Author Interview: Ansgar Allen and Roy Goddard

Author Interview: Ansgar Allen and Roy Goddard

To accompany Wilfred Carr’s review of Education and Philosophy: an introduction, its authors Ansgar Allen and Roy Goddard discuss how they understand the relationship between education and philosophy and why the book is needed now.

Why did you decide to write Education and Philosophy: an introduction?

It probably would not have occurred to us to write the book without a prompt from James Clark, our commissioning editor, who got in touch and suggested the project. So we had a look about to see what had already been written in the field and were surprised to find that there were very few introductory texts. Those that had been published in recent years tended to approach the philosophy of education in a piecemeal fashion. It would either be divided into key themes such as autonomy, educational values, inclusion vs. fairness, liberal education, moral education, indoctrination, rights, citizenship, and so on, with little view to their interconnection, or it would be divided into a hodgepodge of thinkers, some ancient, some more recent. All of the texts we looked at had the underpinning purpose of asserting the importance of the philosophy of education as a field of study. They were committed, so it seemed to us, to its unquestionable necessity. We felt, therefore, that it might be interesting to write a book that is not based on that commitment. We wanted to write something that didn’t seem to have been attempted hitherto: to provide, for students who weren’t primarily students of philosophy, a historical account of how philosophy has interacted with education. We also had it in mind to write a textbook that offered an argument rather than a supposedly impartial, even-handed account of the relation between philosophy and education.

What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

As we say in the book, our intention was to explore how philosophical thought has construed the aims and the nature of education, how it has been brought to bear on matters of educational organisation, conduct and practice. By looking beyond the philosophy of education as a field of study, we were able to dispense with the idea that there are distinct areas of philosophy that address matters educational. Of course, we do discuss thought which has self-consciously addressed itself to educational matters, but we also discuss philosophical enquiry which has not concerned itself with education, but which, in our view, has significance for thinking and practising in the field of education. The book was written on the assumption that engagement with philosophical thinking can be useful to the practice of education. However, it was not intended, as we say, to make its readers better able to become more skilled and effective within the systems they inhabit, nor was it intended to set a framework of thought or value within which, or from which, a “better” system of education might be built.

The book aims to disturb what has been called the common sense of education, to encourage a necessary doubt, a productively sceptical stance towards existing pieties concerning this vast national and international enterprise. We believe that such doubt and uncertainty is a necessary prelude to becoming more aware – aware of the histories and currents of thought that have shaped and continue to shape the social sphere of education as well as the possibilities available for change. We think this is preferable to – comfortably, obligingly – not thinking too hard about such choices.

We wanted to show that philosophy has had a complicated involvement with education. This entailed calling into question what philosophy and education might be and suggesting that the two notions have meant different things throughout the history of their interactions and have been brought into engagements that have varied over time. The book argues that “philosophy” has not had an innocent relationship to “education”, that there has never existed a pure form of either as uncontaminated by reasons of power.

Finally, we believed (or, more precisely, observed) that knowledge of and thinking about education – historical (or, if you will, genealogical) reflection on its purposes, its possibilities and the limitations bearing upon the forms of educational endeavour – have been evacuated from educational discourse. We wanted to help make it more possible for students and teachers to engage in that kind of reflection and thus to locate themselves in the domain in which they work.

And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

We have never been inducted into the community of academic philosophy, and have not as a result acquired the kind of professional identity, or – less charitably – defensiveness, that feels obliged to persuade the unenlightened of the uniquely informative perspectives and insights afforded by the discipline. We do not come to bury philosophy, but we are critical of many of the ways in which it has presented itself to (and in) education. We are disciplinary outsiders to some extent, two teachers who have been attracted to philosophical thought because it has helped us understand more clearly the contexts within which we work and operate. Additionally, we would have to say that the motivation for writing the book was alarm and anger at the way that thoroughgoing critical reflection has either been excised from educational praxis or co-opted by power so that its effects are contained within existing frameworks and points of view.


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

Now the book has been published it’s over to its readers to decide how they would like to react to it. We’d like it to cause argument – unrealistically, no doubt, to anger some and to infiltrate the idea that something can be done about the condition of institutionalised stupefaction that exists at present within the system of education.


What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

The book is intended for an undergraduate audience – this was our brief – though we avoided the tone and style of many contemporary textbooks that tend, we feel, to underestimate their readership and shy away from difficulty. We were aware when writing the book that undergraduate (and postgraduate) degrees, even modules in the philosophy of education are increasingly rare or marginalised. For that reason, the book is framed as a text that can be read alongside other courses of study and might be taken up by teachers and students who are otherwise not engaging directly with philosophy. We hope that the book will also be read by trainee teachers and postgraduate students, and that it might be of interest to a broader audience of professionals (including those who feel that a textbook is beneath them, that they “get it”), and others who feel perturbed about the effects of mass schooling, further and higher education, as well as educational assumptions that creep into and help organise other aspects of our lives.


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

This is precisely the kind of question we refuse to answer or even pose in the book. Instead we ask how education and philosophy were related historically, and explore how that relationship eventually broke down so that it could no longer be assumed that any system of education requires an accompanying philosophy which will make sense of and organise educational thought and practice. Following their separation, education becomes an institutional practice formed of various inherited and fragmented techniques that have no overall sense or coherence, and philosophy becomes a modern academic discipline with its own sequestered domain of influence. Only at that point does the philosophy of education emerge as a distinct subfield. The philosophy of education is only established once its irrelevance, its separation from education, can be assured.

This kind of narrative does not imply that pre-modern relations between education and philosophy were better and therefore more desirable, nor do we hold that education and philosophy were once far more authentic activities in themselves. Instead we problematise both as we look to the origins of Western philosophy and Western education and consider the possibility that philosophy was built upon an error, as Nietzsche might put it, and education upon the manipulation of others and the self, on a promise that would be endlessly deferred.

The philosophy of education’s institutional isolation ensures that it rarely speaks outside of its own scholarly community and therefore has little or no impact on educational policy and practice. We cleave to the idea that philosophical activity within education would “matter” more if it were to adopt a more militant, critical address of education as an institution and paratheology that is at the heart of the contemporary disposition of power and social ordering. Of course, this would entail the dissolution of “the philosophy of education” as a distinct entity and philosophy’s entry into the wider discourse of education.