Reflecting on Comparative and International Education
Reflecting on Comparative and International Education
Reflecting on Comparative and International Education
Science Communication with Bakom Bokhyllan
Teaching the Climate Crisis
Climate Education beyond COP26
UNESCO’s Futures of Education Report
Behind the Scenes: A Political Act
Imagining Life after Capitalism
Today we talk about powerful knowledge, a concept that has sparked a major debate about what should be taught in schools. My guest is Michael Young, a professor of Sociology of Curriculum at UCL’s Institute of Education.
Michael’s work in the sociology of education has been criticized by both the Right and the Left. That’s why I wanted to sit down with him to unpack what he even means by powerful knowledge and how it applies to schools. Where did the idea come from? How has his own thinking evolved over his career?
Michael Young has worked at the Institute of Education for over 50 years. A student of Basil Bernstein, he has had a major impact on the field of sociology of education since the publication of his first book, Knowledge and Control, in 1971. Much of our conversation today focuses on his 2008 book, Bringing Knowledge Back in.
Citation: Young, Michael, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 188, podcast audio, February 24, 2020. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/michaelyoung/
Will Brehm 2:14
Michael Young, welcome to FreshEd.
Michael Young 2:16
Thank you. I am very delighted to be involved.
Will Brehm 2:19
So, you have this idea of powerful knowledge and it, sort of, has taken on a life of its own, in many ways. Could you just define the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’? How would you tell a student, for instance, what this idea is?
Michael Young 2:34
I think that there would be many definitions, and what I can do is say something about the starting ideas that, in fact, led to it. And then, I suppose what I wanted to do when I came up with the idea, and I do not know if it is uniquely me … but there was … I was focusing more on educational research in sociology, and I thought that it was important that, in fact, we refocused how we approach questions about the curriculum in sociology. And so … I came up … I gave a talk at the Institute in about 2007, 2008, about the future direction of research. And … it … and I made this distinction, which I think is a very important one, between knowledge of the powerful, and powerful knowledge. And, on the whole, the sociological tradition has been to focus on knowledge … the curriculum, as knowledge of the powerful, and that comes from, basically, a left Marxist tradition, which basically sees the knowledge that people get access to as ideology, masking the nature of the societies that, in fact, they’re in.
Will Brehm 3:48
So, for instance, it would be the people in power who are writing the curriculum, writing the syllabi, writing the textbooks, their knowledge, their interests are being reproduced inside the curriculum. And that is the knowledge of the powerful.
Michael Young 4:02
And, in a sense, what the sociologists did was to expose this. And I felt that there was time … we had to stop. Because, actually, it was an oversimplification this… was… Although that knowledge of powerful ideas got some truth in it, it is also true that, in fact, people can get quite other kinds of things from being educated in a school system … university system … in a Western capitalist society. And, what they can get is access to if I call ‘powerful knowledge’. So, in a sense, there is a tension within education systems in capitalist society, on the one hand, wanting to perpetuate a particular social order, but also having an alternative … but … to give access to criticism of that social order. And this is an argument that, in fact, Basil Bernstein makes quite powerfully in his work.
Will Brehm 4:57
Right. So, what would be an example, in today’s world, of powerful knowledge, as you see it?
Michael Young 5:03
Johan Muller, who’s a colleague I work with from Cape Town, he and I decided … we had to try and write a paper, actually trying to answer that question. And, I think the important thing to say is that, in fact, and this is where Bernstein comes in, is that, in fact, the meaning of powerful knowledge depends on the … area … the field of knowledge you’re talking about. And, in a sense, there is a tendency for the model from the natural sciences, to be seen as a definitive one, across the whole of the field of knowledge. Because, unequivocally, if we think back to industrialization, the knowledge that is transformed the society is the scientific knowledge, and the increasing emphasis of the sciences, in industry, manufacturing, and so forth. But I am not wanting to negate that, but what is extremely important is to recognize that, in a sense, the knowledge fields are differentiated. And that, in fact, you have the social sciences, you have the humanities, you have the unity. And, I think the key thing … this is the point that Bernstein makes, which I think is quite useful, that, in fact, depending on which which field you’re in, knowledge progresses in different ways, new knowledge is developed in different ways … according to where …now in the natural sciences it’s developed through the process of greater generalization and abstraction. So that, in fact, Einstein incorporates Newton and all the nineteenth century, in his field … it does not mean that they were wrong, but they were partial. And Einstein provided a broader theory, quantum theory and so forth, is an attempt to combine those, and there is the endless attempt in physics, which is to bring, in a sense, relativity and quantum theory together.
Will Brehm 6:59
Right. So … so basically powerful knowledge, in a way, you’re saying, is that once you differentiate between fields or disciplines, there are different sort of traditions with in those disciplines that, sort of, legitimate …
Michael Young 7:12
Will Brehm 7:12
… powerful knowledge. And, I think one of the words you use is ‘specialized …
Michael Young 7:16
Will Brehm 7:17
… knowledge’. So, what is the difference between ‘specialized knowledge’ and say ‘non-specialized knowledge’?
Michael Young 7:22
Well, non-specialized knowledge is the knowledge that is developed without reflection in communities, and is valuable to make sense of the world that people grow up in. So there’s, in a sense, non-specialized knowledge, it’s about the streets you live in, whether there’s a shop here or there, what bus is going where they go, that’s everyday knowledge, as discussed, for instance, particularly by the psychologist Vygotsky, and indeed … it’s … Durkheim uses the term ‘profane knowledge’ for that … that … it’s … it’s knowledge of experience. I think the big difference between specialized … starting something … between specialized and non-specialized, is that it is knowledge from experience, or it is knowledge that goes beyond experience. And that, in fact, I quite often give the example that, in fact … a city … a young person in the city … knows quite a lot … has a lot of knowledge of the city that he or she has grown up in. And, at the age … depending … seven or eight or nine, he certainly meets a geography teacher. And, the geography teacher has specialized knowledge of cities, what happens to them, how they have changed, different parts of the city affect, in different kinds of ways. And, in a sense, you get what … the … some of the researchers say is a disruption, disruption between the specialized knowledge of a field like geography, which relies upon research, inquiry, debates, within its community, and the everyday knowledge, which is also about the city, urban geography or urban sociology, is about the city. So is the young boy growing up in the city …
Will Brehm 9:09
Or the black taxi driver’s knowledge …
Michael Young 9:11
That is right … taxi drivers … is knowledge indeed, yeah…yup, yup.
Will Brehm 9:15
But that would be everyday knowledge.
Michael Young 9:16
That would be everyday knowledge, yes indeed.
Will Brehm 9:17
That would be the profane to use Durkheim’s word.
Michael Young 9:20
Yeah, yeah …that … But, in a sense, the interesting thing is that there is also a difference between codified and uncodified knowledge…
Will Brehm 9:30
Michael Young 9:31
… and, in a sense, specialized knowledge means that, in fact, it is more than just organizing knowledge … I mean … the taxi driver’s knowledge is codified, so you can test them, do they know it? – and so forth. But it is not specialized. In the sense that it never progresses, you just have to keep up with what’s going on when the new roads are built, and so forth. And, in a sense, it is different from … the … the person who lives in an area who has uncodified knowledge about the names of the streets, and the pubs, and the shops, and things like that …
Will Brehm 10:07
Right, exactly, exactly. Okay. Now … I mean … you know, the specialized/non-specialized knowledge, it seems like it is a dichotomy that might be too absolute, in a way. Would you … you know … is there some gray area where there could be types of powerful knowledge that is both specialized and non-specialized?
Michael Young 10:25
I think that in a modern industrial society, these categories … I mean … to use the term that the great German sociologist Max Weber uses, ‘ideal types’, they are not descriptions, and therefore, somebody’s knowledge will always have bits of specialized and bits of unspecialized, but when you move, say, from everyday knowledge of a city to a geography teacher, then you get a focus and a specialization that is focused. It does not mean that you throw out the unspecialized knowledge, but it is a different way of thinking. And, in that sense …it is a … students find it difficult to make that step.
Will Brehm 11:07
So … so … okay. So, we have knowledge that is specialized, we have knowledge that is unspecialized as ideal types, and then we still have this knowledge of the powerful. And would that … be … that sort of fits into specialized and non-specialized as well.
Michael Young 11:22
The knowledge of the powerful is a way of thinking about specialized knowledge. Whereas powerful knowledge is another way of thinking about specialized knowledge. Because, in a sense, if you’re approaching it from the point of view of knowledge of the powerful, you focus on ideological assumptions, you focus on who has the knowledge, what interests does it protect? – and so for those kind of things, so it’s not so much … so it’s a question of how you think about it, rather than that.
Will Brehm 11:53
Right, right. Okay. And so, I mean, we have spent a lot of time talking about knowledge. What about the word ‘powerful’, like, how are you conceptualizing the very idea of power?
Michael Young 12:02
I think it is … quite … it is an important point. Johan Muller and I, we wrote a paper in ‘The Curriculum Journal’ last year, which, in fact, revisits the question of power. Because we realized that, in a sense, and particularly important for education, that, in fact, for instance, you come across new literature or new sciences then, in a sense, on the one hand, that is powerful knowledge, but it also has powers through knowing it, and therefore, what we realized was that, in a sense, power can either mean … can mean power over, it also means power to do certain things, to think certain things. So, in a sense, power has always got those dimensions. And the problem was, to some extent … is what sociology’s emphasized, it is always the power of domination. Because it is a very powerful, it’s a very significant factor, in societies, the domination of knowledge. But it tends to neglect the fact that, in fact, students, from whatever social class, can actually acquire knowledge that empowers them. So that, in a sense, somebody like Paulo Freire is talking about the emancipatory potential of knowledge. Whereas, in fact, somebody like Althusser and Bourdieu is talking about dominating power of knowledge.
Will Brehm 13:29
Michael Young 13:29
So, there are two very, very different notions of knowledge.
Will Brehm 13:32
Yeah, very different notions …
Michael Young 13:34
That makes it a complex issue for students actually studying and thinking about it. They want to see it as simple, that either it is power over or it is power to …
Will Brehm 13:44
Michael Young 13:45
Will Brehm 13:46
And it is both …
Michael Young 13:47
And it is both…
Will Brehm 13:47
… at the same time.
Michael Young 13:48
Yeah, at the same time, yes …
Will Brehm 13:49
…and that is difficult to then unpack …
Michael Young 13:51
… and this is somethings that is always true …
Will Brehm 13:53
Michael Young 13:53
… about social …
Will Brehm 13:54
Michael Young 13:54
Will Brehm 13:56
And so, would all specialized knowledge be powerful?
Michael Young 14:00
Would all specialized knowledge be powerful? Again, it depends. The reason why people specialize is to further knowledge and, in a sense, to make it, generate new ideas, extend their imagination about the world, or make predictions more powerful. So that the purpose of specialization is always to increase the power. I think that … but on the other hand, for instance, if you take the Gnostic knowledge of physicists, about the nature of the atom, then that, actually, can lead to Hiroshima. As much as it can lead to a way of producing energy.
Will Brehm 14:44
Right, right … so …
Michael Young 14:45
And so, it is not so much whether it is always powerful, but it’s powerful with different consequences.
Will Brehm 14:52
And in different times. So …
Michael Young 14:53
Yah, yah …
Will Brehm 14:53
… so, at one time, it …
Michael Young 14:54
Yah, yah …
Will Brehm 14:54
…it can be a domination over …
Michael Young 14:56
…that’s right …
Will Brehm 14:56
… certain people, and other times it can be …
Michael Young 14:58
… and you cannot really, you cannot really escape that … we have the dramatic case of it now about artificial intelligence, it’s actually incredibly productive, the things it can enable us to do, but also it has very, very negative consequences as well, as we know from, you know, the Cambridge Analytica project, and all those kind of things.
Will Brehm 15:19
Exactly. And I guess this is where some issues of politics come in, because then there has to be choices that are made … by how these, sort of, new knowledge in different fields gets applied to society or applied in society, right? So …
Michael Young 15:33
But it is a most tricky issue for politics …
Will Brehm 15:36
Oh, of course …
Michael Young 15:36
… because, in a sense, it is not unambiguous right …ly … right … or left.
Will Brehm 15:42
Exactly. Right. And there is, yeah, exactly …
Michael Young 15:44
People want to find things …of, you know, that the Labour Party can go in for or the Conservative Party, but it is not like that …
Will Brehm 15:50
Michael Young 15:51
…knowledge is not like that.
Will Brehm 15:52
Right. So, I mean, this, sort of, brings up this idea of, you know, what is truth? And we, sort of, live in this moment of ‘fake news’. And where journalism is, sort of, you know, they feel the need to present both side ism. So, in every article there is, you know, here is what one person says, but we also have the opposite take by this other group with that has other interests. Do you think that powerful knowledge, this idea that we’ve been talking about, can actually help, you know, societies today, sort of, get over or get through this idea of ‘fake news’ and where truth is relative and anyone can have as many different truths as we can count?
Michael Young 16:32
I think the notion of … there are two things need to be clarified there, I think. One is that, in fact, there is a difference between, if you are like, I cannot think of quite the right term, the difference between absolute truth, and with something more like procedural truth. I mean, there is … and, in a sense, I would use the term for procedural truth, better knowledge rather than, in fact, another version of truth. There’s always better knowledge knowledge. And that takes you back to the fact that there’s better knowledge in different disciplines, there is better plays, better films. And then the reason … what ‘better’ means is that you can get the background, the argument, the evidence, and, so forth, for why you claim to be better. And it is very, very important that, in fact, school education, in particular, actually focuses on better knowledge.
Will Brehm 17:25
So, isn’t one person’s idea of ‘better’ different from another’s?
Michael Young 17:29
Well, it’s potentially better, but, in a sense …one of the things that schools try to do is to give students access to the specialized communities who spend their life on trying to clarify the better knowledge, and that gives the historians … they don’t have an answer, you know, anybody can have a view about the origins of the American War of Independence or whatever, but what historians do can document you, what happened and why, and the arguments that they can make. And, in a sense … and therefore we turn to them, but we do not turn to them for an absolute truth, we turned to them because, in fact, what … the way that the …the issue … I would say the way … it is important for everybody to be thinking about knowledge, not necessarily about powerful knowledge, that is not always that helpful.
Will Brehm 18:25
Michael Young 18:26
But, in a sense, if they think about powerful knowledge, they will realize that they are involved in some judgment, but there are limits to their judgment, because of specialization. I cannot make a judgement about some technical thing involved in artificial intelligence. But I can make some broader judgments about what assumptions about intelligence the AI people are making, because I am, you know, that is what philosophers and sociologists do. So, there is a question of where your own specialization applies.
Will Brehm 19:00
So, you know, it is interesting this idea of trying to, you know, view specialized knowledge, or view powerful knowledge within specialized fields, within specialized disciplines. Because, at the same time, in higher education, we hear a lot about trying to be cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, trying to not simply work within single disciplines, but work across disciplines, to get at certain issues that don’t fall neatly in one area, right? So, for instance, one example that I can think of is climate change, right? Because that obviously has issues that not only impact, you know, environmental studies and physics and, you know, but also sociology, also technology. So how, you know, how do you understand or how can cross-disciplinary thinking fit within ideas of powerful knowledge?
Michael Young 19:50
Climate change, I mean, I’m not a geographer, but climate change is a very interesting example, because there was a debate about whether, in fact, climate change should be introduced or not … and it’s … in the primary school. And some people thought it should because it is relevant, and practical, and happening every day. I would make the argument that, in fact, that is fine but, if you do not really know what climate is, then to think about the consequences of climate change is absurd. So, I would take the view that, in a sense, the starting assumption of schooling is to focus on, if you like, disciplines, which provide you with the intellectual basis for being transdisciplinary. And, I would not introduce, I mean, certainly I used to teach chemistry, as a schoolteacher, and I used to feel much happier … I often had to teach physics and biology, but I did not know much, but I did not feel that I was such a good teacher then. Whereas, I knew my subject, and that’s why people could basically get excited about it, if I taught them, and also, they could learn. So, I think that, in fact, it is very important to see the interrelationships between the discipline, or the subject, and the interdisciplinary inquiry. Because, of course, you look at the, for instance, UCL’s range of research, a lot of it is interdisciplinary. But the people who work in interdisciplinary fields have a strong background in some discipline or other.
Will Brehm 21:28
Right, so they are, you know, you need to specialize in a particular knowledge tradition. But then you also have to have the skills to be able to talk to people and work with people in other disciplines.
Michael Young 21:38
But I think that what’s really important there is, particularly at the school level, it’s slightly different, but has similarities to the university level, is that, in fact, what a subject… cause we … in England anyhow we tend to talk about subjects in schools, disciplines in universities, very crude distinction, but nevertheless. And that … what’s … what’s very important, I think, is that, in fact, if you come to school, from your everyday knowledge, a subject gives you a sense of your identity as a learner, of whether you’re progressing, what’s better knowledge and what less good, and in a sense, it provides an important resource for you. Because, and also, at some point or rather, you may come across the boundaries of the subjects, and then you know … what … what you can speak about, and what, in fact, you need to inquire or talk to colleagues in other subjects, and so forth. So … I think … I think the boundaries between subjects have a very important role for the progress of learners.
Will Brehm 22:39
Michael Young 22:40
And we have gone against that. I mean, I now find… I don’t teach Masters courses, as I used to, but what I used to find was that, in fact, the disciplines had got broken up, and there were these interdisciplinary modules, and I would have 20 or 30 students, and some of them have never done any sociology before, some of them had done lots. And that is not the best context …
Will Brehm 23:05
Michael Young 23:05
…for taking them on …
Will Brehm 23:06
… because how do you teach …
Michael Young 23:08
Will Brehm 23:08
… such a diverse group of students?
Michael Young 23:09
And I am not sure you do. You see, I think that … they … they would be better to have done some courses in sociology or economics and psychology …
Will Brehm 23:17
… before moving up to
Michael Young 23:19
… then move up …
Will Brehm 23:19
Right, right. I mean … so … and going back to this issue of climate change, so before you can learn about … the … what’s happening in climate change in a cross-disciplinary way, you need to have the … real … good foundation of what climate is.
Michael Young 23:32
And it is quite an abstract concept ‘climate’…
Will Brehm 23:33
It sure is, yeah, yeah…
Michael Young 23:34
Yeah, I mean, like weather, and all these things, yeah…and… yeah …
Will Brehm 23:39
… and climate is not weather, it is … not …
Michael Young 23:40
… no, no, it is not … exactly. And, that is important, you know…
Will Brehm 23:43
So, what then do you think of someone like Greta Thunberg? You know … this … she’s the 16-17 year old that is making all of these speeches and, sort of, leading a massive social movement across the world to get politicians to address the issue of climate change or what … what … she calls the climate crisis. Like, is she working in powerful knowledge? Or, is this more of the everyday knowledge? Like … how would you … How would you understand the phenomenon of Greta Thunberg?
Michael Young 24:12
Well, it is good question, actually. I mean, she is obviously a very bright and thoughtful girl, no question about it. And, she is thought a lot about the issues, and so forth. But … I think … I do not think she is so much a leader; I think she is being used. And, I do not use that negatively. But then people think if we can show that there’s somebody of her age, we’ve got these things, she represents something, they may convince some people that, in fact, another academic, who really knows about it, who has the specialized knowledge, which she doesn’t have, she’s got a concern, and, I think, we can respect that. But I think she is being used as a …sort of … rather like that extraordinary Pakistani girl, Malala.
Will Brehm 24:59
Yeah, yeah …
Michael Young 25:00
I mean, she got used, you know, got the Nobel Prize, not because, in one sense, she deserved it, but to symbolize something that she stood for, was the, kind of, courage and bravery … and it … kind of … concerned about … and I think they’re very much the same. And I am sure that Greta will get some kind of Nobel prize, at some point, just because, in fact, for a 16-year-old to do that everybody thinks it’s wonderful. They cannot really criticize because she’s only 16…
Will Brehm 25:26
Michael Young 25:27
But I do not think … it is not the knowledge …that’s the important thing, it’s a symbol of the young girl.
Will Brehm 25:33
I think one of the things that’s so powerful about Greta is her ability to take specialized knowledge in the research literature, in diverse fields that focus on climate and climate change, and say them in ways that are so easily understood by people, from politicians to, you know, other schoolchildren, but also to adults, right? Who aren’t in that specialized knowledge? So, she is almost … I see her almost as translating this specialized knowledge into, sort of, everyday knowledge, and it’s become popularized, in a way, where now there’s, sort of, this common language, you know, even the idea of calling it the climate crisis, rather than climate change, you know, in many ways that discursive change … is … or linguistic change … is to her credit.
Michael Young 26:18
Yeah, no … but it might have been an adult, it could have been somebody else…
Will Brehm 26:22
Michael Young 26:22
But, in fact, it is symbolic that it is not an adult …
Will Brehm 26:25
Michael Young 26:25
…and therefore, people, in a way, have to listen to it … I do not think she is done a massive amount of reading …
Will Brehm 26:32
… I, see, I actually think she has …
Michael Young 26:33
…well, she is obviously done… more than most 16-year olds, but I, in a sense, I think it is less… I mean, I agree with you that her ability to articulate, and to express, in accessible lang … is admirable. It is almost as if she is a specialist in communication, rather than in climate knowledge …
Will Brehm 26:53
…Yeah …Yeah, right … I mean, that’s … yeah … that is a good point, because she really is capable of talking about some of these complex issues …
Michael Young 27:00
But I think it is her as the symbol, rather than just what she says.
Will Brehm 27:06
Yeah, it is complex, you are, sort of, becoming multiple things, right? As she is gaining more and more famous … and … you know, her face is known all over the world. So, you know … in … I read a little bit about your history before coming into this interview. And it is quite striking that … I learned that … in … when you were a young lecturer, I think about probably the same age I am now, in the same Institute, you wrote a book called ‘Knowledge and Control’ …
Michael Young 27:33
That is right …
Will Brehm 27:34
… which was very much about how knowledge or school knowledge is socially constructed to … basic … to privilege the ruling classes, those with power, and disadvantage the workers. Fast forward 50 years, we are beginning to, sort of … a … you know … in this conversation today, we’re not really talking about the social construction of knowledge anymore. You are talking about powerful knowledge. These disciplinary knowledges …
Michael Young 27:59
I mean … I realized that, in a sense, the development of … First of all, I think that, in a sense, unless you … … unless you’re a very religious person, social construction is a rather banal notion that is true. That all knowledge is humanly constructed by groups of people in particular contexts. And what is important to say about that is that, I think, is that one of the things that is continued to … is that therefore, it is also always potentially accessible to anyone. Because it’s a human thing, it’s not, you know, it’s not God, you know, it’s not the universe or something like that, and, or some divine being or creator, or anything like that. And I think that was … but if you follow through the social construction, you end up by saying … focusing only on the social … and … and therefore, on the whole, on par, and true knowledge is a knowledge that the powerful have, you get to knowledge of the powerful. And, you do not actually get to any understanding of knowledge, the knowledge itself disappears. Because it is all social. It is kind of a … it is a, kind of, sociological imperialism…
Will Brehm 29:10
Michael Young 29:11
… because … and it’s interesting that, in fact, you know, Marx, who was the first social constructivist, if you like, I mean, he had this notion of post the revolution, something more like primitive communism, where everybody was able to do everything. Now, I think that is a mistake … he was an anti-specialization person. And so, I think, I realized, and I suppose I got a lot of flak, for the first time, not the only time in my life, a lot of flak from the academics, and people, about social constructivism … and rightly, but I want to hold on to the fact that it’s still got an element of truth, just, we tend to convert it into the whole truth. And, that was … I think … that … that was what was misleading. So, and I think I particularly … what was important for me was … in … in the early 90s, I went … I spent a lot of time in South Africa, as a kind of consultant with the Democratic Movement on developing a new education system, because obviously, they were just about to abolish apartheid, which was, in a sense, determined their education … so now what were they were going to do? And, the only theory I had at the time was a socially constructed theory, which basically said, basically, you should let everyone be free to construct their own knowledge. And, in fact, because that is what people used to …flag … wave a flag saying, knowledge is a social construct. But, of course, the poor teachers have not a clue. They were there in the schools and what on earth did they do? And, in a sense, there was chaos in the schools. And, in a sense … and what I have been doing ever since is trying to recover from that idea, to realize that there is actually something real about the world. This is why social realism comes, there’s something real about the world. We do not just social construct, as we will, we social construct an external world, whether it is social or material, or whatever … and we try and improve our understanding of that … material … of that world. And I … then … and then I went back, and I came across Durkheim, and I reread Durkheim, who I read and misunderstood when I was an undergraduate. And, and he was the starting point for me, and the influence of Bernstein as well. And indeed, Vygotsky. So, I looked for an alternative. And, in a sense, ‘Bringing Knowledge Back In’ … the book is a, kind of, conclusion. But it is not a conclusion, it does not solve the problem, it just says ‘here is a way of thinking that is much better than the way we’ve had before’. And then … that social realism, but, in fact, that requires you to accept the importance of specialization, to accept the importance of an external world, to accept the importance … you never have the absolute truth. You are always trying to improve it. I mean, the people in quantum physics are trying to improve quantum physics…. to make it a more adequate account of, you know, of the atom …
Will Brehm 32:06
So, from social constructivism to social realism, and now you are bringing knowledge back in in your working … where to next?
Michael Young 32:16
Well, I mean, I think that the … when we came to powerful knowledge, and the idea that there is better knowledge, and that that should be the basis for the curriculum, for all pupils, because in England, as you probably know, and probably is the same in the States, we had a kind of diversified model of knowledge that, in fact, for the kids who appeared to be in quotes, not ‘academic’, you would give them something more like everyday knowledge. And, of course, that actually kept perpetuating the inequalities for them. So, in a sense, so the … the … thing that I am focusing on now, primarily, is that, in fact, the curriculum is about stipulating the best knowledge, right? And that is fine. I think you can do that, but if you are thinking about education … that, in fact, the educational problem is the stipulation and the de-transmission problem. And that, in a sense, because you cannot transmit the knowledge that is produced by researchers, there has to be … Bernstein called ‘recontextualization’ of that, and which involves the relationship between the teacher and the pupil. And that, in fact, if you don’t do that, and you think it’s only the curriculum and stipulation, then … you … you get a curriculum, which involves expecting people to mug up to memorize, to reproduce, you don’t actually give them an access to knowledge, which is about changing their thinking. You do not.
Will Brehm 33:47
Well, Michael Young, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, really a pleasure to talk today. Thank you very much.
Michael Young 33:53
Not at all. I have enjoyed the discussion.
2019 in Review
What role does higher education play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
My guest today is Tristan McCowan, author of the new book entitled Higher Education for and beyond the Sustainable Development Goals, which was published earlier this year. Tristan interrogates the idea of a so-called developmental university working towards the SGDs, identifying both positive and negative outcomes.
Tristan McCowan is a Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University College London. I spoke with Tristan in his office in London, which just so happens to be around the corner from mine. This is actually the first podcast that I’ve recorded at my new intuitional home at the Institute of Education. There’s a lot more to say about the future of FreshEd now that I live in London, but I’m going to wait until next year to tell you all about it. For now, enjoy our latest episode and stay tuned for our end of year show with Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, which will air next week.
Citation: McCowan, Tristan, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 184, podcast audio, December 9, 2019. https://freshedpodcast.com/mccowan/
Will Brehm 1:39
Tristan McCowan, welcome to FreshEd.
Tristan McCowan 1:41
Thanks, Will. It is a great pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:43
So, I want to start by talking a little bit about the SDGs, but specifically about higher education because this is something that might not get talked about as much as primary or secondary schooling. So where in the SDGs – in the Sustainable Development Goals – is higher education even mentioned?
Tristan McCowan 2:02
So, I think it is worth thinking about what comes before the SDGs to talk about how it does appear. And in the Millennium Development Goals that came before, there was a conspicuous absence of higher education there. So, the education goal was around primary education. I suppose higher education might be included in the requirement for gender equality that was also there, but it was absent in the education goal. And this was also indicative of a general neglect of higher education in the development community for some decades before. So, the inclusion of higher education in the SDGs marks something of a return – a rekindling of interest – in higher education generally in development. And there was a lot of discussion in the consultation around the creation of what was going to replace the MDGs about how higher education might be included in that. In the SDGs themselves, the most obvious inclusion of higher education is in how it appears as a target in itself. It appears along with vocational education, tertiary education, and a specific mention of university. So that is the access goal. It is not very demanding, in my view. It doesn’t require universal access or anything resembling that. What it requires is equal access, which, as we know from international law, is really around nondiscrimination. It is an important requirement, but it is not very demanding on this. But nevertheless, it is there. And I think it is very important that universities mentioned in terms of access, getting people into university or some form of higher education. But that is not the only way that it appears in the SDG. In the book, I distinguish between three different ways that it appears. So, there is that first one we have talked about, which is access, and then two others. The second is as part of the education system as a whole. And this relates to one of your previous podcasts that was talking about SDG 4.7 and the overarching aims of education in terms of promoting global citizenship, sustainable development itself. So higher education fits into that. It is part of the education system. And it might promote a lot of the goals that we would like to see in society. The third role for higher education is the one that the book focuses on mainly, and that is higher education as a driver for all of the goals. So, every one of the 17 goals in all different areas: environmental, health, poverty, and so forth require to some degree on universities in the broadest possible way, through its teaching, but also its research and community engagement and all of its functions.
Will Brehm 4:45
So I mean, in a way, what you’re saying is that universities have this massive role to play in the SDGs not simply as access not simply as being part of the education system to meet some of these very lofty goals of 4.7, which, as the previous podcasts have shown are very sort of diverse and complex ideas. But more importantly, and perhaps most importantly, this idea of higher education as being a driver of development. So, this is a pretty large role for education, for higher education. Can universities actually even fulfill this role, do you think?
Tristan McCowan 5:24
I think my answer to that is yes, but perhaps not in the way that might immediately be imagined. So, I think the potential of universities is extraordinary. And one of the arguments that I try to make in all different kinds of fora is that universities are essential for all countries and not just for the wealthy countries that we might imagine might afford it. Universities aren’t luxury; they are critical part of all countries, however impoverished they might be, however many challenges they might face. In fact, we might think of as being especially important in those. The teaching role of universities is crucial for forming professionals in a whole range of different areas, including the kinds of primary services that were focused on in the MDGs, but also in the SDGs, around education, health, and so forth. There is a much broader teaching role of universities as well for civic and personal benefits. There is the research role of universities, breakthroughs in health, the environment, all sorts of areas in which there are huge challenges facing humanity. And then the community engagement role where universities can apply that knowledge and also engage with the knowledge that communities have. So, the potential of universities is extraordinary. Whether they can fulfill that is a different matter, and that does depend on the level of quality that universities have, the resourcing that they have, how they are organized, the kinds of autonomy they have. So, it is not guaranteed. And I think, you know, the empirical research that we have… and we have fairly good research on some countries, less good on others. The research we have shows that they are sometimes able to do that. Sometimes they are able to do that in ways that we hadn’t actually imagined. In others, they struggle to. It is worth pointing out that in low-income countries, universities have roles that are not present in higher-income countries as providers of basic services often. So, communities will often use universities because they don’t have other spaces for meeting, for, you know, cultural pursuits. Even for things as basic as Internet access, and so forth. So, universities can play a really crucial role in all countries. The final point I’d make is that the role of universities as a driver perhaps is not as automatic or guaranteed as we might imagine, even when we might consider that to be a quality university. And that is because there is a level of unpredictability to all processes of learning and scholarship.
Will Brehm 8:01
So, what do you mean? Is there a downside, sometimes, to higher education?
Tristan McCowan 8:06
There certainly can be a downside. I mean, universities have not always had positive impacts on their societies through history. One of the downsides is in exacerbating inequalities in societies. So, while universities can certainly act as mechanisms for social mobility, they can also do the opposite. And in many points in history where access has been restricted to an elite, or for particular religious or language groups, or just for men, for example, it has actually made things worse rather than make things better. So, there is that element. Also, universities have been implicated in fostering of prejudice and xenophobia as all parts of the education system.
Will Brehm 8:51
Right. Okay. So you’re sort of taking this complex view, whether it’s good and bad, the development is not always this positive linear idea but can have a complex multitude of outcomes as a result of work in higher education, or any sector, I would imagine in education more broadly defined. So, I guess when we think about the university, what you are sort of saying is that not all universities are the same. There is a lot of potential in higher education, but what actually happens looks different in different contexts; the cultural context, the national context, whatever it is. So, when you think historically, then, how can we make sense of, you know, different types of universities? You know, maybe ideal types, not necessarily what actually exists. How can we start categorizing different types of universities?
Tristan McCowan 9:48
Thanks. It is a really important question, and one that’s not posed often enough, I think. And it is worth saying at the start that what we are seeing now across the world in higher education is much less diversity than there might have been. Historically there have been models of higher learning in many parts of the world – in India and China, in the Islamic world, in Mesoamerica. Other places as well that have been quite distinct. And many of those have been lost. In fact, most of them have been lost through history. We’ve seen a dominance of the European model of university from medieval Europe, which in its spreading around the world has gained new forms of diversity, but perhaps not as much as we might have wanted and still rooted in some very similar assumptions. So, there is a degree of homogeneity around the world, but what I argue is that universities have a kind of a mixing of different historical models within them. And as you say, they are partly ideal types and partly real historically. So, you have got the medieval institution, which was a community of scholars, a community of students, engaging and debate over authoritative texts. You have the Humboldtian model that emerges in the 19th century of the research university on the pursuit of truth and academic freedom and so forth. You have then got drives towards greater relevance of the university to society, and the land grant universities in the United States were very influential in this regard. Also moves in Latin America in the early 20th century towards democratization of the university space. And leading to what in Africa in the post Second World War period was called the “developmental university,” one that is tied very much to service to society. And then most recently, the emergence of the entrepreneurial or the enterprise university, one which is focused on income generation through selling of its services. So, we have got these different models, and I think we can see them all in our institutions. In some, you know, the entrepreneurial model is dominant. In others, we might see, you know, more of the Humboldtian model, but jostling for space, and of course, in the different actors that are engaged as well.
Will Brehm 12:07
You are thinking through this developmental university because it sort of links in with the SDGs. So, in what way do you see the developmental university? How do we think about that university, that type of university, if it truly does do service to society in the ideal that is written in the SDGs?
Tristan McCowan 12:31
Yeah, I mean I think if you look at the role that’s proposed for universities, it is something close to the developmental model: a university that has as its primary purpose serving society in an egalitarian mode, or perhaps beyond the egalitarian, actually focusing primarily on the most disadvantaged populations. By privileging those populations, reducing poverty and so forth, and dealing to a large extent with applied knowledge and an impact on nonacademic communities. And there is something of a contradiction there between the kinds of higher education that are promoted by many of the international agencies, which in many ways actually undermine that kind of developmental role of universities.
Will Brehm 13:13
Tristan McCowan 13:15
Particularly through a promotion of expansion at all costs. Now, there is a real need for expanding higher education. Access has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. But much of the expansion has taken place in very commercialized, for-profit sectors of higher education, or sometimes distance education with low quality, which has, while it has allowed more people to gain higher education diplomas, it has not necessarily allowed them the learning that will be meaningful in their lives, and certainly hasn’t promoted research and community engagement in the public interest. So, there have been dynamics in the growth of higher education sectors, which have brought some benefit for individuals, but without much of a contribution to the public good.
Will Brehm 14:04
So, given this sort of “massification” of higher education and how that might begin to challenge some of the value and the functions of the university, what sort of trends have you noticed worldwide? You know, let’s take a broad view here. Broadly speaking, what sort of major trends do you see in higher education today?
Tristan McCowan 14:24
Well, one of them I have touched on already, which is the move towards commercialization. Which is present in the astounding growth of the for-profit sector. And that is very evident in one of the countries that I work very closely with, which is Brazil, but you can also see it in many other parts of the world. But also, of course, there is a commercialization of public institutions through so-called cost-sharing policies, the charging of fees, and other forms of creeping privatization. Now commercialization is a term that encompasses a whole range of different activities which have different kinds of influence. And it is certainly, in an immediate sense, has assisted in allowing higher education systems to grow. So, it is complex. But if we are thinking about the SDGs, or about the public good more generally, there are some very worrying outcomes of that. Firstly, around the attaching of quality to price. So, as the system starts to marketize more, variable costs of courses will start to become attached either to quality or to prestige, which has worrying implications for equity. But also it makes it much harder for universities to engage in research in the public benefit, or community engagement in the public benefit, without some kind of a name to generate income from those communities; makes it much harder to fulfill the SDGs. So that is one of the big trends. A second trend is associated with the very often discussed international rankings in higher education. And one of the implications of those rankings is a privileging of a certain kind of university or a certain kind of university action. And I am not saying for a moment that the elite universities that do well in rankings are not benefiting the SDGs. Actually, I think they are with a lot of their work. But it is certainly not the only kind of institution that does that. And much of the work that is most beneficial for communities around the world is not valued by those rankings. Community engagement has almost no presence in the rankings. And an inclusive intake of students also is not valued through most of the rank.
Will Brehm 16:33
In your book, you point to this like unbelievable indicator or proxy for, I think its quality of teaching in these rankings, that is used. Can you explain what it is?
Tristan McCowan 16:44
Well, in the Shanghai ranking, the number of alumni with Nobel Prizes is taken as a proxy for quality, which is…
Will Brehm 16:52
That is crazy! I mean, so, these rankings then, the way they sort of measure this idea of quality across universities, can be pretty absurd, almost to the extreme sometimes.
Tristan McCowan 17:06
It is a small minority of all higher education institutions that are listed on international rankings at all. So, you could say, “Well, perhaps it’s irrelevant”. But actually, it does have an influence. Because even if most institutions don’t have a realistic chance of getting into the upper echelons, discursively, it does influence the way institutions see themselves. They start not to value the good work that they are doing. And they start to aspire towards work that perhaps isn’t in their best interest.
Will Brehm 17:33
I mean, we are sitting here at the Institute of Education, and out the front door, there is a big sign with the ranking on it. I mean, it is sort of, you know, it is the first thing you see when you walk into this building.
Tristan McCowan 17:46
Will Brehm 17:48
So, one of the last trends that you write about in your book, you use the word “unbundling”. Can you explain what this is? I never really came across this term before.
Tristan McCowan 17:57
So, it is a term that comes from business originally. And it is the process of separating out products that had previously been sold together for commercial advantage, either for the producer or sometimes for the consumer. I suppose the most obvious example in contemporary times is low-cost airlines, where you are not tied into paying for your baggage or your seat or so forth; you can purchase things individually. In higher education, it is a very controversial process. It is quite incipient; we’re just seeing the earliest signs of it yet. But for example, the separation out of different parts of what we might have considered to be the bundle of higher education. Of instruction, assessment, research, extracurricular activities, and so forth. So, one way that this has manifested itself is in the provision of no-frills, what I call no-frills courses. Very basic provision, where you pay a lower cost, and you just have access to the basic instruction, and you have to pay extra if you want some other things
Will Brehm 19:01
Such as? Like access to the library?
Tristan McCowan 19:03
Well, I have never seen a case of no access at all to the library. But certainly, there is an example in the UK where you have very minimal access to university facilities beyond what you would basically need to do one’s course. You know, this does open the door to a kind of a segregation of lower and higher-income students.
Will Brehm 19:25
Of course. And where does the process end? Right, you almost can get to the point where you have to pay to use the bathroom.
Tristan McCowan 19:30
Absolutely, absolutely. I think it is very worrying. It is a seductive idea because it appears to be addressing the huge escalation of costs, particularly in the United States. And allowing more people into the higher education system. So, it is seductive in that sense, but it is very worrying because then you start to have a very hierarchical system, a stratified system, where disadvantaged students have access to less.
Will Brehm 19:54
Second class students. You know, these are pretty worrying trends. This idea of status, this idea of commodification and commercialization, and this idea of unbundling. So, do you think this idea of, you know, the developmental university, service to society, these sort of liberal democratic ideals. You know, what has to change so we can actually create universities that embrace those ideas rather than … or, you know. It seems as if some of these other ideas and trends you have been talking about sort of go against some of these developmental ideas.
Tristan McCowan 20:32
Well, I think we need two things. I think there does need to be state investment; there needs to be public investment and state support. But I wouldn’t want to say that all of initiative needs to come from the central state. I think we also need to create more opportunities for local innovation. So, in my work, I am very interested in and supportive of various grassroots initiatives in higher education. I think this is a really important part of the answer as well. And there are some great examples around the world of developmental institutions. They are fragile in many cases, but they are very inspiring. So, we have got University for Development Studies in Northern Ghana, which is a very interesting institution serving the arid regions of Northern Ghana, working in very innovative ways with integrated teaching and research and community engagement. There are the so-called “thematic” federal universities in Brazil, which were established over the last 15 years to promote different forms of international engagement and local development. They are fragile because, to a large extent, they just depend on the governments of their day. And in Brazil, you have had a very radical shift to the right and the consequent withdrawal of support from these institutions. You have also got challenges with innovative institutions starting to, you know, being pulled back to the conventional type over the years. So, there are challenges, but there are some inspiring examples that we can look to.
Will Brehm 22:01
I also think about some of these protests in Chile. I know it started recently with bus fare increase, but it sort of dovetailed with that longer student protests from 2013 that was very much against what we might call the “neoliberal university,” or whatever it might be. And even here in London, they only just had, in the UK, 60 universities went on strike for about eight days trying to really counter a lot of these same trends that you are talking about. So, there are these signs, it seems, of pushback. Now, will it actually result in any action, that’s another sort of question, I guess.
Tristan McCowan 22:41
Absolutely. I think there are mobilizations in different parts of the world. South Africa recently has had a huge student mobilization around decolonization, the curriculum, and also around fees. I think we look at Chile as a great example of a student mobilization, not only because of its massiveness, but also because, perhaps unusually, but very successfully, what started as a student mobilization started to bring other spheres of society on board. And also gained real endorsement from society and, you know, made things … you know, the government couldn’t ignore it anymore. So, I think it is a really successful example.
Will Brehm 23:20
You know, that actually makes me think of the Chicago teacher strikes in America, where it wasn’t higher education, but it was public school teachers going on strike, I think 2012/2013. And one of the reasons that they were successful, that many scholars point to, is precisely the same reason is that they had this broad coalition; it wasn’t just this narrow focus on teaching and learning, but it brought in all sectors of society, and it became such a massive movement that the government had to respond. And more importantly, a lot of the leaders from that strike ended up getting elected in many parts in Chicago. So, I mean, it seems like it is a bigger conversation on social mobilization and successful social mobilization.
Tristan McCowan 24:03
That is a really interesting example. And it also makes me think of, you know, these ideas of “post-truth” and “anti-experts” that were coming out in 2016, through Brexit and the election in the United States. And I think some politicians have tried to drive a wedge between universities and society by creating resentment. And I think it is a really important task that those involved in universities have is to try and communicate with society this shared enterprise to a large degree.
Will Brehm 24:32
Exactly. And to see it as a service to society. It is not just our own little siloed workspaces here. So, as great as that makes me feel: this idea of social mobilization and trying to change universities away from status competition, away from commodification, away from unbundling, I do wonder – and you point out in your book – that, you know, there’s a critique, as well, of that movement. Of, you know, promoting a university for liberal democracy, for furthering capitalism in many respects. So how can we even begin to think about post-development: a critique of development itself?
Tristan McCowan 25:14
So, this is why I ended up making the title “For and Beyond”, because it is very important to look beyond as well. And I see the SDGs as being important. I am not trivializing them, but they are an intermediate step. And I think ultimately, they are not going to solve all of the problems that the global community faces at the moment. As you say, the SDGs are rooted in liberal capitalist model, to a large extent, a modernization model. And there are some deep flaws in those, and indeed, you know, we can be very skeptical about whether a capitalist system can ever really achieve, you know, equality and sustainability in a global community. You know, some of the incentives for accumulation and profit that corporations have are precisely the problem that we have with the fossil fuel lobby and so forth. So, there are some real problems there. There’s another issue with the SDGs in the lack of attention to questions of identity, culture, language that leading into another issue that I think is important to a certain relation to higher education, which is around what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls a dialogue of knowledges. So how can we think about epistemic pluralism? How can we think about not just mainstream Western academic knowledge, which is important. But how do we put that in dialogue with other forms of knowledge from different knowledge communities, from indigenous peoples, from diverse traditions around the world, which will inevitably enrich that knowledge. And this is a very important aspect of where we go with development and also where we go with higher education. And I think we need to think about two forms of creativity and imagination in the higher education space: one is around questioning the institutional forms that we are very familiar with. You know, we look at a university, and we assume that it’s going to have very particular kinds of structures and practices. And I think we need to open up our imagination, perhaps drawing on Ivan Illich’s ideas of deschooling to think about how our university might be otherwise. And then the second point around epistemic pluralism, around having different kinds of knowledge in the university, and drawing on the experiences. I’m familiar with experiences in Latin America, indigenous institutions around the continent, but there are some in other parts of the world as well, Swaraj University in India is an interesting example of how we can create universities in different ways. And if we need to go beyond the SDGs, we need to think about sustainable development. It is a different kind of university that’s going to help us achieve it.
Will Brehm 27:56
Tristan McCowan, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure talking today, and I look forward to your next book.
Tristan McCowan 28:02
Thank you very much.