Truth about and knowledge of the world: a fundamental right for children

Children, I would argue, have a right to know about the world in which they live. They have a right to be taught about the structures of reality at both cosmic and atomic scales; they have a right to be taught about living creatures on this planet and how they interact with one another; they have a right to be taught about the passing of the seasons, the rise and fall of tides, and the water cycle. They have a right to be taught about humans in the past, what those humans did, and how we today live with the consequences of what happened before we were alive. They have a right to be taught about the kinds of stories humans tell one another, and how humans live in communities that are divided in different ways by wealth, class, gender and race.

The world we live in is a complex place but, as a species and as a society, we have come up with powerful tools for making sense of this complexity, and they are the academic disciplines. We most certainly can debate which are the more important academic subjects and we can debate what ought to be taught within each academic subject, but, as a principle, I would advocate that children have a right to be taught academic subjects because these are the very things they need in order to make sense of the complex yet wonderful world in which they live.

The great educational injustice in this country is that children up and down the land are told that academic subjects are ‘not for them’.

In some cases this is done with the best of intentions, a concern that it is in a child’s best interest for them to be doing something ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ rather than ‘academic’ or ‘elitist’. Some might well argue that chemistry or poetry or medieval history is going to be of little use to someone who will go on to be a computer engineer, a fisherman (or woman) or a hairdresser. Some might argue that it’s better to let a child do something they enjoy, or something they might be more likely to get a qualification in, rather than risk failure in studying academic subjects.

My response to this position is that I think computer engineers should know Shakespeare, that fishermen (or women) ought to know about the structure of molecules and that computer engineers would lead richer lives were they to know a little medieval history. There is a time for vocational training, and I believe it starts when we enter the world of work. It takes time to learn the academic disciplines, and five years of secondary education in the life of an individual who is likely to live for eighty years or so is not unreasonable.

Those who advocate bringing ‘vocational’ education earlier and earlier into the school curriculum are robbing children of their childhood, taking away those few precious years when children have the opportunity to learn knowledge for its own sake. In some schools children are allowed to stop studying history when they are 13, providing (at best) two years of teaching on one hour a week, quite likely taught by a non-specialist. There is plenty of time after finishing secondary school (say at 16) for vocational education. One’s job might change and one might need new vocational training through life, but knowledge of physics, literature and mathematics will stay with someone for life, provided they have been given the opportunity to be taught it.

There is a further problem here, which is that, for a variety of reasons, those children who have the opportunity to study academic subjects taken away from them at increasingly younger ages are those from less wealthy or lower social class backgrounds. For some of these children, school is the only chance they are going to get to learn the academic disciplines. It is a matter of social justice that such children should have their right to be taught academic subjects protected, not whittled away by the rather patronising view that ‘academic subjects are not for them’. Perhaps with the exception of children with severe special needs, I can think of no child – whatever his or her social background, parental wealth or intelligence – for whom academic subjects are not appropriate. Indeed, the children who are not from comfortable middle-class backgrounds are often those who are most in need of – and who have most to gain from – an academic education.

At heart, a traditional, liberal, academic education is socially progressive and those who believe in improving the human condition ought to be supporting it.

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7 Comments on Truth about and knowledge of the world: a fundamental right for children

  1. In complete agreement about children’s right to knowledge. I also agree that the vast majority of students would benefit from knowing how academic disciplines have made sense of the complexity of the world we live in. And that there is plenty of time for vocational training once students have had a basic education.

    However …

    I’m not sure academic/vocational is a helpful distinction. For many people ‘academic’ means abstract knowledge, sitting in classrooms, paper-and-pencil assessments, which really, really doesn’t suit some students; and ‘vocational’ means practical, out of school, application of knowledge which suits some students very well.

    People also think of people who work in academic disciplines as spending most of their time in libraries. Ironically, the world we have knowledge about is a pretty concrete place and in the academic disciplines, the acquisition of knowledge tends to be intensely practical and hands-on, even if it’s transmitted via the printed word. But you wouldn’t know that from the way we have traditionally passed on knowledge to the younger generation in schools.

    Also…

    Although separate academic disciplines have emerged over time as specialisation has become increasingly necessary, it doesn’t follow that the best way to teach students is via separate subjects. All knowledge is interconnected and knowing how it’s interconnected and experiencing or observing its practical applications first hand can go a long way to increasing understanding and dispelling the idea that ‘academic subjects are not for them’.

    Whether a ‘traditional, liberal, academic education is socially progressive’ or not depends on what you mean by traditional, liberal, academic and education. In many cases, it has not been socially progressive at all, but has alienated a significant proportion of the population and confused many others.

  2. I agree with this, but only if assessment is optional at the end of it. With assessment and thus failure written in to the DNA of our education system, many students choose to drop subjects like History not because they aren’t interested in History, but because they have by the end of year 9 had 3 years of systematically being told, at least 6 times a year, that History is not for them. That naturally impacts on their sense of self worth, and so to shore up their sense of self worth, they either stop trying, or they choose to opt out: if you don’t try, then you can’t fail.

    So yes, teach them history til they’re 16. Absolutely. But let’s drop the compulsory aspect of the assessment system as well.

  3. mrabarbanel // 11 January 2015 at 15:38 // Reply

    Excellent piece. I recognize and appreciate the argument very much. One addition, or subtle qualification: holistic curriculum, a philosophy of education accepting the interconnectedness of arbitrarily siloed subject matter, allows for academic and vocational training and interdisciplinary study for all students. In order to maximize educational possibilities for all, every student, regardless of background, should be able to access education of the head, heart, and hands. We can have it all. We could overcome many of the difficulties faced by ‘the system’ on account of its complexity if everyone gave a certain re-imagination of curricula a chance. I’m talking about a pedagogy of care, of personal and social transformation. Noddings, Dewey, Wilhelm & Novak, Miller, Campano. We must also challenge our deficit discourses, our notions that certain kids “can’t do it” or can’t learn x, and instead give all students a guided chance (at least a chance) to explore, or “fulfill their potential”. Just wanted to contribute that.

    @MishaAbarbanel, educateforgood.com

  4. David Harbourne // 11 January 2015 at 17:25 // Reply

    The great educational injustice in this country is that children up and down the land are told that vocational subjects are ‘not for them’.

    In some cases this is done with the best of intentions, a concern that it is in a child’s best interest for them to be doing something ‘academic’ or ‘elitist’ rather than ‘useful’ or ‘practical’. Some might well argue that coding, engineering and catering are going to be of little use to someone who will go on to be a chemist or poet or medieval historian. Some might argue that it’s better to prevent a child doing something they enjoy, because no-one who is academically able needs practical skills, to know how things work, or how to cook.

    My response to this position is that I think chemists should know how to cook, poets should know about coding, and medieval historians would lead richer lives were they to know a little about how things are designed and engineered. There is a time for young people to discover practical and vocational education, and I believe it starts well before they enter the world of work: otherwise they may never discover where their true passions and talents lie.

  5. I agree to an extent with this position Michael, however I am also of the belief that a good vocational education is an excellent way for kids to learn. if vocational education is done really well it means someone mastering a real craft. for example, to be an apprentice in woodwork or carpentry or joinery (or any other wood based profession) really needs skilled tuition over a long period of time. at the end of such a period the student in turn becomes a competent professional and eventually a master of their craft, able to contribute to the system.

    The big problem is not a vocational education in my opinion, it is the fact that choosing a vocational (or indeed an academic) route closes certain doors. How many times have we told someone (an adult) we teach history for them to reply that they wish they could go back and study it now? Where I think a lot of this falls down is the fact that education has become synoymous with being a child. If we genuinely had a system of free education which could be accessed over a lifetime (or even a credit scheme which gave access to a number of years’ worth of free or subsdised education), then there would be less issue with students not getting a full academic education aged 14.

    There is also the question about when students should choose a path through subjects, which is an interesting matter in its own right.

    As things stand however, I tend to agree that, in the system we have, students must retain the right to study academic subjects for as long as possible before they are taken away.

  6. “those few precious years when children have the opportunity to learn knowledge for its own sake.”

    If that was what children did at school then I would wholeheartedly agree with this post. But they don’t learn knowledge for its own sake; children study academic subjects to earn a place in a social hierarchy with Oxbridge at the top, NEET at the bottom. Poor children are concentrated at the bottom of this hierarchy and so insisting they dedicate themselves to a task from which the main outcome will be official notification that they are worse than their richer peers and calling that insistence socially progressive, seems to me perverse.

    Of course, if diverted to the vocational courses currently on offer, designed by people who wouldn’t dream of letting their own children take them, they will still be considered the bottom of the pile. The solution is not that easy. It does exist though. If all children studied academic and practical subjects and their different abilities were not used to rank them from best to worst, then from that curriculum for equality a more just society would emerge.

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