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Philosophy of Education: Accessibility, clarity, and the philosophy-education relationship

Institute of Education, London

Institute of Education, London CC-By-SA Matt Buck: https://www.flickr.com/photos/23136508@N00/7670091390

On Monday I attended the Philosophy of Education Society GB (PESGB) funded ‘New Critical Conversations’ seminar at the Institute of Education, London. The seminar was part of a short series exploring notions of ‘accessibility’ and ‘clarity’ in philosophy of education. While to some extent this was with regard to potential audiences (policy makers, empirical researchers, etc.) it was also with regard to students of philosophy of education (PoE), and the various disciplines or traditions within PoE which might not ordinarily speak to each other.

Each of the seminars has used papers to prompt discussion on this topic. And there’s a possibility a final fourth seminar will do something along the lines of asking participants to read a set of texts about the same topic, to explore the different approaches the traditions being (note the recent ‘middle space’ work in the learning sciences has done some of this sort of thing, e.g. analysing data from multiple perspectives).

The first two seminars

So, the seminars aim at “mutual understanding and education in the context of dialogue between representatives of contrasting philosophical/intellectual traditions.”, I’m just summarising the pre-circulated notes from these seminars here.

Within PoE, the many different approaches (caricatured as a simple ‘analytic’ v ‘continental’ dichotomy) presents a challenge – and neither approach can be said to be always clearer or more accessible (and indeed, there can be ‘deceptive clarity’). PoE perhaps more than philosophy needs to address audiences outside its own community, and this is a challenge. But what PoE is aimed at is controversial – some approaches take a very rationalistic, conceptual tact, while other work is more ‘poetic’ in nature.

Certainly, when considering accessibility one must ask: “Accessible to whom, and for what purpose?”  This is particularly important given the scope for a rather impoverished (but ‘accessible’) intellectual content if philosophical work is ‘dumbed down’; the complexity of philosophical work is not (of itself) a bad thing, if that complexity reflects the difficulty of the subject matter, its purposes, the richness of understanding. (In the third seminar, we noted that some interesting things are difficult…of course, this is not to say that all difficult things are interesting…).

Similarly with regard to ‘clarity’, this could characterise the questions we ask, the reasoning we undertake, the subject matter or content we address. The risk of seeking ‘clarity’ in some cases is just that ‘clarity’ is requested as a response to a lack of understanding of the complexity of an issue.

Perhaps moreover, some things cannot be said clearly, either because they are very complex, or because the richness of the consideration is in its complex relations (the kind of poetic approaches to opening up consideration on certain topics).  The question of the moral need for clarity/accessibility is a very interesting one (and one which I also note below).

The third seminar (our own)

Much of our discussion focussed on ‘temperament’ and kinds of philosophy we’re drawn to. Initially this was brought up with regard to readers (the kinds of texts we’re inclined to read, and enjoy) but in fact much of the conversation was around the types of philosophy we actually do and expose our students to. The point of the conversations wasn’t really to discuss the papers, but without talking about that too much it’s worth noting that this particular topic started with the question: why did I find the paper hard; what was I trying to get from it?  This led to a discussion around Margalit’s distinction between “e.g.” and “i.e.” philosophy where the first are illustrators (with striking examples) while the latter are explicators (with definitions and general principles). OF course one can see risks and benefits of both, but perhaps one’s temperament leads to a preference for one over the other.

I’ve grouped some of the issues that came up below, but before those I’ll just note some thoughts I had before and during the seminar:

  1. Most of my work is empirically minded, but it is not uncommon to see empirical claims being made, but presented as conceptual analysis (e.g. in philosophy and sociology), and vice-versa (particularly by politicians), empirical data being presented as though any ‘conceptual’ issues were redundant. Indeed, I’m just drafting a post on ‘nowadays’ which I think is a good example of a call to intuition in place of actually making claims about the altered nature of ‘today’.
  2. Indeed, part of our role might be to reduce clarity in a sense, to challenge calls to ‘the facts’, (e.g. in the phonics case) through good conceptual analysis
  3. Even in more conceptual work, I try to be clear about the “implications” – what difference does this all make for my life, what are the implications of the argument for change?
  4. There is a big challenge for PoE (and other subjects) with regard to how much PoE should be internal-looking v external. What debates are going on in the wider philosophy, education research, and policy worlds, and to what extent should they engage with philosophers, and philosophers with them. It’s great that the OU OER Hub (for example) has some philosophers in it (I don’t know if they’re involved with the PESGB at all) but this is not very common.

PoE role in relation to others

  1. Philosophers seen as ‘useful’ to others – but how and for what, and to what extent should we be “doing our own thing”
  2. Role of philosophers in creating problems v addressing existing ones
  3. When philosophers ‘resource’ arguments, to what extent should they (do they) use ‘transparent’ problems (widely recognised concepts, and issues) versus problematising the everyday and folk-conceptual analysis

PoE as a ‘discipline’

  1. Concern: Is need for clarity/accessibility scientistic (as in, attempting to follow the norms of science where they are not appropriate). Of course, the contrary argument is just that scientists are in fact engaging in philosophy when they do conceptual analysis (are they philosophising?)
  2. If we create taxonomies of philosophy (and philosophers) is this in itself an exercise in priority setting
  3. Should we problematise PoE as an expression? One interpretation of PoE is that PhilOfEd provides the ‘e.g.s’ for the ‘i.e.s’ of analytic philosophy, but this suggests a “philosophy (on education)” rather than a subject “philosophy of education”
  4. Is philosophy of education an ‘applied’ subject (qua how applied ethics can be seen, with ‘approaches’ ‘applied’ to ‘problems’) – this seems a potentially impoverished view

The practice of ‘PoE’ – how do we communicate our message (to each other, and beyond)

  1. How do we use texts versus ‘problems’ to teach PoE (a focus on texts occurred at a time of poor funding for PoE, it’s interesting to look at international context here, certainly for my undergrad some courses were text based, e.g. “On Kant” while others were problem based e.g. “Mind” or “Vagueness”, this mix seems right to me).
  2. How do we judge texts, and other people’s papers?
  3. What moral (or epistemic) arguments are there around the need for ‘clarity’ and ‘accessibility’ (if any). Andrew and I are both of the view that there is an obligation (of some sort, moral?) to be clear when one’s work has clear implications for practice (Harvey Siegel is giving a talk on Wednesday entitled “PoE and the Tyranny of Practice” in which I think he’s going to argue against this view!), it is obviously problematic to argue that it is a moral failing to write a bad paper(!), just think of all your moral failings under that scope.
  4. Someone  noted Putnam on clarity: “in philosophy, you’ve got to be clear enough so that if you’re wrong, we can tell” (of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be wrong just that we should be clear about what you’re arguing for, so we can assess it)
  5. What role philofed in teacher education?   Some thought this was unlikely given the pressures on time, while others thought it was fundamental, for example to understanding educational research. I’m inclined to agree some basics in philosophy would be a good thing, and also to agree that a greater focus on CPD which allows reflective practitioners (including in theorising, not just action-research) would be good.

Public Engagement with PoE (and Wikipedia)

It is worth noting that the Wikipedia article on philosophy of education is also not great….(I certainly lack the immediate expertise to tackle this one), this is actually of practical relevance here: ‘Accessibility’ might, among other things, mean providing resources for public access to material. The PESGB journal has a series called ‘Impact’ which are policy oriented philosophical analyses, and that’s great, but this is a huge challenge for all disciplines – how do we speak to people in clear and accessible ways, while not ‘dumbing down’ the richness of the discipline.


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