Knowledge, disciplinarity and postmodern critiques

What arc the different kinds of knowledge? What are the different ways of conceiving or conceptualising knowledge? These epistemological questions prefigure any discussion of content or subject matter. In this chapter I start with describing major philosophic approaches to classifying and conceptualising knowledge and then examine postmodern critiques of disciplinary knowledge which have been vital for the development of contemporary curriculum theory (cf. Deng, 2018). What follows are a critical analysis of issues inherent in the critiques and a defence of the role of disciplinary knowledge in education and curriculum.

Classifying and conceptualising knowledge

The classification of human knowledge into fields of study has been a scholarly and educational endeavour since the emergence of literate culture in the fourth century псе (Ong, 1959). This can be traced to Aristotle’s organisation of the disciplines into three major groups: the theoretical, the practical and the productive. Theoretical disciplines include mathematics, natural sciences and metaphysics. Practical disciplines consist of ethics, politics and human conduct. The productive disciplines were the fine arts, the applied arts and engineering. This parsing of knowledge into different fields was premised on the assumption, contra Platonic dialectics, that different domains of human inquiry yielded distinctive truths, affiliated ways of knowing, procedures of inquiry and representational codes (cf. McKeon, 1947).

In the 19th century Auguste Comte proposed a positivist classification scheme that supplanted Aristotle’s. His positive hierarchy prioritised mathematics as the natural logic governing all fields. This was followed, in order, by physics, chemistry, biology and social sciences (Cassirer, 1950). The logical positivist organisation of knowledge, Schwab (1964) observed, has become ‘the most tyrannical and unexamined curriculum principles’ (p. 19). And it continues to drive curriculum sequences in secondary schools across the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. It is the basis for the relative allocations of value to different school subjects in senior secondary examination, matriculation and certification systems in many Commonwealth and postcolonial states.

These categorical divisions were translated into three groups of disciplines in universities: natural sciences, social sciences and humanities (Machlup, 1982). Each field is affiliated with different hierarchical relationships of power within the academy (Bourdieu, 1992). In this way, schools and universities structurally reproduce hierarchical knowledge and/or power relationships based on the categorical grids of logical positivism. The valorisation of scientific knowledge is being reinvented and reinterpreted in the corporatisation of university funding, structure and power (Graham, Luke, & Luke, 2008), particularly in a post-9/11 environment that has refocused on the production of competitive expertise in the new biosciences, digital communications and business. In the new geopolitical economy, Sputnik is upon us again.

There are, of course, powerful contradictions here. At once, knowledge that Aristotle would have considered practical and productive realms tends to be reframed as if it were theoretical (Schwab, 1964) in bids for the legitimacy of applied fields (e.g., the melding of arts and digital technologies into creative industries). At the same time, the new political economies of knowledge societies have tended to devalue those theoretical elements of pure science that appear to lack practical translation into commodities and strategic economic advantage (e.g., the closure of physics departments). Nonetheless, the logical positivist hierarchical organisation of knowledge, as we will show here, is deeply embedded in contemporary discourse on subject matter. In secondary schools, it constitutes a ‘cognitive architecture’ (Teese, 2000) that differentially values specific fields and capacities in the rewarding of stratified educational credentials and outcomes.1 There is, therefore, a need to look at alternative classifications of knowledge that relocate and revalue knowledge in the practical, informal and experiential realms of human experience, a longstanding claim of feminists, indigenous educators and critical race theorists.

Gilbert Ryle (1949) distinguished between knowing that and knowing how. The former can be enabled by the kind of propositional, theoretical or formal knowledge that derives from disciplines, and the latter involves the use of practical knowledge embodied in human practice and actions. Similarly, Pears (1971) made a tripartite distinction among (a) propositional knowledge, (b) knowledge of how to do things and (c) knowledge by acquaintance. The first two categories parallel Ryle’s, and the last category refers to what we learn from everyday experience with objects and events, including firsthand and commonsense knowledge (cf. DeCerteau, 1986). In this regard, knowing by acquaintance tends to resemble experiential knowledge based on everyday problem identification and solution described in the social interactionist models of Dewey (1916/1966) and Mead (1932). Further, Michael Polanyi (1964, 1966) used the term tacit knowledge to capture a special kind of knowing embedded in practice, arguing that we can occasionally know more than we can tell. In his early work on European attempts to order the world through discourse, Foucault (1972) distinguished between discourses of practice and discourses on practice and between the classifications deployed in practice and those that arc used to name and frame these and other domains in more formal theoretical taxonomies.

Three conceptions of knowledge can be derived from the aforementioned disciplinary and epistemological classification schemes. First, there is a disciplinary conception of knowledge that construes human knowledge in terms of canonical academic knowledge contained in various intellectual disciplines. This is associated with what Aristotle (trans. 1941, Book IV) characterised as episteme, formal knowledge for purposes of understanding and explaining the world. Testing the validity of knowledge is a primary concern of disciplinary inquiry. Knowledge is here conceived of as a corpus of facts, concepts and ideas that have been formulated and verified through the logical and discursive procedures of discourse communities (Schwab, 1964, 1978). Bourdicu (1990) refers to these as ‘systems of objectification’, institutionally legitimated ways of rationalising and ordering the world under study. These in turn yield distinctive ‘grids of specification’ (Foucault, 1972): namings ordered in hierarchical rank, category and taxonomy that in effect populate and constitute worlds.

Second, there is a practical conception of knowledge that construes knowledge in terms of knowing what to do in practices and actions, with an emphasis on the application of knowledge to practical and sociocultural problems. Narrowly conceived, knowing what to do in practice involves knowing a set of procedures that may require mastery of artefact and technology (Cole, 1996). This can range from an embodied activity, such as riding a bicycle, or a more explicitly cognitive activity, such as reading a book or running software. These constitute and require procedural knowledge. However, practical knowledge cannot be reduced to merely knowing a set of procedures or skills; it involves making choices and actions based upon deliberate decisions, the metacognitive strategies that feature in learning theories and the kinds of embodied knowledge that feature in sociological models of habitus (Bourdieu, 1990). Aristotle characterised this knowing as ‘phronesis’, standing for practical wisdom centred upon the contingent world of action (Aristotle, trans. 1941, Book VI). In contrast to episteme, one is less concerned with testing the validity of knowledge than with evaluating the utility of knowledge in light of the results of everyday actions. In practical realms, knowledge is viewed as the means of facilitating the solving of sociopractical problems; it is valued in terms of guides or scripts (Cole, 1996) for action, social experience and everyday practice. Reflexively, we could argue that all practices, no matter how apparently habituated and mundane, taken together constitute particular cultural ‘logics of practice’, coherent systems of exchange and value (Bourdieu, 1990).

Third, there is an experiential conception of knowledge, focusing on the social and cognitive, dispositional and practical elements entailed in making sense of the phenomena of everyday life. Whereas the disciplinary conception emphasises knowledge as a final product or consummation of human knowing that has been set apart from ordinary affairs of life, this conception locates knowledge in the realm of ordinary human experience. According to Dewey (1916/1966), knowledge and ideas emerge only from situations in which the learners have to draw them out of experiences that have meaning and importance to them. In this sense, knowledge cannot be separated from the knower and affiliated forms of meaning, both theoretically and practically construed. In his early epistemological theory, Dewey attempted to describe the dialectical reciprocity and codependency expressed in subject-object, actor-environment relations (Dewey & Bentley, 1949). In later formulations, Dewey (1934) viewed both education and art as the products of organism environment disequilibria, whereby the identification and solution of problems generated a movement from inchoate to choate experience. By this pragmatist account, knowledge is an ongoing construction of meaning by social actors in relationships of exchange with their biosocial environments. In its later symbolic interactionist version (Mead, 1932), it is contingent upon the availability of linguistic and semiotic, interactional and social behavioural resources.

These three alternative notions of knowledge - disciplinary, practical and experiential - constitute analytically distinctive, though not practically separate, modes of human knowing. There are, of course, other ways of conceptualising knowledge and affiliated ways of knowing. For example, in the 84th yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Learning and Teaching the Ways of Knowing, ways of knowing arc conceptualised in terms of scientific, practical, interpersonal and aesthetic modes (Eisner, 1985).

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