Book Review: Education and the Common Good: Essays in Honor of Robin Barrow

Book Review: Education and the Common Good: Essays in Honor of Robin Barrow, edited by John Gingell

London: Routledge, 2014. Pp. 162. Hb. £90.

Reviewed by Roger Marples

There can be few philosophers of education who have not been influenced in one way or another by the work of Robin Barrow, whose contribution to the discipline during the past forty years has been immeasurable, and for whom this Festschrift is well-deserved.

The book concludes with Barrow’s complete bibliography and includes 23 books, 4 edited books, 34 chapters in books, 87 articles as well as numerous miscellany including, no less, a libretto for music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Apart from the sheer quantity, what strikes one is the breadth of interest represented here such that even a précis of Barrow’s output would take up the entire space allotted to this review. Suffice it to say that the editorial task in producing a book celebrating a life’s work that has been, and continues to be, so wide-ranging in scope cannot have been anything other than difficult. However, the result is a slim volume that manages to address most of the educational concerns that have dominated Barrow’s thinking.

One of the problems with which a reviewer of an edited collection has to confront is that unlike a book with a single authorship, it is impossible to provide much in terms of extended argument in relation to each and every essay. The book consists of 10 essays, nine of which engage directly with Barrow. The one exception is that by Ian Gregory who responds directly to Ruth Johnathan’s essay ‘Is Barrow Nearly Right About the Philosophy of Education?’ Other contributors include Richard Smith, ‘The Philosopher and the Writer’, John Gingell, ‘Barrow, Utilitarianism and Education’, Mike McNamee, ‘Ethical Theory, Utilitarianism and Anti-Theory’, Richard Pring ‘In Defence of Virtue Teaching’, David Carr ‘Understanding Educational Theory: Reflections on the work of Robin Barrow and John Darling’, Harvey Siegel, ‘Robin Barrow on the Aims of Education’, Paul Hagar, ‘Robin Barrow’s Account of Skills’, Christopher Winch, ‘Barrow on Liberal Education and Schooling’ and what is a particularly attractive feature of the book, Barrow’s own ‘Swansong’ which, in addition to providing brief commentaries on the aforementioned, is an extended essay in its own right on ‘How it is that our society has reduced itself to the level of Oscar Wilde’s cynic, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing?’, in which his invective against so much of the questionable utility and merit of current practice in the world of higher education, is justifiably directed.

This essay is Barrow at his best; acerbic, witty and immensely engaging. He attacks the ‘rewards, awards, praise and prizes that now stamp academic life’, awarded as they so frequently are on the spurious grounds that teaching and scholarship can be measured by reference to criteria that are supposedly invariant across the disciplines, to those relating to the number of students attracted to a department or the quantity of publications it produces. He is equally critical of the ‘misplaced over-confidence in scientific research’ and the extent to which moral relativity in combination with the language of input and output and its associated emphasis on measures of effectiveness, are such prominent features of contemporary life and against which there needs to be a concerted resistance. His case against the bureaucratisation of universities is hard-hitting. Fortunate are those who are not increasingly under the control of what Barrow refers to as ‘professional apparatchiks’ whose talent ‘insofar as they have any, is in organization and control as such, rather than in inspiring and leading, [the result of which is that institutional procedures] are now driving and dictating the ends’ (p. 143). He mounts one of his favourite hobbyhorses in denouncing the view that there is a science of teaching, leadership and assessment, or that most teacher-education provides sufficient opportunity for prospective teachers to reflect on the nature of the task upon which they intend to embark. He remains as emphatic as he always has been on the necessity of clarifying the ends and purposes of such an enterprise and the role of analytic philosophy and value of rationality in that endeavour.

His Swansong ends with a number of personal regrets in having over-diversified, the result of which (and in this he could not be more mistaken), is that he is led to believe that his work is ‘less searching, less thorough, or simply less good than it might halve been.’ The fact that this failure to specialise leads him to the admission that he has ended up like most of us in being ‘less than certain what it all amounts to’ or what he really believes, is no bad thing. Nevertheless, he remains steadfast in opposition to a materialistic view of human nature and in his adherence to the importance of curriculum content and the respects in which it should be determined by reference to ‘what we think is worth understanding, as opposed to thinking in terms of developing mental processes, for example, or of developing certain skills’ (p. 150).

The extent to which the contributors to this volume engage directly with Barrow’s work, varies. Richard Smith’s essay is a paean on Barrow’s analytic style and clarity, and the way in which he illustrates Barrow’s ability as a writer, by reference to a single passage from his 2006 article ‘Moral Education’s Modest Agenda’, is pure delight.

John Gingell focuses on Barrow’s utilitarianism, and the ways in which happiness (as understood by Barrow) might contribute to a proper understanding of the aims of education and their implications for curriculum planning, in being substantially better-placed than a Peters-Hirst reliance on education’s intrinsic value. As Gingell points out: ‘There may be plenty of things that are intrinsically worthwhile, sexual pleasure, the contemplation of beautiful objects, a decent national football side’ and such like, but this is insufficient to merit state support. Barrow’s utilitarianism is explicitly designed to provide reasons as to why education should be properly funded. Gingell is especially critical of Amy Gutmann’s answer to the question of ‘What’s the Use of Going to School? on the grounds that happiness need not be subjectively defined; if there are things that contribute to the happiness of most of us, there may well be empirical evidence upon which to rely in our efforts to determine what these things are, in which case ‘it seems perfectly possible for Utilitarianism to suggest a content and manner of education which is likely to promote the future happiness of the children being educated’ (p. 17). However, I remain unconvinced by his attempted refutation of her claim that a utilitarian education is essentially conservative in educating children for life in a society in which they currently find themselves, by pointing to the fact that education can easily follow societal change (on presumably utilitarian grounds). How would this render it less conservative if it were simply to ‘follow such changes’ (p. 17, emphasis added)? He is rightly critical of that part of Rawls’s agenda for civic education which restricts the autonomy such an education seeks to develop to the realm of the political. An autonomy-facilitating education (or, for that matter, an autonomy-promoting education) should not be a matter for ‘regret’, as Rawls would have us believe, but should be welcomed as part of the transformative effect education has on people’s character such that, among other things, they are disposed towards self-examination. In opposition to the liberal neutrality favoured by Rawls, Gingell believes that an educational process committed to the importance of autonomy in a person’s life as a whole, as opposed to her life qua citizen, may gain support and justification by reference to the form of utilitarianism which both he and Barrow favour.

The chapter by Mike McNamee provides an account of how Barrow conceives of ethical theory and more specifically, rule-utilitarianism, the aim of which should, according to Barrow, serve to determine right action in ideal circumstances. ‘An ethical theory is not only irredeemably prescriptive because of its subject matter. The theory is essentially descriptive; it explains what makes things right.’ If it is indeed the case that the truth of an ethical theory is independent of the contingent circumstances of the world as we find it, Mc Namee is led to ponder on the value or potency of such a position. As he asks, ‘how would we understand the ideal as supplying a context?’ (p. 31). In his ‘Anti-Theoretical Alternative’, McNamee questions the distinction between practical and meta-ethics by invoking a number of interesting examples from Raymond Gaita’s book, Good and Evil, in order to demonstrate the extent to which sound moral judgment relies on sensitive perception of morally salient features without reference to principle or utilitarian calculation. In response to the question ‘How, if at all, might ethical theory alter our conception of the moral educational task?’ McNamee raises issues of perennial concern and is rightly sceptical of the value of utilitarianism’s contribution to the debate. As he concludes, ‘one is left to wonder quite how learners will be moved to respond in ways that he [Barrow] determines are right’ (p. 38).

Richard Pring is also at pains to emphasise the importance of moral sensitivity in his dispositional account of the importance of the virtues in the moral life. A compassionate person (as opposed to someone who acts compassionately) is disposed ‘to act in a certain way in certain circumstances’ (p. 41). If she is disposed towards acting in accordance with justice, she will on occasion be confronted with painful moral dilemmas and this, according to Pring, is where deliberation or phronesis is called for. As a moral realist with strong leanings towards moral particularism, I would endorse his claim to the effect that ‘right action will generally suggest itself to the well-disposed person’ (p. 44), and share his reservations about the moral life amounting to little more than action in accordance with an autonomously chosen set of moral principles.

After providing an interesting comparison of Barrow’s views on so-called progressive educational theorists with those of John Darling, David Carr turns his attention to Barrow’s 2010 essay ‘Schools of Thought’, and asks ‘whether the practice of (analytical) philosophy can help us identify distinctive schools of educational thought’ (p. 55), and the extent to which they provide a useful means of teaching philosophy of education. He is right to emphasise the fact that the traditional-progressive distinction is essentially normative and usefully distinguishes between competing brands of non-traditional educational thought: that between radicals and progressives on the one hand, and progressives with a psychotherapeutic agenda for whom curriculum and pedagogy are of little or no concern. He concludes with an attempt at providing a taxonomy of schools of thought which he identifies as follows: (1) ‘Platonic/Elitist Traditionalism’ (in accordance with which educationalists such as Bantock might well be located); (2) ‘Utilitarian or Instrumentalist Traditionalism’ (as some kind of default position of most latter-day educational policy making, in opposition to the more high minded Arnoldian view of education with which Hirst and Peters would be comfortable); (3) ‘Psychological (Psychoanalytic) Progressivism’ (advocates of which would include Lane and Neill); (4) ‘Pragmatist Instrumental Progressivism’ (such as Dewy and his followers); and (5) ‘Educational Radicalism or “De-schooling” (which is not easily characterised as either traditional or progressive but would include people such as Illich, Reimer and Goodman). As to whether such a schools-of-thought approach would offer a ‘potentially illuminating point of entry to the often rather boring study of educational theories and ideas, and be of some real use to student teachers and others bent on an educational career’ (p. 62), or whether Barrow is justified in his fear that such an approach would pose the ‘danger of assuming that one must identify with one or other of them, and then proceeding to think only in terms of that explanatory formulation’ (p. 129), is an issue meriting serious consideration.

In his critical appraisal of Barrow’s life-long concern with the aims of education, Harvey Siegel argues against the view that the questions ‘What are the aims of education?’ and ‘What is it to be educated?’ are in any way equivalent. In order to show that they are not, he points to the fact that while the fostering of ‘caring’ might well be considered by some to be a legitimate educational aim, it has nothing to do with what it is to be an educated person – not to mention the difficulties associated with the conceptual analyst’s belief in the possibility of identifying a de-contextualised and invariable ‘concept of education’. As an alternative to the supposed possibility of determining the aims of education from conceptual analysis alone, Siegel suggests that they might be derived from the overriding necessity of reason-giving. ‘This other way tries to justify them [aims] not by analysing the meaning of the word or concept, but rather by offering reasons that, if successful, support or count in favour of the proposed ideal’ (p. 71), the unsurprising and inevitable consequence of which, as far as Siegel is concerned, is the importance of critical thinking as an aim of education.

The chapter in this collection that is most critical of Barrow’s work as a whole is that by his former student, Ruth Jonathan. In an immensely rewarding essay she takes issue with what Barrow has failed to do in spite of his remarkable contribution to the discipline, and that is to engage more widely with the ways in which the social nature of education should ‘impact on our analysis of aims and practices for the education of the individual’, and the necessity to expose the extent to which ‘the contradictions and impasses of liberal philosophy of education [have a bearing on] current debates about tenable forms of liberalism itself’ (p. 77). Much of her essay is designed to repudiate the claim that she takes to be at the heart of liberal education policy, practice and philosophy, namely that ‘the education of the individual…will itself contribute to building the desired society’ (Ibid.). The rightful importance of liberal education’s concern with knowledge, understanding and personal autonomy notwithstanding, it is insufficient Jonathan maintains, in order to secure a ‘fairer and more desirable social world’ (p. 80). Recognition of the fact that education is both a public and positional good in virtue of the part it plays ‘not only in realising society’s aspirations but…in forming them’, demands a sustained effort on the part of philosophers of education ‘to take account of the ramifications of that insight in their justification of the aims of liberal education’ if education’s role as a ‘prime driver of inequality is to be avoided’ (p. 82). She argues that if philosophers of education ‘wish to avoid the dog-eats-dog council of despair of recent neo-liberalism [there is] only one broad direction in which to go [and that is] to bring the insights of their field of study to the work of social and political philosophers who currently seek to address [the shortcomings of the] “now-creaking” paradigm of liberal neutrality.’ If Barrow is right to emphasise the importance of conceptual analysis, he is not entirely right in underestimating the importance of the ‘wider social project whose furtherance has long underpinned the democratic extension of that education to all’ (p. 87).

Paul Gregory is sceptical about how the criteria, by reference to which Jonathan’s thesis to the effect that there has been a conspicuous failure in the educational diet served to our children, premised as it is on the form of liberalism to which she is so strongly opposed, should be determined. As Gregory would have it: ‘Even if there is agreement that the promises of liberal education have not yet been realised, it is always possible to claim that that the failure is a consequence of not having successfully delivered on a best education for the individuals living within our society’ (p. 92). While he is correct in maintaining that ‘if the neutral stance associated with liberalism is to be sustained, we need to be clearer about what such a stance involves and how that might impinge on educational practice and provision’ (p. 93), [and that] ‘liberal education cannot be neutral about the importance of education…liberalism’s enemy [being] illiberal ideology and practice’ (pp. 96-97), the alternative to liberal neutrality is not the imposition of one particular conception of the good life; rather it lies in the transformative power of a full-blooded civic and moral education with the intention of raising a generation committed to doing something about injustice and inequality. Although Gregory provides a sensitive and judicious response to Jonathan, and there is undoubtedly a great deal of truth in his conclusion to the effect that ‘the ushering in of a better world is beyond liberal education’s gift’, it is to Jonathan’s credit that her essay is a powerful reminder of the fact that some of us became philosophers of education not only to expose the ‘conceptual confusion, shoddy reasoning [or to subject] to examination the presuppositions informing practice and policy’ (p. 98), but in the belief in philosophy’s contribution towards making the world a better place in which to live.

Paul Hagar’s account of Barrow’s account of ‘skills talk’ is a model of clarity. By reference to Barrow’s 1987 JPE paper, his 1990 book Understanding Skills, and the case made therein against the possibility of critical thinking without reference to the concepts and strictures associated with a specific discipline or domain, Hager considers several paradigm cases of the application of the term ‘skilled’ in order to demonstrate that the skills of the orchestral violinist and test match cricketer, for example, are more holistic than Barrow’s account would allow. The differences and similarities between Winch and Barrow are clearly articulated, but overall Hager is more sympathetic to Winch’s position in that it provides an account of skills that is altogether less narrow and restricted than that of Barrow’s.

Christopher Winch’s own contribution explores a number of issues on which Barrow has written at length – the concept of education, values and aims of education, curriculum and pedagogy – and in so doing, provides an admirably succinct account of the relationship between liberal and vocational education. He is correct to argue that the form of liberal education concerned with initiating students into ‘the best that has been thought and said’ is not necessarily elitist, ‘nor does it imply that all and only what has traditionally been thought to belong to high culture should belong to it’ (p. 120). As with the cultural elements of liberal education, its concern with personal autonomy must, of necessity, become oriented ‘to preparation for a world in which paid employment is a central part of the educatee’s future life’, entailing that ‘the aims of vocational and liberal education in our kind of society need not be as distinct as is commonly supposed’ (p. 122). Winch is persuasive in accounting for the ways in which a liberal education, broadly conceived, has more than a personal aim, but is instrumental in assisting people in obtaining employment as well as with the demands of citizenship, and his argument showing how a decent vocational education has significant liberal and civic aspects is equally convincing. (pp. 121-122). As he rightly concludes: ‘Barrow’s vision of liberal education not only survives the promotion of [diverse educational routes] but positively requires a broad education’ well into the secondary phase of education. (p. 126).

It is clear that each and every contributor holds Robin Barrow in high esteem, and the collection as a whole is both generous-spirited and good-natured. It is a pleasure to read, and an excellent introduction to the work of one of the world’s most distinguished philosophers of education. Let us hope that Barrow’s ‘Swansong’ is tongue in cheek and that it will be many more years before he finally puts down his pen.


Barrow, R. (1991) Utilitarianism, Aldershot: Edward Elgar.

Gutmann, A. (1982) ‘What’s the Use of Going to School?’ in Sen, A. and Williams, B. (Eds.) Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, J. (1993) Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press.

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