The Exclusive Pursuit of Social Inclusion

Exclusive pursuits: The invention of school subjects

To begin with let me take an episode in the invention of one school subject: science. I choose this example to show the relationship between school subject knowledge which is accepted and becomes therefore ‘traditional’ and subject knowledge which is disallowed. This is the interface between school knowledge and powerful interest groups in society. School subjects are defined not in a disinterested scholastic way but in close relationship to the power and interests of social groups. The more powerful the social group the more likely they are to exercise power over school knowledge.

In his book Science for the People, David Layton describes a movement in the initial development of the school science curriculum called the “Science of Common Things” (2). This was an early attempt to broaden social inclusion through relating the science curriculum to ordinary pupils experience of the natural world, of their homes, daily lives and work. This curriculum was delivered in the elementary schools set up for predominantly working class clienteles. There is clear evidence provided by Layton and in contemporary government reports that the Science of Common Things worked successfully in classrooms and extended science education. A successful strategy for social inclusion in school knowledge was therefore put in place.

We would however be wrong to assume that this was seen as a desirable development. Far from it. Other definitions of school science were being advocated. Lord Wrottesley chaired a Parliamentary Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the most appropriate type of science education for the upper classes. Hodson argues that the report “reflected a growing awareness of a serious problem: that science education at the elementary level was proving highly successful, particularly as far as the development of thinking skills was concerned, and the social hierarchy was under threat because there was not corresponding development for the higher orders” (3) Lord Wrottesley's fears were clearly stated as regards moves to further social inclusion:

… a poor boy hobbled forth to give a reply; he was lame and humpbacked, and his wan, emaciated face told only too clearly the tale of poverty and its consequences … but he gave forthwith so lucid and intelligent a reply to the question put to him that there arose a feeling of admiration for the child's talents combined with a sense of shame that more information should be found in some of the lowest of our lowest classes on matters of general interest than those far above them in the world by station.

Wrottesley concluded:

It would be an unwholesome and vicious state of society in which those who are comparatively unblessed with natures gifts should be generally superior in intellectual attainments to those above them in station. (4)

Soon after Wrottesley's comments in 1860, science was removed from the elementary curriculum. When science eventually reappeared in the curriculum of elementary schools some twenty years later it was in a very different form from the science of common things. A watered-down version of pure laboratory science had become accepted as the correct and ‘traditional’ view of science, a view which has persisted largely unchallenged to the present day. School subjects it seems have to develop a form acceptable to the ‘higher orders’ of society - being a mechanism for social inclusion naturally does not recommend itself to the higher orders whose very position depends on social exclusion. School subjects there after become in themselves not only ‘accepted’, ‘given’, ‘traditional’, inevitable but also in their academic form exclusionary devices.
Date of publication:
Education Policy
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Appears in:
Forum, Vol. 47, numbers 2-3, summer/autumn 2005