Author Interview: David Lewin

Dr David Lewin is Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. Here he discusses his most recent book, Educational Philosophy for a Post-secular Age (Routledge, 2017).

Why did you decide to write Educational Philosophy for a Post-Secular Age?

There is an urgent need for religious literacy in our world today. For better and worse, religious ideas are never far from the headlines, though rarely is religious sensitivity evident in reporting or commentary. So one motivation for writing this book arose out of a sense that too many educational theorists speak about religion in terms that I would regard as dubious. There is a lot of concern about religious education as a curriculum subject, faith schooling, and the competing rights between parents, children, and the state. These concerns are important, but they tend to make unhelpful assumptions about the nature of religion and education. I wanted to complicate some of these debates, and suggest other ways of seeing the place of religion in education.


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

The book aims firstly to recognise the ongoing significance of religion in public life, and secondly, to explore the implications of this for education. The concept of the ‘post-secular’ provides a way of speaking about the persistence of religion both in critical terms, but also as a structuring force in contemporary culture. The idea is not to make space for the return of religious influence on education. The post-secular does not suggest some sort of return to the pre-secular (whatever that might mean). I spend considerable energy trying to explain why post-secularism neither rejects nor affirms secularism, but rather complicates it. I want to show the ways in which something recognisably religious (though perhaps not always interpreted as ‘religion’) is inevitably involved when we talk about education as formation. This is important now because religion is widely conceived as a problem for education which, I think, misunderstands both religion and education.


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

Even though (or perhaps because) I was not brought up within a religious tradition, I have always been fascinated by the religious impulse and religious communities. My Bachelor’s degree was in theology followed by a Master’s in the study of Mysticism and Religious Experience and a PhD in a Religious Studies department. Throughout my studies, the problems of how to reconcile some sort of authentic religious life with academic conceptions of religion and culture were never too far away. I have explored various religious and spiritual practices in my own life and have generally experienced religion as a force of inclusion. But the general questions of the relation between religion as formative and formation as something intrinsically religious, animate this research.


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

It is always great to have a conversation with someone about this topic and it is particularly exciting when people have read the book. I am delighted that the book is being reviewed in JOPE (and look forward to reading the review!). I would hope that the book inspires people working in education to reflect on the ultimate concerns of education, and of life generally. The metrics that frame education today take no real account of what education is ultimately about. I do not propose straightforward answers to that, but I would hope for at least a little hesitancy concerning the responses that are offered as justification within the broad movement for educational improvement.


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

I am tempted to say this book is for everyone and no one. By this I mean that at certain points in writing I felt as though I was trying to appeal both to those who hold strong religious commitments, and those who are strongly sceptical of religion and its relevance. I felt that certain opposed groups like this tend to talk at cross purposes and hoped to provide some opportunity for shared understanding: at least of the questions that exist. I have talked about the ideas in the book with secularists, atheists, spiritualists, and religionists. There seems to be far more common ground among these groups than might be expected.


What’s your current project? What’s next?

Recently I have been taken with some ideas from the German Didaktik tradition, particularly around pedagogical reductions and exemplarity. My impression is that the Anglo-American traditions of education have a good deal to learn from continental educational sciences. More specifically, I have been thinking about the tensions between pedagogical reduction as an essential component of education, and reductionism as a problem within the study of religion. In other words, to what extent is pedagogical reduction a problem when it comes to understanding religion?


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

Working in education today one can feel as though a general educational improvement agenda is all encompassing. From league tables, to research excellence assessments, we are never far from a metric or a plan. At its core, philosophy of education could disrupt the logic of these structures and imperatives by showing the conditions that give rise to them. The gift of philosophy of education might be said to alienate us from (or out of) that prevailing culture; to draw attention to what lies hidden within it. This unsettling is ultimately grounded in something larger, something post-critical (and perhaps post-secular). Of course, this disruptive work can be quite annoying, or may be just a consoling fantasy that helps me to sleep at night. But surely without those prepared to unsettle, we are abandoning who we really are.


You can read a review of David’s book here.