Following discussions last week and over the weekend, I’ve decided to write a few posts setting out in more detail the philosophy that underpins my approach to the secondary school curriculum. In part these posts are a response to some of the criticism I have had levelled at me regarding my views, but I hope that, together, the posts will work as a coherent whole.
In this post I am going to argue for why academic disciplines are, in their own right, worthwhile things that ought to be at the heart of the secondary school curriculum. In my next post I shall set out the arguments that have been put to me for why vocational subjects have their place on the secondary school curriculum, and I shall set out to refute those arguments. In the final post, I intend to build on my prior post on planning a curriculum to suggest a model that gives us the best of all worlds. This post can perhaps best be understood as a challenge to those who have played down the importance or usefulness of the academic disciplines, and those who have claimed that the academic disciplines simply represent the ‘knowledge of elites’.
It used to be the case that academic disciplines were the preserve of the wealthy. For most of history, the vast majority of people did not have the luxury of free time, let alone an education, which allowed them to study the academic disciplines. In contrast, the privileged few – those of independent means – could devote their time to the study of the world beyond their immediate everyday experiences. These were the people who, through the privilege of their birth, were able to wile away their time in the idle pursuit of knowledge through a study of the academic disciplines.
The academic disciplines, contrary to what many people think, are not fixed and unchanging entities, but rather phenomena that have evolved over time, with some going extinct, some getting created and others changing as they went. Aristotle, for example, divided up the study of the world into disciplines such as ‘physics’, ‘metaphysics’, ‘ethics’ and ‘poetics’. By the middle ages, the world was captured through the seven liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. The Enlightenment saw the disciplines evolve into an array of ‘sciences’ and ‘arts’ such as chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, history, geography and literature, while more recently we have seen the growth of new (or reinvented) disciplines such as economics, psychology and sociology.
But what actually is a discipline? Contrary to what some think and argue, disciplines are not just boundaries drawn around content. I would argue that an academic discipline has the following characteristics:
(1) A particular object of study
In history, for example, the object of study is the human past. In biology the object of study is living organisms. In economics the object of study is the management of resources.
(2) A set of questions asked of those objects of study
The types of questions that a physicist asks of bone structure are different from those asked by a biologist. Similarly, historians, classicists and philosophers are all interested in the works of Cicero, but they seek to ask and answer different questions about his works.
(3) A set of methods used to answer those questions
Although there are obviously some cross-overs, generally speaking a discipline has its own set of methods for answering particular questions. These range from quite practical things (the type of microscope one might use) through to different notions of epistemological concepts such as ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’.
(4) A tradition of answering those questions
In academic disciplines, we are always standing on the shoulders of giants. For centuries, mankind has sought to answer some of the big questions about the world, and we know more now about it than at any other time in the past. That is humbling but also exciting. When we study a discipline, we normally spend a fair amount of time immersing ourselves in this gift from the past.
(5) A community that sustains and advances the tradition
Every discipline has a cutting edge and it can usually be found in universities and other research organisations around the world. Being at the cutting edge is not easy as, in order to find out something new about (1), it is usually necessary to have built up mastery over (2), (3) and (4).
For all of these reasons, academic disciplines are not arbitrary boundaries drawn around ‘content’, but rather sophisticated forms of knowledge that have evolved over time which stand currently as our best means of making sense of the world beyond our immediate experience. It has been popular for a long time (it comes and goes in waves) to ‘break down’ the boundaries between disciplines, but all this does is rip knowledge asunder from the historical processes by which it has been produced, and removes it from the context in which it is maintained. I am very happy for researchers at the cutting edge of knowledge production to be thinking about the complex relationships between disciplines, and indeed over time this is how the disciplines will further evolve. The school curriculum, however, is not the place to be messing with this.
If one of the aims of education is to teach children knowledge of the world beyond their immediate experience, then it is hard to think of any more obvious candidates for the secondary curriculum than the academic disciplines.