The variable obscenity of knowledge

“Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

This was the question famously asked by prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones to the Old Bailey jury at the obscenity trial for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Griffith-Jones’ implication was that the book should be available for the pleasure of men of a certain class. But he was at pains to suggest that the morally vulnerable working class and the equally “intellectually and morally fragile” female readers should be protected from being exposed to the novel. The jury laughed: three of them were women and most of them were working class men who would have found the idea of having live-in servants extraordinary.

Griffith-Jones’ question has lived on in infamy, but it was the only time during the trial that he actually mentioned wives and servants. Much of his case relied on the fear that the book would make it into the hands of working-class boys. It is clear that the prosecution was targeting the already marginalised members of society.

The principle that the authorities would wish to ban publication of a text for a mass audience that it would happily allow for a privileged readership has since been given the term ‘variable obscenity’ (Hunter et al. 1993): it is obscene for the poor, but not for the privileged.

We can see the same principle of variability in some attitudes towards pupils receiving a knowledge-rich education. It is often the case that such attitudes are displayed by people privileged enough to be rich with knowledge themselves.

Take for example, this letter to Michael Gove, signed by 100 education academics, urging him to change his proposed knowledge-rich curriculum to one of “problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity”. Such academics have achieved their status through an accumulation of knowledge within their field: their ability to problem solve, think critically and be creative is a function of that wealth of knowledge, as Daniel Willingham suggests here.

Or when this headteacher decried how he “suffered” a grammar school education “constricted by academic content” and, elsewhere, complained that an “emphasis on content and knowledge over creativity and enjoyment” gives us a curriculum that “both pupils and teachers are bored with”.  One can’t help but notice that such an academic education set him up on his path to be a successful headteacher and writer. Why is this content-rich curriculum not desirable for our pupils too?

Or what about earlier this month when a Stanford professor told us that education isn’t about knowing things because “in today’s world, when information is at our fingertips, we don’t need to go to school to learn facts and figures — a quick Google search, a glance at Wikipedia, or a question posed to Siri will usually result in answers to specific questions.” Do you get to be a Stanford professor with Google, Wikipedia and Siri, or is that just an education reserved for the rest of us?

You don’t have to look very far to find successful people privileged with deep and broad knowledge in their domains telling us that kids should prioritise soft skills like creativity over knowledge.

In such a way, they seem to echo the attitude of Griffith-Jones and the idea that a work of literature is of variable obscenity. Just as society’s privileged back then suggested that the book in question was acceptable for them but not for the general public, so the academically privileged seem to suggest that a rich knowledge is something they can cope with, but is detrimental to the young.

I’d even suggest that not only have such people coped with learning an abundance of knowledge, this beautiful, rich knowledge has been the key to their success.

Next time a successful educationalist decries a focus on domain knowledge and extols the virtues of soft skills in its place, ask yourself: how much knowledge did they need to build to get where they are today? What facts did they need to learn? What knowledge did they need to commit to memory? How much repetition and revisiting did they need to undertake in order to remember, manipulate and apply this knowledge? How much content did they need to study? How many books did they need to read? And are any of those books ones that you would wish your pupils to read? Or should we hold our pupils to a variable standard?

4 thoughts on “The variable obscenity of knowledge”

  1. A teacher should be teaching what they find boring … but at the same time make interesting and fresh for their students. Notwithstanding that at times the teacher will be as engrossed or more than their students in an accidental or serendipidous moment of truly new insight and discovery (for them) — I do not think that one should plan to make such moments the mainstay of learning at the cost of communicating the strong, solid meat and potatoes of demonstrably important knowledge, proven by their lasting impression in the sands of time. The “fresh experience” has some merit, but washes away at the shore; without the solid foundation of core knowledge it ephemeral — learning for the moment, then gone.

  2. This argument is based on a faulty analogy. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is content – knowledge that the prosecution sought to withhold (from certain classes) by denying general availability via publication; not by denying the public the ability to read – a skill. The contention that a curriculum that focusses on teaching general skills – such as how to read, access libraries, use the internet etc. is somehow akin to one that seeks to censor access to content is nonsense. Imagine if the defence had argued that publication was harmless because women or the working class had been denied the education required to access, read or understand the contentious material!

    The whole debate seems rather sterile. Skills and content are interdependent and cannot conceivably be taught in isolation – just as you can’t ‘teach knowledge’ with out teaching the means to access and understand it; so you can’t teach how to read, criticise or make creative use of knowledge sources without using a wide variety of knowledge sources as examples.

    1. Thanks for your reply, but it isn’t an analogy. I use the example as an introduction to the concept of variability. You also put up a number of straw men: positions that I do not hold. For example, I don’t think that teaching children how to read, access libraries, or use the internet are generic skills. These examples are all based on learning procedural and content knowledge. The debate may seem sterile to you, but here you are, ‘dans cette galère’, engaging in it. Thanks for getting involved.

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