What is Common About Common Schooling? Rational Autonomy and Moral Agency in Liberal Democratic Education
HANAN ALEXANDER http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/…/j.1467-9752.2007.0059…/full (abstract in a previous post).
This is not really a blog as I normally write them but more some notes on our Educational Theory reading group here at Exeter University. Last time we met we had read a paper by Dewey which some felt seemed to be asserting liberalism as a kind of universal religion and the common school as a way to induct (indoctrinate?) everyone into this religion. In response I suggested this paper by Hanan Alexander as a critique of Dewey’s position and an advocacy for faith schools.
We agreed that we liked the style which consisted of strong arguments clearly articulated. Hanan begins with a distinction between two kinds of liberalism, liberalism as a view of the good life and liberalism as a process or way of living together in the context of multiple views of the good life.
Hanan then gives about 5 reasons why rationalism (and therefore liberalism) is not defensible as a universal world view on which we can base education. His basic argument is that any justification of rationalism will have to assume rationalism implying that rationalism is just one more cultural tradition like the others ie grounded on non-rational traditions.('Turtles all the way down')
We agreed that these were strong and interesting arguments but some felt Hanan had thrown away the ideal of rational autonomy too quickly. He wants to argue for moral agency and the virtue of pluralism in the formation of moral agency but this argument also seems to assume the ideal of autonomy. And when he later distinguishes between open dynamic traditions (acceptable) and closed static traditions (non-acceptable) he seems to be falling back on ideals of reason he has apparently already dismissed.
At this point in the argument there seemed to an alternative that he had not explored which is that reason emerges out of the situation of conflict and encounter between plural views and expands to transform culture away from irrational tradition and towards the increasingly rational. This is an argument found in Habermas (It was developed and applied to education by me in an article in 2004 in case you want to pursue this line
Hanan goes on to make the very interesting argument that moral agency comes from socialisation into a tradition with norms and values. He is arguing that there is no view from nowhere and so we need to socialise young people into a view from somewhere – a particular cultural tradition. It is only after they have acquired a moral perspective from this socialisation process that they can usefully engage in dialogue with other traditions and so learn and develop their own tradition. This leads to an advocacy of faith schools that are open to the other. We find this model in some Church of England schools in the UK that are required a) to have a percentage of pupils of different faiths and b) teach in a way that engages with other traditions.
While we generally agreed that children become moral agents in relation to families and communities we felt that Hanan had gone too far in implying that this requires a pluralism of different religions. E.g What about children not brought up with one religion but with several?
His argument seemed to be that first you need to acquire one coherent cultural voice – a religious tradition – and then you can learn through dialogue with other religious traditions. At one point he rejects Brighouse’s claim that it is possible to stand inside a tradition and outside at the same time. He argues that to have moral agency is to be inside a tradition.
A relational ontology – Derrida or Barad to give examples – tend to claim that the relata in any relationship do not need to be thought of as primary but can be secondary – i.e produced by the encounter. This might seem odd in Hanan’s case as a Jew in Israel relating to Muslims. Clearly it makes sense to think that first you learn to be a Jew or a Muslim and then you might learn to engage in dialogue with the other. But historically what it means to be a Jew or a Muslim in Israel might well be said to be defined by encounter with the other – ie that it is not possible to be inside one position without also being outside it from the beginning. Historically Jews and Muslims were often seen by outsiders as to be such similar traditions they were hard to distinguish, now they often seem radically different because often defined against each other. What annoyed me about Hanan’s argument here was the focus on tradition and the absence of religious realism. The traditions he is implicitly referring to believe in a transcendent outside perspective or Truth – a God that is not just a local god (or a world view or a Dharma that is not simply a construction). It is in relation to their orientation to this outside perspective that they are dynamic and able to learn. I mean by this only that prophets and reformers within the tradition criticise it as idolatrous or limited in relation to an appeal to an outside perspective. Therefore to be a good Christian, Jew , Muslim, Buddhist or secular liberal is always to be outside as well as inside your tradition.
So we generally felt the main argument in this paper was incoherent. However it is well written and has some strong arguments. On the whole, in relation to the issue of common schools, Hanan does mount an effective assault on the kind of monological liberalism that wants to impose secular rationalism on everyone through compulsory state comprehensive education and he does mount an effective defence of a kind of moderate liberal pluralism that supports a diversity of traditions and world views as long as they are ‘reasonable’ in the sense of open and dynamic and willing to engage with others and learn from others in ongoing dialogue. This could be seen as a defence not of monocultural faith schools but of faith schools that are ‘open’ in that they accept a percentage of non-faith adherents and teach in a way that is respectful of pluralism.
Part 2: Transcendental Pragmatism
In the course of the discussion reference was made to another paper by Hanan Alexander which someone had brought along - A View from Somewhere: Explaining the Paradigms of Educational Research’ - which was felt to be much more coherent. This paper is given as a reading on our MSc in Education Research. It is a defence of ‘transcendental pragmatism’. The core argument is that we need to go beyond ‘paradigms’ in education to embrace pragmatism but pragmatism in education implies references to values that are not shared but ‘transcendental’ in the sense of being beyond us. This could be understood as a version of Bhaskar’s transcendental realism – just as progress in natural science tells us there is a real reality out there beyond us but that we can only approach it indirectly through imperfect constructions – so progress in morality shows us that there is a good out there beyond us but we can only approach this indirectly through fallible traditions.
Basically education requires a vision of the good life – we disagree about this – the arguments we make as we disagree show that we believe that there is a real answer that is not merely subjective or relative – the problem is we do not have full access to this True perspective yet and so we have to acknowledge we might be a wrong and that we might be able to learn from others. Here are a few quotes that make a key component of the argument:
1) ‘ even if some behaviors can be explained by statistical laws over which actors can exercise no influence, many if not most human activity is governed by norms or purposes over which people can exercise control.’ (So no reduction to RCTs as ‘gold standard’ – we need to look at norms)
2) ‘knowledge—at least in education—is always the possession of an embodied agent, constrained by language, culture and history, who grasps, albeit imperfectly, the contours of an entity or the meaning of an idea that transcends—exists independently or outside of—his or her limited experience. And this requires—as a regulative principle—the existence of ideals beyond our own contextualised experience whose ultimate content remains shrouded in culture, history, language, and tradition’.(norms are not just empirical - they point towards transcendental truth-claims)
3) ‘Knowledge of the human condition, in short, is first qualitative in nature—and to the extent that measurement comes into play, it is for the sake of making more precise the qualities that we seek to clarify, understand and distinguish.’
4) ‘ educational research worthy of the name must be conducted within the context of explicit and adequately defended visions of the good in which non-dogmatic ideals are adumbrated to govern policies, practices, and pedagogies’. (Can’t avoid ethical and philosophical debate in education)
5) ‘Inquiry at its best endows us with insights to better control ourselves, not generalisations to more efficiently dominate others; and the surest path to self-governance lies in reaffirming Socrates realisation that genuine wisdom begins with the recognition of how little we really know’ (Brilliant last line!)