In this post I’ve blended ideas from several inspiring books, listed below. History, in my view is often cyclical, rather than linear. As we move rapidly into climate crisis, artificial intelligence (AI) and a school curriculum dominated by science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), I wonder how relevant the curriculum of today will be in five years, given the fast-pace of change.
Since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, (EBacc) the place of creative disciplines in the school curriculum, which provide an arena for critical debate, rebellion and the development of radical ideas has been devalued, and I wonder, to what end?
Transition from a Pagan to a Christian worldview
During the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, huge cultural shifts came into play. The suppression of the arts in society, regarded as pivotal in the enforcement of Christianity stemmed from the perspective of Saint Augustine. He wrote extensively on music, claiming that rhythm could be classified into four levels from the highest which was spiritually-aligned, down to the lowest level level, that stimulated the flesh.
Monks of the order used physical force against ordinary people who celebrated pagan feasts with music and dancing. Music with a strong beat was strictly banned, as was dancing (Blaukopf, 1992). Intellectuals were persecuted. for example, Hypatia - a mathematics scholar in Alexandria had been lynched in 415 CE for her ‘blasphemous’ study of ancient Greek texts (Rovelli, 2007). By the end of the 5th century, the Great Library at Alexandria had disappeared, and in 529 CE the Platonic academy in Athens was closed by decree of Christian emperor Justinian (Pieper, 2020).The significance of the Great Library was that it housed all of the books in existence, as well as being part of a hub for scholarship, achieved through practices of reason, logic, rhetoric and academic freedom. The achievements of the Greek scholars at Alexandria were impressive. For example, Eratosthenes, in 235 BCE calculated that the world was round, giving its circumference and its diameter; Heron of Alexandria created the world’s first steam engine.
Fanatically, the Christian authorities set to rewriting the knowledge and wisdom of the pervious (pagan) era, notably maintaining that the Earth was flat. Within this context we find Boethius (c.470- c.524 CE), a classically-educated statesman and philosopher, keen to find the middle road between reason and faith. He was executed for treason, shortly after having resolved the schism between the early Christian Church in Rome and Constantinople. Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy during his imprisonment, and this text became the foundation of medieval scholasticism (Shiel, 2020).
Appropriation of Greek scholarship
After 500 years of teaching and intellectual activity in cathedral schools and monasteries, early medieval universities were chartered by a Papal Bull. Each university was founded under different circumstances:- at Bologna (1088), Paris (1150) and Oxford (1167), and with differing levels of academic freedom. Highly influential across Western Europe, the liberal arts were taught, although the Christian Church had appropriated ancient Greek curricula for its own purposes, retaining only the structure and main elements of the system (Bernstein, 2000).
Medieval scholasticism, light on rigour and politically-inclined, attempted to reconcile classical reason with traditional early Christian dogma, but with limited success. Students taking the first part of the degree, the trivium, were taught word-related principles: grammar, logic and rhetoric, before taking the second part, the quadrivium which explored the physicality of the world through arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music.
The trivium of the time had strong religious connotations; similarly, the corresponding quadrivium was adapted to suit the dogma of the day (Bernstein, 2000). For example: music was taught only through the disembodied, polyphonic rhythm (rather than the Greek rhythmos) and in astronomy, students were taught that the Earth was flat (Blaukopf. 1992).
Renaissance and reading
The tension between traditional Augustinian dogma and the classical texts of Boethius eventually gave way in the early Renaissance. Music, dancing and decorative arts, along with academic freedom in scientific thinking had been suppressed for at least a millennium across Western Europe and quickly reappeared.
Music regained its metrical ratio-based system; its integrated rhythmic nature was reinstated and dancing immediately became fashionable. The publication of articles promoting the rise of the importance of the vernacular supported the spread of reading, which soon became widespread, further weakening the authority of traditional Christian dogma.
Transition from post-industrial to digital
There is a linear feel from the Renaissance and Enlightenment years, through to the present day. However, in the contemporary devaluing of arts subjects in the school curriculum with the advent of the English Baccalaureate, we seemingly appear to be cycling back the dark ages with the curbing of academic and creative freedom.
Many young people face a bleak future following poverty in childhood and also having been deprived of an opportunity to develop a creative outlet for self-expression. At the same time, many communities have been impoverished by austerity.
Given that global hubs such as London are the economic areas towards which a disproportionate amount of the world’s digital enterprise, wealth and wealthy have been attracted, the transition to digital has created sharp economic inequalities between the digital hubs and post industrial regional centres, which acutely lack investment and have suffered chronic deprivation.
Alongside the glitz of digital, there is a mindset that blindly accepts what appears on the screen with too little criticality. At best, the data-driven positivist perspective on knowledge is no more than instrumental, because its influence is dependent on the empirical tools and the technology of the day. At its worst, positivism commits the grave error of confusing the ends with the means, because it is not contextualised and it is not subject to critical debate (Rovelli, 2007).
The ‘knowledge economy’ promised a fiscal flow generated by the unlimited availability of knowledge via the Internet. The quality of such knowledge is often very poor, as has been shown by its influence on voting behaviour in democratic elections. Unscrutinised, low-grade, data-driven knowledge that supports the spread of technology in relation to health, education, trade and food supply puts society at risk of sub-standard ideas and policy.
The true nature of science is critical, exploratory and visionary (Rovelli, 2007). As such, science is grossly limited if it is reframed through positivism as a mere producer of testable predictions. To protect our societies from positivism, disciplined creativity is essential if breakthroughs and radical thinking are to flourish in the ‘knowledge economy’.
Creative thinking is best nurtured in the domain of the arts subjects, an arena where it is essential to take disciplined risks, to implement ideas and to work through creative issues.
Disproportionate emphasis on STEM
The dominance of STEM subjects in the school curriculum will train our young people to think logically, but in order to solve the substantial problems facing us all in the coming decades, they also need the courage to think creatively, to make cognitive leaps rather than continuing to step slowly in a linear fashion, outpaced by AI.
What is taught in schools today will be out of date by the time pupils start their careers, so the disproportionate emphasis on STEM is seemingly short-sighted. It is only with a greater emphasis on disciplined creativity in the curriculum, that pupils will have the confidence to invent, innovate and implement the solutions, breakthroughs and radical new ideas that are needed for the future.
Bernstein, B. 2000 Pedagogy, Symbolic control and Identity: Theory, research, critique, Revised edition, Lanham, MA; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc,
Blaukopf, C (1992) Musical Life in a Changing Society: Aspects of Musical Sociology, Amadeus Press
Pieper J. (2020) ‘Scholasticism’ in Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Scholasticism, accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.37
Rovelli, C. (2007) Anaximander, trans. Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Yardley, PA., WestholmePublishing
Shiel, J. (2020) ‘Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.57