Wednesday, 30 December 2015


Martin Robinson writes in favour of ‘gatekeepers’.  I’ve written elsewhere of the need to recognise when communities of enquiry are operating as gated communities of enquiry and to be able to identify who is gatekeeping.

How are these ideas related? Are we using the same term to mean different things?

Martin’s example of the art gallery ‘gatekeeper’ sounds more like a curator to me. Certainly the people responsible for selecting which works of art are displayed in a gallery often go by this title. Perhaps this person, who appears to act as a tour guide is also a curator? By coincidence I’ve recently been reading a book, the title of which goes some way to describing its content – Curationism– How Curating Is Taking Over The Art World And Everything Else by DavidBalzer. The book takes particular aim at the rise of the celebrity curator and I mention it only because it may be of interest.

Denis Lawton’s description of the curriculum as ‘selections of a culture’ seems relevant to Martin’s post. I agree with Martin’s point that selections are not neutral. Selections imply omissions so perhaps ‘gatekeeper’ is apt. However I think not. And here are two reasons - aim and focus.

The gatekeeper’s role as I understand it is to maintain order by allowing entry only to that which is in keeping with what is already present. At the risk of being glib, the best-known gatekeeper in the Western world may be St Peter. His job is to ensure that only those who meet pre-ordained criteria are granted access – heaven is eternal, and I suggest, unchanging.

The curator’s aim is to provide rich content. That content will reflect or perhaps establish a tradition but gallery curators will also attempt to disrupt traditions and put works into conversation with each other. Taken as analogy for the curriculum, this comes close to a quote Martin and I both seem to like – Michael Oakshott’s ‘conversation of mankind’. But how do we establish a rich conversation and not simply what my good friend Jason Buckley (aka The Philosophy Man) terms ‘a distributed monologue’ where the same sentiments are expressed but from different mouths?

The gatekeeper is focused on the space he (for it usually is he) guards. He need not, in fact must not, venture too far but rather waits till approached and then makes his decision –to what extent does the would-be entrant resemble that which is already present. Kafka’s gate may well be open but curricula, conference spaces rarely are. (I was once told I was ‘pushing at an open door’ by a colleague. A year later, they conceded the door wasn’t quite as open as they had first perceived.) I associate gatekeeper with gated communities, which are established usually to keep the Barbarian’s at the gate. Actual gated communities have been described as ‘cognitive shelters’ which limit access to the unusual, the unfamiliar and the markedly different. My sense is that gated communities are actual and metaphorical ‘safe spaces’ – but that as they are established and maintained by the relatively powerful in society, they needn’t declare themselves as such.

The curator also has an eye on the space – assuming there is a space. (We can curate mixtapes and spotify lists, but I don’t think we can gatekeep them.) However the curator is required to be outward focusing and inquisitive for her role is actively seek inclusions not merely wait for them to present themselves for consideration.

I think Martin misunderstands ‘colonial epistemic injustices’ when he asks ‘should the colonial past be ignored?’ – I think what is at stake is not include or ignore but how the selections add to the conversation.  To take a well used example from my own university education, when we study Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ but are not made aware of Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’ we are initiated into an impoverished conversation.

I’m not sure the  ‘don’t complain about hearing jazz at a jazz club analogy’ holds up. My university, UCL describes itself as ‘London’s Global University’ not a ‘European Education University’. The analogy then would be of claiming to be a Music Venue and then only playing jazz, acting as if it was the only genre of music. But even then I’m not sure. A music venue is where I go to experience or perhaps consume music. But isn’t education about something far broader than that? A liberal education is about encountering a rich variety of ways of being and of developing autonomy to make educated choices isn’t it? Martin’s notion of Eurocentric education seems rather parochial by comparison and seems to be justified by a cultural relativism that I’m pretty sure he does not usually favour.

Martin ends by suggesting “set up alternative curricula, telling alternative stories and become a gatekeeper yourself.” I’m pretty sure he’s aware of the rich tradition of these very things in this country. But again, I would argue that whilst we can become curators ourselves, in order to become gatekeepers we must have authority over ‘a space’ of some kind. Which returns us to questions of who is gatekeeping which space and how does this relate to history and power.

'Gatekeeper' by Eska. 


  1. A gatekeeper controls access to something, can unlock doors of perception and yes heaven as well as hell.

    You are complaining your gatekeeper didn't open the gate to Acheba, maybe she should have, but this is about her not opening that particular gate. Therefore gatekeeper works as an analogy as it would do if she had opened that particular book for you...

  2. I get that. I'm suggesting that a curator might have been more likely to detect significant absence and to create challenging juxtaposition.

  3. As a gatekeeper I always look to challenge- definitely part of the job and juxtapositions are very important- dialectic - always there through the gate...

  4. And here I think you're using gatekeeper in a different way to many others - which isn't a problem so long as we recognise this.

    So to take the example I offered of the exclusion of Achebe. It is easier to ague that this was 'strong gatekeeping' than it was 'good curating'.

  5. I think I defined the gatekeeper in my piece...

  6. I think you described 'the gatekeeper', partly through use of analogy. I'm less confident than you that the analogy works with the definition you offer, namely that, "The job of the gatekeeper is to stop you entering somewhere or to encourage you so to do."

    Perhaps a helpful question would be what we each take to be 'the gate'. I see it as the entry point for inclusion in institutional spaces, conference programmes, reading lists, curricula etc. Your reference in these comments to Achebe's work as 'that particular gate' seems to imply that there are as many gates as there are ideas in your use of 'gatekeeper'. If I'm correct in inferring this, I don't think the gatekeeper metaphor works because a gatekeeper keeps a gate (or a pair of gates) but not innumerable gates. If I am incorrect in inferring this, I hope you accept it is a misunderstanding made in good faith.

  7. I use the analogy correctly for what I am saying part of the role of the teacher is. A cultural gatekeeper (non passive) introduces people to certain things and not other things - they do this actively to encourage the person to go though the gate and help them navigate their way through... At some point the gatekeeper then allows the person to explore freely... Gatekeeper is a 'harder' term than curator a term which I see more akin to the - here is a lot of stuff off you go - idea which does not, in my mind, enable seeing the wood for the trees. Instead of a student reading anything they want, or choosing from a cast library, the gatekeeper, in the first instance opens the gate to a number of selected books, invites you in, helps you, encourages you, informs you about the etc. and other gates and gives you enough confidence in what you know to explore further and find you don't know that much at all... but atleast you gave the wherewithal to now navigate through the trees because you can see the wood/s

  8. Ok, I agree with you about this being part of the role of the teacher and perhaps that's the most significant thing in this conversation. However, I've not seen gatekeeper used this way before - in stories or in educational discussions. Hence my uncertainty about it as a metaphor for what you describe. I think my blogpost covers my uncertainty, so I won't repeat it here.

  9. Is there anything to be gained by deciding between the gatekeeper/curator models? hiphopteacher's right, I think, that Martin Robinson's museum example doesn't seem illustrative of gate-keeping; but is there anything wrong with positioning teachers as guides (hiphopteacher hints at this)? I must admit, I am chary of the gatekeeper model, pretty much for the reasons outlined in this post. I'm not sure I feel like much of a curator either, though, as the choices I make (as a KS4-5 English teacher) are made within (very) narrow parameters. I often feel like a guide drawing his map as he goes, but in palimpsestic fashion over older maps. Certainly, whether one imagines oneself as gatekeeper, guide, or curator, it's important to maintain and articulate to one's students a sense of one's partiality and situatedness, one's historicity; and it seems to me that hiphopteacher is at pains to write this into the curator metaphor.