Battle in Print: For subject-centred education: 2. education in an ‘information age’

Dennis Hayes, 22 October 2010

These six essays are written by members of the Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum. They make the case for subject-centred education. Whilst the Lib-Con coalition nominally supports a return to subject-centred teaching, there’s in fact little coherence or sense of direction to their educational strategy. More specifically, we believe subject-centred education should be defended as a method of transmitting knowledge and understanding to new generations. It should be driven by an aspiration to create a society of truly educated citizens, and foster greater intellectual autonomy and freedom for everybody.

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2. Education in an ‘information age’

We live in a society profoundly hostile to ideas and intellectual endeavour. This makes it difficult to make a persuasive argument for the value of subject-centred education. Rather, that subject-centred education is a ‘good thing’ becomes a mere assertion, as arbitrary as any other educational fad or fashion. This reflects that the assumptions underpinning subject-centred education are no longer accepted by the wider society.

Same language, different meaning

Subject-centred education is sometimes denounced by educationalists as Victorian, outdated and elitist. This is a new development. In the past, distinguished educational thinkers writing from radical, conservative or liberal standpoints all supported versions of subject-centred education. With few exceptions, they thought it appropriate for all pupils. The content of the subject-centred curriculum may have changed over time to include the sciences and modern foreign languages, but all curricula were broad and included some practical subjects.

Although not all educational thinkers denounce a subject-centred curriculum, there’s a general understanding a different curriculum is now appropriate. This inspires the rejection of the former curriculum consensus. Generally, the traditional language of curriculum ‘subjects’ is maintained. But this continuity in terminology masks a fundamental change in thinking about education. This epochal change is best characterised by the idea we live in an ‘information age’. Our ‘information age’ offers access to inexhaustible electronic information. This information, it’s believed, is more easily accessed by our children who have the privilege of being brought up with new technology. Their ability to use this new technology gives children a unique relationship to information that adults born before the ‘information age’ don’t have.

This belief marks a discontinuity with the past. Previously, teachers had the intellectual authority to transmit what they knew to their pupils. In the information age, however, the teacher is no longer thought to have a distinctive expert understanding of the world. She can merely facilitate access and enhance the approaches used by the child.

The folly of ‘the information age’

Advocates of the idea of an ‘information age’ are wrong: we don’t need to reject centuries of educational thought. New information technologies may well enable humanity to generate and communicate greater quantities of information. But this doesn’t mean students don’t still require an introduction to the fundamental forms of knowledge that will enable them to understand the world we live in. This includes those very information technologies now celebrated, and sometimes loathed, in contemporary thinking. We should remember that whilst in many areas of social life change may be rapid, in the vast majority stasis and risk-aversion reign. This may paradoxically contribute to perception that society is running out of control.

We know that knowledge and understanding produced the ‘information age’. And it’s knowledge and understanding pupils need if they’re to do anything with ‘information’, or take scientific and technological developments further. We also know the much celebrated ‘special access’ of young people to new technology is a myth. The perception that children have a special relationship with new technology is a product of adult anxieties about the relevance of their own cultural inheritance. Consequently, the examples often given of these special skills are possible for any well-trained chimpanzee. 

The focus on accessing information rather than knowledge has three especially damaging consequences for schooling. First, accessing information is an individual process. Without mediation by teachers’ own understanding, information is accessed in a non-judgemental way. Pupils operating in isolation are unable to give information meaning, significance or value. Second, the focus of schooling shifts from teaching subjects to concern over processes that supposedly ‘enhance’ and ‘facilitate’ children’s learning and help them ‘learn to learn’. Third, this new age requires we cultivate in pupils new ‘skills’ psychologically necessary for sustained information processing. These include emotional literacy, emotional intelligence and emotional competency. Consequently, all three aspects display a ‘therapeutic’ aspect. They tend to replace the role of the teacher with that of a non-judgmental facilitating counsellor.

The crisis of relativism, its optimistic rejoinder

The crass celebration of information revives a sophistic rejection of the belief we can know anything. If people believe all past knowledge is ephemeral in our fast-moving information age, views like ‘all knowledge is contested’ or ‘there are many truths’ gain currency. In crude forms they are met as statements like, ‘everything is a matter of opinion’ or ‘that’s just your view, others may think the opposite.’  A quick refutation of these arguments is found in Plato’s Theaetetus (s 171ab). The refutation runs like this: When a person says, ‘all knowledge is contested,’ the reply is, ‘what about your statement that ‘all knowledge is contested’? Is that true or is it contested?’ The consequence is clear: if the statement is true it is false, and if it’s false then it is false. In either case, it’s false.

There are many ways this schoolboy ‘quick refutation’ can be challenged, but the challenges can be answered. A complex discussion of philosophical relativism is hardly what’s needed. The contemporary rise of relativism does not express a philosophical turn in the conversation of teachers, but a simple psychological rejection of any commitment to the possibility of knowledge and understanding. It’s an expression of the anti-intellectual mood of the age. This mood is also expressed in the idea that change is faster than ever and as a consequence knowledge is soon outdated. Examples from the cutting edge of science are used to illustrate how existing knowledge is subject to change and therefore a new education is necessary. This ‘argument’ ignores the vast corpus of human knowledge that is unchanging on which the few examples of epistemological fragility rest.

Arguments for change are at least positive. A negative version of the endless change argument is the claim that ‘everything is uncertain’, and children must have a new education to fit them for this age of uncertainty. Both these ‘arguments’, whether celebrating change or expressing fear of change, are used to undermine existing education. They say education as we knew it is over. We can no longer educate children. We might call this the ‘survivalist curriculum’. It means schools give up the project of giving students the ideas they need to understand and act on the world. They opt instead for the more meagre task of giving pupils the skills they need to remain resilient in a confused and confusing world.

The most absurd direction in which this belief has turned education is putting the teacher in the tutelage of the pupil. Whether this is simply the idea we are all learners or the requirement to listen to the learner voice, adults are made abject before children. Ofsted now even sends its school reports directly to pupils. The irony is that we live in a time when human knowledge and understanding is expanding and potentially greater than ever before. Talk about an ‘information age’ is an expression of this reality but one which distorts it and diminishes human potential. It fails to value the knowledge and understanding that underlies this expansion.

We’re not merely subject to change. We are knowing subjects who can change our lives for the better. The first step is to reverse the process of adapting education for information processing, and instead put knowledge back at the heart of education.


professor of education, University of Derby; director, Academics for Academic Freedom; co-founder, East Midlands Salon

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