Notes on: Nash, R.  (2004) 'Can be arbitrary and the necessary be reconciled?  Scientific realism and the school curriculum'.  Journal of Curriculum Studies, 36 (5): 605-23.

Dave Harris

Contemporary studies of the sociology of the curriculum have focused on what counts as knowledge and who should have access to it - reproduction.  One reproductive thesis suggests that implicit knowledge represents the arbitrary culture of higher status groups.  Young and the new sociology of education is prominent here.  Bourdieu and Passeron argued that all pedagogic action is symbolic violence, and this widens the narrower interest in the curriculum.

However, the reproductive role of schools can be countered with 'the realist case that accurate knowledge of the world can be obtained and should constitute a non arbitrary element of the school curriculum' (606).  Implications are pursued for both Bourdieu and Bernstein.  Ironically, both also maintained 'the traditional enlightenment concept of educational knowledge', and both are ambiguous in terms of scientific realism.  However, full realism suggest that there is some necessary knowledge to be taught in schools.  The discussion here is focused on the science curriculum.

One form of critical pedagogy has been influenced by both Bourdieu and Bernstein and it argues that school actively excludes the majority of students with popular modes of thought.  As a result, the bodies of knowledge taught in schools are social constructions with specific histories, producing 'formidable barriers of incomprehension' (607) for those students with different codes of communication.  Young [in Young and Whitty] describes how school science was deliberately selected to be pure knowledge with abstract laws and lists of facts to preserve high status knowledge.  Nash's own work in New Zealand confirms the feelings of exclusion for the non academic and displays 'real suffering inflicted by such institutionalised symbolic violence'.  However, contemporary science in upper secondary schools might be quite different.  The curriculum is not the only factor in reproducing social differences.  The construction of contemporary school curricula might be read more sympathetically as attempting to reconcile quite different interests for students of different backgrounds and destinations, although traditions tend to persist.

The schools do persist in dividing theoretical and practical and this clearly 'blatantly endorses' the split between mental and manual labour (608).  The divisions reflected in the status of schools subjects is recognized by students and others, even though they might not understand the basis for these evaluations.  Student instrumentalism often follows the school's emphasis on passing examinations towards such relevant topics.  The division of labour lies at the heart of it, including the emphasis on exchange value, and schools can overemphasise credentials.  However, credentialism ignores the case that some subjects might actually provide 'knowledge about the real structures of the physical universe and in that sense is thus, for the most practical of reasons, the intellectual birthright of all' (609).  [What a strangely muddled discussion, unless it is me]

Bourdieu sees intellectual and attitudes as socially conditioned, but schools see them as gifts and transform them into qualifications.  This seems to reject not only positivism but scientific realism, and Bourdieu sees any relations between scientific knowledge and the natural world as a matter for 'philosophical skepticism'.  He uses the term arbitrary, based on the anthropological idea of human society as managing social differences, with cultures or solutions to the problems of life.  The solutions are arbitrary 'in the sense that one will function as well as another'. LiPuma says that the practices can be arbitrary from a class cultural standpoint, that their valuations can be arbitrary, and that any practice can become 'an arbitrary symbolic marker of distinction'.  Bourdieu is not consistent here, and sees cultural capital for example as both relative, arbitrary, and normalised, providing a symbolic capital that is valuable.  It follows that struggle and competition goes on in all intellectual fields including science, but Nash thinks this 'is not in any sense incompatible with scientific realism' (610).  We do get a focus on the school curriculum its history, characteristic concepts and its social relations.

Scientific realism insist that some knowledge of the world is necessary.  It's particularly difficult to show that working class students are effectively denied access to it simply because of its structure.  We could see curriculum reform as 'an attempt to eliminate the arbitrariness embedded in its forms'[much as in various kinds of rational pedagogy].  The struggle would then be to strip out the arbitrary bits and retain the 'real necessary'.  This led to Bourdieu proposing universal pedagogy [apparently a chapter in Egglestone 1974 Contemporary Research in the Sociology of Education] but this remained undeveloped, and flirted with deficit theory.  Bourdieu did believe that scientific sociology would offer a transformative potential, and defended it against postmodernism.  This could be seen as a social realism, but this is disputed.  However, there is certainly 'no blueprint for a rational pedagogy…  designed to transmit a universal knowledge' (611).  For other commentators, Bourdieu's realism is a discussion of realpolitik.

Bernstein developed ideas over a long period, and so there are difficulties with providing authoritative statements of the core argument.  Most people think of it as the discussion of restricted and elaborated speech codes, which have possibly been replaced by a horizontal and vertical forms of discourse.  'Bernstein is fundamentally a structuralist, and the term "code" cannot be understood outside that theoretical framework', further indicated by the 'dichotomized forms' of his arguments.  It is to some extent a comparison between commonsense knowledge, 'context specific, loaded with affects, and embedded in the concrete' with theoretically informed systematically structured knowledge which is 'independent of context, impersonal and abstract' [Parsons' pattern variables seem to cover it].  The latter requires specialized social groups.  If codes are principles, they refer to abstract properties of speech 'at the level of semantics and meaning' and these are also mechanisms to produce language, through grammar and various 'semantic operators'.  The code is therefore 'some kind of operational linguistic mechanism…  [a]…  "theoretical" entity controlling the production of language in the form of speech genres common to specific groups and social contexts'.  He gets them through the analysis of speech.

The elaborated code 'generates a language or discourse of social power'(612).  Controlling labour and capital requires a 'the discourse with a capacity to express generalised and abstract conceptions', while subordinates are limited by their contexts' and limited relationships 'to certain forms of linguistic expression' [which reminds me of an old study by Julie Ford on different sorts of families and the way they allocate roles to children on the basis of persons or positions].  The educational system reproduces the structures of social power through its pedagogy.

However, Bernstein argues that these forms are not entirely arbitrary, but rather 'provide durable intellectual capacities entirely necessary to the competent mastery of the analytical and scientific knowledge that must form the basis of the modern school curriculum'[I am pretty sure Bourdieu thinks the same, arguing that academic language in universities does produce cognitive power].  [The reference here is to Bernstein's work on classification and framing in Young et al]

Bernstein adopted a realist ontology and supported empirical scientific research, but there is a problem linking to the structuralism, as Maton apparently has shown.  There is also too much emphasis on the subject as a subordinated voice, and this is misleading in terms of modern science, overcommitted to a particular epistemology, and therefore mistaken 'in its understanding of the status of knowledge and the educational system' [citing Moore and Muller 1999 -- apparently in the BJSE 20, 2].  Schools must transmit universal knowledge through a pedagogy based on an elaborated code.  However, in so doing, it privileges students who already work with these forms of meaning.

There are different forms of realism, including political realism.  Scientific realism argues that 'the physical and social entities of the world exist' (613), that there is a material world and we can gain an accurate knowledge of it.  Bhaskar's critical realism offers a transcendental ontology, so that the explanatory models of modern science actually demonstrate the nature of the world.  Reality is tested by 'demonstration', things like pointing pointing out in such a way that evidence 'can only be accepted or rejected' [Popper's 'basic statement'].  The point about scientific explanation is to explain a real world, to show how things work.  Scientific realism 'requires a correspondence theory of truth in some form'.  This contrasts with the view that says scientific theory is a set of theoretical statements, clearly produced by human beings, and meaningful if they constitute a discourse.  [Blimey, we're going to get to logical positivism and the difference between grammatical validity and truth].  If objects are addressed by theory, they become an object in discourse: discourses can not be transcended.  Bunge is quoted to deny this, and says that the meaning of theory can be externally derived.  The whole area is still controversial, though.

For Bunge, knowledge is produced by humans, but it can be compared to the way things actually are.  In a homely example, a student might recognise that the fallopian tube is a part of the human body; another one might be able to identify in a diagram; another might think it is part of the underground system of Rome.  However, there is a tautology here, where the logical truth of what a fallopian tube his depends on how it is defined.  There is a more practical task, though, which is to try to show whether what we know is 'in accordance with the way things actually are.' (614) [Round and round we go].  Nash calls this 'factual truth'.  He tells us most philosophers are now realists, and even naive versions 'are less misleading than naive idealism' in philosophical terms, despite the influence of idealist versions in the school curriculum [who can he have in mind?  Post structuralists?  The dreaded constructivists?].

We can simply argue that the world exists and that we can understand it.  We can check some of our theories against what it 'is actually like'(615).  Therefore we must put science centrally in the curriculum.  Even when we argue about the relative weight of science as opposed to, say literature, even when we acknowledge the arbitrary content of a literature courses or the precise topics in a maths course, we still note that both literature and mathematics are matters of 'universal human necessity at the level of being', important for any modern state.  [so we are arguing for social realism on all sorts of grounds, not just ontological ones.  Does the subject being important for any modern state indicate that they are arbitrary?  Can other things be seen as even more relevant for the modern state, whether they are real or not - unless being important to the modern state makes them real?]

The issue of access turns on first the principles and practice that sustain knowledge hierarchies, and secondly those that control social access to knowledge.  Further issues concern what the relationship is between knowledge and reality, and the extent to which differences in perception and cognition relate to economic and cultural production.  How do epistemological and social hierarchies map together?  If the curriculum is less arbitrary and more universal, that undermines the conventional ideology which controls class access to knowledge, because we can assert that everyone has the right to real knowledge.  Other distinctions, such as those between pure and applied can clearly appear as a class arbitrary.  Bernstein happens to offer the best way to understand these issues for Nash.

Bernstein does not see the relation between class knowledge and condition as only arbitrary.  He is understandably cautious about deficit theory and has warned of '"the semiotic time bomb ticking away in all mass educational systems"'(616) [what does that mean?  Apparently it is in his response in Sadovnik].  However he does think it is possible to identify  a discourse that is not  context dependent.  He also thinks that middle class people are more likely to recognise 'semiotic elaboration, explicit description, and conceptual abstraction', which happily appear in decision-making contexts in capitalism.  However, there may be additional logical reasons for preferring these functions.  Nash thinks that there is no necessary desire for domination over nature. 

The connection with social class, however is 'emphatically a matter for social practice', not necessary.  Other commentators on Bernstein disagree, however.  Educational practice itself might have an effect.  Others support the basic insights [including Walkerdine] but call for a fundamental change.  However, 'the economic division of labour in all actually existing industrial societies' (617) ensures that executive positions 'require comprehensive, universal, spheres of interest', for Bernstein [strange argument, presumably Durkheim on how the class structure is really just a result of a division of labour].

The nature of the world and the [technical?  Economic?] problems it provides 'must influence the methods of inquiry adopted' Physical scientists can isolate and describe the material entities and their properties, but the nature of reality does become elusive 'at the very limits of theoretical physics'.  Their methodologies are so robust that it makes no difference what philosophical position is developed, implying that philosophies with few practical implications need not be taught in the school curriculum.  Social scientists are different.  They are right to reject theories and methods that constrain attempts to gain adequate knowledge, and the 'most satisfactory way' to proceed involves 'integrated naturalism appropriate to scientific and critical realism'.  This implies, for example that we do not stick to a particular method as universally adequate.  However, there is no need for eclecticism either - the abandonment of truth leads to difficulties like holocaust denial.  Bunge and Bhaskar offer a more powerful basis than 'idealist relativism'.

The popular way of thinking about curriculum is in terms of practical relevance vs. abstract theory, but this is unproductive, if we take an educated person as one who can understand 'the structures of the physical and social world' (618).  Self realization is also important, and learning the 'fundamental laws' can help students go on to observe for themselves.  The sense of knowing is itself satisfying and this 'should be inculcated systematically by forms of a realist- based scientific education'.  Schools can do this systematically.  There is no association between wanting to learn and being a member of a social class.  Social class links may only be statistical, or they might rely on intrinsic objective interest, or custom and habit.  If we assert that members have an objective interest in knowledge, this may overwhelm the other aspects.

However common practice of class communities can lead to only an outline knowledge of what is available in technology and science.  Schools should demonstrate the value of science, describe their history, and show their potential critical value.  Pedagogies involving 'video production, debates, scientific clubs, magazines, and other activities' have been suggested by Bhaskar and Bunge [apparently focusing on 'the fundamental unity of science'].  The career possibilities of having mastered science should also be discussed - some form of mathematics might be more useful than others in terms of technology.  However, the point is to let students see the personal value of acquiring mathematical and scientific knowledge, to let them participate adequately, for example in debates about environment and planning.  Knowing the world is itself a form of power, including power over one's self.  Schools should compensate for any inadequate frameworks provided by the family, although we must avoid stereotypes of working class thought - it consists of craft expertise, and other 'realist and practical' conceptions (619), if only at the level of naive realism or 'robust materialism' and an enthusiasm for experimentation, at least in school science. Students will be better served by this approach compared to constructivist teaching, which is unlikely to produce sophisticated understanding.  Schools should build on these enthusiasms rather than encourage instrumentalism.

'Teachers should want students to learn what the world is actually like.  Scientists do that...' School curricula should help students construct knowledge, to do science.  Some people think that, by practical activity alone, 'they might get as far as the science of Archimedes and Galileo' [highly unlikely, because this was not just an experimental science, says Nash].  Purposeful activity will ensue.  However, we should not relativize this as student science, and teachers need to know the standard scientific theories.  Relativism 'is grievously in error', and one theory is not as good as another.  Science requires significant demonstration and accurate knowledge.

The issue of access becomes a problem for curriculum studies.  However, we need a detailed account of the mechanisms of social exclusion, and we must not assume that everything in the curriculum is culturally and socially arbitrary.  If critical pedagogy aims at emancipation or empowerment, and if the curriculum is a selection from available knowledge, then the principles of inclusion and exclusion need to be clarified.  Realist ontology offers the best guide to these principles, and helps develop 'a grounded concept of the educated person'.  It is not enough just to dismiss relativism, however, and we need more concrete analysis of practices that maintain subject hierarchies and social hierarchies.  Bourdieu on the 'economy of practices' might help, at least in denying that such hierarchies are natural.  Just basing a curriculum on realist principles will not suffice.

There is misrecognition in that the notion of the educated person is currently clearly related to structures of dominance.  However, realism can offer a vigorous critique here as well.  Realist notions of reality knowledge and truth can help to expose the arbitrary nature of school knowledge and pedagogy.  Curriculum studies become central to the sociology of education.

Bhaskar argues that 'if modern science is right then a realist ontology is necessary', and if that is so, then the school curriculum should be based on that reality, and this is not as arbitrary as might be implied.  Relativist discourse can even confirm reproduction by suggesting that the school itself is unreal in some senses.  We can round out the work of Bourdieu and Bernstein by attempting to distinguish the arbitrary and the necessary.  [Well you haven't really done that here have you?  We just have to except that science produces what is necessary, and constructivism what is arbitrary.  It is an argument for the teaching of science in a particular way, rather than a discussion of the whole curriculum]

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