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Equality and academic subjects

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Equality and academic subjects
Atli Harðarson
Version of record first published: 08 Feb 2013.
To cite this article: Atli Harðarson (2013): Equality and academic subjects, Journal of Curriculum
Studies, 45:2, 119-131
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Vol. 45, No. 2, 119–131, We all observe, and we all reason, […] we all ascertain truths […] If wecould not do it in any degree, we should be mere instruments in the handsof those who could: they would be able to reduce us to slavery. (Mill 2009[1867]: 154–155) A recent national curriculum guide for upper secondary schools in my home country,Iceland, requires secondary schools to work towards equality and five other overarchingaims. This requirement raises questions about to what extent secondary schools have tochange their curricula in order to approach these aims or work towards them in an ade-quate way. Textbooks on curriculum theory commonly invite their readers to choosebetween different perspectives that are presented as mutually exclusive. From one per-spective, they tend to emphasize academic subjects, to the exclusion of perspectives thatfocus on improvement of society or individual development. There are, however, reasonsto doubt that organizing a curriculum emphasizing general aims such as equality excludesusing academic subjects as its principal building blocks. In this paper, I argue that if wetake equality seriously as an aim of education, we should indeed emphasize academicschool subjects, just as advocates of liberal education have done for a long time. Focusingon subjects and focusing on aims, such as equality, are therefore not mutually exclusiveperspectives but two aspects that must coexist in any reasonable and sound pedagogy.
educational philosophy; educational objectives; curriculum A recent national curriculum guide for upper secondary schools, issuedby the Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (2011:14–22), requires secondary schools to work towards six overarching aims,called fundamental pillars of education. These are literacy; sustainability;democracy and human rights; equality; health and welfare; and creativity.
Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 This requirement raises questions about to what extent secondary schoolshave to change their curricula in order to approach these aims or worktowards them in an adequate way. Can they continue to emphasize aca-demic subjects like mathematics, foreign languages, history, literature andsocial and natural sciences as they have done for a long time? Some well-known authors of texts on curriculum theory, for example, Eisner and Vallance (1974), McNeil (1977), Kliebard (1987), Walkerand Soltis (1997), and Schiro (2008), take curricula that emphasizeacademic subjects as being merely one out of a handful of possibleoptions, the others being, for instance, curricula emphasizing social recon- Atli Harðarson is principal of a comprehensive secondary school, Fjo¨lbrautasko´li Vesturlands, Vogabraut 5, 300 Akranes, Iceland; e-mail: He is also a PhDstudent in The School of Education at the University of Iceland. His academic interestscentre on philosophical problems related to educational aims.
struction or individual development. In what follows I argue that theseoptions are compatible and, therefore, we do not have to choose betweenfocusing on subjects and focusing on general aims having to do withimprovement of society. We can do both. I single out for considerationone general aim, which is equality. According to the curriculum guidementioned above, education for equality promotes social equality and jus-tice, and involves both appreciation of the value of equality and knowl-edge about the circumstances that lead to ‘discrimination of some andprivileges for others’ (Ministry of Education, Science and Culture 2011:20). My argument shows that education for equality in this broad sensenot only is compatible with a subject-centred curriculum, but actuallyrequires emphases on particular academic subjects such as history, litera-ture and social and natural sciences. This conclusion supports a tradi-tional subject-centred curriculum. My argument has, however, a radicalbent because it underlines the importance of enabling all students to par-ticipate in rational and critical discussions of political and social issues.
I am aware that some educationists, like e.g. Byhee (2010), emphasize the importance of the so-called STEM subjects, i.e. science, technology,engineering and mathematics, for adaptability, innovation, technical skillsand hence economic prosperity. They defend subject-centred curriculafrom another point of view than I do. I have, however, no quarrel withthem as I think schools have many different purposes and a balanced cur-riculum could and should be made to serve both the economy and politi-cal ideals like social justice, democracy and equality.
Allegedly exclusive perspectives on school curricula In a review of several attempts to classify theoretical views on school curric-ula published in 1992, Philip W. Jackson examines a textbook on curricu-lum by McNeil (1977), a collection of essays edited by Eisner and Vallance(1974), and a book by Kliebard (1987) on the history of school curricula inthe USA from 1893 to 1958. All these works describe several perspectives, Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 or different ways to think about school curricula, that are depicted as com-peting with one another so that ‘the choice of any one perspective rules outthe others’ (Jackson 1992: 16). For instance, Kliebard outlines four differ-ent approaches to curriculum design that were taken in the first half of the20th century. ‘First, there were the humanists, the guardians of an ancienttradition tied to the power of reason and the finest elements of the Westerncultural heritage’ (Kliebard 1987: 27). Arrayed against them were, accord-ing to Kliebard (1987: 27–29), three different kinds of reformers, onefocusing on the natural order of development in the child, another on socialefficiency and the third on social change and social justice.
In a similar vein, McNeil (1977: 1) says that ‘there are four prevailing conceptions of the curriculum, humanistic, social reconstructionist, tech-nological, and academic’. Likewise, Eisner and Vallance (1974: 3)describe ‘five orientations that have been formulated: the cognitiveprocesses approach, curriculum as technology, curriculum for self- actualization and consummatory experiences, curriculum for social recon-struction, and academic rationalism’.
A number of more recent textbooks classify curriculum perspectives in ways similar to those reviewed by Jackson. Walker and Soltis (1997), forinstance, describe three perspectives: student-centred, society-centred andknowledge-centred. They claim that each of these perspectives ‘puts onepart of the entire educational situation in the foreground, and that inevita-bly pushes the other parts to the background’ (Walker and Soltis 1997: 33).
Another representative, and relatively new, textbook by Schiro (2008) dis-tinguishes between four curriculum perspectives: scholar academic, socialefficiency, learner-centred and social reconstruction. Schiro describes thesefour stances as four great magnets that ‘tug on all of us who are interestedin education, pulling us in four different directions’ (Schiro 2008: 9).
The perspectives mentioned so far are distinguished by different views concerning the purposes of education, wherein one camp, variouslydenominated humanist, academic or knowledge-centred, allegedly assumes itsmain purpose is to teach subjects, while the other camps focus on aimshaving to do with the improvement of society or individual development.
There are, however, other criteria of classification. Kelly (2009), forexample, elaborates upon three perspectives that differ in their views onthe organization of curriculum design and development, rather than onwhat purposes are most important. One of the perspectives Kellydescribes focuses on subject matter or content; another on objectives,aims or purposes; and the third on procedural principles.
Although his approach is different, Kelly goes along with Walker and Soltis, Schiro, and the authors reviewed by Jackson in describing theemphasis on school subjects as a separate option, rather than, say, as aningredient in any potentially reasonable curricular approach. In severalpublications on the philosophical aspects of curriculum theory, the Eng-lish philosopher of education, White, seems to concur with Kelly on this.
In a recent paper, White writes about subject-centred approaches to thedevelopment of school curricula and asks, ‘Why start with academic disci-plines and seek justifications of them? Logically, curriculum planning has Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 to start with aims, not with vehicles whereby aims may be realised’ (White2010: 125). White traces the history of modern subjects-based school cur-ricula in the UK back to the 16th century and complains that: Through all the reforms since 1988, governments have insisted that theexisting structure of academic subjects is not to be tampered with. Ratherthan seizing the opportunity to rethink school education as a genuinelyaims-based enterprise, they have clung to the centuries-old patterndescribed in this paper. (White 2010: 139) White’s underlying assumption seems to be that the building blocks of a ‘genuinely aims-based’ curriculum are something other than academicsubjects.
In his review, Jackson points out that the various classifications that have been given of perspectives on school curricula are strange. Hedescribes them as academic abstractions that ‘do not hold up as being genuinely inhabitable’ (Jackson 1992: 18). In what follows, I defend andexpand upon Jackson’s stance and argue that we do not have to choosebetween academic subjects, on the one hand, and education as a genu-inely aims-based enterprise or a vehicle of improvement or reconstructionof society, on the other. Before I proceed, I will reflect on Kelly’s distinc-tion between two types of non-subject-centred approaches to curriculumdesign and clarify what is involved in talk about general educational aims.
Educational aims and principles of procedure Peters (1973: 122–131), who was a pioneer in educational philosophy inthe UK in the latter half of the 20th century, once proposed that some so-called general aims of education are really principles of procedure ratherthan ends to be reached. The process model of curriculum design,defined by Stenhouse (1975), is based on this proposal. Stenhouse putforth his process model in opposition to the objectives model defined byBobbitt (1972 [1918]) and Tyler (1949). The objectives model was laterrefined and elaborated in detail by Bloom (1956) and Taba (1962), andit was dominant for most of the 20th century (Elliott 2007, Kliebard1987: 121, Pinar et al. 1995: 140–148). Although it was most prominentamongst advocates of social efficiency as the primary aim of school educa-tion (Schiro 2008: 51–54), the objectives model was embraced by variousgroups with different views on education and the purposes of schooling(Pinar et al. 1995: 155).
As Kelly (2009: 15, 67–68, 93–94) makes clear, his distinction between perspectives that focus on educational aims and those concerned with pro-cedural principles is, basically, the same as the distinction between Bobbitt’sand Tyler’s objectives model on the one hand and Stenhouse’s processmodel on the other. The objectives model assumes that the first question tobe answered by those who design or develop a curriculum is just what edu-cational purposes the school should seek to attain (Tyler 1949: 1). The gistof this model is expressed clearly and succinctly by White (1997: 52–54)where he says that school improvement schemes should start with the aims Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 which are to power everything else. The next stage is ‘to see what followsfrom these aims about sub-aims which are their necessary conditions’.
When the sub-aims have been identified, experts in various fields are calledon to figure out the details of implementation.
Stenhouse concedes that the objectives model fits some important parts or aspects of school education. Nevertheless, he opposes this modeland proposes focusing on disciplines that have their built-in standards ofexcellence, and thus ‘can be appraised because of the standards immanentin them rather than because of what they lead on to’ (Stenhouse 1975:84). Kelly (2009: 95) recommends a version of Stenhouse’s processmodel and says that it allows us to have goals, purposes, intentions oraims without taking them to be extrinsic to the educational process.
To clarify the distinction between objectives and procedural princi- ples, it is, I think, helpful to distinguish on the one hand between twotypes of ends or purposes and on the other hand between two different sorts of relations between means and ends. The different types of pur-poses I have in mind are objectives that can be reached, and ideals thatpeople can work towards although the task cannot be completed. Paintingthe kitchen or going for a walk together next Sunday are aims of the firsttype. Keeping a beautiful home and having a happy marriage are lifelongtasks of the second type. Educational aims defined in terms of behaviourtypically belong to the first category. Memorizing who is married to whomin Nja´l’s saga (a 13th century work of literature read in Icelandic second-ary schools), or facts about the constitutional assembly at Eidsvoll in1814 (which had consequences for the development of democracy in theNordic countries) can be seen as objectives. Understanding sexual rela-tions in Nja´l’s saga, or what effect events of 1814 had on politics in Scan-dinavia is, however, not something one does once and for all. In all thesecases, our understanding depends on other knowledge that is evolvingand under review, and can therefore not be complete and final. Likewise,learning to use Newton’s inverse square law to calculate the gravitationalforce between two masses may be understood as an objective in thissense, but understanding gravity is better seen as an ideal that cannot beconclusively reached. When has a student understood gravity: When he/she has learnt to do simple calculations based on Newton’s formula? Isable to explain how massive objects affect space-time? Has mastered theconcepts used to describe black holes? Can participate in debates aboutthe differences between gravity and the other fundamental forces of nat-ure? Understanding gravity is an ideal that people can approach in count-less ways but which can arguably not be completed.
Open-ended aspirations or ideals form what the Canadian philosopher Taylor (1999) has called our horizon of significance. In an earlier work,Taylor (1989) called such ideals frameworks. If Taylor (1989: 507) isright, such horizons or frameworks are a necessary precondition of mean-ingful existence. In light of the examples, I have given it seems plausiblethat, without ideals, objectives are pointless. Memorizing formulae, likethe inverse square law, or facts about events that took place two hundredyears ago is worth something, provided we are trying to understand nat- Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 ure or society; painting the kitchen or going for a walk together is desir-able if we want to keep a beautiful home or have a happy marriage. I willlet this brief discussion of the two types of purposes suffice for the pres-ent, and will now turn to the other distinction: the different sorts of rela-tions that obtain between means and ends.
The different means-end relations are, on the one hand, causation, and, on the other hand, subsumption, where the means are constitutive ofthe end. As an example of the latter type of relationship, let us supposethat I carry someone’s bag in order to help that person to get home witha load of goods. Carrying the bag is then a means to the end of helping.
Carrying the bag and helping are, however, not two events where theformer causes the latter. Here, talking of means and ends are two ways todescribe the same action where the second description justifies that actionby subsuming it under a category of deeds that do not need furtherjustification.
Putting these two distinctions together, we have four types of purpo- sive acts or endeavours, represented in the following table (where myexample of carrying someone’s bag in order to help would belong to cate-gory number three) (table 1).
The process model advocated by Stenhouse (1975) and Kelly (2009) is best seen as focusing on categories number three and four rather thanas denying that school education should be organized to serve ends, aimsor purposes. This is because, as White has pointed out, emphasis on prin-ciples of procedure ‘takes it for granted that the teacher wants to instil inhis pupils a respect for rationality, benevolence, or whatever. In so far ashe does, this is what he is aiming at’ (White 1982: 6–7). Biesta, an educa-tional theorist and philosopher who is, like Stenhouse and Kelly, criticalof the objectives model, has recently made a similar point and arguedthat, in education, means and ends are ‘related internally or constitutively’(Biesta 2007: 10).
In some of what they say, Bobbitt (1972 [1918]) and Tyler (1949) seem to be primarily concerned with category number one. In recentyears, their objectives model has largely been incorporated into theso-called Bologna Process in Europe (Karseth 2006: 270). In a paper inthe Bologna Handbook, Kennedy et al. (2006) advocate specific out-comes in almost the same terms as Tyler used to do. Like Tyler, andBobbitt before him, they seem to focus mainly on category number one.
Although Bobbitt, Tyler and later advocates of the objectives model canperhaps Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 basic tenet––that curriculum development should begin with a statementof educational purposes––does not exclude the other three categories. So,although focusing exclusively on category number one would be antago-nistic to any potentially reasonable curricular approach, it is not clearthat there is generally an opposition between the process model andthose In the beginning of the second book of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aris- totle argued that people learn to be virtuous by acting in accordance withvirtue (Aristotle 1941: 952–953). On this account, each virtuous actionperformed by someone who is not yet (completely) virtuous is bothworthwhile in itself and good because it causes the doer to become(more) virtuous. In this case, both of the types of means–ends relationsthat I have outlined above apply to the same action: The end is partiallyconstituted and partially caused by it. Something similar seems to applyto equality as an educational aim. Promoting equality is probably best seen as belonging both to category number two and to category numberfour. If equality as a value or norm is built into school practice and thiscauses pupils to appreciate the value of equality, then the practice simul-taneously exemplifies the end and contributes to it causally.
If what I have said about means and ends is right, we should think of Kelly’s two non-subject-centred perspectives as compatible ratherthan as mutually exclusive. But, what about the subject-centred perspec-tive? Can it co-exist with the other two? And if it can, is it perhapscompatible with most, or even all, of the views on the purposes ofeducation elaborated by Eisner and Vallance (1974), McNeil (1977),Kliebard (1987), Walker and Soltis (1997), and Schiro (2008)? A nega-tive answer seems to be taken for granted by those who see the differentperspectives as mutually exclusive. From their point of view, the persis-tence of subject-centred curricula bespeaks failure of aims-driven schoolreform. Kliebard, writing on the history of school curricula, says forinstance: If the success of the 65-year effort to reform the American curriculum is tobe judged by the extent to which English, mathematics, science, history,geography and the like simply survived the assault against them, then theeffort must be counted a failure. (Kliebard 1987: 269) How plausible is this? Did the school subjects persist because reform failed, or did they persist because they were needed to reform schools andmake them serve the needs of students and society? It is outside the scopeof the present paper to propose a general answer to this question. Focus-ing on one type of reform, namely education for equality, I will show thatit is not antagonistic to subject-centred curricula but, on contrary, needssupport from induction into knowledge within fields typically representedby academic school subjects.
I do not deny that focusing exclusively on subjects or content can cause people to neglect educational aims like equality. Preoccupation withaims, without concern for the knowledge that makes them comprehensibleand intellectually defensible, may likewise cause educators to underesti- Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 mate the value of the rich intellectual traditions that stand behind aca-demic school subjects. Why should a good pedagogue not be mindful ofboth, like a master builder who focuses simultaneously on building materi-als and aesthetic criteria and understands that using bricks does notexclude harmonious proportions? The far longest chapter of Tyler’s classic statement of the objectivesmodel, published in 1949, is entitled ‘What educational purposes shouldthe school seek to attain?’ Tyler emphasizes the importance of beginningwith clearly defined goals or purposes, and points out that they can beobtained through various areas of study including philosophy, psychologyand studies of contemporary life outside the school (Tyler 1949: 3–62).
Although he tells his readers where to look for educational objectives, Tyler takes a neutral stance towards questions of value and says very littleabout what the purposes of school education should be. The closest hecomes to advocating one sort of purposes rather than another is when hesays that ‘commonly, educational philosophies in a democratic society arelikely to emphazise strongly democratic values’ (Tyler 1949: 34).
Tyler’s work focuses on methods of curriculum development and he tries to justify neither specific content nor definite aims. He probablywanted his curriculum-science to be value neutral, the way good scientificwork was supposed to be in the middle of the last century, when philoso-phers, as diverse as Ayer (1971 [1936]) and Sartre (1956 [1943]), taughtthat values were ultimately a matter of choice rather than discovery orrational deliberation, and hence outside the field of scientific study. Trueto the spirit of his time, Tyler declared that ‘in the final analysis objectivesare matters of choice, and they must therefore be the considered valuejudgements of those responsible for the school’ (Tyler 1949: 4). Eversince there has been a tendency amongst a certain group of influentialcurriculum theorists to fight shy of questions of value. Writing in 1984,the philosopher of education Barrow saw this tendency as predominantwithin the curriculum field and maintained that: North American curriculum writing, which forms the bulk of curriculumwriting, has deliberately eschewed the problem of values, and built up abody of curriculum theory on the pattern of engineering, a subject the endsor objectives of which are relatively uncontentious. (Barrow 1984: 17) As long as we see the purposes of schooling as matters of choice, or political decision, rather than as something to be found out or discoveredthrough research and rational argument, it is tempting to think that cur-riculum design begins with a statement of what we want to attain. If, onthe other hand, we reject subjectivism about values, and require that thepurposes of school education be supported by rational argument, the logi-cal starting point of curriculum design becomes the knowledge we use toapprehend the aims or purposes.
In a publication from 2004, White asks how far the curriculum should Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 be planned on a subject basis. ‘School subjects are, after all, only vehiclesto achieve certain ends: they are not self-justifying entities. Now that wehave a set of overarching aims, could these be realized by other kinds ofcurricular vehicle?’ (White 2004: 1). Granted that we need education toapprehend aims, we can turn White’s question upside down and ask:How far should the curriculum be aims-based at all? Educational aimsare, after all, only values that we have learnt to appreciate: they are notself-evidently worthy of choice. Given that, we have a set of school sub-jects, could the understanding achieved through them give rise to differenteducational aims? This is reminiscent of the riddle of which came first, the chicken or the egg. The aims of a course of education are, as White points out, logi-cally prior to its content. Prior to the aims, there has to be some educa-tional content or knowledge that enabled the designers of school curriculato acquire the understanding they have of what aims are worth seeking.
The concepts needed to apprehend educational aims having to do with, say, equality, democracy or critical thinking have been forged and refinedthrough a critical discourse whose development has taken a long time,and our understanding of these aims depends on large bodies of knowl-edge.
To what extent educational aims are discovered and to what extent theyare chosen is a complex issue that I will not try to settle here. For presentpurposes, it suffices to argue, as I do below, that our understanding ofequality as a rationally justified overarching aim of school educationdepends on academic disciplines.
The first thing to notice is that many of the deep questions about equality are questions within academic subjects such as philosophy, liter-ary studies, history, sociology, psychology and biology. Our understandingof gender equality is, for instance, evolving through academic work in phi-losophy and social sciences, and premises from fields as various as biologyand history are relevant to weighty questions about what is involved insexual equality. Other aspects of the complex ideal of equality, such asequality before the law, also have historical and philosophical ramifica-tions that scholars are still in the process of working out. In one of themost distinguished philosophical books on equality written in recentyears, Walzer (1983: 26) says that to get this large idea right ‘is to mapout the entire social world’. Walzer was, like Williams, Dworkin andRawls, to whom I refer below, amongst the most important moralphilosophers of the last decades of the 20th century.
Second, much of moral and political philosophy from Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke to the present can be read as a search for a rationallyjustifiable conception of human society as a community of equals, and,according to Dworkin (1978: 127), questions of equality have ‘been cen-tral to political theory at least since Kant’. Rationally defensible answersto these questions depend on understanding of society and human nature.
As Williams (1962: 130) has pointed out, they need contact with such Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 things as economic needs and human desires. More recently, Rawls(2007: 6) has argued that democratic politics requires a background cul-ture citizens come across ‘in their conversation and reading, in schoolsand universities and in professional schools’. All in all, our understandingof equality is being negotiated and is progressing through discourses thatare dependent on rich intellectual traditions. This is, I think, also true ofother educational ideals of comparable scope, such as democracy. Itrequires learning to sort out legitimate from illegitimate interests, under-standing of what is for the good of all from ideologies and illusions. Thissorting-out goes on, to a large extent, within academic subjects.
An obvious implication of what I have said so far about our under- standing of equality is that a great deal of learning is needed to organize aschool curriculum if it is to promote equality in a way that can be ratio-nally justified. That is, however, only part of the story. Another part ofthe story is that people cannot form a community of equals without some understanding of what is involved in equality. If it is only the authors ofthe curriculum who understand the ideals aimed at, then the pupils whoare supposed to behave in accordance with them, without themselves hav-ing such an understanding, will be mere followers of prescriptions metedout by others. In that case, these others, who set the terms, will be ‘moreequal’ than the pupils, like the pigs in Orwell’s (2000 [1945]) Animalfarm. A third, and no less important, part is that society cannot be a soci-ety of equals unless ordinary citizens have the intellectual means to evalu-ate political proposals and participate in rational discussions about thegood of society. Such participation requires knowledge, and therefore, asMill pointed out, we all require the ability ‘to form a rational convictionon great questions of legislation and internal policy, and on the manner inwhich our country should behave to dependencies and to foreign nations’(Mill 2009 [1867]: 154). This point, which was made by Mill in the 19thcentury, is supported by the Australian educationist Fenwick (2011) in arecent paper where she reviews attempts to promote equality through cur-riculum reform, and argues that this cannot be done without emphasizingacademic learning and advanced thinking skills for all students. In hisrecent work, the English sociologist Young defends a similar view. Young(2008, 2009, 2010a, b, 2011) argues that there is no contradictionbetween supporting a subject-centred curriculum and emphasizing socialjustice as a purpose of schooling. To support this conclusion, Youngargues that the knowledge students gain from learning academic schoolsubjects is ‘powerful knowledge’ in the sense that it is reliable, can beused to explain and predict, and enables people ‘to move beyond theirexperience and locate themselves in a wider context’ (Young 2010a: 11).
From his account of knowledge, he concludes that ‘there is a link betweenthe emancipatory hopes associated with the expansion of schooling andthe opportunity that schools provide for learners to acquire “powerfulknowledge”’ (Young 2009: 17). Although my argument has a similar con-clusion, it is a different argument because I focus on the nature of equal-ity rather than the nature of knowledge. My main point is that equalityrequires understanding of what equality involves and such understanding Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 I do not think it follows from this that education for equality requires everybody to study all the subjects relevant to achieving an understandingof what equality involves. The utter inability to participate in critical dis-course on issues related to equality is one extreme on a wide spectrum ofcapacities. The cultivated ability to do serious academic research intodeep and difficult questions about fairness, equity, power and subordina-tion is another extreme. I do not see how we can aspire to equalitywithout latter-mentioned end of this spectrum. A community of equals is hardlyviable unless most people are at least able to express their own protests,doubts and reservations, in a comprehensible and rationally respectableway, when they confront political notions that appear to them treacherousand oppressive. The tried and true way to foster this ability is by teachingschool subjects such as history, literature studies, philosophy, sociology,psychology and biology.
Our knowledge of what educational aims to seek, and what aims such as equality really involve, is not settled. It is under debate. We cannotboth aim at equality and be content with a system of education whereonly some are able to participate in this debate and form a minority thatsets educational aims for others who do not possess the intellectual meansto criticize them. In other words, the ideal of equality demands that stu-dents have a share of the knowledge used to adjudge the educational ide-als that give sense and direction to curriculum objectives and content.
This argument may seem to support curriculum perspectives that view the school subjects as merely instrumental. Yet, it would surely be rash toconclude that we can do without them. Likewise, language is, in a sense,an instrument we use to express our thoughts, but it does not follow thatthe same thoughts could exist without language, and could somehow beexpressed by different means.
What the conclusions, I have reached so far amount to, is that equality,as an educational ideal, requires at least a minimal autonomy for all, thatis to say an ability to evaluate and reflect critically on political aims,including the very aims of education, and such ability, is fostered byteaching academic school subjects.
If we view the approach to educational ideals, such as equality, as dynamic and grant that we, as a community, are still learning how tounderstand them, then we cannot take the content of education to besimply subservient to a dogma of aims. Once we face the fact that ourunderstanding of educational aims is limited, and evolving, we are boundto assume a dialectical relationship between educational aims and educa-tional content. What we learn in history or philosophy may, for instance,change what we take equality to involve. If some subjects are especiallyapt to have such consequences, emphasizing them should not be viewedsimply as means to previously defined ends, but also as enabling students Downloaded by [] at 11:45 13 April 2013 to find out themselves what ends are worthwhile. This is what liberal edu-cation aspires to. It seeks to develop the pupil’s own judgement, and isthus, as US curriculum theorist Null (2011: 15) points out, ‘the oppositeof indoctrination’. The spirit of liberal learning is more apt to help stu-dents transcend the aims set by educational authorities, than to bringabout predetermined changes in their views.
Advocates of liberal education are sometimes taken to claim that aca- demic subjects are worthwhile in themselves, while others grant them atmost an instrumental role. But, I do not think that a sharp distinctionbetween ends and means can be drawn in this context, just because theends are partially constituted by, or exemplified by, the means. Studyinga subject is simultaneously a way of being rational and autonomous and ameans to become more so.
We can think of subjects such as history, literature, philosophy or biology as means for realizing such educational ideals as grasping whatequality involves and why it is so important. That does not allow us to conclude that the end can be apprehended and sought independently ofthe means. It is not plausible to suppose that a defensible conception ofequality can be posited as an educational aim and realized as such other-wise than through the medium of intellectual traditions like those thatsupport the academic subjects.
Numerous writings on curriculum theory present an emphasis on aca- demic subjects as one option out of a handful. We do not have to choose,however, between teaching subjects and working towards equality. Thoseoptions are complementary, not antagonistic.
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