Review by Steve Turnbull

Former lecturer in media and education

13 Oct 2019, 5:00


Curriculum: Athena vs The Machine by Martin Robinson

By Martin Robinson


Crown House




4 Oct 2019

Martin Robinson builds on his thought-provoking first book Trivium, arguing that the prime purpose of education is the pursuit of wisdom. But he also warns that the opposite of this approach threatens to dominate: “machine thinking”.

This sets the stage for a clash of titans worthy of our Marvel cinematic age. If wisdom is to win out, Robinson argues, we must join forces with Athena, the goddess of “philosophy, courage and inspiration”, and help her to slay the data-driven, dehumanising machine.

Marshalling figures such as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott and the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, he puts the rise of machine thinking into a cultural context and elaborates on what a curriculum based on wisdom involves.

A clash of titans worthy of our cinematic age

The core issue, he argues, is that we’ve been led to believe – primarily by a cross-party consensus – that education is the key to social mobility. But there are problems with this mindset on many levels, not least because it requires the implementation of complex and burdensome data systems – what has been termed the tyranny of metrics – to quantify and track progress and maintain accountability.

He then turns his sights on the Silicon Valley-inspired futurists who claim that what employers want most are people with the generic “21st-century skills” of creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. In reality, he says, this is a dangerous deskilling that involves little more than looking things up on the internet while the robots take control.

Instead of these competing variations on the theme of utilitarianism, Robinson argues that we should revitalise the liberal arts tradition based on “the best that’s been thought and said”, and value knowledge not as a means to end, but as an end in itself.

He cautions us, however, about conflating a knowledge-rich approach with the pursuit of wisdom. The latter is not about “teaching to the test”, it is about truth and transcendence – a kind of secular spirituality.

Strengthening Athena for her mortal blow to the machine, he then mobilises thinkers from a range of disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, cybernetics and cognitive science. Scientism and scientific materialism, however, are roundly dismissed. It’s a lot of theory to get your head around, but it’s undeniably stimulating stuff.

The book concludes by outlining a phenomenological curriculum in which mind (not brain) is the focus. This is linked to the Trivium approach of dialectically making meanings and reflecting on our shared humanity through different “lenses”. In short, this is “cultural mobility” in action. But it’s not to be confused with cultural capital. Ofsted take note.

Which brings me to the issues I have with the book.

I question the book’s preferred notion of wisdom

Its presentation of an embattled education system will have broad appeal – what teacher or manager hasn’t felt enslaved by mechanised methods and soulless systems? – but I was troubled by its binary perspective.

It not only overlooks the middle ground where valuable lessons are learned about data systems, it practically gives the machine a mind of its own and material reality, what sociologists call “reification”.

Similarly, whilst I agree that Silicon Valley utopianism is a dominant cultural force, I don’t share Robinson’s scepticism about artificial intelligence. Used wisely, this technology could liberate teachers to focus on the more complex aspects of curriculum that the book celebrates.

Furthermore, I question the book’s preferred notion of wisdom. It clearly emanates from a neo-Hegelian, liberal-conservative worldview that sees truth as universal, yet struggles with the idea of social justice and, presumably, school-aged environmental activists.

Finally, I found the polemical style irksome. Too many rhetorical questions, an excessive use of journalistic language, an insufficient attempt to engage with conflicting arguments and evidence, and a near religious veneration of Athena, undermine its academic credibility.

Nevertheless, it offers an impassioned critique that stems from a genuine concern about the direction education has been heading, not least the impact of data-driven systems and managerialism on teacher well-being. Overall, this makes it a valuable contribution to the curriculum conversation.

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