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  • Dr Stephen Palmer

If not now, when? Knowledge, Diversity and the English Curriculum

Each year I sit down and wonder what it is I am teaching English teachers to teach. Like many perhaps, I came to the role of teacher-educator by a fairly circuitous (if not rambling) route and have, I think it is fair to say, spent some years so far working out what it is to be an educator of Secondary English teachers. As part of that process, I have undergone - or, at least, attempted to undergo - a re-evaluation of my view of the subject and of its place both within the school curriculum and in the wider society at large.

Of course, I can’t claim definitive success in this endeavour, and perhaps neither should I, as this is always going to be an ongoing process, a continuing and probably quite messy business of to-ing and fro-ing, appraisal and reappraisal of what ‘really’ matters in subject-English and the teaching thereof. But I take as my watchword in this - as in many other things - the idea of ‘Negative Capability’, which was declared by the poet John Keats to be that quality whereby we are capable of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (1817)

Keats was referring to Shakespeare when he wrote this, indicating that he considered the latter to be the highest example of someone possessed of this capacity - the capacity for sustaining oneself in uncertainty, in doubt, without seeking to arrive at a positive knowledge of a situation, a person or an object. Of course, as far as poets, dramatists and novelists are concerned, one can see why this should be such a highly valued (negative) quality; what would seem to be required by such people is the ability to explore the ambiguities, the contradictions, the complexities of the inner lives of their subjects, whether they be human or otherwise. And for those of us who set high store by the productions of such writers, we do so precisely because they offer up visions of the world which are open to interpretation and, we might say, to re-purposing (what those writers might intend in and by what they write, for instance, is not necessarily the last word on what they mean).

However, if we accept that this kind of ‘negative’, intuitive, multiplicitous understanding is what is prized in the study of, especially, literary texts, the problem for the teacher of such becomes: how do we communicate this in the form of verifiable and subject-specific knowledge which can be accessed and developed by our students? It would seem, as many a student has observed when it comes to having to revise for English exams, that there is no substantive body of knowledge with which they can grapple. ‘What do we revise, sir?’

Indeed, in a recently published book Making Meaning in English: Exploring the Role of Knowledge in the English Curriculum (2021), David Didau, increasingly influential blogger on matters of English pedagogy and ‘subject-ness’, addresses precisely this problem of what constitutes ‘knowledge’ in English. As Didau acknowledges, this is a problem which has preoccupied many people pretty much since the inception of English as a distinct subject in the early years of the last century. I haven’t got space to rehearse all of the debate about this here, but suffice to say that it has generally revolved around usually competing conceptions of the subject as concerned with teaching specific skills (eg. language and communication skills with a practical application) or with educating students so as to make them more empathetic, more appreciative of ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’, more able to make judgements in matters of ‘taste’ (that is, a subject which is addressed to the souls of its students).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Didau seeks to chart a course out of these dichotomous waters. In doing so, he proposes the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’, which is knowledge that once it is learnt causes the learner ‘to ask new questions and explore different explanations’, and ‘open[s] up new ways of thinking about aspects of the world which would otherwise be unknown and inaccessible’ (84, 85). This I think has something in common with Meyer and Land’s threshold concepts (2003; Cousins 2006), insofar as these are conceived as that which enables students not only to gain ‘mastery’ of a subject in a limited technical sense, but to be transformed in and through that encounter. That is to say, gaining a hold on those concepts or ways of knowing brings about a change in ourselves - in ourselves as students of that subject, but also as thinking and feeling human beings who exist in the wider world.

However, when it comes to identifying the curriculum content which will allow students to gain this powerful knowledge things seem soon to veer towards the conservative. Texts have to possess qualities of sufficient depth, complexity and all the rest of it. They have also to allow students to be able to enter into the shared ‘conversation of humankind’ (adapting Michael Oakeshott’s well-known phrase) and thus pass muster when examined through ‘the lens of shared knowledge’ (Didau, 2021: 323). With this, we find ourselves in the preserve of E.D. Hirsch’s campaign for a ‘core knowledge’ curriculum which facilitates the acquisition of ‘cultural literacy’. In fairness, Didau does acknowledge that it is desirable for students to be given the chance to become familiar with the achievements of ‘historically marginalised groups’, but the problem is that that very marginalisation means, apparently, that those works ipso facto cannot be regarded as repositories of knowledge ‘shared among hundreds of millions of people’ (324). Therefore, if something has to give in a squeezed curriculum, it has to be the works of the ‘historically marginalised’.

In the end, of course, this all seems to be an exercise in self-perpetuation Yes, the English curriculum may well be deficient in terms of diversity; however, if we place too much emphasis upon the works of the marginalised we risk sacrificing our students’ opportunity to gain the knowledge which will enable them to enter into meaningful conversation with the (educated) majority of members of the community/society of which they are part - that knowledge which is ‘shared’ by the culturally ‘literate’, and which, as such, will continue to be the knowledge that counts. Saying that, though, is not to downplay the challenge of what should count as desirable knowledge in English; but you do feel sometimes that there will never be a right time for moving the marginalised to the centre of the curriculum, and thereby making it possible for a new ‘conversation’ to take place. As always, it seems, the pertinent question is: ‘If not now, when?’

Dr Stephen Palmer, Senior Lecturer and Subject Lead Secondary English Education, UEL Dept of Education and Communities


May 2021

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