What is wrong with cultural literacy?

A lot has been said recently about cultural literacy as the basis for the school curriculum. Based in the work of US theorist, E.D. Hirsch, this approach has elicited enthusiastic advocacy from Michael Gove, and is being adopted in free schools (e.g. gu.com/p/3eb76). It asserts strongly the primacy of ‘essential’ bodies of knowledge in the school curriculum – content that young people should learn if they are to become cultured citizens (see http://tinyurl.com/boxt9vv for an interesting analysis of this approach).

There is actually little new about this type of thinking on the school curriculum. England’s 1988 National Curriculum was grounded very much in ideas about cultural restorationism and prescriptive bodies of knowledge. Earlier still, thinkers such as R.S. Peters and Paul Hirst in the UK and Philip Phenix in the US attempted to provide a rationalist basis for a knowledge-centred curriculum. More recently, social realist writers such as Michael Young and Rob Moore have resurrected these ideas, calling for school knowledge/content to be firmly linked to academic disciplinary knowledge, and decrying the trend for school curricula to blur the boundaries between academic and everyday knowledge. In particular, such writers are critical of modern trends to frame the curriculum around the development of attributes such as confidence; they assert that schools are, and should be places where young people gain access to powerful knowledge, not readily available in the home, and that such knowledge is found in the academic disciplines (for an extended critique of these issues, see our forthcoming edited collection, Priestley, M. & Biesta,. G.J.J. (Eds.) (in press) Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic – http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/reinventing-the-curriculum-9781441134813/). I have some sympathy with these views on knowledge and the curriculum. Knowledge is important, and many modern curricula downplay this importance. However, the debate is fraught with difficulties – key concepts are subject to misunderstanding and conflation, and approaches such as cultural literacy are, in my view, misguided and dangerous.

First, they lend themselves to conservatism. Society changes, but a curriculum formed around essentialist canons of knowledge tends to ossify. This is nicely illustrated by the curriculum fable, The Saber Tooth Curriculum (http://tinyurl.com/6weqpch). Here, in a prehistoric era, a curriculum was developed to deal with current issues, including the essential subject of ‘Saber tooth tiger scaring’. Times changed, an ice age came and the fearsome tigers became extinct. Yet the curriculum remained unchanged, justified for its intrinsic educational value. We are all familiar with such tendencies, as school subjects become unquestioned and indeed unquestionable. Either many content-based curricula are simply habitual, unreflective continuations of prior practice – or they are justified for some intrinsic value, often abstract and more often than not driven by nostalgia for a mythical golden age.

Second, content-based curricula such as cultural literacy miss the point. The point is not that knowledge is [un]important. It is that knowledge is the wrong starting point for curriculum planning. John Dewey, a progenitor of the process curriculum, understood this well. He emphasised the value of knowledge (as the accumulated wisdom of the ages). In this sense he was asserting the value of cultural literacy – the sorts of powerful knowledge required by citizens in a democracy and workers in a modern economy. However, the key point here is why we select such content. A process curriculum involves clear specification of the purposes of education (and of course these are always contested). Selection of content is thus a matter of fitness for purpose, and knowledge retains its primacy, but is no longer the starting point for curriculum development. These ideas are laid out clearly in A.V. Kelly’s excellent books on the curriculum (for a summary and application of these ideas to Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/2110).

So, let’s emphasise the importance of knowledge – but let’s also think beyond simplistic curriculum models such as the Hirsch cultural literacy approach.