Stay in School: the importance of knowledge

You have probably now seen the “Don’t Stay in School” video by Boyinaband. The singer has received a lot of criticism for making the case that academic subjects in school ought to be optional rather than compulsory. In his blog post today, James Manion stands up for Boyinaband.

Manion concludes his defence of Boyinaband with a challenge that runs as follows:

 1) Take a good look at a typical news bulletin.

2) Take a good look at the national curriculum.

3) Repeat this process 3 times.

 So this is what I did.

Let’s start with this article on the election in Delhi: The headline is ‘Delhi votes in first real test for Modi’. What does someone need to know in order to make sense fully of what this article is telling us?

The article is littered, first, with ‘substantive concepts’ such as

  • vote
  • anti-corruption
  • general election
  • paramilitary
  • assembly
  • working-class
  • economic reform
  • foreign investment
  • civil servant

All of these concepts are learnt in history lessons in school (or at least they ought to be if history is being taught well – the National Curriculum now specifies a handful of substantive concepts, but numerous others are clearly required to be taught). A concept is not learnt as a dictionary definition: rather concepts have to be learnt through learning about different instantiations of the concept. For example, a teenager who studies the English National Curriculum will not just learn what ‘working class’ means, but also how the idea of the ‘working class’ has developed over time. Terms such as ‘vote’, ‘corruption’ and ‘assembly’ are central to any study of the French Revolution or British electoral reform in the 19th century. Someone who has been taught the National Curriculum well is peculiarly well-placed to understand this news article as they have the knowledge they need in order to be able to make sense of the language used in the article.

It’s not just this kind of transferable knowledge that is important, however, There are also a range of specifics which are needed to make sense of it. One has to know, for example, that Delhi is an important city in India. In order to understand the significance of the Congress Party coming a distant third, one needs to understand the role of the British Empire in India and the role played by the Congress Party in bringing about independence. Similarly, the significance of a Prime Minister who belongs to a Hindu nationalist party being tested in a city with a sizeable Muslim population in the north-west of India makes this all the more interesting. A child who has been taught history, geography and RE well (India would be a common subject in all three) is very well-placed indeed to make sense of this article.

Now most of the latter specifics could be looked up quite quickly, but having to look them up would certainly slow down one’s fluency in reading the article; more likely than not, people would not bother and thus not get the complete significance of the events being subscribed. The transferable knowledge captured in the substantive concepts, however, cannot be learnt quickly, and needs to have developed through studying the way these concepts have been deployed in numerous cases in the past.

Let’s move on to article number 2, a piece about astronomy:

This article was on the BBC’s list of most-read articles for a while last week. Now this article is full of things that someone learns at school. The briefest of scans gives us:

  • radiation
  • stars
  • Big Bang
  • universe
  • hydrogen
  • elements
  • electrons
  • protons
  • polarisation
  • galaxies
  • black holes

As with the previous article, one could look up all of these things. But, if one had never been taught about the atomic structure of hydrogen, how long would it take to learn about protons and electrons and their relationship to one another? In order to make sense of this article having never studied physics, one would need to invest a great deal of time in it. The Catch-22 here is that it is knowledge of these very things which makes the article appear to be worth reading in the first place! Odds are that someone who is ignorant of these things would probably not bother to spend time looking these details up: even if one did, then that would be time that could have been spent reading other articles.

So, BBC News article number 3:

This is an article about the crisis in Ukraine. As with the first example, the article is packed full of substantive concepts that one needs to know in order to make sense of the piece including

  • demilitarized zone
  • separatists
  • ceasefire
  • annexation
  • diplomacy
  • security conference
  • autonomy
  • sanctions

Now anyone who has studied any 20th-century European history cannot have helped but encounter these concepts in numerous contexts. One of the most common topics in history – Germany from 1918 to 1945 – involves studying the Rhineland demilitarized zone and the annexation of Austria in 1936 and the Sudetenland in 1938. Understanding the subtle difference between an ‘annexation’ and an ‘invasion’ requires one to have looked at such events in some detail. The concept of ‘autonomy’ was central to Wilson’s Fourteen Points, while the idea of ‘sanctions’ (and the limitations of these) was apparent on numerous occasions in the 20th century.

Some geography helps quite a bit here too: knowing roughly where Ukraine and Belarus are is a good start. Knowing that Russia’s sphere of influence used to extend into central Europe is also very helpful. It’s particularly helpful to know that both the USA and Russia became nuclear powers in the 20th century, and therefore it is interesting that the USA is advocating feeding weapons to Ukraine. Anyone who has studied the Vietnam War knows the significance of this. Knowledge of how the EU developed in the second half of the twentieth century helps make sense of France and Germany standing together, and knowledge of 19th-century Russian history opens up the significance of the Crimea to readers.

In short, a child who was taught history, geography, RE, physics and chemistry well at school (i.e. they remember a good amount of what they were taught) is very well placed indeed to make sense of all three of these news articles. If one has not been taught an academic curriculum at school – including physics, chemistry, history, geography and RE – then one is pretty poorly placed to make sense of the world in the present.

Could we not just look all this up on Google? Without wanting to re-tread tired ground (though this post is just a re-hash of ED Hirsch’s thesis) there are three key arguments against this:

(1) Unless you know enough about what the articles are talking about, you are unlikely to see their significance, and therefore less likely to look up what you need to know and invest the time in learning this.

(2) As a working adult, I have far less time available to me now for learning basic academic knowledge than when I was a teenager.

(3) It takes time to look up the basics. I can devour a far greater quantity of BBC News articles (or whatever) because I have a grounding in the academic disciplines – this is one reason why knowledge breeds knowledge.

That alone should be enough to complete the case for why academic disciplines need to be learned in school. There is a further argument, however, that rests on social justice. Children from certain backgrounds are far more likely to receive an academic education at home, regardless of whether or not they get taught it at school. If your parents are well educated, read to you, take you to museums, discuss politics with you and so on, then you are probably going to build up a fairly good knowledge base even if you never spend a day in school. Children whose parents cannot or will not do this will never get this knowledge. To make a National Curriculum based on academic disciplines optional thus has a dividing effect: indeed, Boyinaband’s point about educating the parents of the future is one of the very reasons why his argument is wrong.

This is not to say that the point about learning life skills is not valid: it most certainly is. Boyinaband is of an age where he almost certainly had numerous lessons in PSHE, Citizenship and countless assemblies about topical issues: these may have been done badly – as I am sure happens in many places – but it is not like the time is not available for the things he wanted to be taught. But in many cases the very things that Boyinaband wants to do (like knowing who to vote for or understanding how money works) are the kinds of things that an academic education makes it possible to understand.

I am quite certain that this video will get played at numerous conferences and INSET days in coming months: I would firmly encourage anyone who is on the receiving end of this to make a stand and to argue that the academic disciplines are not obscure collections of idiosyncrasies, but rather the fundamental forms of knowledge that allow us to make sense of the world in which we live.


7 Comments on Stay in School: the importance of knowledge

  1. Tom Burkard // 7 February 2015 at 18:15 // Reply

    There’s another way of looking at this: even when you have amassed a large amount of knowledge, google is of limited value if we want to learn about the much greater body of knowledge of which we know little.

    I presume that virtually everyone who reads this will have at least an undergraduate degree, and quite possibly post-graduate degrees. I do. I have a book called “Statistics for Dummies”, and it is written for people like me. I never studied maths past quadratics, but I got very good grades in maths and can still calculate fluently. I’d like to know more about statistics, and they are central to the kind of quantitative research in education that policy-makers will listen to.

    Unfortunately, I simply don’t have the time to get my head around all the mathematical concepts in “Statistics for Dummies”. There are other subjects that I’d dearly like to know more about; my first degree is in History, and whilst reading original sources I realised that I was missing a lot because almost all of them were writing for an audience that took knowledge of the classics for granted. My shelves are littered with books by Plutarch, Seneca, Thucydides, etc and others about Constantine and Ceasar. I have books about classic mythology. Unfortunately, the classics have been off the menu in most schools for over a generation (more like a century in the US), and I lack the scaffolding that would make it much easier for me to understand and retain what I do read. Despite having read about Homer on many occasions, I couldn’t even give you an outline sketch of the Iliaid, and no more than a three-line summary of the Odyssey. Until I started reading Thucydides, I could not have told you what century the Peloponnesian Wars were fought in, or even who won them.

    At least I have enough education to make me want to learn. But what kind of folly is it to think that these Boysinaband are ever going to take the first step up a very long ladder? They, I fear, are doomed to make even more shallow and ill-informed judgments than did James Manion. They will not even be aware of what they don’t know, and as their songs demonstrate, they don’t care. For the generation growing up in the far East, our kids will be toast.

    • Hi Tom. Could you please be more specific about which of my judgments you consider to be shallow and ill informed, and perhaps offer a rationale for this assertion rather than leaving it hanging in the realm of the merely impolite. Thanks!

  2. Everything about this post illustrates ignorance toward the argument presented in the video it is a response to.

    “If you can’t explain why a subject is applicable to most people’s lives, that subject should not be mandatory. Introduce those topics, yes… But we should choose if we want to learn more.” – Dave Brown AKA Boyinaband

    Have you just shown why these subjects are applicable to most people’s lives? Yes? All well and good. Is there anything you have shown that is not applicable to most people’s lives? Perhaps there are things you also didn’t learn in school that you wish you had? Those should be options we are presented with. That is the whole of the concept presented in his video, I don’t know why you are even trying to argue that this is wrong. Are you saying that the educational system is perfect the way it is? It isn’t.

    @Tom Burkard It’s Boyinaband. One person. There are no boys in any band associated with this content producer. You should go actually take a look at some of his videos, considering that most of his videos are on very deep and meaningful topics that require extensive research and interest in certain fields such as the ones mentioned in his video in question. He does, in fact, inspire people to learn and make well informed and deep judgements. Clearly you have made a shallow and ill-informed judgement just now..

  3. Hi Michael. Thanks for this thoughtful response to my challenge. I do not think our positions are as opposed to each other as your other commenter might assume. I agree of course with the need for a knowledge rich curriculum – however your examples illustrate to me why schools should also emphasise and value the application of knowledge to understanding the news, rather than merely teaching historical corrolaries, and assuming that young people will do the rest unassisted. The question that followed my challenge was: “having done this, is there seriously nothing you would change”? Specifically around the notions of compulsion and choice, and my suggestion to bring in other bodies of knowledge, such as government and politics, philosophy – or indeed to incorporate the process of applying knowledge to understanding the world, which you modelled so lucidly above, in a current affairs course say, or by incorporating current affairs analysis into a taught course. This would actually be quite easy to achieve, e.g. by releasing articles such as those you use here a week in advance of the exam and then testing for knowledge, understanding and analysis. As a Science teacher, the second article represents a kind of “living science” which reflects the reality that scientists are constantly testing and refining their ideas. The version of cosmology lite we cover at GCSE does not reflect any such uncertainty, and the sheer volume of content we are “compelled” to deliver and test the temporary retention of means that there is precious little time to engage in the art of applying academic knowledge to an understanding of the world.

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