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On Education


reviewed by Randall Curren - October 16, 2006

coverTitle: On Education
Author(s): Harry Brighouse
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415327903, Pages: 143, Year: 2005
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It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Harry Brighouse’s splendid little book, On Education. Written for Routledge’s Thinking in Action series, it admirably fulfills the publisher’s promise to provide a brief and accessible work on a topic of wide public interest, written by an author of international stature. It presupposes no familiarity with philosophy and is intended for anyone interested in big questions about education—questions about the fundamental purposes of schooling and how those bear on controversial matters of educational policy. Brighouse is a master of this terrain, having explored it in rigorous detail in an impressive body of previous works, and this latest venture is a guided tour sure to provide even his most experienced fellow travelers with a keener sense of the landscape. The philosophy is sure-footed but unobtrusive, the engagement with important educational matters is refreshingly direct and perceptive, and the writing is remarkably clear, unpretentious, and engaging. On Education is also unique in providing a very accessible introduction to the debates among political theorists that have contributed so much to educational philosophy in recent years, and it is almost unique among recent philosophical works in sketching a broad, attractive, and contextually rich view of what education is all about. These qualities make the book a superb choice for any course touching on matters of educational theory or policy, and one that discerning philosophers of education will admire.


On Education is a book in two parts and seven chapters. The four chapters of Part One articulate and defend a set of general principles concerning the aims of education, all of them resting on the unifying premise that “education should aim at enabling people to lead flourishing lives” (p. 15) and the further, less conspicuous premise that individuals are treated unjustly if they lack substantial opportunities to live well “as an avoidable result of the design of social institutions” (p. 18). Together with other reasonable assumptions, these premises enable Brighouse to establish that children are entitled to education that will prepare them to make informed decisions about how to live their lives (Ch. 1), be employed at different kinds of work (Ch. 2), flourish in their leisure time (Ch. 3), and be reasonable and effective participants in collective decision making (Ch. 4). A few words about each of these are in order.


Chapter 1 begins from the proposition that all flourishing lives share two features: they contain objective goods and the persons living them identify with their lives in pursuit of those goods. The argument, in brief, is that because people are not all alike in the kinds of objective goods they can pursue with sufficient ability and conviction, and because the communities and families they are born to may or may not provide objective goods suitable for them, a person’s prospects for flourishing are enhanced by schooling that develops her capacity for reflective self-governance or autonomy in determining how best to live. The premise of Chapter 2 is that preparation for work lies within the scope of public responsibilities for education because work contributes to a person’s wellbeing in several ways. Education may also contribute to economic growth, but it follows from Brighouse’s principles that it would be wrong to give priority to growth, if we knew that higher growth required channeling more people toward “dull, unrewarding work” (p. 35). To restrict the education of some children, “simply for the sake of long-term growth of the economy, in an economy that is not impoverished, is wrong…[because] it constitutes using those people for the sake of others, and without any compensating benefit accruing to them” (p. 36), and also because “there are better ways of increasing the level of flourishing than by increasing material wealth” (p. 38). Here and throughout the book, the assessment of what the educational promotion of flourishing requires is powerfully informed by the results of research on what does and does not contribute to happy or flourishing lives. Chapter 3 considers these matters directly, including the relationship between happiness and flourishing, the role of schools in encouraging satisfying leisure pursuits, and the challenges posed by commercialism and the complexities of contemporary family life. It outlines liberal arts and life adjustment aspects of the curriculum, which are supplemented by work-related and civic aspects of the curriculum outlined in other chapters. Chapter 4 addresses three aspects of good citizenship in a liberal democracy, and notes the contributions of good citizenship to a person’s own well-being. Its focus is the norm of reciprocity, or requirement that civic engagement be guided by “a spirit of respect and willingness to engage in public reasoning” (p. 67), as well as the means and obstacles to promoting reciprocity.


Part Two of the book brings the principles developed in Part One to bear on three questions: Should governments fund religious schooling? Should schools inculcate patriotism? Should citizenship education be compulsory? There are significant differences between educational practices and policy debates in the US (where public funding for religious schooling is controversial but civic education is not) and the UK (where public funding for religious education is uncontroversial but civic education is); Brighouse’s intimate knowledge of both serves him well in mounting a qualified defense of public funding for religious schooling, developing strong objections to inculcating patriotism in schools, and articulating a defensible form of citizenship education. The state cannot escape responsibility for what happens in sectarian schools by refusing to fund them, and many of those schools might be induced to provide an education more uniformly compliant with autonomy facilitation and other requirements of justice if funding were provided, he argues. Writing with reference to the resurgence of patriotic ritual in post-9/11 US schools and the purposes that should guide the teaching of history, Brighouse examines the dangers inherent in promoting patriotism. He argues that to do so in schools tends to undermine the legitimacy of the state by wrongly influencing children’s vision of the country, and tends to undermine the proper uses of the curriculum. Those uses require accuracy and candor that are incompatible with teaching history as a national mythology calculated to induce a sentimental attachment to one’s country. Chapter 7 concludes the examination of civic education by examining the case for requiring it (premised on low voter turnout and civic engagement), outlining the challenges that must be overcome for it to be effective, and defending the centrality of reflective reason.


Much more could be said about the topics addressed in this book and about the related topics it does not address, but it is no criticism to say that it might have done more, and there is nothing substantial in what it does say that I would dispute. I offer two observations, intended mostly as comments on the unfinished liberal project in educational theory that the book so ably represents.


Brighouse holds, quite correctly in my view, that “once a society has achieved a certain level of material wellbeing, further growth is not fundamentally very important” (p. 38). He marshals evidence for this from a variety of studies, which show that while poverty is a barrier to happiness, material consumption above some level does not make people happier and may actually make them less happy. In the US and UK there has been no aggregate reported gain in happiness with rising material prosperity since the mid-1950s, but there has been an increasingly costly competition for economic and social position associated with the fact that relative position in the income distribution “matters a great deal more to subjective wellbeing than one’s absolute level of material wellbeing” (pp. 38-41). Brighouse concludes that reducing inequality would be much more effective in promoting wellbeing than further economic growth or gains in productivity. I agree, but I would dispute a further supporting argument that he makes. Considering the hypothetical possibility that a developed economy, such as the USA’s, might suffer a decline, making gains in productivity a higher priority for education, he suggests that in our present circumstances “there is no serious prospect of long-term absolute decline” (p. 3). My own more pessimistic view is that long-term absolute decline is a near certainty and cannot be many years away, given the rapid depletion and destruction of a variety of resources and ecological services we have no easy way to replace. If I’m right about this, however, it yields a different kind of support for Brighouse’s conclusion, through the proposition that continued growth in productivity and consumption would ultimately be catastrophic.


There are echoes of Aristotelian eudaimonism all through On Education, in its view that a just state aims at the flourishing of all citizens, its related call for limits to inequality and competition for positional goods, its opposition to the invasion of schools by commercialism, its counsel against hedonism and working excessively in the service of hedonism, and its vision of schooling for critical reflection and wise use of opportunities to flourish. But beyond the moral and psychological grounds for eudaimonism in ancient Greek philosophy lies a perception—quite foreign to modern European political philosophy—of the necessity of limits to aggregate consumption, rooted not only in the decline of Athenian colonial expansion but also in a history of intimate experience with economic decline arising from unsustainable and damaging exploitation of forest and soil resources. A related hope at the heart of Greek educational philosophy is that conflict over limited and contested material and positional goods may be mitigated by education that develops an appreciation of the rewards associated with other kinds of goods. With global renewable resource exploitation currently estimated at 120 percent of what is sustainable, we will need to come to terms with the reality of limits ourselves; in doing so we should recognize that it gives us one more reason to steer children away from patterns of over-consumption and overwork that we know will make them less happy anyway.


My second comment concerns the relationship between happiness and flourishing and the idea of autonomously choosing a life of faith in order to flourish. Brighouse acknowledges that happiness and flourishing are not identical, and he justifies the relevance of research on happiness to education for flourishing through the claim that “evidence of what makes people happy in the real world is also evidence about what makes them flourish” (p. 48). This is true for the most part, but not entirely. If we think of happiness as a condition of experiencing a pleasant sense of wellbeing, then it is theoretically consistent with failing to flourish as a human being with a variety of social, cognitive, athletic and other potentials that can be expressed in the world in the fulfillment of various objective goods. A person could be subjectively satisfied living a life without any objective goods at all, just as a person could fail to be subjectively satisfied with a life rich in objective goods. The evidence about what makes people happy is relevant to the promotion of flourishing, because it shows that what tends to make people happy is having freedom to exercise their own judgment and abilities, having good relationships with others, and experiencing their own competence in activities and work they and others value. Although being valued and being valuable are not the same thing, the relationship between the two is close enough for us to say that the research on happiness provides very helpful guidance on how to promote flourishing.


Happiness research is helpful, but there remains a nontrivial difference between happiness and flourishing. Brighouse notes that when happiness “is conditioned on ignorance about what is really happening around [a person], we do not usually think of them as flourishing” (p. 47). A wife’s flourishing may be greatly diminished, but her happiness undiminished, by her husband’s undetected infidelity, because the relationship, the objective good she took herself to participate in creating, is not the good she imagined. Followers of a religion might similarly enjoy various objective goods of friendship, good works, and community building associated with their faith, yet be diminished in their flourishing by a lack of correspondence between reality and important aspects of the narrative of faith they enact, whether or not the errors in their beliefs become apparent. They may engage in worship, sacrifice, and ritual purification and take comfort in the protection their faith assures them, but in doing so honor no covenant and secure no blessings from gods who do not exist. Flourishing involves a correspondence between subjective satisfaction and actual goods achieved, and this creates a problem for the idea of autonomously choosing a way of life predicated on faith or things we don’t have good reason to believe are true. We can make sense of an informed choice among ways of life in light of the temporal goods they involve, and we can acknowledge that some faith communities are better than some secular communities in achieving such goods, but to the extent that the goodness of a way of life is predicated fundamentally on articles of faith there is no good reason to believe, the life might be prudently endorsed as a happy one (or one offering lesser subjective benefits, such as a feeling of safety) but not as a flourishing one. Is choice without prudence autonomous? If we say it is not, we could still imagine that in the circumstances of some lives, and all things considered, a person could prudently and autonomously choose to lead a life of faith, though prudence would regard the moral and prudential hazard involved as regrettable.


Like many other liberal educational theorists, Brighouse wants to endorse both religious liberty and an education for flourishing and autonomy that is consistent with an autonomous choice to live a life of faith. This is sensible, but the terms of reconciliation are not yet fully resolved.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 16, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12790, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 11:39:35 AM

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About the Author
  • Randall Curren
    University of Rochester
    E-mail Author
    RANDALL CURREN is Professor and Chair of Philosophy and Professor of Education at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education (2000) and other works in the philosophy of education, ethics, political and legal philosophy, and ancient Greek philosophy. He is the editor of the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Education (2003: 2006; 2007 Chinese Edition) and Philosophy of Education: An Anthology (2006), and co-editor of the journal Theory and Research in Education. His current projects include a monograph, Philosophy of Education, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield, and a volume of studies in the ethics of education.
 
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