Liberal education, Bildung and theory of content

In this chapter I tackle knowledge questions in the programmatic arena -concerning the formation of a school subject or course of study. As indicated in Chapter 3, curriculum making at the programmatic level - also called curriculum planning - translates the expectations and purposes of schooling in the policy arena into school subjects or courses of study provided to a school or a system of schools (Doyle, 1992a, 1992b; Westbury, 2000). The process of constructing a school subject tackles issues pertaining to the selection and organisation of content and the transformation of that content for classroom use. It is informed by a theory of content - concerning how knowledge is selected and organised into the content of the curriculum. Such a theory serves to inform classroom teaching as well.

The chapter focuses on issues concerning a theory of content entailed in the knowledge-its-own-end thesis and the cultivation-via-knowledge platform. As will be shown, in the former a theory of content is supplanted by a theory of knowledge that deals with epistemological issues concerning the nature, forms and features of knowledge. In the latter a theory of content results from the necessity of selecting and transforming knowledge into content for the cultivation of human powers. Such a theory - fundamentally different from a theory of knowledge or epistemology per se - deals with issues of what content is, what educational potential content has and how the potential can be analysed and released.

Knowledge-its-own-end thesis

As indicated in Chapter 4, the ‘knowledge-its-own-end’ thesis - as typically advanced by John Henry Newman and Paul Hirst - is articulated within the traditions of liberal education in the United Kingdom (R. White, 1986). It can be seen as a particular kind of academic rationalism which, as noted in Chapter 3, foregrounds the importance of transmitting disciplinary knowledge for the development of the intellectual capacity of students. Knowledge is ‘powerful in itself’ because of its effect on the development of desirable states of mind. School subjects and academic disciplines are seen as essentially continuous, with no essential difference between content (of the school subject) and knowledge (of the academic discipline). Accordingly, a theory of content is replaced by a theory of knowledge as the essential basis for curriculum planning and classroom teaching.


As noted in Chapter 4, for Newman, the central purpose of a liberal education is the development of the intellect. This is informed by a theory of knowledge that ‘construes all knowledge as a unified and organic whole consisting of various branches of learning which are in relationship to one another’ (Chapter 4, p. 37). The various branches - theology, science and literature - represent ‘varying ways of arranging and classifying phenomena, uniting them under common laws and tracing effects to causes’ (p. 37). The acquisition of these various branches of knowledge entails the cultivation of the mind. Accordingly, the development of the intellect is achieved through the study of knowledge - embedded in academic disciplines - for its own sake and to its own end. Knowledge is ‘powerful in itself’.

With this theory of knowledge, Newman addressed what curriculum planning and classroom teaching entail. Curriculum planning is primarily a conceptual task of identifying and justifying a core of studies to ensure that all students learn the main outlines of knowledge, based on the theory of knowledge. The curriculum espoused by Newman comprises seven liberal arts of the medieval university (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music) together with science, theology and literature. They are ‘the best instruments of mental cultivation, and the best guarantees for intellectual progress’ (Newman, 1852/1982, p. 197). Classroom teaching is a process of imparting to the student the knowledge of these disciplines and their interrelations.


As indicated in Chapter 4, for Hirst, the central purpose of a liberal education is the rational development of the mind through the pursuit of knowledge. Underpinning this vision of a liberal education is a theory of knowledge - according to which there are seven forms of knowledge: mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, religion, literacy and the fine arts, and philosophy. These seven forms of knowledge in general outline the traditional groups of academic disciplines from Aristotle to Comte. Each knowledge form has four distinguishing structural features - (1) central concepts, (2) relationships, (3) principles and (4) methods and techniques of inquiry, generating and testing knowledge (Hirst, 1965). It is assumed that through understanding these different forms of knowledge as well as their concepts, relationships, principles and methods, students could develop desirable states of mind, certain kinds of habits and attributes that will enable them to deal with the vicissitudes of life. Therefore, knowledge is ‘powerful in itself’.

It is with such a theory of knowledge that Hirst discussed the nature of curriculum planning and classroom teaching. Curriculum planning, first and foremost, is a philosophical or theoretical endeavour consisting of identifying ‘the central concepts, modes of enquiry and distinctive truth-tests of different forms of knowledge as the basis for establishing curriculum aims’ (Hirst, 1965; Pring, 1993, p. 50). School subjects and academic disciplines are essentially continuous, with differences only in the level and degree of difficulty. The liberal education curriculum is directed to the transmission of the different forms of knowledge for their own sake. Classroom teaching entails an initiation of students into these various forms of knowledge.

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