Status anxiety

Not all knowledge is equal

There will always be a connection between ‘book learning’ and power. The solution is to spread that knowledge, not to pretend it doesn’t matter

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

I first locked horns with Michael Rosen, the former children’s laureate, on Sky News about four years ago. We were debating the merits of trying to teach all children the best that’s been thought and said and quickly got on to the subject of whether the grammar school education we’d received would be appropriate for everyone, or just those who passed the eleven plus. My view, then and now, is that it would. His view, if I remember it correctly, is that grammar schools aren’t suitable for anyone, gifted or otherwise. He had only survived his by the skin of his teeth.

Since then we’ve clashed a few times. He’s been an energetic critic of the coalition’s education reforms, writing a monthly column in the Guardian entitled ‘Dear Mr Gove’. I’ve always found it slightly irksome that he’s introduced as an expert on primary education when, in fact, his reason for opposing the government is because he’s a militant socialist. Not just a Guardianista, but a regular contributor to Socialist Worker. To be fair, he doesn’t make any attempt to disguise his radical politics. In every debate he participates in, it’s only a matter of time before the bug-eyed left-wing zealot emerges from beneath the woolly-jumpered exterior.

Coincidentally, we’ve both just written books on the same subject — what parents can do to help educate their children. Mine is called What Every Parent Needs to Know (co–written with Miranda Thomas), while his is called Good Ideas. What’s remarkable about the two books, given that we’re at opposite ends of the political spectrum, is how similar they are. I don’t just mean that they contain exactly the same advice when it comes to homework and the like. I mean that the fundamental aims of the books are virtually identical.


For one thing, we both think it’s beneficial for parents to get involved in their children’s education. The evidence is incontrovertible. Two American psychologists called Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered that by the age of four, children of middle-class professionals will have heard, on average, 32 million more words than children of welfare recipients. This finding — known as ‘the 32 million word deficit’ — helps explain why middle-class children do so much better at school than poor children. I think it’s fair to say that both Rosen and I hope our books will play a small part in addressing that.

We also share another common aim, which is that we want to democratise knowledge. We both think it’s wrong that the sort of learning that’s prized most highly by our society — that leads to high-paying jobs and superior social status — is largely confined to the elite. Indeed, we share a Marxist analysis of this issue and understand that one of the ways in which the ruling class perpetuates its power is by monopolising knowledge.

Where we part company is in our solution to this problem. Rosen is a member of the progressive school who believes that the best way to break the link between knowledge and power is to challenge the idea that some facts are more worth knowing than others. He thinks old-fashioned ‘book learning’ — the sort of knowledge taught in the grammar school he went to — is just one way of looking at the world, no better or worse than any other.

This is the dominant theme of Good Ideas — that the best way to help children become enthusiastic learners is not to be dogmatic about what they should be learning. If they know a great deal about, say, Chelsea Football Club, then don’t do anything to give them the impression that it’s less valuable than knowing about Ancient Rome. They should be allowed to follow their natural impulses, ranging across different subjects, discovering things as they go, because, at bottom, all knowledge is equally valid.

My solution, by contrast, is to accept that some types of knowledge will always be more valuable than others — astronomy, for instance, will always be more useful than -astrology — and for that reason there will always be a connection between ‘book learning’ and power. But that doesn’t mean this superior knowledge should remain the preserve of the privileged elite. Rather, it should be shared with as many people as possible. This is the idea behind trying to teach all children the best that’s been thought and said.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between progressives and traditionalists in the education debate. We both want to democratise knowledge, we just disagree about how to do that.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Kitty MLB

    Yes, poor children do not do as well as middle- class children at school they
    do not have the same fortunes and advantages of birth and not because they are less
    intelligent. Because intelligence cannot be taught. Education is the nurturing of what is already present, if you have incompetent teachers or lacklustre parents or inadequate
    schooling then you will not reach your full potential. I support grammar schools as
    I do the exceptional Michael Gove’s free schools, the issue is we have a leftie dominated education system who are happy with the status quo, education being
    about those who it employs and not about helping children reaching their full potential.

    • ferkan

      Intelligence cannot be taught? To some extent intelligence, as measured by IQ tests CAN be taught. This is arguably part of the reason why heritability of IQ is different in different social classes (because there is more relevant environmental variance in the disadvantaged). Intelligence has genetic and environmental components, and part of the environmental component is schooling (formal and informal). A safe environment, good nutrition and appropriate stimulation will all boost intelligence.

      As for your assertion that ‘the leftie’ dominated system is not interested in children reaching their full potential. This is obviously and ideological point and not based on research. The majority of teachers would clearly be happier knowing that they were helping children reach their potential. The problem lies where they don’t know how or don’t have the chance to do so. The ‘right’, for those who insist on a simplified binary world, as as likely to fail to actually listen to evidence as the ‘left’.

      My personal concern, is that we (and increasingly the whole world) have a one size fits all, factory farm approach to teaching. This shoehorns all types of personalities and abilities though the same sausage machine. Inappropriate value is given to A-levels, etc, when these are simply not the most useful direction for all people.

      • vieuxceps2

        I dont believe you can teach intelligence,which is the capacity to learn and then to use such learning. I don’t consider academic intelligence to be the sole worthwhile version as craftsmen are of equal worth to us all as professors,who are I think overpaid for what they do .

        • ferkan

          You’ve made up your own particular definition of intelligence, which is fine. But many people believe, unlike you, that the ability to learn is a skill which can be taught. If fact it would be pretty strange if this were not true, given the brain’s obvious flexibility.

          Clearly craftsmen are able to improve their skills by practice and do not simply rely on ‘natural’ gifts.

          • vieuxceps2

            I maintain that intelligence is the capacity to learn and therefore cannot be taught as it is the basis of the ability to benefit from being taught.A chimp,a dog or a parrot can be taught to learn but its ability to learn is constrained by its lack of intelligence.This means of course that intelligence is innate,as is the capacity to train to be an athlete ,or develop the”gift ” of music Talents can be nurtured “taught” as you would say he power to develop them by learning and practice must be there to begin with. That’s what I all “intelligence”.

          • ferkan

            Ok, you maintain this position, but what do you base it on, what studies, what theory?

          • vieuxceps2

            My position is based on no theory, no studies, only on sense , experience and reality.

          • Kathryn

            Also known as presumption, prejudice, and an adorably narrow world view.

          • vieuxceps2

            “an adorably narrow world view”-Ah, if only we could all be as clever as you patronising cows……

    • gulberwick

      So you’re in favour of by rote learning. Yes? That teaches children little more than the recall of ‘facts’ and doesn’t necessarily equate with intelligence. Teaching kids thinking skills is much more important. But we already know how much the teaching of critical thinking skills is despised by Gove et al, don’t we?

  • jimbobenglish

    IS a PhD in Education not a valid marker of expertise any longer Toby? Let’s compare Mr Rosen’s experience and qualifications in education to Michael Gove’s or Nicky Morgan’s or even yours! But of course neither Gove nor Morgan are bug-eyed ideologues are they? As you well know, this Government (and the previous government) have a long track record of ignoring educationalists and teachers (see how much of the Rose Review was ignored – was it written by “militant socialists”?) and we now have a sickening situation where the tiny number of Free Schools are draining money from established schools and Sixth Form Colleges despite a paucity of evidence that they are either needed or effective (in some cases it has already been demonstrated that they are worse than the existing provision). Toby have you considered why Mr Gove was removed from his job? He had become toxic, it seems the “Blob” had somehow infiltrated the minds of parent voters.

    • Teacher

      A Ph.D in education is ‘a valid marker’ of left wing ideology in education these days. Anyone wishing to educate children rather than indoctrinate them and kibosh their chances in life should steer clear of any state validated educational qualification as the left has a stranglehold on content and delivery.

      • Tubby_Isaacs

        “A Ph.D in education is ‘a valid marker’ of left wing ideology in education these days. Anyone wishing to educate children rather than indoctrinate them and kibosh their chances in life should steer clear of any state validated educational qualification as the left has a stranglehold on content and delivery”

        Detailed analysis of the content of PhDs there.

        Young, Gove and his pals are big fans of Oxbridge and the Russell Group. Yet apparently this same Russell Group, when it comes to Education, is apparently teaching left wing rubbish.

      • jimbobenglish

        Would you like to evidence your bizarre assertion that the left has a “stranglehold on the content and delivery” of educational qualifications? I bet you can’t.

        • Teacher

          Of course I can’t. It was only a mischievous and provocative assertion designed to pique. I have no objective evidence which would stand examination by an education ‘expert’, merely 34 teaching years’ worth of personal observation of the left inflitrating schools.

          No one gets on an educational course without talking the talk so the converted are preached to to begin with and then no one is employed if they are not leftward leaning. I have seen a good candidate rejected because she had worked in a grammar school and another for having the temerity to have ‘help’ at home. The educational advisory experts we had in to assess our students and even, God help us, to ‘train’ us were to the left of Karl Marx.

          No wonder. Education is not a fact based discipline like chemistry or physics. Neither is it based on such evidence as historians might interpret. Much of it is based on soft science surveys and is conjectural. Such hard facts as are now being employed such as research on teenage brains are being interpreted in a ludicrously liberal way such as suggesting that teenagers might care to lie around in bed all day and come in late because their poor little brains cannot cope with schooling in the morning! How on earth have theymanaged up to now, I wonder.

          The problem with the stranglehold the left has in state schools, which is definitely being fed through the higher educational system, is that poorer children are disenfranchised by competition with grammar and private school peers who are still being taught through traditional methods:- discipline, knowledge, hard work, high standards.

          • jimbobenglish

            You complain that “Education” is based upon “soft science surveys and is conjectural” yet you back up your own arguments with nothing but the softest conjecture such as your personal observation of the “left infiltrating schools”. What utter nonsense! Like your previously banal, sorry “provocative” statements, this is complete twaddle. Just for a laugh, let’s have a look at your brilliant observations: “No one gets on an educational course without talking the talk” – based on what evidence? If you are happy with anecdotes to prove points, you will be relieved to hear that most of the cohort I trained with were apolitical at best, but some were even right-leaning. All went on to secure employment (including an ex-army officer – hardly left of Marx) in a system that according to you rejects grammar school employees and rich people. Perhaps there were other reasons these wonderful candidates of yours were rejected (if indeed they exist anywhere outside of your fevered paranoid imagination) that they didn’t choose to share with you. If it were, as you claim, because they had worked in a grammar school and employed a skivvy, they could have both taken advantage of our liberal employment laws and sued for discrimination – with you as the expert witness in court! I am glad you are on the right, because your idiotic statements speak for themselves. You are just the sort of supporter I am sure Toby Young relishes. By the way, poorer children are disenfranchised by the sclerotic system of privilege that allows the wealthy children to take advantage of connections rather than merit. You will have read the recent research demonstrating that, when compared with state educated kids, the privately educated children taught in the “traditional” way tend to have their educational inadequacies exposed at university when critical thinking is called for rather than disciplined rote learning. But of course higher education is only concerned with Mao and Lenin, so no wonder the rich kids are all at sea.

          • Teacher

            Well, I did say I was only being mischievous and provocative. I can perfectly well see that there are arguments on both sides! Indeed, I quoted no facts, figures, statistics or evidence to support my assertions but relied, as have you, on anecdotal examples.

            It certainly got you going! In your rage you have completely forgotten your paragraphs. Otherwise your highly emotive rant is quite well written.

          • jimbobenglish

            Thank you for marking my work, Sir/Ma’am. Did you not notice I was employing anecdotes as a parody of you? I thought I made that explicit. Moreover, I did resort to hard evidence in the end, I’m sorry your research skills/previous knowledge weren’t up to the job. This will help. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-26773830

          • Teacher

            What point are you making? I am on the side of the state school kids. I taught them for 34 years after all. I did worry a bit about the poor kids who gained Cs and Bs at A level and were given ‘soft’ offers from Russell Group universities as I wondered how they would coope. If, as this research suggests they did better than their privately educated peers did, then that’s great.

          • Teacher

            ‘banal’
            ‘twaddle’
            ‘fevered paranoid imagination’
            ‘idiotic statements’
            Phew!

    • WFB56

      That’s simple, a PhD in Education is a good example that makes Toby’s point about some knowledge being more valuable than other knowledge. A PhD in education is not as valuable as a PhD in Biology, Physics, Chemistry, or, shock horror, Finance.

      • jimbobenglish

        Would you first like to define “value” in educational terms? I might contend that if PhDs in the sciences were being given by organisations who did not hold the philosophy of education in great esteem, then surely those PhDs would be suspect in themselves.

  • ferkan

    I’ve yet to read either book (and to be honest am unlikely to read either). However, I believe Michael Rosen (who contrary to Toby Young’s tacit assertion is pretty well qualified in Education) is being misrepresented here. As far as I can gather, Michael Rosen does not believe that all forms of knowledge are equal (Mr Young, some quotes to support your claims might be useful). However, he does believe that learning to learn is the most important skill for any child (or adult) and that this can be practiced using any topic one wishes.

    Mr Young, is that not a fairer representation? If not, perhaps you could take the time to actually provide some quotes from Rosen’s book to support your case. Or would that be too much effort?

    • Claire Finn

      “However, he does believe that learning to learn is the most important skill for any child (or adult) and that this can be practiced using any topic one wishes.”

      Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what Toby said Michael Rosen’s views are. It amounts to the same thing – children need to learn to learn and it makes no difference if it’s Chelsea Football Club or Ancient Rome.

      I agree with Toby that it does make a difference.

      • ferkan

        The idea is that before one can can effectively learn about ancient Rome, or anything else. one needs to learn how to learn, and hopefully to love learning. Then one can be much more effective at learning about ancient Rome, maths, science etc. Any time spent practicing learning by studying Chelsea football club, will easily be made up later. Toby’s view suggests a zero sum game, that any time studying something not ‘useful’ will take away from time studying ‘useful’ things like ancient Rome.

        It took me a long time to re-love learning. I actually think I did love learning when I started school, but school slowly crushed that love. School ruined Shakespeare and maths for me (it took me over 10 years to get over my bias against Shakespeare). School convinced me I could not learn a foreign language, but was somehow a natural at English.

        So perhaps what school needs to do is to stop crushing our natural creativity and love of learning.

        (And remember, the point I was making was that Rosen did not say that all forms of knowledge were equal, and was thus misrepresented).

        • Claire Finn

          Made up when? Post graduate studies? I had the opposite experience. Everything dumbed down and made “relevant” was boring.

          • ferkan

            I don’t think Rosen is suggesting that people learn to learn forever and never learn anything that is going to be useful to them! (or can you find me some quotes that say otherwise).

            It’s a practical approach. Forcing children to learn does not work for all, a one size fits all approach does not work for all. The magic lies in harnessing a person’s abilities to learn using a variety of approaches – and preferably harnessing curiosity and promoting initiative.

            Taking your example. Would you prefer a well researched, written, presented and referenced homework on a football club or a rubbish homework on ancient Rome? It’s clear to me that a piece on Chelsea FC provides a great opportunity to practice a wide variety of skills. Does it not?

            For a child who has not yet found a way to learn effectively, all effort will need to be spent on developing this skill. As soon as this skill is in place, one can move on (although clearly one will need to review if the child starts to struggle).

            Since school, I have learned how to harness my abilities. And knowing what I know now, would have made getting the grades I got much easier and more enjoyable.

      • ferkan

        P.S. I guess it was your liberal progressive schooling that meant you did not learn the rules of capitalisation?

  • Rodninio

    I’ll be buying Michael Rosen’s book.

  • ldvaux

    Do you know the most scurrilous claim in your ridiculous, pontificating piece Toby Young? It is the ludicrous idea that the intelligent and insightful Mr Rosen and yourself have anything other than the mere fact of being men in common. I feel Michael Rosen would have an excellent chance of damages for defamation of character as a result of that laughable suggestion alone.

  • Marvin

    There is a radio presenter on LBC who had a private education and he has a great memory bank, good vocabulary, few languages, well read in history and the Bible
    and extremely articulate. BUT! has a total blank when it comes logic, common sense
    and knowing anything about cultural differences of people of the world. Everything
    of value is cancelled by his naïve and asinine extreme leftie narcissistic outlook.
    Look at Boris, big words, quotes various intellects but doesn’t know the price of a
    ticket on the tube. A good education does not mean intelligence.

  • Tubby_Isaacs

    ” there will always be a connection between ‘book learning’ and power.”

    There didn’t used to be so much. People with relatively little book learning used to regularly hold office in the Cabinet. Lots of people now look back fondly to those days and respect the insights they’d been gaining to life when others were book learning.

    You managed to come up with an intake with 18% fewer free school meals kids than the rest of Hammersmith and Fulham. Admittedly, you were much better than the London Oratory, but you didn’t exactly go out of your way to spread this superior book knowledge you possess to the poor, did you?

  • answeeney

    Let’s face it Toby, neither you nor Rosen or for that matter Gove and the union blob know how best to educate children. Only the free market can deliver real education – the State only does indoctrination – so private schools will always outperform the public sector – not just a little bit but completely and utterly and without mercy. The solution is therefore for the State to get out of the education business (although I accept it has a role in ensuring funding for the poor). This will not stop the bearded zealots spouting their nonsense to impressionable kids (and I make no distinction between those with with leather elbow patches and those with flowing white robes) but it will minimise the damage they cause. There will always be damage but the State currently just makes it worse.

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