Questioning the curriculum: here's to Michael Young's next 50 years at the IOE
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 November 2017
Last week the IOE celebrated Professor Michael Young’s 50 years at the IOE and the publication of a festschrift in his honour. I was one of a number of colleagues asked to speak at the event. Having cancelled my flight to Australia to do so I thought I would be able to say that, as the result of the fare penalty, I was the only person who had actually paid to be there. But in fact there were other people attending from overseas, which just goes to show the high esteem in which Michael is held throughout the world.
I haven’t known Michael quite 50 years – more like 49. It would have been in October 1968 when I arrived at the IOE as a PGCE student training to be a history teacher, and Michael was one of a group of sociologists who inspired me to see my own future as a sociologist. His particular contribution was in encouraging us to question much of what we had hitherto taken for granted about education.
Ironically, in view of his current stance in favour of subject knowledge, what especially grabbed my attention at that time was the idea that the school curriculum was a social construction and that it didn’t need to consist of subjects based on academic disciplines. This interpretation of his work led some of his disciples in the so-called new sociology of education (though not I think Michael himself even then) to go further and argue that the traditional curriculum was little more than a middle class confidence trick that could be swept away and replaced by a curriculum based on working class culture. At least some parts of Michael’s book Knowledge and Control, which came out in 1971, were interpreted by his critics, such as Richard Pring and Brian Simon, as denying working class children access to what Michael would now call ‘powerful knowledge’.
The festschrift launched last week discusses Michael’s distancing himself from such naïve excesses of the new sociology of education – and how his subsequent work on vocational education led him to a much broader and ambitious critique of social constructivism. This would culminate in his espousal of social realism as expressed in Bringing Knowledge Back In, published in 2008, a position he has developed further in his recent work with Joe Muller on professional education.
The festschrift is structured around Michael’s contribution to three main areas of work – the sociology of education, curriculum studies and professional (and vocational) education. The 18 contributors to these three sections of the book are very different and probably the only thing they have in common is huge respect and affection for Michael and a conviction that, whatever disagreements they have with him (and there are many), his work is important.
Important in refining our understanding of the importance of knowledge in the curriculum and in considering what implications this has for education policy and practice not only here in the UK but also elsewhere, particularly in South Africa, the Antipodes and China.
However, just as there was a danger in the early 1970s of Michael’s work being confused with what I then called naïve possibilitarianism, his recent work has sometimes been seen by others as a justification for the naïve cultural restorationism of Michael Gove. So I think it is important to stress that Michael Young’s critique of the constructivist ‘Curriculum Future 2’ (outlined in Knowledge and the Future School) does not justify a return to the traditionalist ‘Curriculum Future 1’, and also that more work needs to be done on the nature of Michael’s ‘Curriculum Future 3’ (in which knowledge is created by specialist communities, rather than simply being treated as given) – particularly in demonstrating how it is more progressive than either of them.
That, for me, is a sociological issue as much as it is an epistemological issue or a curriculum question. And, although sometime in the mid-1990s, during a conversation with me and Mike Apple, Michael announced that he had handed sociology of education over to me, I believe he has always remained a sociologist at heart. His first contribution was to place knowledge at the heart of the sociology of education, aguably to redefine the sociology of education as a branch of the sociology of knowledge; his more recent work has placed knowledge at the heart of the school curriculum and of professional education. But I would argue that aspects of his earlier work are still relevant, not least to the potential unintended consequences of the sort of curriculum solutions he now advocates. Important as his current stress on young people acquiring ‘powerful knowledge’ is, we need to remember some lessons from Michael’s earlier work (including that with me) on the myriad ways in which that too often gets mixed up with the ‘knowledge of the powerful’ with regressive rather than progressive consequences.
The final words of my contribution are actually an invitation to Michael to join me on the next stage of the journey and I am pleased to see that, in his own appreciation and response to the volume, Michael himself sees new possibilities for us to collaborate.
So Michael, thank you for your company. I am looking forward to the next 50 years…
Geoff Whitty is Director Emeritus of the UCL Institute of Education
Photo by Denis Hayes: Michael Young (left) with the IOE’s David Guile and Becky Francis