Professor Biesta and the chicken

chicken_2In part four of my series on educational purpose, I consider Professor Biesta’s distinction between aims and purposes by asking myself why the chicken crossed the road.

In part one of this series, I considered why the House of Commons Education Select Committee’s investigation into the purpose of education has the potential to address some really important problems in our current education theory. I also recounted the question that I put to Professor Biesta and Daisy Christodoulou at the opening panel Q&A. In parts two and three, I explained why I think that the theoretical grounds on which much current education theory is based is fundamentally flawed. Which allows me to return in this part to consider Professor Biesta’s reply to my original challenge.

When I suggested that the sort of purposes that Gert Biesta proposed for education might be meaningless, because it could never be ascertained whether or not they had been achieved, Professor Biesta responded by suggesting that I was confusing the aims and purposes of education. He reiterated this answer with a tweet.


My first attempt to discover what this answer meant was unsuccessful. All that Professor Biesta would say was that the purpose of education explained “why we have schools and should not hand them over to google or pearson”.


So I tried again…


…but further answer came there none. Apparently I had misunderstood something fundamental—but no-one would tell me what.

There are three characteristics of this form of argument, which link to my previous discussion about positivism and its critics:

  • it lacks any attempt at explanation or justification;
  • it depends instead on the redefinition of the terms by which the discourse is conducted;
  • it appears to be predicated on the acceptance of a particular ideological position.

Let me start by explaining why neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor Aristotle help to understand Professor Biesta’s reply.

The OED defines aim as “a purpose or intention; a desired outcome”. As a noun, purpose is defined as “the reason for which something is done or for which something exists”, citing by way of example, “the purpose of the meeting is to appoint a trustee”. Although purpose is not defined explicitly as an aim, the reason for the meeting which is given by way of example is “to appoint a trustee”: and this is clearly “a desired outcome”, which is the definition that has just given for aim. As a verb, to purpose is explicitly defined as “to have something as one’s aim or intention”. So aim is explicitly defined as purpose, purpose as a verb is explicitly defined as having an aim, and the example given to illustrate the definition purpose as a noun is an exact fit for the definition of aim. You could not get a cigarette paper between them.

Nor is Aristotle any more helpful. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he describes four types of causality, all in the words of the OED, “reasons for which something is done or for which something exists”:

  • the material cause explains a thing’s existence in terms of the matter out of which it is made, so the material cause of a bronze statue is the bronze from which it is made;
  • the formal cause explains something’s existence in terms of the object’s form, which in the case of a bronze statue is its shape;
  • the efficient cause explains the process by which the object or action comes into existence, which in the case of the bronze statue are the actions of the artisan that made it;
  • the final cause is the end for which the action is performed or object created, maybe the intention to glorify the subject of the statue.

The first two of Aristotle’s types of causation are a little kooky, at least from our modern perspective, and can be ignored. That leaves us with the efficient cause, which explains the world as a deterministic machine, in which one billiard ball moves because it has previously been hit by another billiard ball; and the final or teleological cause, which explains the world as a product of the intelligent intention to achieve particular outcomes. Aim and purpose both equate to telos, outcome or end.

Having found no help from the OED or Aristotle in understanding Professor Biesta’s (apparently important) distinction between purposes and aims, I considered that he must have believed that it was relevant to my question about the verifiability of his aims. Maybe he was suggesting that the aims of education could be described as what we wanted to achieve (this being verifiable), while purpose should be described as why we want to achieve it (this, perhaps, not needing to be verifiable).

I considered this model in the context of the riddle about why the chicken crossed the road. The respondent in this case assumes that the answer must lie along the lines of “because she saw a juicy worm in the gutter”. When we are told that it was just “to get to the other side”, we feel cheated because we think have been told what the chicken wanted to achieve but not why.

On reflection, however, this distinction quickly loses any substance. The statement “the chicken wanted to eat the juicy worm” describes a future outcome just as much as the statement about getting to the other side: it describes the outcome in which she gets the worm. So too does Professor Biesta’s proposed purpose of education (“to ensure that every child fulfils his or her true potential”) point to a desired outcome. The difference is that while we can observe whether the chicken reaches the other side of the road or eats the juicy worm, we can never hope to discover whether a student has fulfilled his or her true potential because we can never know what that potential was in the first place.

One difference between the possible answers to the chicken riddle is that one outcome is more proximate than the other to the action of crossing the road. As Aristotle points out in the Nichomachean Ethics (see my 2012 post, Aristotle’s saddle-maker), ends and means form interlinked chains, in which the end of one link in the chain becomes the means of the next. A saddle is the end of the craft of the saddle-maker but the means of the craft of the cavalryman. Any moderately inquisitive three-year-old, told that the chicken crossed the road in order to get to the other side, would quickly ask, “why mummy?” and to receive a second answer, of exactly the same form as the first, “because she wanted to eat the juicy worm”.

A second difference lies in the different explanatory value of the different links in the chain of ends and means. To have explanatory value, the selected outcome must be clearly linked to both:

  • the initial action at the start of the chain;
  • an ultimate outcome at the end of the chain that everyone accepts to be desirable.

“To get to the other side” fulfils the first criterion but not the second, while “satisfying her hunger” fulfils the second but not the first. Only “to eat the juicy worm” fulfils both criteria, providing the bridge between the action and an unquestionable benefit. This explanatory or linking characteristic of what might in consequence be called “purpose” does not mean that it does not still refer to an outcome or aim, just as much as any of the other links in the chain. If such an outcome is to be used to justify a particular course of action, if it is to be meaningful, then the attainment of that outcome still needs to be verifiable.

I conclude that:

  • Professor Biesta’s distinction between aims and purposes is not valid;
  • the lack of any justification, either for the distinction itself or for the attainment of the sorts of outcome that he advocates, demonstrates the lack of “cash value” (see part two) in Professor Biesta’s position.

This does not mean that the distinction between aims and purposes does not have a justification of sorts—and an interesting justification at that, which provides an insight into the rest of Professor Biesta’s argument. But that will be the subject of part five, coming up next.

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