The Great Debate: Educational Fideism

(This is a rewrite of the earlier post on Educational Fideism)

Caminante, no hay camino,

Se hace camino al andar

Wanderer, there is no path,

The path is made by walking.

(Antonio Machado, from ‘Proverbios y Cantares’ in Campos de Castilla, 1912)

Ah the great education debate: the trads versus the progs. As if teaching were not emotionally exhausting enough.

Taking part in the ‘great debate’ is a bit like going on stage naked. Having exposed yourself, you need to decide how you’re going to handle the inevitable embarrassment: The trads defiantly announce that they don’t care if it’s rude, their modesty matters and they will perform with their backs to the audience, thus only showing their arses. The progs, with a confidence perhaps bordering on naivety, go full frontal, justifying their approach with a breezy but unconvincing ‘it’s all perfectly natural!’ – some of the more extreme branches even opting to perform cartwheels or a bit of capoeira. Many teachers, however, simply stand awkwardly, perhaps side-on, with their limbs and hands flattened against their bodies, their shoulders and knees twisting in on each other to cover as much flesh as possible, all the while mumbling something about being pragmatic and ‘… just doing what works’.

This weekend, it occurred to me, that the differences between the trad, prog and prag ideas are quite minor in comparison to the great mistake that they all have in common. And thus, I am proud to announce that I am none-of-the-above. I am an educational fideist. If you would like to put on some clothes, please join me.

I would like to persuade you that the great mistake that all self-identified parties in the current debate are guilty of is using consequentialism to justify education. This consequentialism comes in different forms of course, but it is consequentialism nonetheless. And given that consequentialism is fundamentally flawed, so are the ideas of the trads, progs, and prags. The overall effect is of legions of Don Quixotes valiantly battling with windmills.

Instead, I shall argue that education does not need to be justified in that way, by something outside itself. I want to reconnect the verb justify with justice, and show that education is shown to be just when our actions as teachers fulfil our obligations to be virtuous.

Firstly, I shall outline how these positions are consequentialist, then in sections 2 and 3 consider two ways this is a problem. In sections 4 and 5 I shall describe the alternative – educational fideism.

1. Consequentialism

Consequentialism is the idea that it is the consequences that are the ultimate measure of rightness and wrongness. Consider the following statements:

  • My job as a teacher is to prepare students for the future
  • … to pass on the best of what has been thought, said and done
  • … to bring about a more socially just society
  • … to liberate the students
  • … to enable students to take part in the great conversation

Or again, consider phrases such as ‘it is the thin end of the wedge’, or ‘we can identify a direction of travel’. Any justification that relies upon an appeal to a proposition which states that X will follow Y is consequentialist.

I have no problem with any of these statements per se, but I do have a problem with how they are used. There is no logical issue if they are treated merely as being expressions of one’s passions, of one’s hopes or fears. My argument is that such a hope or a fear cannot logically be the ultimate arbiter of rightness. In the end, there can only be one arbiter of rightness: our obligation to be virtuous.

My thesis here is summed up by G. E. M. Anscombe (1958, p.9) when she writes …

…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.

The mistake that the consequentialist makes is in denying what we can call brute propositions (Anscombe 1958): propositions the truth of which it would be inconceivable to deny, and that, given a particular context are so obvious that they are in no need of explanation. 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)

It is the nature of the context, of the way things are that justify this proposition as being brute. 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. The consequentialist does just this, in order to maintain her own position, she denies the truth of brute propositions.

2. How consequentialism denies brute facts

A traditionalist might say that traditional methods are the best way to prepare a student for future responsibilities and success in life (Dewey 1997)[1]. A proponent of critical pedagogy might maintain that if all teachers engage in critical pedagogy, it will result in the emancipation of all students from oppression (Freire 1996). I am not saying that neither of these is true, but we cannot possibly know whether they are true or not. These are nothing but hopes. The proposition, ‘you cannot be certain that a traditional education is the best way to prepare a student for future responsibilities and success in life’ is a brute fact, as is the proposition ‘you cannot be certain that the critical pedagogical approach will result in the emancipation of all students from oppression’. You might be more or less confident based on the research (to which I shall come to later) but even then, this cannot count as certainty. We cannot know the future. We cannot justify our actions by appealing to a ‘path’ that does not yet exist. It is as Antonio Machado wrote:

Wanderer, your footsteps are the path and nothing more;

Wanderer, there is no path, the road is made by walking.

Furthermore, neither can these consequentialists agree on our destination, on what consequences we ought to be aiming at: giving the individual students the best opportunities in life, social justice? And even within these consequences, there are confusions. Within the discourse surrounding social justice, there is little agreement concerning what that socially just society would look like. North (2006) describes discussions of Social Justice as defined by three competing tensions: between the politics of redistribution versus 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?

3. The poverty of historicism

Some might make the argument, ‘but I am not concerned about the consequences. I only think that students ought to be taught the “best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold 2006, p.5)’ And I might then ask but what makes it ‘best’? My interlocutor recognises my trap and refuses to fall into it by referring to consequences, and instead says that it is ‘best’ simply because it has endured. This is similar to what Hayek (2012) calls ‘evolutionary rationalism’ – that ideas survive because they work, and their survival is their justification. This is fine, I have no problem with this, but it is again, only a sensible rule-of-thumb or an expression of one’s passions. There is 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 it would be self-contradictory to believe that evolution occurs in a manner predictable enough for us to manipulate. What we can learn from history is limited. History does not repeat itself: ‘History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.’ (Barnes 2009, p.241)

At this point, many readers might feel frustrated with me, thinking that this polemic is nothing but a denial of reason. But it is the opposite – it is the rescue of reason from the grubby hands of superstition. It is only a denial of bad reasons or reasons in which too much faith is placed such that they become bad reasons. We do not need to appeal to what Popper (2013, p.3) describes as historicism ‘which assumes that … [historical prediction] is attainable by discovering the “rhythms” or the “patterns”, the “laws” or the “trends” that underlie the evolution of history’. When we place all of our faith in a pattern, a framework that some thinker or other has gaffer-taped onto the world, and which remains in place simply because its adherents won’t allow anyone to touch it, we brutalise the world and everyone in it. People become nothing but whatever it is we have labelled them as. They are but cogs in our machine, the wheels of which we turn simply to churn out an identity for ourselves. Kenny (2010) concludes his account of Poppers’ argument thus: ‘…historicism is impossible, and the only meaning we can find in history, past or future is that given it by free, contingent, unpredictable human choices’ (p.975).

4. The nature of obligation

I would fully agree with Hume (1985) that one cannot derive how the world ought to be from how the world is.[2] I would, however, disagree in the sense that one can see how one ought to act from how the world is. This is what Wittgenstein meant when he said, ‘don’t think, but look!’ (1967, §66) Instead of attempting to imagine the future, the educational fideist must return to that which we cannot deny, that which was in right in front of us all along: our obligation to be virtuous. Recall the sense of bafflement one might feel if someone denies that it is raining – how much more urgent and disturbing does this incredulity feel when we see someone carrying out, or advocating an evil act? It becomes a cry from the soul. And when we do deny our obligations, we feel shame and say to ourselves, ‘My God what have I done?! How could I have done it?’ It would be a parody to suggest that this expression is synonymous with an appeal to whatever consequentialist framework we might have chosen for ourselves: ‘My God, what have I done?! I have failed to contribute to the schools’ A*-C targets!’; ‘My God, what have I done?! I have failed to use education as a means of achieving conscientization!’[3]

Our sense of justice lies in this sense of bafflement expressed by ‘My God, what have I done?!’ Justice is not a hope for a mythical future society. The term social justice was popularised by Pope Pius XI, not as an ends to be achieved, but as a virtue, a particular manner or spirit of acting. Pius’ gist was that it was difficult, especially in times of social upheaval, for people not to justify a dog-eat-dog strategy and instead act decently. To be socially just was not, in Pius’ eyes, to work towards achieving anything, but simply to pay attention to 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 to be a virtuous teacher, to recognise our obligations to others.

But one must not confuse obligation with rights. To fulfil an obligation is to do so much more than afford someone their rights. Similarly, I have great sympathy with the idea of education as an entitlement, [4] but ‘entitlement’ is the language of demand, of law. Obligation is beyond intentioned, human laws, beyond plea-bargaining. It is not the language of ‘you owe me’, but of ‘I owe you’. It is the language of giving. It takes no interest in judging others, only ourselves. To fulfil an obligation is an act of love, and thus it makes no sense to talk of the obligations of others towards us. Simone Weil (2005) 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.’

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, it is to say to a student, ‘I am interested in you’.

5. The importance of and attitude to research

And one cannot take an interest in another whilst at the same time ignoring research. If I am in the woods with my students and one of them is 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 did nothing to stop the student eating 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 someone not to take this research into account. One cannot be a diligent teacher and ignore research. In this respect, one must take into account concerns about the consequences, the importance of the enduring knowledge of the past, a student’s entitlement, but these concerns must never override a moral obligation. I may well enforce a school’s uniform policy, punish a student, teach with direct instruction or with group work, but I do so, not because it accords with a mystical framework of ideas, but because that is my obligation at the moment. An educational fideist would not, for example, say ‘I am a trad and believe that students ought to be obedient’. The educational fideist instead asks ‘what are my obligations in this particular situation?’; ‘what does this situation require of me?’ (I have many times said to students something akin to, ‘now I am obliged to punish you’. Incidentally, I have found such a justification to elicit less argument than any attempts that referred to consequences.)

One must remember, however, that what one considers to be a brute proposition is not universally true, what is inconceivable to one now, may not always be so – 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:

F. 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 of knowing that what one is asserting is certainly incomplete. Inherent within this knowledge is the obligation to seek more and to seek to be challenged. And if someone does not understand our actions towards them, then there is an injustice in the inadequacy of our explanation (Weil 2005, p.72). We must find common ground, a language in which we both can share.

This situation doesn’t, as far as I can see, change the further up the hierarchy one finds oneself. One’s decisions must still be according to one’s obligations. Perhaps, however, the acceptance of the incompleteness of one’s own pronouncements might change the nature of leadership and governance – away from telling people what they should do, and towards enabling people to fulfil their own obligations.

6. Conclusion

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 ways 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, as motivations; but I am denying them as justifications. As justifications, hope and fear are false gods. I would prefer that my faith lies in doing the right thing and that this faith should decide what path I leave behind me.


Many thanks to all those who made comments on the earlier version: @mw_history; @thomgething; @helsouth; @tom_condry and @sara_hjelm


[1] I am merely taking the definition from Dewey – I am aware he would not count as a traditionalist!

[2] Though it should be borne in mind that, as Williams (2006, p.123) stated ‘It has been reasonably doubted whether Hume himself meant by this passage what has subsequently been made of it.’

[3] A similar argument is made by Raimond Gaita (2004, p.xxi)

[4] Such a position is beautifully described by @Sputniksteve here.


Anscombe, G.E.M., 1958. On Brute Facts. Analysis, 18(3), pp.69–72.

Arnold, M., 2006. Culture and Anarchy Oxford Wor., Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barnes, J., 2009. A History of the Worlds in 10½ Chapters, London: Vintage Books.

Dewey, J., 1997. Experience And Education, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Freire, P., 1996. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books Limited.

Gaita, R., 2004. Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception 2nd ed., Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.

Gaita, R., 2002. The Philosopher’s Dog, London: Routledge.

Hayek, F.A., 2012. Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy, Oxford: Routledge.

Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature (London: Penguin Books Limited, 1985)

Kenny, A., 2010. A New History of Western Philosophy, Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Popper, K., 2013. The Poverty of Historicism, London: Routledge.

Weil, S., 2005. Simone Weil: An Anthology, London: Penguin.

Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Oxford: Routledge, 2006)

Wittgenstein, L., 1967. Philosophical Investigations., Oxford: Blackwell.


7 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Educational Fideism”

  1. I think you risk caricaturing both traditionalists and progressives in order to advance your case. I know of many strong advocates on both sides but I am unaware of any who think their views are complete or that the consequences they assert are certain. If you were to describe an adherent of scientific research into education in this way they they would probably object in the strongest possible terms (and yes, I am aware that the possibility of scientific research into education is contested). Their consequentialism is probabilistic and their theories are open to revision. To be otherwise is to deny the scientific method. So I don’t think the consequentialist position is as unsophisticated as you imply.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your comment and for reading the post.
    I feel as if you are kind of making my point for me. I’m sure that most people who assert consequences know that they are not certain. I am simply arguing that since they are not certain, they cannot override one’s sense of moral obligations, and thus play second fiddle to them. Hence, nobody can logically argue for/against being trad/prog in the sense of describing a path into the future; people can only describe what they have done in the past – e.g. I *tend* to do this.
    I personally have no problem with scientific research being used in education and am quite aware of it being probabilistic. But again, this is the point. Because it is less certain than true moral obligation, scientific knowledge cannot logically override it. (Of course we can self-deceive, and perhaps I should have mentioned that.)


    1. I’m afraid it still seems that you are tilting at windmills. Imagine an advocate for Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), for instance, who makes the case that SSP is the most effective method for getting the greatest number of children to read. This is a common claim and it is a probabilistic one. It also forms part of a moral argument – children have an entitlement to learn to read or, if you prefer, we have an obligation to teach them, reading is essential to participatory democracy and so on. This is a consequentialist position and so what are the flaws in it? I cannot see any from what you have written. Perhaps yours is an aesthetic case?


  3. But I don’t deny that this would be relevant at all. I wrote that I can imagine cases where it would be baffling to disagree with research. I think that my point is simpler and more mundane than you perceive it to be.

    Actions that align with our hopes and fears of the consequences are not mutually exclusive with actions that fulfil our obligations. However, since:
    1. A proposition is brute if to deny it would be baffling, and beyond understanding;it is justified by appeal to what is directly seen – i.e. the context. (‘it is raining’ is justified by the fact it is raining’)
    2. An appeal to consequences cannot be brute, because:
    a. We cannot be certain that our actions will bring about the desired consequences, and
    b. We cannot be certain that the desired consequences are best.
    4. Our obligations are brute because they are justified by the context – it is the context that obliges us.
    Thus, if there is a conflict, then obligation must trump concerns about the consequences.

    I am not, by any means, rubbishing the value of research, or appeals to consequences – they are obviously extremely informative and one could not be a virtuous teacher whilst ignoring it; I am simply saying that what we ought to do can only be shown in the context, and not in abstraction.


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