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Social Efficiency and Instrumentalism in Education: Critical Essays in Ontology, Phenomenology, and Philosophical Hermeneutics

reviewed by Christopher Gilham & David W. Jardine - February 24, 2015

coverTitle: Social Efficiency and Instrumentalism in Education: Critical Essays in Ontology, Phenomenology, and Philosophical Hermeneutics
Author(s): James M. Magrini
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415744008, Pages: 202, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

This is an important book. In Social Efficiency and Instrumentalism in Education: Critical Essays in Ontology, Phenomenology, and Philosophical Hermeneutics, John Magrini maps out in great detail a long and complex history, the memory and origins of which have nearly faded from explicit view. We all still suffer it, often in bewildered ways, without quite knowing what has happened to us. Magrini sketches the rise of social efficiency and instrumentalism back to the work of Auguste Comte and up through the Vienna Circle and the rise of positivism and scientism (pp. 12–13). With the arrival of the work of F.W. Taylor and his Principles of Scientific Management (1915), various versions of social efficiency and instrumentalism have become de rigueur in education to the extent that raising questions about them seems to suggest nothing more or less than that one supports inefficiency and lack of accountability. Just as Taylor's work re-conceptualized industrial manufacturing as a process of the efficient and standardized assembly of separate parts, Behavioral Theory re-conceptualized knowledge itself in precisely the same manner (Magrini, pp. 22, 37). The clarion of the efficient and standardized assembly of knowledge in schools and its efficient and standardized assessment was just a step away.

Magrini's explicit aim is to unearth this often-hidden historical and philosophical inheritance and alternately "to elucidate not only what it might mean to lead a better life through authentic learning, but also contribute to envisioning a model of curriculum and education that is, in the first instance, ontological in nature" (pp. 1–2). In this venture, Magrini explores Husserlian phenomenology vis a vis the language of instrumentalism; he utilizes the concept of Bildung from the humanist tradition in an effort to reclaim something Socratic about authentic learning and dialogue; and he uses Dwayne Huebner's work and that of Martin Heidegger to "reinterpret, reevaluate and reconceptualize contemporary understandings of learning and curriculum.” He then uses the work of William Pinar and Ted Aoki to continue his critique of instrumentalism-representationalism and reclaim a view of understanding that is polyvocal, ever-unfinished, and oriented by dialogue, listening, and the opening up of what Gadamer (1986) called "free spaces" in light of which teachers and students might shape their lives.

This list of authors and topics and concerns reads like our own family tree. In reviewing this text, we wish to take up Magrini's own invitation to continue the conversation (p. 175) that he has opened up for us, and to offer a perhaps-cautionary note regarding Magrini's work that comes from our work in schools.

Magrini says we are "always already learners" (p. 7), but that may not be true in all circumstances. Schools, teachers, administrators, and students often live in a system of work that tends to marginalize any attempt to understand our circumstances and how things could have been and could still be different (pp. 176–177). Education, of all things in this world, has long-since become rife with anti-intellectualism (Callahan, 1964), pushing hard-nosed and instrumentally understood practicalities, reducing its task to teaching and technique (Pinar, 2004) or as efficiency for efficiency’s sake through ongoing cycles of rapid replacement and rapid consumption (Arendt, 1958). This in turn casts any reflection on our circumstances and efforts to parse its ways as simply a waste of time (pp. 26–27, 170–171). And then this in its own turn leaves any efforts at transforming or reforming schools caught in an all-too-familiar iatrogenic loop, what Magrini (p. 27) names the "circular manner" of social efficiency (see also Illich, 1975). Attempts to remedy our situation end up leaving this practical reality in place and simply aggravate it with reforms that do not interrupt it but presume it and simply deepen the unavailability of that presumption that simply leaves in place the regimes of instrumentalism and efficiency. We're left with a sort of low-level panic and anxiety in schools with little recourse at understanding why, and a deep cynicism about any attempt to find out.

Directly tethered to the rise of instrumentalism and social efficiency in education is the frequency with which an entrepreneurial spirit and marketable skills are taken for granted as goals of education (Alberta, 2011). Citing Heidegger (1962) Magrini notes "all things [teachers, students, and the living disciplines of knowledge they have inherited] show up as resources to be used and discarded when their use value is exhausted” (p. 11). The science of learning apes this corporate model (p. 13). Other ways of operating and thinking are "excluded because they are less efficient at achieving or accomplishing instrumental goals” (p. 15). Far beyond the scope of K-12 schools, university faculties that are strapped for cash become increasingly tethered to conducting research that is externally funded. In Faculties of Education, research becomes tightly tethered to instrumental goals.

Gone or fading are images of education as formative of one's life (pp. 94–97), which carries with it deeply ethical questions regarding how becoming educated provides some sense of a good life (pp. 164–165) and how it is a virtue (p. 102). Following Pinar, Magrini stresses that "we must protect and shelter Bildung from . . .” (p. 94) becoming "an object of the market and society” (p. 94).

To enact this protection and shelter “…within the contemporary curriculum . . . would be difficult, if not impossible” (p. 109). Worse yet, such images have become so arcane, archaic and subjectivized as to seem simply laughable. This is much more what we are used to in schools: "We do not ask for the initiative of our men. We do no want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quickly" (Kanigel, 2005, p. 169). This is the terrible effect of instrumentalism that students become, shall we say, self-instrumentalizing: "tell me exactly what you want on this assignment" is the right thing to ask because students have learned the consequences of believing that anything else will do.

Magrini (pp. 1-2) names our lament and its remedy as an ontological one and on the face of it this sounds so very abstract, with little proximity to our living. This is part of the trick, because it is precisely the tangled threads of ontological presumption that tie and tangle up our lived circumstances and those of our students so tightly.

This is part of both the weakness and strength of Magrini's text—it digs deep enough to find these roots, but in doing so suffers a fate we well understand in our own work. It blurs its own proximity to our living while declaring that that proximity, as per this form of educational research, is precisely what it is about (p. 85, p. 91). Why then, is Magrini's book so very philosophical? Why is its language so difficult? This is one of the most terrible effects of instrumentalism and efficiency—the belief that, no matter what, nothing is difficult or complicated, everything can be simplified and any complexity of thinking or reflection is inefficient. It is not. Our circumstances are terribly complex, tangled, and in need of forms of thinking and language that are their equal. The difficulty, of course, is then to think, write, and speak and yet still, without trivializing or over-simplifying, provide an articulation of our circumstances to those who are suffering it most intimately—teachers and students in schools.

In our day-to-day work with teachers, students, and schools, we often hear an understandable but regrettable complaint: all this "university" stuff is fine, but this— school, curriculum mandates, parents' concerns, economic pressures, and time—is the real world. The weight of our circumstances has become so heavy that it has become an ontological given—it is real, it is what is (Greek ontos), and any questioning of our circumstances that presumes differently is unreal. Hence the commonplace and understandable denigration: the Ivory Tower, once an invocation of the wisdom of Solomon, is now simply a sign of detachment from worldly concerns. Here is a hint of the tradition in which Magrini's work stands. The human science tradition, at its best, is not simply abstract philosophizing; it is an argument on behalf of realizing that our circumstances are possible not necessary.

This is the terrifying secret of scholarship like Magrini's work. It demonstrates in great detail that all of this—the increasing acceleration of school life, the fetishes regarding standardized examinations and accountability—is not the real world, it is just how the world has happened to turn out in the midst of circumstances and desires and hopes. There was good reason, in the early 20th century, for adopting regimes of efficiency and instrumental thinking in education. In fact, “educators needed little prompting” (DuFour & Eaker, 1998) in adopting such regimes. Yet, the dominance of education as “explanatory, controlling, legitimating, and affiliative” (p. 176) can be otherwise. We are not stuck, neither are our students, neither is our world. Circumstances have changed. Discovery, thoughtful invention (p. 74), attunement to one another and our topics of study, engagement (p. 153), and meditatively rigorous (p. 169), cooperative inquiry (p. 178)—these are burgeoning in that very real world for which efficiency and instrumentality used to be precisely what was a good idea at the time. The problem is, of course, that one of the most pernicious effects of the dominance of instrumental thinking is that it unwittingly shadows and haunts our ability to think about any alternative to it (Epilogue).

Hence some final words about Magrini's wonderful book.

A viable, sustainable and authentic understanding of the learner can only emerge in concert with a viable, sustainable, and authentic world for that learner to inhabit, adore, question and care for and about. That is, the deepest cut of instrumentalism and social efficiency is not simply that the agency and authenticity of the original learner has been rendered into the instrumental and standardized follower of rules. The world which teachers and students inhabit has become uninhabitable, unlovable. It has been rendered into separate, floating, fragments and the fabrics of its life have themselves been ruined. As James Hillman put it, "sickness is now 'out there'" (2006, p. 30) and focusing too squarely on the original and its woes and how to help students and teachers recover a more authentic sense of themselves in the educational project is trying to be enacted in a world that has no room for such things.

Buy this book and treat it as a gateway into a conversation about something that has happened to us that has become so ubiquitous that it is slowly fading from sight. Spending time lingering in this loss will help us all understand some of our unnamed grief and nebulous franticness and stuckness. It is nameable and it can become clearer and less burdensome. There are reasons that education has ended up so panicky and full of complaint without quite knowing why.

Such naming, such tracing, is a terrible trial, but it is worthwhile.


Alberta (2011). Framework for student learning: Competencies for engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit. Retrieved on-line at: http://education.alberta.ca/department/ipr/curriculum.aspx

Arendt, H. (1958) The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Berry, W. (1986) The unsettling of America. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

DuFour, R. & Eaker, R. (1998). A new model: The professional learning community.  New Albany OH: The Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education (ENC).

Friesen, S. & Jardine, D. (2009). On field(ing) knowledge. In S. Goodchild & B. Sriraman, eds. Relatively and philosophically e[a]rnest: festschrifte inhHonour of Paul Ernest’s 65th birthday (pp. 149-175). Charlotte NC: Information Age Publishing, 149–175.

Gadamer, H.G. (1986). The idea of the University—Yesterday, today, tomorrow. In D. Misgeld & G. Nicholson, eds. and  trans. Hans-Georg Gadamer on   education, poetry, and history: Applied hermeneutics (p. 47-62). Albany NY:  SUNY Press.

Gadamer, H.G. (1989). Truth and method. New York: Continuum Books.

Hillman, J. (2006). Anima Mundi: Returning the soul to the world (27–49). In James Hillman (2006). City and soul. Putnam CT: Spring Publications, Inc.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. New York: Harper and Row.

Illich, I. (1975). Limits to medicine. Medical nemesis: The expropriation of health. London, England: Marion Boyars

Kanigel, R. (2005). The one best way: Fredrick Winslow Taylor and the enigma of efficiency. Cambridge MT: The MIT Press.

Pinar, W. (2004). What is curriculum theory? Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ross, S. (2006). The temporality of tarrying in Gadamer. Theory Culture Society, 23(1), 101–123.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 24, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17873, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:01:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Gilham
    St. Francis Xavier University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER GILHAM is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He is a formerjunior high/elementary school teacher and consultant. His work is focused on helping cultivate spaces in school settings where typically marginalized and codified students and their educators can thrive together. He is the co-editor, with David Jardine and Graham McCaffrey, of On the Pedagogy of Suffering: Hermeneutic and Buddhist Meditations
  • David Jardine
    Werklund School of Education
    E-mail Author
    DAVID W. JARDINE is a Professor in the Werklund School of Education, Calgary, Alberta. He is the author of several books including, most recently, Ecological Pedagogy, Buddhist Pedagogy, Hermeneutic Pedagogy: Experiments in a Curriculum for Miracles (2014) with Jackie Seidel, and Pedagogy Left in Peace: On the Cultivation of Free Spaces in Teaching and Learning (2012).
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