Battle in Print: What is education for?

Michael Young interview by Toby Marshall, 20 November 2007

In the early 1970s Michael Young edited and contributed to Knowledge and Control: New Directions in the Sociology of Education. This proved to be a hugely influential, perhaps defining, work within the field. This month Michael has published Bringing Knowledge Back In. This book reflects on the limitations of the original thesis in Knowledge and Control and demonstrates in new ways why teachers, managers and educational policy makers, must make the overlooked issues of knowledge and the curriculum their first priority.

Toby Marshall: What is education for?

Michael Young: I want to make a distinction between a very broad notion of education, which is about people becoming human, which taken place in families, homes, and in schools, and planned formal education, which takes place in colleges, schools or universities. We need to recognise what formal education can do and recognise what it can’t do. I think there has been a tendency, particularly in this country, to think that schools can solve all the broader problems of society. That’s not what schools should be doing, or colleges. Schools and colleges should recognise that there are things that they can do and that are to do with the question of access to knowledge, and in particular access to knowledge that takes a young person or an adult beyond their experience. They can acquire lots of knowledge in the workplace, in the home, in the community, in political organisations, in the trade unions, but there is a particular kind of knowledge which is specific to schools. This is the theoretical knowledge that takes you beyond your experience and gives you the tools to reflect back on it.

What isn’t education, or schooling, for?

It isn’t so much a question of what education isn’t for as a question of defining its priorities. It isn’t for making happy people. It isn’t for human wellbeing, which doesn’t mean that we don’t want it to be the happiest place it can possibly be. It isn’t that people becoming citizens isn’t also important, but I don’t think primarily people become citizens through the school or the college.

Why do you think that the role of knowledge within schooling is being questioned, or at least the traditional conception of knowledge within the curriculum?

For two reasons: People frequently focus on how knowledge can be applied to solve particular problems and contrast this with the traditional sense of knowledge ‘for its own sake’. The other thing is that if you take a relatively strong version of knowledge, then you have to face the fact that there are a substantial number of kids who are not learning it, and don’t want to be in school or college, and therefore the argument is that we must change that notion of knowledge to involve them more and to get them to participate more. That’s why the whole idea of knowledge is under challenge.

How would you respond to the idea that knowledge has a reduced half-life, that in the past there was a time when we could teach things that would be useful to students, whereas today, because we live in a fast-moving knowledge economy, the period for which knowledge is useful is reduced?

I think that’s an important point to raise, but I think it means that we need to be a bit more precise by what we mean by knowledge. What is absolutely true is that the facts in any field change faster than ever before, and you only have to think of the IT world, or the medical world. And clearly you don’t want people learning lots of things that are or will quickly become out of date. But what doesn’t change, or at least changes only slowly, are the intellectual tools, the concepts and theories we draw on for understanding and, even sometimes, changing the world.

You have referred to the notion of knowledge acquisition in your writing, could you flesh out this idea? The idea of ‘learning to learn’ is quite fashionable at the moment, is it any different from that?

Learning to learn easily becomes a pretty vacuous notion. What I want is for students to have access to concepts that enable them to raise questions and to test out whether they work. If they engage in that relationship between concepts and the world, then this will provide them with the motivation to learn to learn, not as something that is taught, but as a result of having access to that knowledge. But the term ‘acquisition’ itself is unhelpful; knowledge is acquired in social relationships between teachers and learners. This does not happen - or only rarely - without a teacher and doesn’t happen when the teacher says ‘let’s discuss, I haven’t got any especially valuable knowledge’.

Why should we bring knowledge back in?

We should bring knowledge back in because the current emphasis on inclusion, participation, qualifications, targets, outcomes, tends to downplay the fact that if they don’t express a greater acquisition of knowledge, then they may be little more than passing the time or even new forms of social control. I’m not against people getting more qualifications, I’m not against a wider range of people participating, I’m not against broadening the base of social inclusion, but you’ve actually got to say: included in what? Participation in what? And then you come back to the knowledge question.

Do you think the left abandoned the project of Enlightenment, of the enlightenment of the young?

The left has always been in a debate within itself. Lenin had a very strong notion of knowledge, which in the end became highly oppressive in the form we know as Stalinism. But his starting notion was right, which was that knowledge doesn’t come up from below. I don’t think that is what Marx meant when he said that the working class was the agent of history. So you’ve tended to have a progressive left that has hoped that emancipation could come from below, and there is no historical evidence to suggest that it can, and an authoritarian left, which became Stalinism, which cut people off from engaging people in knowledge at all. Knowledge has been a problem for the left.

Has this led to a position where the patrician right, people such as Roger Scruton, have been able to monopolise the pro-knowledge position? 

We have to recognise that the conservatives, people like Scruton and Chris Woodhead, might have had an element of truth in what they were saying. We have to face that fact and recognise that the whole truth is not owned by one particular political grouping. You have to be prepared to say that it may be important to be conservative about some things in order to be progressive or radical about others. 

Do you think that your own questioning of the ‘absolutism’ of Western academic standards in your first book Knowledge and Control contributed to the problem we now face?

It would be arrogant to claim that it contributed in any big way. I think that we were rather naïve at that time. We didn’t think through some of the more difficult questions which I have been trying to think through in the last 10 years. We tended to think that if you could show that basically all knowledge is a social and historical product, that it comes from men and women trying to make sense of the world, that this awareness of itself would free people to change things in a progressive way. I think this was extremely na•ve. We now know that the idea of knowledge being socially produced could equally and more likely be used by the right. Unless people have actually grasped the concepts, which have usually been developed by specialists, and tested them out in a rigorous way - though not necessarily in laboratories - then that social construction thesis can end up being damaging rather than productive.

Should education be personalised?

Personalisation is a very unhelpful concept. I’m not entirely clear what it means and it’s become a bit of political jargon. In a sense education is always inescapably social, it is always some kind of relationship between the learner and teacher and what the learner is trying to understand. In that sense it’s not just personalised. Nevertheless, you have a class of 30 and all the individuals will be slightly different, and there is no point in denying that. But I think that personalisation misses the issue. The more a class as a whole can grasp what they are doing in the curriculum with a teacher, the more they will in fact learn. I was a chemistry teacher, and there would have been no point in saying to Jim, or Jack on Eileen that you should personalise your learning of chemistry, because chemistry is not like that. Chemistry is a public form of understanding and you need to end up with the same understanding of, for example, the periodicity of the elements.

It is said that the introduction of ICT into schooling is transforming the ways in which students acquire knowledge. Do you think that is the case?

No. We get back to the point raised earlier. It does depend on what we mean by knowledge. Students acquire the facility to use the technology; that is fine and can be supported and extended by schools. They also acquire a kind of knowledge about themselves and other people through technologies such as YouTube and Facebook. Teachers need to know about these opportunities, just as they have always need to be aware of features of child and youth cultures; that does not mean that they should become part of the curriculum. The key question is whether or not you can use new technology to help people move from their experience to a more theoretical understanding that gives them some power over the world. In that sense the question of ICT is not different to that of whiteboards, chalk, or video, or films. We cannot be against them as teachers, but we shouldn’t imagine that they should be the things that we focus on. What you focus on is what they are trying to learn. Then there may be a role for these new forms of technology. For instance, there is research here in the London Knowledge Laboratory on how computer modelling can help students abstract and generalise in particular subjects.

What do you make of the new Specialised Diplomas?

I would make two points. General, or academic education, is different from vocational education. It has a different role, purpose and content. Doing business studies, or doing construction, is different from doing physics or history. But if we want to call these diplomas forms of vocational education, not some kind of training, then the acquisition of knowledge becomes as important as in say A-levels, only the form and content of the knowledge will be different. If you are going to give somebody the chance of moving beyond working on a building site, then they will need to have some understanding of the new building materials, of the organisation of the building industry. Then you get back to the kind of knowledge that is the core of any education. I am not convinced that the new diplomas tackle that.

If you were in school today, would you eat Jamie’s school dinners?

The serious issue is the welfare of low-income kids and whether or not schools should compensate for the fact that they may not have had adequate meals when they are at home. I have no strong views about Jamie Oliver, he’s fun to watch. The food looks nice, but I gather that some pupils don’t like it. The more serious issue - that is about political economy - is the contracting out of school meals to the private sector, which leads to profit determining the quality of food.

Does this relate to your point about the ‘de-differentiation’ of schooling? Is intervening in behaviour, prioritising health, part of the process you describe, whereby the specific function of schooling gets lost?

I do see that happening, but that doesn’t mean that I am against providing adequate school dinners. However, if it’s taken too far, and food becomes the curriculum, clearly you’ve got to ask the question what are schools for? They are clearly not restaurants!


Michael Young is professor of education in the Department of Lifelong and Comparative Education at the Institute of Education, London. Michael Young’s main research interests are in the sociology of knowledge and its application to the curriculum, with particular reference to the post-compulsory phase of education and training.

Festival Buzz

'Teach the World to Sing'

"As ever, the Battle of Ideas is full of stimulating and lively argument. It's fun to be able to clash robustly in a good-humoured atmosphere."
Martin Wright, Editor in chief, Green Futures