Saturday, 21 July 2012

Paul Hirst and the nature of a "subject"

Paul Hirst's forms of knowledge was controversial. It embodied what M.F.D. Young he called an  "absolutist conception of a set of distinct forms of knowledge" whose correspondence to the traditional academic curriculum was, for Young, highly suspect. It looked like a somewhat reactionary move  (see for more on this and the link with Hirst and Young). Yet, as R.S. Peters had pointed out, there must be something in the existence of maths, history, science, art rather than bingo or billiards that justified their presence in the curriculum. 

But with all such distinctions, there are many ways of looking at them. For example, we might see maths, science, religion, etc as distinct but related entities just as we see distinct and related fingers on our hand. At the same time, however, we may also see a set of relationships between our fingers (as Bateson pointed out), and in the same way seek to analyse the relationship between the different subjects on the curriculum. In this way, both Paul Hirst's conception of real distinctions between mathematics and art may co-exist with Young's relativist socio-historical processes. This approach carries some merit I believe. For all we might talk about the existence of maths, a maths lesson is in reality a moment in time. It tends last little more than an hour a day at most. It is followed by something different, just as the movement of a symphony contrast with one another.

It is this difference between subjects that interests me, and the ways in which the differences affect different kinds of people. At certain moments, certain people become animated and engaged: and not the same people at the same moments. Why might this be? It might have something to do with their particular state at a particular kind of day. Or it might be something deeper in them: a predisposition to that particular kind of moment in the day (in the same way as some people are of a melancholic or happy disposition). 

Are subjects moments? Or rather, is 'subject' the name that we give to a particular type of moment? The moment of mathematics is different from the moment of music. This is interesting not least because those who dig deep into any subject soon see that in reality it is not that much different from any other subject: music is the same as maths which deals with the same problems as philosophy and science, and so on. Reductionism is absurd.

Yet the moments of educational experience cannot, I think, be reduced to anything. Our abstracting of the curriculum is a way of creating the structural conditions for the reproduction of those moments. This is a bit like the codification of musical form or dances: a rondo is different from a sonata form; or a sarabande is different from gigue. We curse specialisation in the curriculum (particularly if it comes too early), but specialisation can be successful if the particular subject reveals a richness of moments. Music is the classic example of this. Here, there is the gamut of experience in a coherent form of expression and body of technique. Maths can reveal the same; science too. 

So why might we become mathematicians and not musicians or artists and not scientists? Specialisation draws us to the gamut of experience through the lens of the subject. But it is not maths, or science, or music: it is mathematicians, scientists and musicians. What we learn we learn of each other. I think there's something about absence here: about the abences that shape our thinking and our experience. We see someone else whose experience is shaped by a similar kind of absence: like two individuals with the same medical condition, there is a perception of shared constraint.

There are deep shaping influences on our experience. These shaping influences are no doubt different for each individual. I don't think there is a 'maths-shaped' absence or a 'music-shaped' absence. But whatever causes an enthusiasm and talent for music is drawn out through engagement with the subject matter of music. And in the presence of the subject matter, the causal power of the absence is revealed for others to see. Some will recognise it. And in this way musicians, mathematicians and historians are born.

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