige, but the rules of football were not clearly established. Instead, pupils were told that success in football was a matter of ‘creativity’ and developing generalised ‘ball skills’. With no clarity about what needed to be mastered, those who happened to come from homes where their parents had been kicking balls around with them since they could walk would excel, while those who did not have this advantage would have no idea how to improve, and would probably conclude that they were just doomed to failure.
Thinking skills are domain specific; we need to know a lot about about a subject to think well about it. When mythical generalised skills like ‘creativity’ or ‘critical thinking’ are made the goal of education, we do not, therefore, cease to test knowledge. We just cease to make clear to pupils and teachers exactly what knowledge we intend to test. When we do this, we give an unfair advantage to those who have picked up a large amount of general knowledge due to a more advantaged background. We turn public examinations into a sorting system that reinforces current social strata. We give the majority of the population the idea that they are just not destined to be good at anything academic.
But as soon as we make the knowledge required crystal clear, we give everyone a fair shot. The ability to master knowledge, to store vast amounts of it in long term memory, is an ordinary human ability. It is not limited to those whose parents went to university and hold professional jobs.
The more clarity there is in the curriculum, the more accessible we make it to the whole of society. Specifying the knowledge that enables full access to the public sphere is an urgent matter of social justice.