Notes for a project on Education

In The Republic, Plato puts the dyad of work and education at the heart of social life. The principal of efficiency in work provides the division of labour, and the question of social renewal turns that division into the question of education. What shall we teach, to what end, and to whom? And for Plato, these all come under the question of justice. Idealists and pragmatists like Dewey placed education in a similarly central position, but it seems like it’s not a favoured investigation for philosophers today, with the exception of some-one like Rancière (The Ignorant Schoolmaster).

As I’ve written before,  Dewey also connects education in an essential way to philosophy. So we have education at the heart of social being and thinking. (Honneth has also recently begun to focus on this).

Going back to The Republic: In contemporary society, there is a push to maximise the number of people with a University education. The educational avenue of the élite has become a broad boulevard for the masses – what is termed ‘massification’. In Plato’s terms, it is as if as many as possible were to be educated as a ‘Guardian’. And indeed, for a democracy, the assumption made against Plato is the equality of original aptitude, everybody is fit to, and charged with, exercising concern for the community as a whole.

But I’m not sure we really believe this equality when it comes to education, as Rancière argues. We make implicit ontological judgements about the students. This student is good (by which we mean they possess a certain competence in addressing the demands placed on them by us, the masters), and that student is not good (by which we mean they have not yet acquired such competence). At the practical level, Jonathan Biggs and Catherine Tang nicely invert this ontological judgement, to show that such judgements reveal a rather undeveloped approach to the nature of teaching and learning. And that’s confronting to hear, as a teacher, but it strips bare the way we sometimes bolster our authority as teachers.

But if we’re going to begin with the presumption of the equality of intelligence, as Rancière would have us do, then there is a renewed tension on the social division of labour. Are we able to understand divisions of labour without this particular associated hierarchy of aptitude? What would our education then look like if were to be arranged with this presumption? To be clear – aptitudes, differences, and even hierarchies exist in some fashion, but it is a matter of clarifying their conceptual articulation with respect to ‘intelligence’ – and the practical, social, and political extensions of such articulations.


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