The Sabre-Tooth Curriculum


Andy knows lots of stuff that’s important to him, but not the kind of stuff that’s important to other people. Gerald Haigh on the curriculum debate that has been raging since 1939.

It’s not always easy to talk to teenage family members about their education or plans for the future. Any number of distractions pop up, from the hypnotic draw of Facebook, to what seems to be the entire cast of The Inbetweeners ringing the doorbell. 

So, when I gave one of my numerous young relatives – let’s call him Andy – a lift into town recently, I cunningly waited until he was buckled and locked in before broaching the subject of his forthcoming college options. 

Well, that didn’t last long. Andy, you see, is one of those many youngsters – you have them right now in your schools – who are smart, knowledgeable and funny, but not very successful at the core business of the classroom. 

Unsurprisingly, then, he’s not keen to talk about courses and subjects and within a couple of minutes, by adroit manipulation of the discourse on his part, I found myself hearing a detailed description of the plot of the blockbuster Pacific Rim. 

It seemed churlish to try to u-turn the conversation. Andy, a confirmed computer gamer, was enthusiastic about the film, which features apocalyptic CGI battles between monstrous sea creatures and giant robots. So much for my attempt to impart the wisdom of the elders, I thought. 

Then, as our trip approached its end, Andy suddenly said: “I can recite whole speeches from that film, but I can’t remember a single thing I learned in year 11. Trouble is, I know lots of stuff that’s important to me, but I don’t know the kind of stuff that’s important to other people.” 

As I reflected on our conversation afterwards, I realised that Andy’s phrase, “stuff that’s important to other people”, actually works pretty well as a definition of any version of the English national curriculum – particularly, you might think, the latest one.

From its 1988 beginnings, in fact, though there has been consultation and consequent trimming, always at the heart is the age-old principle called “we know best”. 

The aim – this, too very visible in the latest iteration – is to identify the key knowledge which underpins our culture, and which schools must transmit to the rising generation.

That, on the face of it, makes sense. I recognise that knowledge is important, that to say, “they can just look it up these days” is really a cop-out. I do realise, too, that knowledge has to be sliced, diced, dusted down and selected for use in education. 

But, and here’s the rub, who is to do the selecting? With what motives? There’s a school of thought that says all knowledge selection is inherently political. American academic Professor Michael Apple points out, in The Politics of Official Knowledge: Does a National Curriculum Make Sense?: “The curriculum is never simply a neutral assemblage of knowledge ... It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge.”

If that’s so, there’s a very strong case for not taking any part of a curriculum as given, but instead, taking time to question every element, casting as wide and democratic a consultative net as possible.

And, surely, the very first, basic, no-brainer step would be to take the whole process out of the hands of career politicians – national, local, of any party or conviction.

My other worry is the pernicious way in which Prof Apple’s “vision of legitimate knowledge” leaves huge areas of human experience out in the cold. We see it in the use of labels like “vocational” and “non-academic”. 

And we see it, too, in the apologetic tone of the countless people who have been led to believe that their particular store of knowledge is eccentric, low-status, unimportant, “a bit anorak” or – worst of all – “useless”.

That’s a shame because Andy’s enthusiasm for Pacific Rim, for example, leads him to know that this is a production that showcases art and design, and stems from a global special effects and computer gaming industry in which the UK is a major player, pulling in £2 billion a year.

He’s aware, too, of the dozens of online forum discussions around the feasibility of the physics, brain science and engineering in the film (“But remember it’s fiction,” somebody posts, raising another kind of issue).

Time and again, through all curriculum discussions, I return to Harold Benjamin’s timeless 1939 parable The Sabre-Tooth Curriculum.

It tells of a notional prehistoric society where the subject, “Sabre-tooth-tiger-scaring-with-fire”, is still part of the core curriculum though the animal is long extinct. The palaeolithic curriculum debate around the issue is subtle, very funny, and 75 years on entirely relevant. 

So, for example, when a radical questions the relevance of tiger-scaring, the traditionalist loftily replies, “We don’t teach tiger-scaring to scare tigers; we teach it for the purpose of giving that noble courage which carries over into all the affairs of life.” As I said, still bang up-to-date?

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary, middle and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. He’s also served as a school governor and as an external examiner to teacher training courses. From his early days in teaching, continuing to the present, he’s published many articles and books on education.


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