Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see – Neil Postman

Thinking the unthinkable

Bernstein (1990) argues that there are two classes of knowledge, the thinkable and the unthinkable or the mundane and the esoteric. He stated that:

the line between these two classes of knowledge/practices is relative to any given period, and that the principles generating both classes are also relative … in small-scale, non-literate societies … the division between the ‘thinkable’ and the ‘unthinkable’ … were affected by the religious system, its agents and their practices.

(Bernstein, 1990, p. 181)

However, in industrialised societies, such as the modern Australia/US/UK, the division is governed rather differently, although, Bernstein (1990) argues, it is similar in the sense that it establishes an order. He argues that power is distributed with the ability to think the unthinkable, and that those who have access to the ability to think the unthinkable have differentiated access to power, to knowledge and to control over themselves and their societies (Bernstein, 1990). They are the powerful in our society.

Any distribution of power attempts to regulate the realization of that potential, in the interests of the social ordering it creates, maintains and legitimates.

(Bernstein, 1990, p. 182)

While I don’t think this is fair, I do think parents need to understand that our culture distributes rewards based on a students’ ability to think for themselves. The power over the unthinkable lies, in our culture, in

the upper reaches of the educational system, in that part concerned with the production, rather than the reproduction, of discourse.

(Bernstein, 1990, p. 181).

Only those people who are able to think, who learn how to think, are able to have access to the power that comes with the ability to think the unthinkable. But, what does this mean? Well, I believe that thinking the unthinkable refers to those people who can make new knowledge, who can invent, create, grow and develop new ideas. The thinkable ideas are those that are already thought, that a student is expected to just regurgitate back at the teacher. The thinkable is the domain of the standardised test, the assessment task, because it refers to the ability to give the teacher back what they’ve asked for.

Those children who are taught to think, who can grow their own ideas, have access to the domains of knowledge associated with the unthinkable. Those are the adults who will have power over their own affairs and will be successful in the future.


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