Without a more philosophically informed understanding of the broader category of education, it is harder to argue for greater professional autonomy in the face of clamorous demands that we should be meeting a hundred and one goals, some of which may be valid and important but secondary to our intrinsic purpose, which is to educate.—Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, co-editor, What Should Schools Teach?
In What Should Schools Teach?: Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish argue that schools exist to help students acquire knowledge of the social and physical worlds through the study of formal academic subjects, and that such knowledge is intrinsically valuable, independent of any social or economic benefits it might bring. Together with a team of contributors, they present a methodical and well informed case for resurrecting the substance and spirit of liberal learning in K–12 education, with a focus on secondary schools.
The first half of their thesis may strike the non-educationalist as blindingly obvious—of course, schools teach students to read, write and think by studying maths, sciences, history, geography, arts, literature and languages. Yet educationalists have devalued school subjects and subject matter knowledge for over a century. Old school educational progressives dismiss subjects as arbitrary and artificial, contending that teachers should instead help students master abstract process skills like literacy, creativity, critical thinking, inquiry and learning how to learn through self-directed real-world, project- or problem-based learning. They hold that to focus on subject matter stifles children’s natural creativity and curiosity and treats them as passive, empty vessels to be stuffed with inert facts. Educationalists of a more critical or postmodernist bent view subject matter knowledge as oppressive, even racist and sexist—an instrument for reproducing colonialist, Eurocentric and patriarchal power.
But Sehgal Cuthbert, Standish and their contributors argue that, when taught in a spirit that cultivates intellectual curiosity and disciplined inquiry, academic subjects introduce students to knowledge and habits of mind they wouldn’t otherwise encounter or acquire. In the process, they write, “we learn to see the world anew—our eyes are opened to new horizons and questions we have never previously considered, let alone tried to answer.” Liberal education is valuable because it is liberating.
Even more daring is their objection to instrumentalism—the widely held assumption that schools should serve primarily as engines for social mobility, labour market enhancement, political activism or some other worthy social or economic goal: “Treating the curriculum as a ‘tool’ to solve social, environmental, health and economic problems can only serve to undermine commitment to a concept of education as a public good in its own right.” It’s not that they eschew instrumentalist ends altogether. Rather, they argue that schools can best serve students and society by cultivating “objectivity and critical reasoning” and “enabl[ing] young people to transcend their particular context.” In other words, schools can best serve the various social and economic ends expected of them, not by being vocational training centres or political activist boot camps, but by being schools.
In short, What Should Schools Teach? is a profoundly countercultural book. It is nonetheless a book by and for professional educators whose contributors bring epistemological sophistication, extensive pedagogical content knowledge and a strong grasp of their disciplines’ intellectual and institutional histories to the question posed by the book’s audacious title.
Though the liberal arts educational ideal is at least as old as the ancient Greeks, Sehgal Cuthbert and Standish ground their argument in social realism. In chapter 1, “Disciplinary Knowledge and its Role in the School Curriculum,” they allow that knowledge is always to some degree socially constructed and mediated through language, while maintaining that it is not arbitrary nor relative nor a mere tool of domination, but has a durable, stable existence independent of any social interest. Though elusive, objective truth exists, and the academic disciplines evolved out of the human drive to discover it. So, while we should guard against intellectual hubris, the true, the beautiful and the good remain the lodestars of inquiry and the foundation of a sound basic education. Disciplinary content (propositional knowledge) and methods (procedural knowledge) are accessible to everyone—irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender or geography—because their pursuit gradually draws us out of the local, conventional and culture-bound toward the abstract, patterned and universal.
Chapter 2, “School Subjects,” opens with an eloquent distillation of education’s proper telos and the role that subject matter disciplines play in realizing it:
Schools, as places of learning, introduce children to humanity’s intellectual traditions that take them beyond their personal experiences. Through the study of subjects, “students are drawn from their world and made to enter a new one.” While children may be familiar with the world around them, animals, plants, landscapes, cityscapes, different countries, different cultures and so forth, the theoretical and conceptual frameworks drawn from disciplinary knowledge … enable the child to see the world differently: they begin to see a greater range of differences and to recognize patterns, structures, connections, purposes, processes and how phenomena have evolved.
The endgame is “the development of the full individual through an engagement with intellectual and aesthetic richness, resulting in “the concept of humanity in our person.”
I particularly appreciated the editors’ rebuke to the conventional wisdom that subject matter learning is somehow antithetical to student autonomy:
A common misunderstanding is to assume that the development of individual autonomy of reason and understanding means giving pupils control over their learning in the classroom. Rather, it takes years to develop the powers of judgement cultivated through learning a discipline. Disciplinary thinking is best nurtured through an intergenerational dialogue with a teacher who is an expert in their field as well as through conversation with peers in an educational community. The pupil learns how the teacher reasons (disciplined enquiry) and gradually takes ownership of their ways of thinking until finally reaching the point where they no longer need the school teacher and they move onto a higher level of education.
Lest one think this view deprives students of agency, they emphasize:
Successful education also involves commitment and volition on the part of the child because learning subject knowledge and disciplinary methods and techniques is challenging. Through dedication to study, pupils begin to internalize values associated with intellectual work including “devotion, respect, attention and passion.” As children begin to internalize knowledge and intellectual habits from the teacher “the self of the student takes form.”
In the current cultural climate, where students are typically regarded as customers of schooling, and the onus for motivating them is placed on teachers, the assertion that students bear ultimate responsibility for their learning—for meeting challenging intellectual standards not of their choosing through dedication and hard work—may make this the most radical passage in the book.
These passages shatter other shibboleths as well, not least the false I teach students, not subjects and sage on the stage vs guide on the side dichotomies that are perennially popular among pedagogues. This is one of many instances in which the authors dismantle common fallacies and fads, from naïve appeals to brain science to dubious demands to decolonize the curriculum.
The chapter goes on to outline how educators can translate academic disciplines into secondary school subjects so that students can incrementally advance toward basic mastery. The distinction between disciplines and subjects helps clarify how the role of the K12 teacher differs from that of the college professor. Professors generate knowledge, whereas teachers “select and re-contextualize aspects of disciplinary knowledge for school purposes.” That is, they selectively repackage disciplinary knowledge to make it accessible to young people and teach it in a school setting whose social purpose is distinct from that of the university.
The final section of this chapter, “What Subjects Should Schools Teach?,” briefly sketches out the relevant knowledge domains—maths, science, arts, humanities—and transdisciplinary domains—language acquisition, critical reasoning, moral reasoning—and explains why some subjects are included in the book and others aren’t.
What follows are 12 chapters, each by an appropriate subject matter specialist, covering the four core academic domains: arts (literature, art, music, drama); humanities (geography, history, foreign languages, religious education); sciences (biology, chemistry, physics); and mathematics. Each chapter summarizes the subject’s history and evolution, assesses current UK policy, defends the subject’s intrinsic educational value, discusses key problems and challenges, proposes a broad approach, provides at least one concrete example of what good teaching in the subject looks like and recommends further reading.
Unsurprisingly, the science and maths chapters are the tidiest (with the partial exception of biology), since knowledge in those areas is more clearly hierarchical. These chapters are especially valuable for their insights into how these disciplines are structured, their classroom histories and the nuances involved in adapting them for young learners (e.g. reconciling classical and modern physics). The science chapters also emphasize the complementary nature of hands-on—field work, experiments, etc.—and more didactic, content-focused pedagogies.
The arts chapters all convincingly show why formal instruction in the arts should focus on cultivating students’ ability to respond perceptively to aesthetic experiences. This is a striking departure from the usual instrumentalist justifications for arts education—such as the ideas that it provides cultural literacy, exposure to a range of different cultures and identities, fosters increased creativity in the workplace and so on. This restores the notion that education should help students live rich, well-rounded lives, while recognising that standards of aesthetic judgment exist and can be used to help students articulate and hone their subjective responses.
The arts chapters further emphasize the importance of providing students with some experience of making art, though the music chapter is more circumspect about this owing to the difficulty of mastering a musical instrument. And all except for the literature chapter accept, at least implicitly, some notion that there is an artistic tradition and that it is valuable to know something about a given work’s place within that tradition.
The humanities chapters are more varied. The foreign language chapter focuses on language as a window into other cultures, a way to gain insight into how language shapes thought and a vehicle for understanding linguistic structures and variations. The religious education chapter (required in government-sponsored schools in the UK) seeks to establish religious studies as a subject in its own right, rather than an inculcation into worship or doctrine, or a vehicle for moral instruction. The geography and history chapters take contrasting approaches, despite the fact that the subjects themselves overlap significantly. The geography chapter charts the differences between systemic and regional geography and between physical and human phenomena, and defends against efforts to co-opt the subject for social justice or environmental activism. The history chapter revels in the field’s politicized messiness and presents the conflicts over what and whose histories should be taught and how as evidence of the subject’s vitality.
I have two quibbles with the book. First, the English chapter focuses on literature rather than language. The editors write that, “As the book is concerned primarily with the secondary curriculum, it is here where the emphasis shifts to learning language in a literary context.” But there is an urgent need to teach students how to read carefully, write clearly and reason dispassionately; identify and avoid logical fallacies; seek, evaluate and apply evidence; and argue productively. It’s evident that the editors consider these skills and habits part and parcel of a truly liberal education. Yet one problem with educational decolonization efforts and other activist movements—ably rebutted throughout the book—is that they value highly charged emotional responses because they are rooted in a therapeutic mindset. Students today are too often taught to regard disagreement with their subjective truth or lived experience as an act of violence leading to emotional trauma, and—particularly if they identify as non-white—to distrust reasoned, logical, civil and evidence-based argumentation as a neo-imperialist ploy to colonize their minds and maintain white supremacy. If the editors deemed these skills too transdisciplinary to merit inclusion in the English chapter or as a stand-alone chapter, it would have been good to ask contributors to address them explicitly in their respective chapters.
My second quibble is with the editors’ concluding plea for teacher autonomy in shaping curricula and selecting pedagogical strategies. I agree in principle. Scripted curricula and cookie-cutter methods (what the editors call conformist pedagogies) never work, especially when imposed by state bureaucracies. Teachers should be allowed to exercise their professional judgment. However, in the United States at least, we educators don’t yet have the necessary professional credibility. Teacher training is notoriously abysmal, the profession is chronically fractious and faddish, and most rank-and-file teachers aren’t well educated enough themselves to teach their subjects in the ways advocated throughout the book. US teachers nonetheless enjoy extraordinary autonomy—held accountable (sort of) only for mathematics, literacy and, in some states, writing and a little science—and the result is about as far as you can get from the humanist ethos that animates the book. We will need to tackle these knotty problems before we can realize the book’s laudable aspirations.
Quibbles notwithstanding, What Should Schools Teach? is an important book that restores much needed sanity to debates about schooling’s purpose. It makes an excellent primer for aspiring teachers, will be of interest to parents and other interested laypersons, and should be mandatory reading for educational policymakers throughout the Anglophone world.