Education as an intrinsic good

boatsWhy many academics think that education is an intrinsic good and why they are wrong

In part four, Professor Biesta and the chicken, I argued that the distinction between aims and purposes that had been made by Gert Biesta and John Dewey was without foundation. In this fifth part of my series on the purpose of education, I explain why the argument over aims and purposes is connected with the view that education is an intrinsic good, why this is the same as saying that education has no purpose at all, and why this view is mistaken.

Even if it does not accord with any reasoned understanding of purpose, the distinction made by Professor Biesta between aims and purposes nevertheless has an intellectual hinterland. This is revealed by a slide show entitled “Aims and purposes in education” by Joey R Miñano, a school Head Teacher who quotes John Dewey, also a key influence on Professor Biesta.

Miñano explains the difference between aims and purposes with an example (slide 14). If someone finds you digging your allotment and asks you what you what you are doing and you reply, “I am digging over this piece of ground thoroughly”, then you are describing your aim; but if you are asked, “what are you digging that piece of ground for?” and you answer “so that I can grow potatoes in it”, then you are describing your purpose. Miñano has copied this example from the Philosophy of Education by Terence Moore, which states that “to talk of purposes is always to refer to some external end to which the activity is directed, to talk of aims is not to refer to external ends but to the activity itself, to its internal end”. According to Miñano and Moore, the aim of “digging this piece of ground thoroughly” is “digging this piece of ground thoroughly”.

If one applies the verification test (see part two), then it becomes apparent that to say that an activity has an internal end is indistinguishable from saying that it has no end at all. If you are doing it for the sake of doing it, then it is aimless. This is not necessarily unreasonable. If every action had to have an external end, then the chain of means and ends would be infinite. At some point, one has to say that the thing being done represents a good-in-itself. At the end of the chain is the ultimate and aimless objective, the most desirable thing of all. For Hume, this ultimate objective was happiness, for Aristotle, it might also be contemplation, and for Kenneth Graham, it was invariably messing about in boats.

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats… Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”

Is education such an ultimately worthwhile, intrinsically aimless activity? As a young man, John Dewey certainly thought so. In his 1916 Democracy and education, Dewey explicitly declares that “the educational process has no end beyond itself”, basing this assertion on the grounds that “education is development”. Development, understood in its biological sense, is something that living things do autonomously to fulfil their own internal road-maps, the expression and fulfilment of what Gerald Manley Hopkins saw as the essence, the intrinsic spirit of every individual thing in God’s creation.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.

But education is not development in this essentialist or even biological sense. It is not just an exercise in finding our true selves but in becoming something different from what we were, through a process of learning from society around us. Brian Simon quotes Jerome Bruner (p.158) as saying:

Man is not a naked ape but a culture-clothed human being, hopelessly ineffective without the prosthesis provided by culture.

Edgar Rice Burrough’ s version of the noble savage, Tarzan, represents, both physically and mentally, a fully-developed human being somewhat superior to the pasty-faced townsman. But he is entirely uneducated. Such a pure, tabula rasa presents the civilized discoverer with a dilemma: how should he be educated, if at all? The reason for the enduring fascination of the noble savage genre (George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion being another example) is that it reflects, not primarily on the nature of the savage but on the nature of the society into which we are—into which we so desperately need to be—socialized.

Nor, if education is counted a good-in-itself, could one say that one person’s education was any better than another’s, just as one could not say that one person messing about in boats was spending their time any better than another. As the ultimate purpose cannot be evaluated, the whole notion of a “good” education would be meaningless.

The theory of education-as-development dresses in liberal clothes: everyone can develop in whatever way they like. But as soon as education is seen to have consequences (as, sooner or later, I suggest that it will) the theory is seen to attribute any disparity in attainment to the innate, irredeemable nature of the student. Brian Simon has argued powerfully (p.159) that a belief in innate (in)ability links the developmental theories of Jean Piaget to the earlier twentieth century enthusiasm for eugenics and IQ testing:

[While] Psychometry set out to show that a child’s learning was determined by genetic endowment and that this was all there was to be said about it…[and although] Piagetianism at least accepted a dynamic view of child development…[it nevertheless] constricted it within an iron determinism through the theory of “stages”… The Piagetian theory of “readiness”…unfortunately for us, won hands down the battle for the minds of teacher educators in England after the unregretted demise of psychometry in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The tendency to excuse any underperformance by saying, for example, “Maths is not my thing” (or indeed, “I am not yet ready for that sort of Maths”) has been identified by the PISA reports as a reason why Western education systems tend to lag behind Asian equivalents, which place fewer limits on learning and more emphasis on effort. In Learning without Limits, Susan Hart argues (p.25) in similar vein that the identification of innate (in)ability causes a

loss of dignity combined with an internalized sense of inadequacy [which in turn] creates psychological conditions that impair the capacity to learn.

The belief that different children will develop in whatever way that those different children need to develop undermines the confidence of the educator that he or she can change the world for the better. Education is neither aimless, nor is it an expression of internally-driven development.

It may be in part because that statement seems so obvious, once viewed clearly, that the argument for the aimlessness of education is so frequently stated in such obscure terms that those who do not have the time to trace its tortuous logic are bamboozled into acceptance. Who would have imagined that Professor Biesta’s call for a greater emphasis on the purposes of education provided cover for a belief that education had no explicit or meaningful purpose at all?

The bogus distinction between aims and purposes is only one example of such a smoke-screen. Another is the popular theory of phronesis, or practical wisdom. Originally formulated by Bent Flyvbjerg, it has been applied to education by Professors Gert Biesta, Dylan Wiliam and Frank Furedi. That will be the subject of part six in this series on the purpose and quality of education.

1 thought on “Education as an intrinsic good

  1. Great post. Purpose, aims, objectives are simply flexible labels to break down any goal-driven activity. So, the aim of ‘digging-over the ground’ was for the purpose of growing potatoes. But it could be said that the aim of growing potatoes was for the purpose of eating, and indeed that the aim of eating was for the purpose of staying alive…

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