When The World Won’t Listen…



It’s all been rather Hirsch focused around the place lately. We were lucky enough to host E D Hirsch, or Don as he was introduced, when he visited the UK to give three lectures. His first on these shores. As well as one in London for Policy Exchange and one in Cambridge he gave one in Norwich last week at The Hewett Academy. I’m going to blog on that at another time if I can get my hands on his notes and do a write up for those that weren’t there – and those that were who want to go back over what was said.

For this post I thought I’d pick up on something from a piece I read that Hirsch had referenced in his Cambridge talk.

I’m always going from one text to the next exploring references and I suppose at times not actually finishing the original source material. It always seems that when you’re on the internet it’s just far too easy to flit from one to another and end up somewhere you didn’t expect to be at all! This time I found myself reading, “Cultural Pathways Through Universal Development” by Greenfield et al.

The section that struck me particularly was around the exploration of the ‘Cultural Values’ approach and the distinction that is drawn between independent and interdependent pathways of development. What is suggested is that this is linked to ethnotheories (beliefs and ideas concerning the nature of the child and socialisation) and that there is, “a cognitive separation of self and world – as a result of the Western institution of formal schooling,” while in Africa for example there is an emphasis on, “contributing to the social world.”

This brought to mind an assembly that I had done where I discussed concept of Ubuntu or harmony which was used by leaders such as Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela. Ubuntu suggests that we all have not just a duty, but a link to each other that means we all either succeed or fail based on a collective sense of success of failure. This in turn echoed words whose origin I’m embarrassed to have forgotten but used to teach concerning the idea that while one man is weeping the happiness of millions counts for nothing.

I had always used that assembly and read those words and thought that as schools and teachers we were the vehicle that encouraged social responsibility and framed a sense of community. While wanting to make sure each and every one of my students could be as successful as possible I’d always stressed that they should determine what that success meant and wanted to make sure that each of them realised we could only get individual success through shared goals, ideals and virtues. Yet here I read that, “High socio-economic status and formal education are associated with a more individualistic orientation” and that the practices that reinforce this can even be seen to begin before birth. So not only are we leading kids in the wrong direction by having them in school in the first place but we couldn’t do anything about averting their journey to selfishness as it’s written in the stars – or at least the cultural norms – and when we move to the ecocultural approach, maternal behaviours. Seems Larkin has some basis in universal development.

Just to make sure we go full circle with this and get back to the 87 year old emeritus professor I’m going to draw on a question that I put to him that evening and the twenty minutes or so of one to one time I was lucky enough to get over dinner. Following an exchange with Tait Coles I asked Don Hirsch the following;

Some teachers in the UK feel that, as Bourdieu puts it education can lead to “cultural reproduction.” With this in mind what or where do you feel the source of our new core knowledge should be and how can we ensure a sense of pluralism in the search for it?

It was really good to see him respond to the question with the genuine excitement of someone that wants to discuss and debate ideas. The general perception of Hirsch is someone with a very specific and fixed approach and it was good to see these myths dispelled when he spoke of how he was frustrated by any side of a political spectrum trying to “own” what he had written and that political ideology was a block to learning. In response to the question of reproduction he said that he wasn’t going to argue that it didn’t but that reproduction was the first step to change, citing the Black Panthers as an example of a group that had a clear understanding of the language and the dominant culture of the day and who used this understanding in order to challenge orthodoxy.

When I shared this with Tait he asked about Ferguson or the Umbrella Revolution and whether or not there was a voice there. He asked if social media gave an alternative voice as opposed to simply replicating that already used by those in society with the power. Didn’t things like #blacklivesmatter or #icantbreathe suggest that other voices were being used and being heard?

I would have liked to be sharp enough to have followed up Hirsch’s answer with the Ferguson question and got his response but I’ll give what I think he might have said blended a bit with my own thoughts on social media. I’d imagine he’d maybe suggest that the lack of what was seen as an authoritative or legitimate voice was the reason for those lives being seen as less valuable than others in the first place and that had they been able at least to access – without necessarily being shaped by – the mainstream cultural knowledge or literacy then these situations wouldn’t have arisen. That if the black or other minority voice was given the same credence as others there wouldn’t be a need to go to twitter and other alternative forms. Now of course any right minded person would know that these voices and these lives are not less valid and that the suggestion would seem to be that they lose their own voice if they take the language of the oppressor to be given permission to enter the conversation. I’m not sure that Hirsch or anyone would disagree that there’s injustice there but perhaps we can protect the message even if we change the form of expression. His conversation seemed to suggest that far from any sense of acceptance of status quo or that hegemony was something to be strived for he was recognising the inequality and suggesting that the strategy to overcome it was to use the weapons and language of the oppressors to get in the room and make the changes. In the tent rather than outside of it.

Personally I’m not  incredibly convinced that hashtags etc. change a huge amount and wonder perhaps if the use of them gives more an appearance of a voice and potential for change than any genuine impact. There’s also a part of me that thinks governments and institutions are happy to allow these avenues for expression as they fulfil the speaker’s need to feel they are being listened to and affirmed – even with that affirmation coming from a group that are likely to share their views – while not having to genuinely engage and make any changes as a result. In examples of debate ranging from radio phone ins, to Question Time to the dispatch box those controlling the agenda will point out that the negative voices can be just that and offer nothing concrete while the positive ones are coherent, concrete and offer something that shows an understanding of the topic, the debate and crucially the rules of engagement. Whether there is a genuine intention on behalf of those in the position of power to listen or not, the nature of the opposition can too often provide an opportunity to dismiss it as those with the power were able to suggest that the arguments weren’t ones that warranted attention, response or credence because of the way in which they were framed or offered. I’d link this to twitter through things like twitter storms and hashtags etc or adding Nicky Morgan’s twitter handle at the end of a tweet to give yourself the impression and the solace that you’ve really stuck it to someone.

At this point another voice joins the conversation, that of Giles Barrow who I have mentioned in previous blogs (and whose piece on Educator as Cultivator you can and should  download from the same webpage) and along with Tait is someone who I thoroughly enjoy discussions with and again in a similar vein to my PuNk friend always energises me.

Through email exchanges Giles commented that he problem with social media is that despite having a permanent existence its very nature makes any influence transitory.

He went on to say that suppressed groups can’t rely on hashtags to change anything as it’s not seen as serious or sustainable and that those in power will wait for the wave to be crashed out by a subsequent one. As he put it, “ They may accommodate the language and format, but if there’s little direct relationship with power it remains ungrounded, separate from the landscape in which the subjugation takes place.” While there can be individuals that are affected or indeed hounded out by such action sustained systematic change has not been brought about by individuals tapping on gadgets in private. The reason for this he suggested was that reactive tapping doesn’t have to make a difference and if doesn’t equate to changes in democratic participation, targeted voting patterns and so on then the establishment are able to ignore it and re-frame it in the ways I’ve suggested above.

None of this means it’s not wrong that voices are subjugated, that alternative voices shouldn’t be heard, or that their language forms are wrong or less valid. It’s rather that they are easier to dismiss because they don’t conform to what’s expected and that it is harder to influence and change anything when those with the power can simply point to that difference as a reason not to listen and as a way to suggest illegitimacy. Seems that we need to use the accepted forms and the structures that exist in order to create a platform where we can provide some equality of voice – we knowingly reproduce it in order to revolutionise it.

And perhaps that was what Hirsch was saying and where we have to look to ensure that we don’t allow formal schooling to lead to the selfishness and individualism that Greenfield suggested. Just because we provide the same framework, the same knowledge and the same language of those in power to those without it doesn’t mean that they have to turn out the same. If as educators we want to reform and change an unfair society we must make those we care for aware of the world that they are in and what the rules of that game are. If we sit outside of that world pining for change and angrily shouting, while not seeing that we can effect change by being part of that and working from within, we are as responsible for the hegemony as those happily chuckling at a ranty twitter timeline.

Lots of Love





One thought on “When The World Won’t Listen…

  1. […] I have over the power of vigils and hashtags to lead to real change and I’ve written previous posts about how these things run the risk of making people feel like they are taking action while […]

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