Author Interview: Stefan Ramaekers and Judith Suissa

In this month’s Author Interview, Stefan Ramaekers and Judith Suissa discuss their co-authored book The Claims of Parenting: Reasons, Responsibility, and Society (Springer, 2012). 

Questions: Naomi Hodgson


Why did you decide to write The Claims of Parenting?

SR: We both came to this topic through our experience as parents. We felt there were aspects of this experience that weren’t being reflected in the dominant discussions of parenting, and that the way the parent-child relationship was spoken about in popular debates and discourse was not capturing essential aspects of what being a parent was about. At the same time, we both felt, as philosophers, that there were interesting and important philosophical questions raised by this reflection on the parent-child relationship, but that these were under-theorised in the philosophical literature.

JS: I felt, particularly as someone trained and working largely in the Anglo-analytic tradition of philosophy of education, that this tradition was dominated by work on schooling. If parents featured at all in such discussion, it was in the language of rights and duties with respect to schooling and the liberal state, and there were questions about the parent-child relationship that could not be captured by this language.

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

It hardly needs to be stated that parents these days are constantly bombarded with expert advice on how to “parent”, and there is more and more policy intervention – at least in the countries we are familiar with – in family life, based on supposedly scientific accounts of good parenting. We wanted to question the way in which this scientific research is uncritically taken up by policy makers and politicians, and translated into prescriptive messages to parents. But, at the same time, we don’t want to just reject all attempts to offer accounts of good parenting as illegitimate, or to argue that parents should just be left to get on with it, as if there is some kind of unmediated, intuitive notion of good parenting somehow ‘naturally’ available to parents. What we try to do is to show that the parent-child relationship is ‘ethical all the way down’, and that any choice about what to do as a parent – including the “scientific parenting” account and the ‘intuitive parenting’ account – is infused with ethical values.  

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

We hope it will encourage parenting practitioners and policy makers to appreciate the complexity of the parent-child relationship and the broader ethical background against which they make judgments about upbringing, and to exercise more caution in offering advice and support to parents.

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

Apart from parenting practitioners and policy makers, as mentioned above, we also had in mind philosophers of education whose work on parents will, we hope, be enriched by engaging with the fine-grained analysis that we offer through our discussion of contemporary examples drawn from parenting advice literature, websites etc., and from our account of what we call the ‘first-person perspective’.

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

We’re both working on various different ‘projects’, some of which build on our work in the book, but we are also both struggling with workloads that do not allow us the time to develop any substantive philosophical research.

While discussing this question, we agreed that about 90% of the academic literature that we spend our time reading and discussing is other people’s work related to our teaching and supervision duties, not directly related to our personal research interests, and while this work is at times intellectually engaging, it leaves us little mental or physical space for developing our own ideas.

I am sure this scenario will be familiar to many academics. Is there a way out of this problem?

JS: This question hints at far broader political issues to do with the changes in the funding and governance of universities, which have moved further and further away from the idea of public, collegial communities primarily concerned with the pursuit of knowledge and learning. In the current UK climate these new regimes of accountability and the loss of public funding make it particularly difficult for academics doing theoretical work to engage in scholarship of this kind, and to encourage students to enter disciplines like philosophy. I think these changes need to be strongly resisted in the political arena through collective action and debate. Meanwhile, on a day-to-day practical level, the only immediate solution is to be very careful about protecting a small space where one can have the kinds of intellectual conversations that we managed to have while working on this book.

SR: I agree. Similar things are at issue in Flanders (Belgium) as well. What is particularly worrisome is that funding agencies seem to be less and less inclined to fund research on philosophical issues in education, which is, as Judith already hinted at, a reflection of a significant change in how one today has come to understand what the university is/should be. On a more personal note, I would like to add that my workload also has to do with a heavy teaching load and an increase in all sort of ‘managerial’ tasks. I may be slightly more pessimistic than Judith here, since I no longer feel that it is about ‘protecting a small space’ but having continuously to ‘create’ that space. And, for that matter, I think it is the university’s task to guarantee such ‘protection’, rather than having their employees struggle to find such space.

So, perhaps in the name of finding that space, what is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

Philosophy matters because it matters that we think in times when thinking is sometimes seen as a waste of time. Philosophy of education is particularly important now, when the discourse of ‘what works’ seems to have taken over all public discussion of education, and people are not inclined to think about the really basic philosophical questions like: what is education, what is it for, and so on.  The real danger is that contemporary ideas about ‘what works’ restrict new generations of children and adults from exploring what it means to live well and how society should be organised.