What is knowledge rich? 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.


[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.

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