Book review – Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine

The author of this book is labouring under a god complex, says Nick Dennis – but his ability to construct a cogent argument is far from divine

Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine

Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine

Author Martin Robinson
Publisher: Crown House Publishing
Details: 200pp; £14.99
ISBN: 978-1785833021

In Aristophanes’ The Clouds, a debate takes place between an advocate for the traditional form of education and an advocate for the new form of education. 

The “old” form of education is characterised by discipline, a respect for elders, good morals and memorisation. The product of this traditional education would possess a strong chest, broad shoulders, muscular hips and small genitals, the last being seen as a positive trait symbolising self-control. 

The new education however, would have been characterised by those who forgot Athena. It had a narrow chest and shoulders and big genitals, symbolising a lack of self-restraint, which was frowned upon. 

Orgasmic

As I read Martin Robinson’s latest book, Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine, where he seeks to supplant current educational practice characterised by data, input/output teaching and performance management with a focus on “Athena”, the pursuit of knowledge and a focus on humanity that should be present in school curricula, I couldn’t help but be struck by two things. 

First, Robinson’s construction of his ideas, mythologised via Athena, links to Aristophanes’ advocacy of the traditional curriculum. Mercifully, Robinson is silent on the genitalia issue, although he has been known to refer to the hasty and unexpected arrival of le petit mort when discussing the work of other educational bloggers

The second thing that became apparent is that this is the muffled cri de coeur of a section of society that feels lost with the new challenges to their established ways of knowing. They long for a time, most likely imagined, when they could be left alone to get on with the job as they saw fit. 

I have a great deal of sympathy with Robinson’s basic idea that schools can be moved to act in ways that run counter to their purpose. From reading the multitude of reviews by prominent figures in English education at the start of the book, and wondering if British politeness had stopped them declining the offer to write one, I was primed for a stimulating read. 

Intellectual bricolage

Robinson’s previous book, Trivium21c, was heralded as a revolutionary text by many educators, which was slightly surprising to those who had more than a passing grounding in the philosophy and history of education. What was novel in Trivium21c was Robinson’s attempt to bring historical knowledge of the medieval curriculum to bear in a contemporary context. Curriculum is no Trivium21c. 

This is partly explained by Robinson’s move away from the familiar and well-trodden paths of previous educational works by other authors, so that something original can be created. This resulting attempt at intellectual bricolage in Curriculum looks initially impressive, with citations ranging from phenomenology and Jordan Peterson to Game of Thrones

However, on closer inspection, the assembling of disparate available sources has led to the abandonment of the discipline necessary to create an argument that is cogent, shows mastery of the material used and drives the argument forward. 

For example, the use in chapter seven of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem when discussing the bureaucracy of schools, as if excessive paperwork and mandated marking in different coloured pens is akin to the bureaucracy of genocide, destabilises what he attempts to say about the lack of care in educational bureaucracies. 

Less than tenuous understanding

Or, when he is following a phenomenological line of argument, Robinson neglects to consider contemporary curriculum challenges in the form of groups like Rhodes Must Fall or the academic work in cultural studies that would support his philosophical reasoning. 

When addressing performance management, it becomes patently clear that Robinson has a less than tenuous understanding of what appraisal or performance management actually mean outside education, instead falling prey to the simulated versions that appear in schools. The citation of a 2015 article in The Independent as an example of performance-management systems being rejected by large firms – and why it should also be rejected by schools – shows Robinson’s proclivity to use general journalistic examples as undisputed fact. Some consideration of the article within a basic research framework would have made it clear that, rather than rejecting performance management outright, major companies have moved away from particular formats. 

These faults, and many others, combine to undermine and even contradict what should be an interesting argument. What we are left with are tendentious exegeses of a variety of sources that are jarring in their deployment and punctuated with numerous rhetorical questions. There is a reliance on platitudes and cliché and the many unsubstantiated points throughout the chapters undermine the aims of the book. 

My sense on reading Curriculum is that something has gone very wrong in the editorial process and there have been few critical readers of the text. For one, someone surely would have picked up that, after retelling the story of the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus at the start of the text, Robinson seems to position himself as a god. He is the modern-day educational Zeus by giving birth to the Athena in the book. As he answers his own question “What does Athena want?” in terms of education, it becomes clear that she is a proxy and a cipher for Robinson’s own thoughts on education. 

Educators are often associated with god complexes, but to see one so openly made at the start of a book is astonishing. This complex lingers throughout the text, as Robinson deploys rhetorical question after rhetorical question and publicly has a dialogue with himself about where his ideas might be going.

Curriculum is a bewildering book, and yet it will have many supporters. The insights Robinson seems to draw from his patchy understanding of many ideas are nicely packaged. The apparently weighty academic references are agreeably wrapped in the folklore of Western civilisation and are offered up for conspicuous consumption online by a generation of teachers who have missed, or avoided, the training in the history of education that used to be part of the very best PGCE courses.

As such, this book is very much of our time, characterised by the political situation of Brexit and Conservative government over the last decade. In this respect, it is a wonderful companion to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians. Despite the hope that the book is a cure for our educational malaise, Curriculum is a morbid symptom of the current political and intellectual climate in English education.

Nick Dennis is director of studies at St Francis’ College, Hertfordshire. He tweets @nickdennis 


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