No country for old white men

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

The Knowledge and Power seminar at Bath the other day was a bit like being in a Cormac McCarthy novel: old white men (Michael Young, David Packham and friends) wondering what the world was coming to, while the future (Melz Owusu) rampaged about raising hell.  ok, the hell-raiser's bullets were metaphoric, but they were certainly flying round.  As to whether they hit home, well, you needed to be there to have a view on that.  Personally, I felt that they might have been much better targeted.

I like Young's arguments about trying to ensure that everyone is provided with access to powerful (potentially emancipatory) knowledge.  I'd only add that it's important to hold, as provisional, what the boundaries of such knowledge are.  This point, for me, is where Owusu and Young meet, but no one made it at the meeting.

Young's two key points were:

  1. specialised knowledge (in Basil Bernstein's terms) can give access to 'thinking the unthinkable and the not yet thought' and that this should be a right of all students
  2. this knowledge should be the basis of the curriculum for all and should remain a part of the curriculum for all educational programmes.

As I noted a while back:

"Young argued that, although in a society such as ours, any curriculum is likely to be inequitable because of the nature of society, a curriculum based on concepts (ie, subjects), can be seen as a carrier of equality as such a curriculum can treat everyone equally, unlike, say, a labour market.  In Young’s view subjects are the only basis we have as a curriculum for all.   ...   Young stressed that a curriculum has to be about concepts that allow students to abstract from their own experience and personal knowledge and understandings, and argued that a curriculum that only emphasises experience and relevance lets down those who lack access to other knowledge at home; after all, he said, no one goes to schools to learn what they already know.  Young said that, whilst all knowledge is socially constructed, its truth is not dependent on its origins, and his view is that knowledge is best experienced through disciplines with boundary crossings (good teachers know how to do this).  Whilst the curriculum is not a given, and is open to change, an effective curriculum protects schools from passing and powerful social forces.  He reminded us that the subject-based curriculum was an enlightenment project.  Currently, shortage of properly qualified subject teachers is a problem, particularly as they are distributed very unequally across schools."

You will hear much of this in Young's YouTube presentation here.

Melz Owusu was quite different in every sense, and she had some great rhetorical flourishes, for example: "Eurocentrism isn't woven into the fabric of the world; it is the fabric", and some new words (for poor sheltered folk like me), for example: "epistemicidal".   You can see her (and one of her raps) on YouTube in a 2017 TEDx talk at Leeds.  In this, she talks about the soft bigotry of low expectations (a Govian phrase) that she experienced at school.  This is, of course, not something just experienced by people of colour.

Owusu says in the video (and also said in the seminar) that what she experienced at school was an unrepresentative curriculum that had its base in the pain of colonialism.  I recall this kind of accusation in the 1970s but it was then aimed at schooling that was unrepresentative of working class culture which, no doubt, had its base in the pain of high culture hegemony.  There is clearly something in these arguments.  In a sense, Owusu has an open goal for her arguments and even I could make her case and argue it with sincerity.  But if I did so, I'd take care not to over-egg the pudding.  I'd not want my listeners to come away with the impression that I thought that all was well with the world before European imperial adventurism.  That there was no oppression, no discrimination, no misogyny, no patriarchy, no disease, no enslavement, no environmental degradation, and that lambs everywhere would lie down in harmony with lions.  I'd be very careful with my bullets and make sure they hit home at targets that would feel them.  I think I'd feel the need for more scholarly scaffolding for my arguments than Owusu did.  I'd also be unlikely to rap my message about the need for other pedagogical tools (I lost count of all the -isms and -ists in there). The Bath audience whooped and hollered at her performance, however, like folk at a Trump stump meeting.

As for the organisation, well, words (almost) fail me.  The organisers couldn't manage to either begin or end on time, and their idea of bringing two old white men and one young black woman together was an odd idea of balance.  They claimed that their preferred fishbowl approach was somehow more democratic than taking points from the audience, but all it did was give even more old white men time to strut their stuff.  Some did this by addressing the issues; others just told their anecdotes.  Some, I thought were too much in awe of Owusu, and maybe a bit frit of taking her on.  The really disappointing thing about the afternoon was the way that the event never quite managed to have Owusu and Young engage with each others' ideas.  That needed a strong Chair and a more formal debate, I guess.  This was a pity as it's why I'd turned up.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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