Learning, Curriculum and Life Politics


The compilation of a set of collected works brings with it the problem of developing criteria for selection; what lines of thought are to be favoured or downplayed or deleted. For after thirty years or so of writing, the shape of ones thinking only really emerges fully with this advantage of hindsight. But this itself is to privilege the retrospective selection over the full developmental diversity of avenues of investigation. For in truth our studies go off in many directions – some prove fruitful, some rapidly become cul-de-sacs; some lie dormant and then accelerate rapidly, whilst others blossom early but then fade gradually. All of this only becomes clear later.
Certainly the legacy of ‘Cobblers City’ spelt out in Chapter 1, has an enduring importance for me. To grow up among a community of independent labourers who existed beyond the direct power of the squire and his estate managers bred a fierce sense of independent judgement and a compelling sense of the frequent inauthenticity of dominant social orders. I still see social orders, even ‘new world orders’ from that angle, my judgements remain not pre-determined or pre-ordained but in aspiration still, ‘independent’.

In Chapter 2, some of my early experiences of learning and teaching are outlined. As the chapter on Long Waves of Reform makes clear the period 1968–74 was one of great social innovation in many parts of the Western world. It was a particularly interesting time for those concerned to explore the parameters of and possibility of strategies for social inclusion. In England comprehensive schools had been introduced in the mid-1960s and were developing serious experiments in the broadening of the social base of educational success. Certainly the schools in which I taught took this social mission seriously and provided a wide range of insights into the social order of schooling.

Chapter 3 explores the kind of pedagogic terrain which emerged in many of the more experimental comprehensive schools. These initiatives sought to explore educational endeavours as a dialectic or dialogue between teacher and learner; alongside this a more personalised process of learning was explored, so many of these new learning modes offered very promising avenues of education for traditionally less advantaged school clienteles. In due course more prescriptive centralised curricula were introduced which had the effect of closing off these avenues of potential advancement and inclusion.

Chariots of Fire looks in some detail at the history of curriculum as a concept. The origin of the definition of curriculum linked to the emergence of state schooling are investigated. The power of curriculum to designate and differentiate and the linkage to school subjects is seen as a relatively recent invention. As Thompson argues ‘all education which is worth the name involves a relationship of mutuality, a dialectic’ (1968, p. 16).

By the end of Chapters 2 and 3 the reader can perhaps begin to see how a project focussing on curriculum history had started to emerge. Chapter 4 was written as a speculative essay trying to link the origins of curriculum definition to the emergence of state schooling. The paper was written for a quite wonderful symposium organised at the University of British Colombia in the summer of 1985. This was the time when I was starting to think about leaving my homeland and some of the incipient nostalgia no doubt comes through in the text. This was, we should note, a rotten time in England. The miners strike was dividing the country in a horrendous way, inequality was back on the increase sponsored by a range of government policies and practices, the national curriculum was being hatched, the universities were being cut. Only later would these interlinked phenomena emerge as part of a clear world movement towards a new world economic order yet one subject to ongoing contestation.

In Chariots of Fire, the relations between curricula and the social order are scrutinised in a historical manner. Through historical study we can begin to glimpse the importance not just of the rhetoric of reform but of the continuities of curriculum and social stratification. These never proceed in a determinist way nor are they part of some well thought out conspiracy by agents of the rich and powerful. We have to understand continuity and change within each historical context in which they are embodied and embedded.

Becoming an Academic Subject aims to show how by scrutinising in historical detail the emergence of an academic subject, geography, a range of sociological and philosophical explanations can be interrogated. The process that emerges is less domination by dominant interest groups, more solicitous surrender by subordinate groups. It is important to distinguish between domination and structure and between mechanism and mediation. What historical study points us to is the complexity of these processes and to the fact that social forces have to work and re-work the configurations of curriculum in each historical time and place. As Chapter 9 points out, we can discern historical conjunctures at particular periods but these are never pre-determined or historically inevitable. Becoming an academic subject looks at the ongoing contests and struggles over school knowledge.

Interestingly, at about the time the article on which this chapter is based came out, my first book, School Subjects and Curriculum Change appeared. As an unlooked-for spin-off from the book a publisher, Falmer Press, contacted me. The plan was to define a series of books on curricular history to be called Studies in Curriculum History. So began an intellectual project that covered twenty years and allowed a wide range of historical studies to be not only undertaken but published. If ever there was a lesson about historical contexts, this was it. At that time in university schools of education, historical studies of education and indeed philosophical, psychological and sociological studies were all being undertaken and published. These studies often developed the link between social and historical context and educational possibilities. In subsequent years paradoxically, a growing emphasis on practical, and particularly subject, knowledge was to obscure these links - our understandings of the social construction of schooling and curriculum began to be paved over. Social inclusion was to become a rhetoric uncoupled from systematic social investigation or historical elucidation. The curriculum so unambiguously implicated in social exclusion was to be unproblematically adopted as a part of the apparatus for pursuing social inclusion. This is what often happens when history is consigned to the dustbin: a case of reinventing the square wheel.
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Publisher: Routledge
Subject: Curriculum, Education Policy and Life History
Available in: English
Appears in: Learning Curriculum and Life Politics
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