13 SES 03, Theory of Education
This paper contributes to discussions concerning the purpose(s) of education. Biesta (2009) has argued that while controversy concerning the purposes of education has opened a political space for different understandings of education to be explored, this has done little to transform the dominant discourses of education. Instead, the move seems to have contributed to the dominant discourses of education turning away from questions about educational purpose and focusing on questions about how such purposes can be most effectively served. This latter focus is problematic in that it allows discussions about effectiveness to dominate the educational scene, which means “we end up valuing what is measured, rather than … engage[ing] in measurement of what we value” (Biesta, 2009, p. 43). For this reason Biesta argues that it is important to keep open a political space in which the purposes of education can be continuously be renegotiated.
In this paper we make the point that keeping open a political space in which educational purpose can be debated does not mean that the question of educational purpose is necessarily a political question. We argue that the question of educational purpose can also be understood as ontological question which has to do with how we understand education’s directional impetus. This has much to do with whether we understand education as a machine that is designed to facilitate an a priori or ‘ready-made’ political or moral (normative) purpose, or whether it is possible to also understand education as an emergent entity that does not simply ‘serve a purpose’ but also brings with it the purpose it serves. Importantly, if education is not understood in the normative sense of being in the service of some ready-made moral or political end, a question arises as to what it actually does in the world, as a phenomenon in its own right. What is the character of its directional impetus? This paper also attempts to answer this question. We do so by offering a non-representational or ‘trinary’ theory of education.
We argue that in contemporary social theory, the term ‘education’ is generally used as the passive label for a category of events that it represents. The events in this category all attempt to ensure that the ‘right’ things are taught and learned and not the wrong things. This directional impetus towards learning and teaching the ‘right’ things can be understood as education’s broadest purpose. That is, education can be said to have this purpose regardless of whether its directional impetus is ‘strongly’ or ‘weakly’ teleological, or justified in ‘transcendent’ or ‘socio-cultural’ terms (see Burbules, 2004). More importantly, however, since the term ‘curriculum’ is used to describe the process by means of which an educational purpose is achieved, the term ‘education’ is often conflated with the term ‘curriculum’, or at least always associated with it. Indeed many, if not most, educational questions are framed as curricular questions (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995) with the dominant discourses of education being concerned with what the ‘right’ things are to be taught and learned, who decides this, and how such teaching and learning can be effected.
One problem with conflating the terms ‘education’ and ‘curriculum’, however, is that it suggests that education, like the curriculum, is necessarily an instrumental process. Thus the term ‘education’ comes to represent the (instrumental) curriculum. This leaves little scope for understanding education as anything other than a machine designed to facilitate an a priori purpose. The upshot of this, of course, is that there is very little scope to understand education as anything other than a normative tool for social and cultural reproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977/1990).
We challenge the dominant ‘curricular’ (instrumental) view of education by arguing for a non-representational understanding of the term ‘education’ (Osberg, 2005, Osberg and Biesta, 2007) which we term a ‘trinary’ understanding. We suggest that education is not a passive label for a category of events (those ordered by a curriculum), but an event in itself: an active causal phenomenon in its own right (Osberg, 2017). We argue that in this non-representational sense, education can be understood as an emergent entity that brings forth its own end, rather than an instrumental process that is in the service of some other (moral or political) normative end. To begin theorising education as trinary, we combine the notion of emergence (Osberg & Biesta, 2007) with some ideas from Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1944). We understand emergence as an active relational property that brings forth a coherent, hyper-level pattern or structure from the coordinated actions of elements of this pattern that previously failed to cohere. That is, we treat emergence as a directional coordinating action or impetus that brings forth a hyper-level entity: one with entirely new properties that are irreducible to the properties of its constituents. This understanding of emergence has resonance with Cassirer’s supposition that ‘theories’ are entities that are produced by the active coordination of their constituents. In other words, theories are not passive representations of reality but are themselves active causal phenomena within reality. Such ideas open the possibility to theorise education as an emergent event (an active causal phenomenon with directional impetus) that arises (or takes place) through the coordination of certain hypo-level constituents. We suggest that the hypo-level constituents that must be actively coordinated to generate the educational event are themselves emergent events, although they have long been recognised as objective – albeit intertwined – ‘realms’ of human life: knowledge, selfhood and culture. We suggest that it is possible to understand education as the emergent product of the active coordination of all three of the above-mentioned realms of human life. The possibility of such ‘trinary’ coordination suggests education’s directional impetus can be understood as something other than a normative impetus which aims to bring about an already existing moral or political end. Its directionality can instead be understood an internally generated end: the ongoing coordination of the realms of human life that are concerned with knowledge, selfhood and culture. Without such co-ordination, the phenomenon of education simply cannot appear.
In articulating this ‘trinary’ theory of education (as emerging form the coordination of knowledge, selfhood and culture), we point out that past understandings of education (e.g Liberal education, going as far back as Aristotle) can be understood to have produced ‘coherent’ understandings of education based on a trinary model. However, for a ‘trinary’ understanding of education to remain coherent in the face of contemporary emergentist perspectives, all three realms must be theorised in emergentist terms. We argue that in educational theory, it is usually only knowledge that is theorised in emergent terms, not selfhood and culture, which leaves no way of coherently understanding education, except as an instrumental ‘curriculum’. Given the acute political and social dilemmas that normative and instrumental understandings of education bring forth in multicultural, and so called ‘democratic’ and ‘inclusive’ societies, we hope that by opening the possibility to theorise education as a non-instrumental event (one that has a direction that is not implemented from the outside), it may become possible to open a new and more fruitful platform for educational discussion than endless political debate about what the instrumental ends of education should be.
1.BIESTA, G.J.J. (2009). Good Education in an Age of Measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21 (1), pp. 33-46. 2.BOURDIEU, P. and PASSERON, J-C. (1977). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Sage Publications. 3.BURBULES, N. (2004). Ways of thinking about educational quality Educational Researcher 33(6) 4-10. 4.CASSIRER, E. (1944). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volumes 1-4. London: Yale University Press. 5.OSBERG, D.C. (2005). Complexity, Representation and the Epistemology of Schooling. PhD thesis, The Open University, UK. 6.OSBERG, D.C. and Biesta, G.J.J (2007). Beyond presence: Epistemological and Pedagogical Implications of 'Strong' Emergence. Interchange 38(1) 31-51. 7.OSBERG, D.C. (2017). Education and the Future: Rethinking anticipation and responsibility in multicultural and technological societies. In Ed R. Poli. Handbook of Anticipation. 8.PINAR, W.F., REYNOLDS, W.M., SLATTERY, P. & TAUBMAN, P.M. (1995). Understanding Curriculum. An Introduction to the Study of Historical and Contemporary Curriculum Discourses. New York: Peter Lang Publishing .
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