Notes on: Beck, J.  (2013) 'Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge'.  Cambridge Journal of Education, 43 (2): 177-93 doi.  10.
1080/0305764 X.2013.767880

Dave Harris

The basis for the recent debate has been Bernstein on knowledge structures and its connection with social realism.  The substantiate focus is
about Young's notion of powerful knowledge.

MFD Young pioneered the so-called new sociology of education in the seventies and and that became influential to its connection with the UKOU, its courses and readers.  However Young has recently 'repudiated' many of the central ideas, especially those that imply 'epistemological relativism' and has adopted social realism instead.  This has been discussed by among others Hammersley, arguing that the old approach at least, especially Berger and Luckmann explained what counted as knowledge rather than engaging in epistemological debate. More  recently, Young has distinguished between powerful knowledge and knowledge of the powerful, again leading to debate with, among others, John White, who accuses it of supporting a traditional stance towards education and the school curriculum.  For Young, the knowledge of the powerful refers to knowledge authorized by those in power, leading to the need for sociological investigations of power relations and legitimacy.  However, it focuses excessively on the knower rather than the knowledge [sounds like Bernstein, or at least Maton].

Powerful knowledge itself was developed first in a talk, as a working definition: it refers to the structure of knowledge [presumably Bernstein
again and the idea of progress through explanatory power, and its claimed consequences:

'It provides reliable and in a broad sense "testable" explanations of ways of thinking [lots to discuss with these terms];
It is the basis for suggesting realistic alternatives [this term too];
It enables those who require it to see beyond their every day experience [experience does that too?];
It is conceptual as one is based on evidence and experience [repeats the points above really];
it is always open to challenge [in principle, less so in practice] ;
It is acquired and specialist educational institutions, staffed by specialists [happy coincidence of knowledge and institutions preserves the monopoly of  universities  -- not even commercial research institutions are allowed in?];
It is organized into domains with boundaries that are not arbitrary and these domains are associated with specialist communities such as subject and professional associations [more monopolies];
it is often but not always discipline based [weaselly] '(179)

Beck has written a paper with Young focusing on initial teacher training and attempts to redefine what counts as professionalism.  In essence, this has been seen as 'narrow and competency oriented', with coercion to conform to standards enforced by the Teacher Training Agency or Ofsted.  Traditional educational disciplines have been cut out [radicals could not even prevent that!!] .  On the job training has increased.  Alternative forms of understanding have been restricted.  The whole thing can be seen as an attempt at  disempowering worker organisations and empower management, in a form of '"coercive deprofessionalisation"'.  However, this is not just a matter of true vs. false, or a misrecognition [in that epistemological sense?], because there can be no true profession and no decisive empirical evidence [well, Bourdieu does his best?].

The concept has been used to criticise vocational education and competency movements inside youth training, again on the grounds that students knowledge is restricted to the context of workplaces and to particular skills.  In particular, students miss relational connections within and between fields, and this is provided only by access to the academic disciplines.  Social control and docility is implied as before, since government and employers have decided what counts as suitable relevant knowledge.  Students have no epistemic access to the structure of knowledge.

There is also the issue of the connection between particular kinds of knowledge and status, as in the work of Bourdieu.  Arbitrary classifications of culture lead to a split in terms of aesthetic judgments and the relation to culture, and these verdicts are extended to practices of social closure.  Reproduction of privilege is the hidden structure.  Beck wants to connect some of this work with the neoWeberian work on education, including Collins and Parkin on class closure.  Access to the arts in particular seems prestigious, despite offering only useless knowledge, as Maton's commentary on the 'two cultures debate' noted.  Scientific knowledge is too esoteric and largely unintelligible to outsiders.

There are problems, however, when we come to consider the notion of powerful knowledge in education.  Empowering some individuals might help them manipulate others, for example, so we need additional moral criteria.  Empowering knowledge need not necessarily be true knowledge [a problem with Popper and explanatory power], and some sociological analysis of the use of knowledge seems required.  Powerful knowledge might also be implicated in domestication as in Foucault.  Gellner can also be cited on the role played by both reason and empiricism, which questions whether scientific knowledge can ever be foundational or sufficient: nevertheless, apparently he thought that there was '"external, objective, culture transcending knowledge"'[he uses this in the struggle with Winch].  This is 'Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalism' (185), where the principles and forms of knowledge are seen as absolute, compared to facts and observers. This is Gellner's 'cognitive ethic', and he can also claim considerable practical success for the knowledge it implies, another sense of powerful knowledge.  It is compatible with industrial society, and thus produces considerable benefits, and some coldness and impersonality. 

Gellner is less clear whether social studies can produce similar powerful knowledge, although he opposed relativism in favour of real constraints, and found many common characteristics between social and natural sciences.  However, social scientific knowledge is not particularly contested, not consensual, and there is no real notion of progress if paradigms change - indeed, there is sometimes a return to an earlier model [much as this paper demonstrates itself, turning back to the old London University heroes].

More problems affect esoteric knowledge.  The argument so far has been, following Bernstein, that commonsense knowledge is not the same as specialist knowledge, which features abstract concepts operating beyond every day awareness.  Gellner thought that this was so even for social sciences.  The issue then becomes one of giving disadvantaged pupils access to such knowledge, highlighted as a major issue by Whitty [the inevitable return of Geoff Whitty!] .  The additional problem is then relating it back to everyday lives.  The whole emancipatory potential arises from the autonomous nature of disciplinary knowledge, and 'this in turn is closely linked to its selfreferential character' (187), the eternal relations of concepts focused on internal problems.

However, this also provides a problem with gaining 'effective epistemic access', since this requires initiation.  Scientific communities can also become narcissistic.  This produces an extremely 'challenging and enduring educational problem'.  There is a connection with 19th century debates about really useful knowledge [see Johnson] , which was seen then as something that needed to be developed outside formal schooling - Beck thinks there are fewer possibilities today [he's never heard of the Web?].  There is also another tension relating to the issue of breadth and specialisation [stone me! We will be back to White and the arguments for a compulsory curriculum soon].  If the aims are to see through distorted communication and to help people make autonomous decisions, it is difficult to find the space to do this or to get 'students to take them seriously'[at last, the student!].  This problem is emerging with attempts to spread citizenship education, for example common to find a place for it amid core subjects and the general 'cultural performativity'.

Yet schools must select and prepare a fraction to become specialists [as in functionalism?] , and this might be increasing.  Knowledge itself has become more specialist and global as the intellectual division of labour grows  Longer degree courses might be required [lovely!  More business!].  Schools in England and Wales have pushed students into making early subject option choices, paradoxically after the end of key stage three national testing.  New models like the English Baccalaureate may not counteract this tendency, especially if the menu remains as a set of traditional disciplines not more relevant ones.  Increased competition for places in elite universities is another factor, especially when accompanied with the rhetoric of widened access - students lacking cultural and economic capital seem to require longer and more intensive specialist study.  Private schools offer specialist subject teaching early too.

There is another tension in that esoteric knowledge is associated with high culture, as in Weber on the Chinese literati [or Bourdieu again].  Personal success with esoteric knowledge leads to cultural and social power, especially if it is extended to informal as well as formal processes.  Turner on sponsored and contest social mobility [stone me again!] noted that early sponsorship used to be the answer for able but working class students.  Halsey also argued that grammar schools created cultural capital.  However, Bourdieu has always argued against the autodidact ever being at ease. So actually extending epistemic access is going to be difficult [!!]   The government currently wants to narrow curricular experience, and also separate academic and vocational education.  The tensions discussed above the long lived.  At least there is more debate again these days [but using very old resources], and some government sponsored reforms have been optimistic, including those led by Pring or Alexander.  Furedi and Ecclestone are also welcome.  So vigorous discussion is likely to ensue [more edbiz!].

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