The merits of the academic disciplines

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.



7 Comments on The merits of the academic disciplines

  1. A very clear explanation of the tenets of a discipline. This should be required reading for people designing curricula.

    To what extent could you also argue that a craft such as stone masonry (thinking of the wonderful work done being done at York Minster) has a similar set of traditions and methods?

    • Michael Fordham // 15 January 2015 at 11:30 // Reply

      I would agree that there are a whole range of crafts and arts – just like stone masonry – that are based on a deep tradition where knowledge has been accumulated and passed on from generation to generation. Medicine is another good example. The distinction I would draw is with *purpose* – the arts and crafts aim at designing, producing or fixing things, rather than producing knowledge of the world.

  2. Tom Burkard // 15 January 2015 at 08:37 // Reply

    One little quibble with an excellent post–until the Renaissance (if not the Enlightenment), academic study in the West was largely the preserve of the church and religious orders. Men from relatively humble backgrounds rose to positions of considerable power through this route, and aristocrats and even kings were often illiterate.

    By the 18th century, education had trickled down to the lowest classes in Britain, if not elsewhere. Capt James Cook was the son of a landless labourer and his intelligence was recognised and cultivated by his vicar–and he advanced the science of navigation to the point where his reckonings were seldom off by more than a few hundred yards.

  3. Michael Fordham // 15 January 2015 at 19:12 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. Agree that academic disciplines have evolved historically, but that’s only one aspect of their development. Two concepts that might be useful in this context are levels of abstraction and facets.

    So, chemistry ultimately has the same objects of study as physics, but at a higher level of abstraction. Biology and geology have ultimately the same objects of study as chemistry, but are facets of a higher level of abstraction. Psychology is derived from biology and so on.

    You can take this all the way up to the arts, which are facets of human thought and behaviour.

    The fact that most disciplines are derived from others is why people want to break down the boundaries between them – they are interconnected, after all. This might ‘rip knowledge asunder from the historical processes by which it has been produced’, but that’s a bad thing only if the historical processes are the one criterion on which we can base a taxonomy of knowledge. Which clearly isn’t the case.

    Disciplines are always re-framing their theory and always have done. That doesn’t involve junking previous knowledge, but rather reconfiguring it in ways that make more sense as new knowledge is discovered.

    I’d argue that we should be teaching children at primary level the basics of the deep structure of knowledge domains so they have some idea of the form and content of those domains and can then make sense of more specific material. Just as the picture on the box helps you locate the pieces of the jigsaw.

  5. a question to logicalincrementalism. As a primary practitioner thinking hard about the curriculum at primary level, (particularly history) please could you expand on what you mean by ‘the basics of the deep structure of the domain’. I think I know what you mean but I’m not sure. thanks

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