Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Knowledge gives power (and don't ever forget it) - a comment on criticism of Michaela Community College


Michaela Community School is one of those free schools so detested by those who prefer the conformity and straightjacket of a rigidly defined, state education system. Not for such left-wing folk is the idea that variety, difference and new ways of working are urgently needed if we are to transform our education system for the better. So the critics circle and seize on the tiniest levers to have a go at the school.

So it is with a blogger rather grandiosely called "Edsacredprofane" (his name is Peter Ford, or so the blog says). This man clutches at the motto of Michaela Community School to write a bewilderingly indulgent attack on the values of a school he has not visited and, I assume, relies on its website to frame his argument. And what an argument - littered with references to Foucault, to post-modernism and to Marx it twines itself around the schools motto to manufacture a critique of the school itself:

Of course we all have reason. The enlightenment gave us reason. The power of reason enables each individual to escape the circumstances of existence. Only to an extent. As Marx put it “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”. Knowledge is power became the byword for the enlightenment. Later thinkers such as Foucault and the post modernists challenged the theory that knowledge is power, or rather, they agreed that knowledge is power but it carried the power of those who seek to oppress us, keep us sub-servient.

Wow! This blogger then indulges in that slightly 'man of the people' shtick that some writers love - describing how he came upon these thoughts while watching a football match at some unspecified East Lancashire ground (he also seemed slightly hung up on making a point about how people in Burnley drink a lot of benedictine - which is interesting but somewhat irrelevant to the ethos of a London free school). And he makes another irrelevant point about how 'some of the poorest' wards can be seen from the stands of that football ground - I'm guessing it's Turf Moor.

So what is the motto that has so offended Ford? It's a simple one - "knowledge is power". It would appear that our blogger doesn't really believe that knowledge is power or rather he thinks that what Michaela Community School thinks is knowledge isn't actually knowledge. Or something like that - it's all very confusing. It seems that the school has observed that it's ethos is founded on the ideas of Ed Hirsch - ideas that are altogether too prescriptive for Ford.

We then get into a Marxist analysis of the Tower of Babel (seriously this is about the motto of a school):

It seems to me that the story is unravelled not by Hirsch or even by scriptural exegetics but by Marxists who would point out that “the tower” was not so much a human project but a structure in which there is a top and a bottom. In other words a hierarchical class structure. Was that God’s point? Was God a proto Marxist?

To be fair to Ford he backs off from this slightly lunatic use of biblical metaphor to return to his main argument (knowledge isn't power). At this point he drops the post-modernist Marxism and return to the enlightenment by misusing Descartes - the point the French thinker was making was that the fact we think about ourselves proves we exist not that thinking is more important than knowledge.

It does seem that the real debate here isn't actually about Michaela's motto but rather about the ideas of Ed Hirsch and in particular the 'common core' and 'cultural literacy' ideas he promoted. And the measure of these ideas' value isn't to be found in Foucault, Marx or even the bible but in the success or otherwise of the school. Indeed there is sufficient of a positive impact from Ed Hirsch's approach to suggest that we'd do better to consider it than dismiss it (especially when the dismissal is based on seemingly random thoughts at a football match).

Indeed I suspect parents - or the ones not steeped in half-baked philosophy - would rather like the idea that Hirsch promotes:

‘Breadth of knowledge is the single factor within human control that contributes most to academic achievement and general cognitive competence. Breadth of knowledge is a far greater factor in achievement than socioeconomic status. The positive correlation between academic ability and socioeconomic status is only half the correlation between academic ability and the possession of general information. That is to say, being ‘smart’ is more dependent on possessing general knowledge than on family background. Imparting broad knowledge to all children is the single most effective way to narrow the gap between demographic groups through schooling’.

We send our children to school so they learn stuff. And while part of the stuff they need to learn is how to ask questions and how to challenge, a great deal of it is passing across a bunch of accepted and established facts about the world - that often maligned 'book-learning'. And parents want their children to leave school with the power to succeed - informed, knowledgeable and excited by the challenges the world throws up. Parents might just get this from Michaela Community School but I fear for the children at a school run on the principles Ford propounds:

...the essence of education is not to accumulate knowledge as a “thing in itself” but to learn how to challenge it; build upon it progressively and avoid creating new power structures even where they seem to have progressive foundations.

This approach is the very content-free, voyage of discovery approach to education that might be great for a few very bright children but for most it's a recipe for not knowing enough to ask the questions - to make those challenges that Ford thinks are important.

To understand why knowledge gives children power, we should attend a public enquiry and watch as people are given privilege simply because they are 'experts', because they have knowledge that the lay person doesn't have. In the end Michaela Community College understands this and Ford, too wrapped up in his witty cleverness, doesn't. We should wish the school - regardless of its motto - well and hope that it delivers on its mission - for if it does it will be a great school:

We believe all pupils, whatever their background, have a right to access the best that has been said and thought. This includes a variety of writers, from all parts of the world, and thinkers from all the ages. The curriculum at Michaela Community School ensures that pupils are knowledgeable enough about the world around them to transform it in the future. 


Stuart Hartill said...

The man writes like a stoned loon, and anyone who ventures into the philosophical maze without knowing who Scruton is cannot be taken seriously. Two other points, if you'll indulge me -
(1) I always thought Foucault's 'Knowledge is power' one liner came from musings on Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon concept for a model prison, not the Tower of Babel.

(2)That idea that the 'best that has been said and thought' should be offered to all, regardless of background, as I recall, originally comes from Matthew Arnold's essay 'Culture and Anarchy', where it's also suggested educators have a duty to spread 'sweetness and light'.

Lovely essay, and if this school is trying to live up to that challenge, good luck to them.

asquith said...

I am sorry to hear that Roger Scruton is not known in Burnleh. "Green Philosophy" is an excellent contribution to the environmental debate.

Clarissa said...

It is also run by a teacher who dared stand-up and speak at a Conservative Party conference - which is probably more than enough to damn it in the eyes of many within or associated with the educational establishment.