Athena versus the machine

By: Martin Robinson


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Size: 216 x 140mm
Pages : 200
ISBN : 9781785833021
Format: Paperback
Published: September 2019

Martin Robinson's Curriculum: Athena versus the machine explores the educational value of a curriculum rooted in the pursuit of wisdom – and advocates the enshrinement of such a curriculum as the central concern of an academic institution.

Rather than being seen as a data-driven machine, a school should be viewed as a place that enables children to develop thoughtful perspectives on the world, through which they can pursue wisdom and be free to join in with the ancient and continuing conversation: What is it to be human?'

Teachers need to be liberated from policy-led prescription in order to design curricula which bring the subjects being studied, rather than the blind pursuit of measurable outcomes, to the foreground of the school's teaching and learning agenda.

In Curriculum, Martin Robinson explores how this can be achieved.

The Machine demands data, order and regulation; Athena is the goddess of philosophy, courage and inspiration. An Athena curriculum celebrates wisdom and skills, and considers why it seeks to transmit the knowledge that it does. In this book, Martin examines how we can construct a curriculum that will allow liberal education to flourish.

Anti gimmick and pro wisdom, the principles that he advocates will make a big difference to teachers' and pupils' lives, and will help to ensure that our young adults are better educated.

Suitable for teachers, school leaders and policy makers.

Click here to listen to the episode of Naylor's Natter podcast where Phil Naylor talks to Martin about Curriculum: Athena versus the machine.

Picture for author Martin Robinson

Martin Robinson

Martin Robinsonworked for 20 years in state schools in London as a teacher, a leader and an advanced skills teacher. Now an education consultant, he works with schools and other institutions on curriculum development and a wide range of other issues. He is a regular on the conference circuit both in the UK and internationally.

Click here to listen to the podcast Naylor's Natter where Phil Naylor talks to Martin about Curriculum-Athena versus the Machine.


  1. Despite the mention of the Greek goddess in the title, this book is not about Classical mythology. Athena, instead, represents wisdom, culture and experience and is set up in opposition to the -˜machine' which is interested only in data, order and efficiency. Robinson uses these metaphors skilfully throughout his book to explore the tensions which exist in schools around the world in the twenty-first century regarding the purpose of education, the role of knowledge and the importance of curriculum in ensuring optimal learning opportunities for all. These are big issues, but Robinson does an excellent job of leading readers through the key philosophical and educational theories which underpin successful schooling. The influence of philosophers such as Mill, Nietzsche, Arendt, Rousseau, Hegel and Heidegger is explained and exemplified as Robinson tackles problems which lie at the heart of educational disadvantage: social immobility, narrow viewpoints and the disappearance of the arts from the curriculum. For example, he asks early in chapter one whether a young person should study Antigone or We Will Rock You.

    -˜-¦without a doubt the curriculum should include Antigone and not We Will Rock You. Athena can help us realise that it is the quality inherent in what-is-to-be-learned that answers our questions about what to include.' (p.9)

    As a Classicist, I was obviously delighted by this conclusion.

    In Chapter 11, he asks what a school is for. His answer includes: Art, Beauty, Truth, Power and Perspectivism. I found the arguments for Power and Perspectivism most compelling. I agree with Robinson that

    -˜a good education doesn't offer just one lens through which to see ourselves and the world; it offers a wide variety of lenses-¦the pursuit of wisdom is never served by insisting that one way of seeing the world has dominion over all others' (p. 100).

    Classics has a particularly valuable contribution to make to the curriculum in this regard: a study of characters from Greek and Roman history and literature who paid the price for their singlemindedness and/or showed unwillingness to think critically and reflectively. Rich teaching material indeed.

    I found myself nodding  in agreement as I read this book. I agree with Robinson's position that we need to bring the -˜human' back into education, by focussing less on data drops, monitoring and tracking and instead on providing opportunities for young people to engage in conversation which enriches their worldview. As an academic researcher working on oracy education, I was pleased to see that Robinson concludes his -˜Power' answer thus -˜It is only by engaging in debate, by testing out ideas and hypotheses, that we can free up individuals to think for themselves, and thus enable them to add to the great conversation in a way which opens and engages minds' (p. 100).

    If this all sounds rather idealistic, be assured that the author provides practical suggestions on how teachers and schools can move towards a curriculum which is driven by Athena e.g. on p. 102 he explains the importance of a school's extra- (or co-) curricular programme, a House system and the benefits of the International Baccalaureate in combining traditional academic study in a range of curricular areas while developing independent learning, service and intellectual curiosity. Teachers of Classics, and related subjects, as well as those responsible for professional development and teaching and learning will be stimulated by the ideas in this book.
  2. A fresh critique of the curriculum in secondary schools requires a fresh voice, and Martin Robinson certainly has that. Curriculum is at times quite searing in its analysis of the education system. In Chapter 7, entitled -˜Performance Management', Martin Robinson opens with a quotation from Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil: “the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanise them.”

    The implication is that schools have become that bureaucracy, with teachers as the cogs. If you read this chapter with Pink Floyd's The Wall on repeat it wouldn't seem inappropriate. Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine contests that schools have lost their way in terms of what education is really about. Somewhere schools aspired to being efficient machines, in which numerical data is one of their most valued products. Athena, from Greek mythology, was renowned for wisdom and guidance. In Robinson's view these are traits that schools should be nurturing in their students; instead schools are machines, obsessed with reducing the richness and complexity of learning into spurious, quantifiable data.

    We can all engage in a rant about the education system, but Robinson's book must be credited for doing much more than this. He deals at least as much with the way forward. That said, I was entertained by his polemical bent: “Children aren't regarded as human beings with a right to be well-educated but as customers purchasing a clutch of grades that make the school look good, and that the young person can trade in for more of the same another institution.”

    I was surprised when I heard Robinson speak at The Battle of Ideas that he was an advanced skills teacher in a previous life. It is hard to imagine him getting on for any length of time in the education system. In such sentences as above he encapsulates succinctly what many teachers might like to voice. There is something subversive about the idea of children being denied their rights to be well-educated when they leave the school with a clutch of impressive-looking grades. The effect on children is perhaps a more fruitful way to attack “the machine” than commenting on the woes of teachers: “For the contemporary teacher, what was once a manageable job has become frantic - from passive-aggressive e-mail pings demanding immediate action at any time of day or night to demands for a quick response to -˜worrying' new data.”

    In 1997, when I started teaching, the extra pressure on teachers was one of the reasons that New Labour were able to take reforms as far as they did. If teachers are complaining then that is a sign of good policy, the logic went. After all, the public servants who get thirteen weeks holiday and finish at 3.30pm each day really shouldn't be at all happy with a government who want to sort out the education system. The latent anger against teachers emanated, no doubt, from a generation of parents who wanted to get their revenge on the haunting games teacher who behaved like Brian Glover in Kes.

    Still, Robinson has a vision for a knowledge-based (but not exclusive) curriculum in which real understanding and wisdom are key. The idea of wisdom is rarely discussed in schools as a desirable trait for students: “Knowledge improves us by setting us off on a quest for wisdom”.

    The shaping of the curriculum is crucial so that the students are introduced to a narrative in which they can contextualise new knowledge.

    Is this book something of a wish list? Schools are not data-driven, it seems to me, through internal choice. They are answerable to league tables and exam results. Still, if Robinson is right, that such an approach does nothing for satisfaction or ultimate wisdom, there may soon be a discussion about what education is for and a change in direction. This does not mean that exam results will ever be incidental, but that they might be an indicator of an outcome rather than the end in itself. Martin Robinson's book is an erudite attempt to discipline the machine of bureaucracy in UK schools.-‹
  3. -‹The main focus of this book is an in-depth reflection on the theme that while it is essential to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum, what really matters is the quality of knowledge centred around a pursuit of wisdom. The author develops a wide range of richly discussed ideas based on the philosophy of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage and inspiration. He contrasts and compares these ideas with the -˜Machine schools', which he considers as being obsessed with the collection and collation of data, and where the development of wisdom has been sidelined by the emphasis on a knowledge-rich approach.

    Many readers will find the sections -˜The Iron Cage' and -˜Welcome to the Machine' extremely thought-provoking, in particular the discussions on teacher well-being, workload pressure, schools over-run with managerial systems focused on quantifiable administrative processes, and the teacher as a -˜robot'.

    Martin Robinson addresses key issues facing education and the teaching profession, such as performance management, and states his case for -˜bringing the human back in' - based on Athena's philosophy about feelings, knowledge and understanding and what a school is for - lucidly. The basis of his interpretation of Athena's philosophy is that schools should pursue wisdom, beauty, truth and free exchange of ideas to bring individual minds together.

    This excellently written book stimulates personal reflection and will be of benefit to educators at all levels of education.
  4. "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.

    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.

    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."

    Click here to read the review on Schools Week website.
  5. In a period in which the curriculum - and even the very purpose of education - is subject to ceaseless challenge and accountability, this welcome book overtly opens up the debate. Martin Robinson paints a picture of an education system in thrall to the Machine: a data-obsessed, narrowly instrumentalist, capitalist version of education, wherein metrics are cherished more than wisdom. However, passionate as he is for a liberal, dialogic curriculum, Robinson does not simply wish us to agree, or to succumb to his view, but rather to critically engage. And Robinson's assertions have relevance beyond schooling, given the recent onslaught of instrumentalist applications to higher education too. Whether you agree with his arguments or not, you will not fail to be stimulated by Curriculum.

  6. This is a very important book. While the dumb and brutal ugliness of instrumentalist education is all too familiar to many of us, never before has it been so clearly expressed or so convincingly unpicked and exposed. Martin Robinson's Curriculum, however, is much more than a depressing, defeatist explanation of why things have got as bad as they are. Instead it is a beautifully written love letter to the very substance of education, a triumphant and confident call to arms, and is ultimately the manifesto on which the fightback against the Machine should be based.
  7. Martin Robinson's Curriculum is an impassioned call to arms for educators to throw off the shackles of the Machine with its data-driven approaches and embrace a more human vision of education which puts the curriculum at its core. An astounding book on many levels which is destined to become the seminal work on what should be taught in our schools.
  8. As the focus of our schools and academies turns to curriculum, in writing this book Martin Robinson has given us a timely paean to the polymath. Arguing that schools need to move beyond education as mundane transaction, Robinson imagines a broad and balanced curriculum designed to inspire and nourish wisdom.

    Readable and uplifting in a way that many other contemporary education books are not, Robinson's achievement is to take the recognisable and commonplace in our schooling system and reframe it in such a way as to place it on a higher plane, while at the same time retaining its familiarity.

    Robinson is the grizzled, eccentric and entertaining teacher in the corner of the country's staffroom: challenging assumptions, refusing to toe the line and with no time for the bright young things and their data-laden tablets. His is a much-needed voice of dissent in an era of mechanistic education.
  9. In Curriculum Martin Robinson dares to confront those schools who define their curriculum as -˜knowledge rich' by questioning whether their vision for education is good enough. It is an honest attempt by an experienced teacher to answer Eliot's enduring questions of where we might find the wisdom that we have lost in knowledge, and the knowledge that we have lost in information.

    Appealing both to teachers nervous of a return to Gradgrind's -˜facts alone' and those troubled by the romantic ideals of progressivism, Robinson lays out with crystal clarity the questions confronting schools and their leaders in the aftermath of the turn away from a skills agenda and back to knowledge. And like a Virgil in tweed, he leads us on a fascinating journey down the corridors of our corporate-grey schools amid their perils of spreadsheets, tick-boxes, technology and bureaucracy - finally exposing the cold, dead eyes of what's behind the mechanism ticking at the heart of teaching today. Yet this is only the first movement of a symphony in celebration of the place of the human at the centre of education, as the book also represents a vital intervention in the current debate around curriculum. Drawing on the insights of phenomenology, Robinson calls for school subject planning to be reinvested with a fresh kind of humanism. If curriculum is to be productive, it must be made a pursuit of Athena - the goddess of wisdom. He shows that unless teaching and learning are understood as quests for human freedom, curriculum risks becoming yet another buzzword fad.

    In a work infused with the same remarkable breadth of reading and grasp of detail that made Trivium 21c such an accessible but intellectually rich work, Robinson deftly sets out what school leaders, teachers, pupils and their parents must do if we are to discover the knowledge that will make us all wise.
  10. In this learned and accessible book, Martin Robinson explores the tensions at the heart of curriculum thinking - pointing to wisdom and the structures and systems likely to hinder it. Robinson tackles the reductionist, misconceived view of a knowledge-rich curriculum as a series of lists and urges us to regard it as a way of making meaning, of asking serious questions about how we live, of thinking about the values, ideas and objects that help to shape our lives and the larger landscape of human endeavour.

    An important read for all school leaders.
  11. - In Curriculum, Robinson explores what contemporary educational debate has sorely needed: a way to give real meaning and purpose to education beyond its mere capacity to generate wealth or power.

    - Robinson transcends the traditionalist versus
  12. In his latest book, Martin adds to his earlier work on the Trivium and discusses the difference between a curriculum which serves -˜Machine schools' and one which serves -˜Athena schools'. His theory is that while it is essential to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum, it is the quality of the knowledge that matters. He goes on to ask difficult questions about who decides what a non-white, non-middle-class curriculum looks like, and makes the point that liberal arts are not set in stone and that tradition is ever-changing.

    At a time when Ofsted (themselves a cog in Robinson's machine analogy) has reignited the curriculum debate, Curriculum is a most timely publication and a thought-provoking read for anyone involved in our current school system.
  13. In Curriculum, Martin Robinson tackles the central educational issue of our time: the contest between Athena (the goddess of wisdom) and the Machine (mechanical thinking and the quantification of learning). He reminds us, however, that the beating heart of the school lies in its curriculum, and assures us that there is still hope for -˜bringing the human back' into education.

    Written with Martin's customary elegance, wit and intelligence, Curriculum is an inspirational contemporary hymn to the teacher, warning us off settling for the click of the Machine when Athena beckons us to rediscover an education that gives meaning to life. It's destined to be one of the must-read books in the field.
  14. At the heart of Martin Robinson's Curriculum is the fundamental and pure belief in the power of a liberal education, anchored in knowledge that leads to wisdom, and so virtue. Capital as cultural rather than social, and education as a means to good, rather than a crude set of measurable outcomes that translate into nothing of meaning for our lives, are the core ideals. It is a philosophy that takes by the cuff how much schools and curricula have moved away from humanity in education.

    Written with meaning and human purpose - and with erudition, compassion and a real understanding of ground-level pressures facing the school machinery - this is the best book on curriculum that I have read. And at a time when curriculum as a concept and reality are up in the air across the UK, and moving in divergent directions, this is the text that brings us together in terms of what's really important in education, and what binds us. It needs to be read by everyone with a stake in our future.
  15. Curriculum is a wonderfully inspiring, optimistic and deeply philosophical book that refocuses the purpose of education. It is completely different to anything else one would read on education. Martin's style of writing and philosophical considerations are fascinating in provoking our thinking about the value of education and the reasons why we, as educators, come to work every day.

    A must-read for educators, yes, but also for anyone who values the centrality of education in the pursuit of wisdom and the betterment of humanity.
  16. Curriculum is a timely, refreshing and enlightening follow-up to Trivium 21c. At a time when thousands of schools across the UK are wrestling with the challenge of curriculum design, all too often with a vision limited by the pressure to maximise outcomes, Martin Robinson leads us to the philosophical high ground - and it's a mighty relief.

    The central metaphor of Athena versus the Machine captures the state of things perfectly, serving both as a warning and a call to arms. Tackling a broad range of issues - including whether knowledge can or should be -˜powerful', the concept of cultural mobility, and the role of formal education in the context of educating for freedom - Martin reminds us continually that, far from the utilitarianism of the machine, education is deeply human and that knowledge -˜helps us to understand who we are'. Martin challenges us to raise our sights, to think more deeply and expansively about the purpose of the curricula we provide and to remember who it's all for.

    Intellectually, Curriculum towers above the field of functional books about schooling; a must-read for anyone looking to put some heart and soul into their curriculum.

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