NB: this is currently just a very rough draft. Feedback of all sorts gratefully received!
In a recent discussion on twitter, it occurred to me, that in one fundamental respect, my ideas about what education is, is for and about, differ from both those of the traditionalists and the progressivists (and indeed a third category which people often self-ascribe as ‘pragmatist’.)
Each of these positions justify education in terms of its aims and purposes; they are essentially consequentialist. Consider the following statements:
- The purpose of education is to prepare students for the future
- … to pass on the best of what is known to the next generation
- … to bring about a more socially just society
- … to liberate the students
It may seem strange for a teacher to reject these statements, but I do. Each of these statements attempt to justify education in terms of the consequences that it hopes to achieve. I do not believe that education is or can be justified in such a way.
In this post, I shall argue that the justification for education lies in the fact that, when we educate properly, we are fulfilling our obligation to act virtuously, and no appeal to consequences can ever logically override a moral obligation. Firstly, I shall discuss the nature of moral obligations. Secondly, I shall discuss why appeals to consequences cannot compete with our moral obligations. Thirdly, I shall discuss what social justice can and cannot mean. Fourthly, I shall describe the place of research for the educational fideist.
Moral obligations are brute facts
There exist brute facts: facts the truth of which it would be inconceivable to deny. Consider the following from Raimond Gaita:
Nothing makes claims to meaning true or false in the way that the fact that it is raining makes true the assertion that it is. (Gaita 2002, p.92)
If it is raining and someone denies my assertion that it is, I may attempt to accommodate their denial by assuming that they are joking, that I have missed something, or that they are delusional, or I may simply be baffled. A stated moral obligation is similarly justified by the contexts in which we find ourselves. Consider the sense of disbelief with which we might reprimand someone, ‘why did you do that?!’
The justification for education is of this form. It is an obligation manifest in our society.
Such brute facts are not, however, universally true – whilst it may be true that it is raining in Valencia, it may not be raining in Barcelona, or raining tomorrow. The truth of brute facts hangs in the air only so long as we have no reason to deny them:
R. Leavis said that the form of a critical judgment of a poem or novel is, ‘It is so, isn’t it?’ and that the form of the response to it is, ‘Yes, but…’ It’s a fine way of characterising the essentially conversational nature of judgments in the realm of meaning, their objectivity as well as their necessary incompleteness. Always, it is assumed, the text would be before the conversationalists, and the never-ending ‘Yes but…’ requires that one remain open to it, in a responsiveness that is both vital and disciplined by the critical concepts constitutive of thought in the realm of meaning. (Gaita 2002, p.92)
Thus, the fundamental virtue of all discourse, including education, is acting with the humility in knowing that what one is asserting may well be wrong, and is certainly incomplete.
The problem with consequentialist justifications of education
All consequentialist justifications for education rely on an argument of the following form:
- If future X, is better than future Y, and actions Z will bring about future X, then we ought to do actions Z.
The consequentialist then must assert that…
- future X is better than future Z, and
- actions Z will bring about future X.
Taking (3) first, whatever we substitute for Z and X, proposition 3 will not induce the kind of bafflement induced by the denial of a brute fact. If someone says that ‘if the student learns a traditional curriculum, then they will be better prepared for life’, it is, of course, possible to think of situations which might render this untrue. Equally, if someone says that ‘if students are educated according to the tenets of critical pedagogy, then the world will be a fairer place’, I can also think of reasons why this may not be the case. The fundamental problem here is that we cannot know the future. We cannot stand outside the system which we wish to describe and observe it. Similarly, MacIntyre (2007, p.109) describes what he calls ‘radical conceptual innovation’. You cannot predict the wheel because in predicting it, you have invented it. Society is not made up of predictable entities; we are human beings with choice and free will. Of course, one might want to deny that we have free will, but if one wants to do this, then there can be no justification for education anyway, since what would the word ‘should’ mean in a world where everything was inevitable?
Secondly, there is very little agreement of what the future ought to look like. Traditionalists tend to (according to Dewey) focus on preparing ‘the young for future responsibilities and for success in life, by means of acquisition of the organized bodies of information and prepared forms of skill which comprehend the material of instruction’, whereas progressives tend to focus on the future of society. And within the discourse surrounding Social Justice, there is little agreement concerning what that socially just society would look like, North (2006) also describes discussions of Social Justice as defined by three competing tensions: between the politics of redistribution verses recognition; between equality as sameness and equality as difference; between macro/micro practices and debates.
Am I trying to ensure that all my students receive the same amount of recognition, or the same access to resources? Should I be treating them the same, or differently? Should I be looking at the big picture or simply what is going on day-to-day?
Even if someone were to come up with a definition of a socially just society that it would be baffling to deny, it would be difficult to do so in a way that was not simply vacuous (everyone should be happy) and even then, we would still have the problems associated with (3).
To some, this may look like a denial of reason, but it is only a denial of bad reasons. This is what Wittgenstein meant when he said, ‘don’t think, look!’
The spirit of social justice
I think that social justice is a term that is often misunderstood. It is often treated scientistically as referring to a future description of a just society, a set of consequences to be achieved, but given that we can’t know what the consequences of our actions will be, this notion of social justice becomes nonsensical. The term social justice was popularised by Pope Pius XI as a virtue, a particular manner or spirit of acting. The roots of the term are in Aristotle’s virtues. Pius’ gist was that it was difficult, especially in times of social upheaval, for people not to follow a dog-eat-dog strategy and instead act decently for the sake of society at large. To be socially just was not, in Pius’ eyes, to work towards achieving anything, but simply to consider society when we act, and do as we ought to: be brave enough to stand-up when we need to, and temperate enough not to attack or be horrible to each other when life gets tough, or when we get upset.
To be a socially just teacher is part of being a virtuous teacher. This leads me to my final point concerning the place of research in education.
The place of research for the educational fideist
If I am in the woods and about to eat a berry from a tree, but then a botanist tells me that the berry is poisonous, an observer would be baffled if I then ate it. Similarly, if I read research by the learning scientists saying that children are more likely to remember things better if I employ spaced-practice, then it is easy to imagine situations in which it would be equally baffling for me not to take this research into account. One cannot be a diligent teacher and ignore research.
As I have mentioned previously many times, to be virtuous is to pay attention: to the children we teach, to research, to society, to one’s subject. (This frequently will oblige us to help students to pass exams, but the exams certainly do not justify education!)
Addressing some criticisms raised by @mw_history – many thanks!
Educational fideism vs evolutionary rationalism
One argument for a traditional curriculum is that it is justified because it has endured. This is similar to what Hayek calls ‘evolutionary rationalism’ – that ideas survive because they work, and their survival is their justification. The educational fideist sees no necessity in such a justification, in a similar way as they see no necessity in an appeal to consequences. Of course, it is foolish to ignore that which has proven to be robust, but this is nothing more than a rule of thumb. It would be oxymoronic to believe that evolution occurs in a manner predictable enough for us to manipulate.
Education as an obligation rather than an entitlement
The idea of education as an entitlement has been described beautifully here. However, although a reader might well see strong similarities between educational fideism and the concept of education as an entitlement, there is an important difference. ‘Entitlement’ is the language of demand. It is the language of ‘rights’, of law. Obligation is beyond law, beyond plea-bargaining. It is not the language of ‘you owe me’, but ‘I owe you’, the language of giving. To fulfil an obligation is an act of love. Simone Weil writes in ‘on human personality’ how obligations come before entitlements or rights. The latter are subordinate to the former:
‘An obligation which goes unrecognised by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognised by anybody is not worth very much.
Why does this matter? What difference does it make to talk about an obligation rather than an entitlement? Because to educate is so much more than to ensure that someone has received something that is owed them, it is to give something in a particular spirit. A virtue is adverbial. It is not about the act, but the way we carry out the act. We don’t courage, we act courageously. We don’t kind, we act kindly. Thus, education cannot ever be reduced to a particular action or set thereof. To educate is to pay attention to every aspect of a student. (See here for further discussion)
Of course, the educational fideist may well take into account concerns about the consequences, the importance of the enduring knowledge of the past, a student’s entitlement, but they cannot override a moral obligation.
And so finally, why have I described this approach to teaching as educational fideism? Fideism in philosophy normally describes philosophical approaches to belief in God- the idea that God is beyond reason, beyond justification. Here, I am using the term to describe the way in which education cannot be justified, it is justified by our moral obligation to educate, and these truths are given to us by the world, not opined. My moral obligations are absolute; no appeal to hope or fear of the consequences can change that. It may appear particularly miserable for me to disregard hope in this way, but I am not disregarding either hope or fear as emotions, as passions; but I am denying them as justifications. G. E. M. Anscombe (1958, p.9) writes that …
…it is pretty well taken for obvious among [consequentialist philosophers] that a prohibition such as that on murder does not operate in the face of some consequences. But of course the strictness of the prohibition has as its point that you are not to be tempted by fear or hope of consequences.
As justifications, hope and fear are false gods, but I have faith in the idea of doing the right thing.
Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern Moral Philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1.
Cribb, A., & Gewirtz, S. (2003). Towards a sociology of just practices. In C. Vincent (Ed.), Social justice, education and identity (pp. 15–30). London: Routledge.
Gaita, R. (2002). The Philosopher’s Dog. London: Routledge.
MacIntyre, A. C. (2007). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckworth.
North, C. E. (2006). More Than Words? Delving Into the Substantive Meaning(s) of “Social Justice” in Education. Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 507–535.