What is knowledge rich? Part 4: cultural capital

‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’.

(Hirst, 1993)

In parts 1, 2 and 3 I have worked from Hirst’s conclusion about knowledge and the curriculum. I have explored the idea of music as a significant social cultural practice and how thinking of music in terms of particular musical practices in all their multitudinous manifestations opens the mind to music making as the lived experience of meaning making and knowledge creation.

Particular musical practices of course are not without provenance, ways of being and thinking, they will have primers and principles, ways of knowing and becoming knowledgeable. Some will have great longevity – bell ringing and gamelan playing, for example, and with canonic authority and its contestation to consider.

It was Denis Lawton’s view that curriculum, in its broadest sense, constitutes a selection from a culture of a society. [1] The making of  music curriculum then would call for a selection to be made and this would require attention to criteria informing that selection. Or perhaps selection would be arbitrary, whimsical and without principle (me being whimsical).

In that Teme Valley primary school of the 1970s that I referred to in part 2, the children were introduced to the practice of unison singing, recorder playing and hand bell ringing. Was this selection a matter of cultural habit, dominant thinking of the time, the serendipity of hand bells being at hand? In my local primary school the selection made sees year 3 practising the ukulele and making music in string ensemble, year 4 are practising ocarinas and recorders, year 5 making samba, and year 6 steel panning and composing computer generated music, while all years are inducted into a variety of vocal practices. How was this selection made?

Those maintaining that only the ‘best’ be selected may be demurring about the lack of a traditional imprint in the music making of my local primary school. They might say, ‘but where is the knowledge, where are the touchstones of western European high culture, where is the cultural capital that will ensure the making of an informed citizen of a united nation?’ [2]

The call is for a common curriculum made in the cause of uniting a nation and furthering social cohesion.

Will this be a mono culture?

Which musical practices will be proscribed?

Where will space be found for cultural pluralities?

Why would a mono cultural approach bring about social cohesion any more than a cultural plural approach?

Next week a look at Michael Young’s powerful knowledge thesis.


[1] Lawton, D. (1975) Class, Culture and the curriculum. Routledge and Keegan Paul: London.

[2] See Hirsch, E. D. (1996) ‘The Schools we need and why we don’t have them’. Double Day: New York.

What is knowledge rich? Part 3: knowledge and culture

‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’.

(Hirst, 1993)

In Part 2 I examined the idea of social practice and worked a little with the example of bell ringing. This was a part of thinking more generally of music as music-making and as a social practice. And to take another step we can view social musical practices such as bell ringing, community ukulele playing, Anglican choral singing, lip-syncing and the construction of quodlibets as cultural practices. In recognising particular cultural practices we can, if we choose, make ever finer distinctions. Anglican choral singing is made up of a vast range of distinctive musical practices, for example. [1]

Social practices exist as culture and it is a selection from culture that the school curriculum is made.

But how do we begin to think about culture. One useful distinction to be made is between two well established ways.

  1. The anthropological – ‘a whole way of life’; the totality of activities and artifacts. (Derived from Tylor 1871)
  2. The product of intellectual and artistic activity – ‘the best that has been thought and    said’. (Derived from Arnold 1869)

2. is a narrowing of meaning and restrictive, sometimes becoming even narrower to include only (high) art works, sometimes narrower still to include only the literary arts. By restricting the idea of culture in this way it can not only be evaluative but programmatic. There can be benchmarks of goodness, what Arnold called touchstones. There can be connoisseurship where gate keepers determine what is good and true. The emphasis is on products or works removed from the ongoing conditions of their practice. The concept of the work is crucial.

On the other hand 1. places emphasis on activities inseparable from the material conditions of life, from culture lived and practised. Not works but practices lead the way.

Making music is a form of cultural practice where its value resides in the ends to which it is put. See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/scholarly-paper-the-ethical-significance-of-music-making-by-wayne-bowman/  , for example.

The current claim to knowledge rich curriculum would appear to rest upon 2 above. Here knowledge is divined from a narrowly conceived idea of culture through which knowledge comes to be narrowly conceived and easily reified.

This leads us the consider the idea of cultural capital, an idea much-loved by the knowledge richness of the new traditionalism.


[1] There may be the temptation at this point to move towards referring to these in terms of specific genres and sub-genres. However, once we make that move, we distance what is a human practice from the meaning making and knowledge creation of the here and now and what is a lived culture.


What is knowledge rich? Part 2: social practices

‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’.

(Hirst, 1993)

In Part 1 I began my enquiry into the current interest in knowledge-led and knowledge-rich curriculum and the case of music education by returning to the thesis of Paul Hirst first set out in 1965 and its revision in his final paper in 1993 one year after the installation of a national curriculum.

The question of knowledge and the curriculum was much debated between 1965 and the coming of the National Curriculum 1988-1992. Out of this debate the will for a common curriculum rooted in knowledge, skills and understanding of subjects won the day and became a statutory requirement. The state had arbitrated. The curriculum had now become a political entity.

In this blog I want to explore the idea of music education as primarily conceived of as a social practice and not primarily concerned with knowledge.

What is a social practice?

I work from the example of bell ringing.

Hidden away in the Teme Valley lies the hamlet of Shelley Beauchamp. Until the 1980s it was served by a one teacher primary school and a set of hand bells. It took great pride in its hand bell ringing while taking its pupils singing and recorder playing a little for granted.

Hand bell ringing is an activity that has been practised for at least fifteen hundred years and as long as gamelan playing in Indonesia, another bell sounding activity. Bell ringing itself has much longer provenance.

We might want to put together all bell sounding activities into one category of activity and thus include carillon playing and much more. In this way it may be argued that the practice becomes more substantial, have wider cultural significance. Or we might simply view it as a sub-practice of what we understand as music making.

Hand bell ringing is a social practice. It is a participatory, relational, cultural activity with an ethical framework and as such is educational.

In my local primary school there are no hand bells but the steel pans are resounding.

‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’.

(Hirst, 1993)


[For tintinnabulation see youtube and Arvo Part-Benjamin Britten]

What is knowledge rich? Part I: From forms of knowledge to social practices

‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’.

(Hirst, 1993)

This was Paul Hirst’s conclusion arrived at after a lifetime’s dedication to philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge and the curriculum. I thought that it might be a good way to begin looking at the provenance of the current interest in the knowledge-led and knowledge-rich curriculum?

So let’s go back fifty years.

In 1965 Paul Hirst set out his ‘Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge’ thesis. [1] This and its subsequently revised version of 1972 [2] were to prove highly influential. [3]

Hirst writes:

‘Whatever else a liberal education is, it is nota vocational education, not  an exclusively scientific education, or a specialist education in any senses.’ [4]

In avoiding what a liberal education is not, Hirst moves to considering the nature of knowledge and the forms it could take, each discipline with its own criteria and set of principles. Each has its own interconnecting concepts and its own way of testing for truth. Hirst proposes: mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, religion, literature and the fine arts, philosophy.

Within the literature and fine arts comes music.

These forms of knowledge were not intended to be the whole curriculum, rather its essential core.

Beyond the forms there were what Hirst called ‘fields’. Engineering, education studies, for example, are ‘held together by their subject matter, drawing on all forms of knowledge that can contribute to them’. [5] They lack the purity and internal coherence of the forms.

The argument went that it was this breadth of human understanding offered by the forms that was the entitlement of all children. Hirst, as a mathematician, had himself experienced a narrow scientific education. Now education was to be an induction into intrinsically worthwhile knowledge conceived of as having both breadth and depth. Here was a basis for curriculum planning.

Education could be distinguished from training and ensure that all children would be acquainted with what constitutes unique and significant ways of understanding human experience in making the rational mind and in pursuit of the good life.

Hirst’s thesis was to come under sustained criticism in the years that followed its presentation. It became clear that not all the privileged disciplines were logically distinct as Hirst had proposed. Maths and science, yes. Beyond these there were problems.

One particular criticism came from arts educators. Music, for example, existed not as a rational entity centred on statements of truth, sets of propositions, abstract formulations stated in linguistic form or interdependent conceptual schemes. Rather, it existed as a non-verbal entity where its value lay in a particular form of direct, intuitively personal and social experience. It was this that explained music’s cultural significance in the world and its role in the education of mankind. [6]

By 1993 Hirst is reviewing his thesis and responding to criticism:

‘The rationalist approach to education was dependent on a high doctrine of the powers of detached reason to both determine and motivate the good life.’ [5]

It is this claim on the power of detached reason that Hirst is now ready to concede. Reason, he notes, is always directed by our interests and its nature is practical. Knowledge is developed in practice.

He writes:

‘The knowledge that is thus developed in practice is however also practical in that it is from the start not simply or even primarily propositional knowledge or ‘know that’. It is rather a matter of ‘know how’, of skill and judgement, that is in major respects tacit or implicit rather than consciously recognised.’ [6]


‘ … if we stick with the notion that education is concerned with developing the good life then it follows from what I have said that we are mistaken if we conceive that purpose as primarily the acquisition of knowledge. What is required rather is the development by individuals of the overall rational practice of specific rational practices. There is, however, no way in which this can be begun or continued in education except by pursuing the satisfactions of given wants and exercise of given developing mental capacities in substantive specific practices available in existing social groups. The content of education must therefore be conceived as primarily initiation into certain substantive social practices. Such practices, as I have used the term, are centrally patterns of activity engaged in individually or collectively which have been socially developed or constructed. [7]

Music is of course first and foremost a substantive social practice, a rational human discourse, and certainly not a body of knowledge.

Hirst leaves us to select what are thought to be substantive and worthwhile musical practices through which to educate and that expand mind and enrich human discourse.

Next week: What is knowledge rich Part II?


[1] Hirst, P. H. (1965) Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge, in Archambault, R.D. (ed) Philosophical Analysis and Education. Routledge and Keegan Paul: London.

[2] Hirst, P. H. (1972) Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge, in Education and the Development of Reason, (edited by R. F. Dearden, P. Hirst and R.S. Peters. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.

[3] For example, the adoption by HMI in the 1980s of an approach to curriculum planning based on areas of experience and understanding (See http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/hmi-discussion/viewofthecurric.html) and the subsequent making of the National Curriculum based as it was on subject disciplines.

[4] Hirst, P. H. (1965) Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge, in Archambault, R.D. (ed) Philosophical Analysis and Education. Routledge and Keegan Paul: London. Page 391.

[5] Ibid, page 46.

[6] See, for example, Schrimshaw, P. (1973) Statements, language and art: some comments on Professor Hirst’s paper, Cambridge Journal of Education, 3, 3, 44; Reid, L. A. (1986) ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’, Heineman Educational Books.

For a broad discussion of the issue see Chapter 2 of Charles Plummeridge’s ‘Music in Theory and Practice. The Falmer Press. (1991)

And for a full investigation into the nature of musical knowledge see Swanwick, K. (1994)  Musical Knowledge: Intuition, analysis and music education. Routledge.

[6] Hirst, P. H. (1993) Education, knowledge and practices. In (eds) Robin Barrow and Patricia White. Routledge. Page 191.

[7] Ibid, page 195.