Length: 1197 words (3.4 double-spaced pages)
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The concept of knowledge in any society is a fluid, ever-changing notion which has different connotations depending on time and place. Typically what is thought of as knowledge in any given society is greatly influenced by the demands of the work that society most commonly carries out. Today, for example, in Western twenty-first century society it is claimed that we are now living in a ‘post-industrial’ society or have ‘entered into an information age’ and as such what we define as knowledge has altered in as little time as three decades.
Knowledge can be gained independently at one’s own free-will or from life experiences but it is via school that nearly all of British people gain the foundations of their own personal knowledge. What makes education such an interesting subject for scholars is that it is governments who define what knowledge should be taught in schools and what knowledge is ‘useful’ despite what pupils themselves may think.
For the purpose of this essay I have interviewed two former students who both studied in state schools in Edinburgh albeit a generation apart. I wish to analyse what both these individuals thought constituted ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ knowledge taught during their schools lives and if the fact that one was at school in the 1960’s and the other attended school in the late 1990’s/early 21st century resulted in any differentiation in their opinions.
Knowledge at school can be taught in three ways; Academic knowledge, practical knowledge and radical knowledge. Each of these systems has their own unique method of delivering knowledge to the pupil and have varying degrees of ‘usefulness’.
Academic knowledge could also be known as the ‘traditional’ form of delivering information to school pupils. Proponents of such methods would claim that it is not the actual information which academic knowledge presents to the pupil, rather the methods in which this information is delivered that is beneficial. In this sense then it could be claimed that academic knowledge is merely knowledge for knowledge’s sake or ‘useless’.
There is no doubt, though, that academic knowledge does provide the pupil with analytical, critical and methodical skills that may prove to be useful in later life in certain occupations. Critics would claim that the only people that would find such knowledge useful in later life would be those whom are in the ruling classes or positions of power. That is, the purpose of delivering academic knowledge to pupils is to stream children into groups according to ‘ability’ in the skills which the ruling classes deem to be most important. This results in future ruling classes retaining the status quo of academic knowledge being taught in mainstream education as those at the top believe meritocracy has took them to their position of power and not the bias of the countries education system.
Practical knowledge is a denunciation of academic knowledge. It is the teaching of ‘useful’ knowledge in the school. For example, instead of teaching Pythagoras’ Theorem in Mathematics pupils would learn about mortgages, tax or credit card repayments, as these are practical pieces of knowledge that can be used in later life.
Further Educational institutions such as colleges are a good example of practical knowledge in action. Colleges offer diplomas in professions as varied as plumbing, hairdressing, dentistry and social care. Typically a week will involve practical activities, vocational work and academic learning offering a varied range of knowledge.
This knowledge is sometimes known as ‘merely useful’ but as with academic knowledge it still has its critics. Primarily the most obvious criticism would be - who is actually benefiting from such a system? Employers in such aforementioned industries as the ones mentioned above who currently require formal training before starting employment would obviously benefit but there are other sectors of industry in which it is not entirely necessary or feasible to offer practical knowledge at all.
Academic knowledge, according to those who advocate radical knowledge, is merely a tool used to maintain the status and power of those people who currently hold positions of status and power. Radical knowledge is a quasi-Marxist concept that politicises education to the extreme. Advocates of this concept of knowledge wish to enlighten pupils about subjects such as social injustice, equality and the impact of power in society.
The major concern about a curriculum based on radical knowledge would be the fear of propaganda in the classroom. Teachers of an extreme right or left wing persuasion can manipulate this system to fill the heads of their pupils with extremist beliefs and concepts. Furthermore, this system calls for the overthrowing of the ruling hierarchy but fails to offer any explanations or suggestions as to what this system should be replaced with.
These three concepts of knowledge illustrate the diverse views that exist concerning what actually constitutes ‘really useful knowledge’.
To gauge the opinion of former pupils as to what they believed ‘really useful’ knowledge was and what ‘really useful’ knowledge they learnt at school, if any. I achieved this by conducting a qualitive, semi-structured interview with two members of my family, a female who attended St Augustine’s a Catholic faith school in Edinburgh from 1965-69 and a male who attended Leith Academy a multi-faith school in Edinburgh from 1997-2002. To respect their anonymous I’ll refer to the interviewees as ‘F’ and ‘M’ respectively.
'F' attended school in the era when pupils spoke only when spoken too and teaching was extremely formal. She claims that ‘Teachers saw us as empty vessels. It was like [The Teachers] thought we were blank slates that had to be filled in with their knowledge.’
When asked if she thought that the subjects that she was taught gave her ‘really useful knowledge’ which she has took with her into later life she responded with an unequivocal ‘Definitely’. When prompted why she replied ‘Well I done Latin at school. You might think that is useless and not helped me in life but it definitely has – it helps you with the roots of English language so if a word comes up today I don’t understand, I’ll break it down and work out its meaning…Also maths and science theory has been really helpful even though at the time I thought it was useless. It has trained me to study things I don’t like, and in real life you have to do this all the time.’ I found the last sentence particularly interesting as it may actually give credence to the radical knowledge approach. Apparently here is an adult saying that school taught her to do things she did not like doing and without any complaint. A critical commentator may suggest that this was her being socialised into accepting a career in which she will be devoid of power and teaching her not to complain about this fact.