Book Review: Education and Philosophy: an introduction

Book Review: Education and Philosophy: an introduction, by Ansgar Allen and Roy Goddard

London, Sage, 2017). 232pp. Hb £65.00 ISBN 978-1-4462-7315-9. Pb £22.99 ISBN 978-1-4462 -7316-6

Reviewed by Wilfred Carr, School of Education, University of Sheffield

I have to begin this review by declaring an interest. Ansgar Allen and Roy Goddard were my PhD students. They both produced highly original theses of outstanding academic quality and it comes as no surprise to see that they have joined forces to write this excellent introductory student text on education and philosophy. But although they have written this book in the firm conviction that teachers and students need to engage with philosophy, they also recognise that “the great majority of teachers associate philosophising about education…as laughably, pathetically, removed from the actualities of the school and of no usefulness in their professional lives” (p. 2). In consequence, the philosophy of education now has a marginal presence within teacher education programmes and lives “a curious, if precarious, twilight life which thrives in journals and conferences but which has little or no vital connection to educational policy-making or practice” (p. 12).

So an obvious question arises: If students and teachers regard the philosophy of education as “remote, obscure and irrelevant” (p. 2), why write this book? The authors’ answer begins by identifying what many regard as the most important educational issue of the modern age: the entrenchment of education within a system of mass schooling – a politically controlled and bureaucratically managed system that rejects any need for a philosophical rationale. They note how, within this system, many teachers feel they are being compelled to accept an impoverished understanding of education that runs counter to how feel they ought to perform their professional role. Although some teachers may simply resign themselves to working within these officially imposed constraints, many feel that they are being coerced into accepting a view of what and how they should teach they cannot just passively accept. They will therefore begin to ask questions about what they are now being required to do, questions for example about the rationale for the officially imposed curriculum or for the prescribed methods of teaching and assessment. And those who continue to pursue this line of questioning will inevitably begin to ask whether teachers are now little more than operatives within the system of mass schooling – “a system which owes nothing to dreams of enlightenment and social justice” (p. 4) – who can no longer pursue their educational aspirations and ideals.

The main aim of this book is to help these teachers and students to confront this question by bringing our modern understanding of education into critical confrontation the different ways it has been understood in the past. But since changes in how education has been interpreted over time are intimately related to key episodes in the history of philosophical thought, the authors pursue their aim by constructing a history of philosophy designed to show how the impoverished form of education now embedded in mass schooling is the outcome of a single historical process through which both our understanding of philosophy and our understanding of education have been transformed and changed.

They begin their historical narrative by contrasting the modern understanding of philosophy as a distinct academic discipline, with the very different ancient Greek understanding of philosophy as ‘a way of life’, embedded in the educational discourses and practices of the different Hellenic Schools. There then follow four chapters on the history of philosophical and educational thought, which cover the key episodes in the long period from the decline of the philosophical schools of antiquity to our own modern times. The first of these examines the relationship between education and philosophy during mediaeval Christianity; the second focusses on philosophy and education during the Renaissance period that spanned the late Middle Ages. Two further chapters are devoted to a detailed analysis of the arguments and ideas of four of the philosophers (Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant) usually credited with providing the intellectual foundations for the emergence of ‘the Age of Enlightenment; the ‘age of reason’ that prepared the ground for the rise of the modern world and the subsequent emergence of mass schooling.

The second half of the book consists of five chapters, the first two of which discuss those 19th and early 20th century philosophers who have been critical of the Enlightenment project, most notably Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, and Horkheimer. The remaining three chapters of the book are concerned with what is usually referred to as ‘the crisis of modernity’ and the kind of educational questions to which it gives rise. The first of these draws on major postmodern philosophers such as Deleuze and Foucault to reveal the inadequacies of that modern mode of thought known as “critique” and the critical pedagogies it has sustained. The next chapter draws on the work of post- Foucauldian scholars such as Ian Hunter and James MacDonald to provide a historical account of the origins and subsequent evolution of mass schooling in the 19th century and of the parallel development of a form of liberal education exclusively reserved for a privileged elite.
The final chapter returns to the present state of education in order to consider the question of whether the emergence of mass schooling constitutes an ‘educational crisis’. It answers this question by showing how the widespread adoption of Dewey’s progressive philosophy of education in the early 20th century became harnessed to the needs of modernity and so paved the way for the emergence of the kind of modern schooling that Dewey strenuously opposed. In a similar vein, it shows how the response to the loss of faith in enlightenment ideals – a loss that Jean-François Lyotard famously designated ‘the postmodern condition’ – created the conditions in which the modern research university, with its commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, could be transformed into the ‘entrepreneurial university’, governed by a culture of performativity and an obsession with efficiency, cost effectiveness, and the achievement of bureaucratically defined goals. The chapter concludes by arguing that the failed attempts of both progressive education and research universities to defend their enlightenment educational values against the forces of modernity unwittingly prepared the ground for the kind of schools and universities by which they have now been replaced. So the book concludes that although education is indeed now in a state of crisis, it is a crisis of its own making: “the logical, though not inevitable, outcome of the unfolding crisis of modernity…symptomatic of the wider loss of value and direction that characterise our epoch” (p. 191).

The hallmark of a good introductory text is that it combines a coherent overview of its subject matter with its own distinctive argument. This book more than meets this requirement. But, for me, its major achievement is that it offers a penetrating analysis of the present condition of education, which actually addresses the needs and concerns of the many teachers, students, and teacher educators who want to understand why and how they have become implicated in maintaining a system of education they actually deplore. Still another achievement of this book that should not be overlooked is that it conducts this analysis by adopting an alternative view of the relationship of philosophy to education to that informing modern ‘philosophy of education’. On this modern view, philosophy of education is primarily concerned with the scholarly investigation of problems in academic philosophy that have some connection to education. For the authors of this book this view has proven to be practically sterile and, as a result, is now on the verge of extinction. For them, the ‘philosophy of education’ should not be construed as a sub-branch of academic philosophy but as a core component of a teacher education curriculum that appreciates how engaging with the history of philosophy will help teachers and students to confront the kind of questions that they themselves feel impelled to raise. This view of the contribution of philosophy to the education of teachers is, of course, hardly original. It is the view embedded in the philosophy of education courses that were integral to teacher education programmes throughout the first half of the twentieth century and that have only been abandoned in our own modern times. The question raised by this book is whether the historical approach to the philosophy of education it exemplifies is superior to the ahistorical approach that now prevails. This is not just an abstract academic question about ‘what the philosophy of education is’. Rather it is a question whose answer will be determined by whether those thoughtful and committed students, teachers, and teacher educators who read this book will acquire a more self-conscious awareness of why, in the era of mass schooling, they feel that their understanding of education is being degraded and deformed. This is, of course, a practical question and how it is answered will determine the extent to which this book’s argument for a more historically informed approach to the philosophy of education has either succeeded or failed.