Oh, I don’t mean the profession of teaching … I mean the actual practice of imparting knowledge. As Joanna Williams explains, it’s the practical part that’s in steep decline nowadays:
After almost two decades working in the British education system, I’m still shocked when I meet teachers and lecturers who recoil at the prospect of actually imparting knowledge to their students. I cringed when the headteacher at my daughter’s junior school gathered all the new parents together to watch a sharply edited film showing that knowledge was now so easily accessible and so quickly outdated that there was little point in teaching children anything other than how to Google. When I find myself discussing the purpose of higher education, my proposal that the pursuit and transmission of knowledge should be the primary concern of the university is mostly met by looks of incomprehension that swiftly turn to barely concealed horror.
Teaching knowledge, as has been discussed before on spiked, has rarely been popular among the Rousseau-inspired, supposedly child-centred progressives of the educational world. It began to go more seriously out of fashion in the 1970s. Today, when every 10-year-old has a smart phone in their back pocket, actually teaching them stuff is seen as an unnecessary imposition on their individual creativity, serving no other end than future pub-quiz success. Working with children, rather than teaching knowledge, is considered altogether nicer; what’s more, it conveniently avoids the need for complex decisions to be made about what is most important in any particular subject. Rather than imposing their authority on children, teachers can be simply ‘guides on the side’, creating a learning environment through which children can determine their own path. What lies behind many of these entrenched ideas is a fundamental misunderstanding of what knowledge actually is.
Unfortunately, as a few voices in the educational world are beginning to make clear, left to their own devices children generally learn little and creativity is stifled rather than unleashed. Michael Young has been making the case for ‘bringing knowledge back in’ for many years now. More recently, people like Daisy Christodoulou, Toby Young and Tom Bennett have joined those chipping away at the child-centred, anti-knowledge orthodoxy. This is definitely a trend to welcome. And when knowledge-centred teaching goes against everything the educational establishment stands for, it is important to get the arguments right.
William Kitchen’s book, Authority and the Teacher, is a useful addition to the debate. Kitchen makes a convincing case that ‘any education without knowledge transmission is not an education at all’. The central premise of his book is his claim that ‘the development of knowledge requires a submission to the authority of a master expert: the teacher’. Kitchen argues that it is the teacher’s authority that makes imparting knowledge possible; in the absence of authority, teaching becomes simply facilitation and knowledge becomes inaccessible. He is careful to delineate authority from power, and he locates teachers’ authority within their own subject knowledge, which in turn is substantiated and held in check through membership of a disciplinary community. Without ‘the authority of the community and the practice,’ he argues, the notion of ‘correctness’ loses its meaning and there is no longer any sense to the passing of educational judgements.