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Towards a transformative philosophy of education - Andrew Taggart

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What is the character of our time?

Our time is characterised by the loss of legitimate institutional authority. We have entered an unsettled period in which our previous way of life is slowly unravelling but a new way of life has yet to emerge. The spirit, if not yet the reality, of liberal society perished during the UK riots, after the rise of the Tea Party in the US, and with the anarchist stirrings of Occupy Wall Street.

Liberal society has failed. The liberal state - god without good - sees not to your wealth, but to the possibility of your procuring wealth; not to your health, but to the outlawing of known poisons; not to your wellbeing, but to your life. The market, meanwhile, happily administers to your preferences and desires, regardless of its ability to produce items of intrinsic value or objects that fulfil your basic human needs. The more the market grows, the more vast its expanse, the happier it becomes. In all this, the modern family also has its moorings. It is now tasked chiefly with monitoring your child’s psychosocial progress, ensuring that he grows up to be a skilful chooser. It is not important that he learns to love the right things or to fulfil his civic obligations, only that he learns well the game of wanting, getting, and having. All three institutions work hand-in-hand to raise a self that embodies an ethic of freedom: negative liberty in the case of the state, preference maximisation in the case of the marketplace, and freedom as the capacity to choose otherwise in the case of the family.

In liberal society, individuals are primordially strangers whose social distrust is only matched by their fondness for privacy. As strangers, they come unstuck and feel existentially lost. This phenomenon cannot go on indefinitely. As these institutions collapse, the absurd consequences of alienation body forth in monstrous nihilism. The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the UK riots, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom singularly and collectively reveal the absurdities of the liberal state, the market, and the family. With a forceful earnestness, the Tea Party said no: not to the paternalist state, the social welfare state, or the abstentionist state, but to the modern state altogether. Occupy Wall Street said no to statism and corporate capitalism. The UK rioters said no - not so much through their words but through their actions - to the possibility that consumerist desires promulgated by neoliberalism could be legally consummated by all. And Franzen’s novel said no to a frictionless conception of freedom, by illustrating how the burden of choice leads of its own accord to a sense of despair.


What then? And who among us will say yes - and if yes, then yes to what?

During unsettled times, we cannot hold onto the practices and institutions inscribed within the liberal way of life because these are slowly passing out of existence. Instead, we must return to first principles and final ends. We must return to the question of education. We must examine the foundation of industrial education so that we can say yes to tutelage and yes, thereby, to a life of radiance.


What are the aims of industrial education?

The dual aims of industrial education are upward mobility and self-esteem. In the United States up until the Second World War, public education still retained republican elements of the liberal arts tradition such as the moral and civic virtues. Yet after midcentury, schools shifted their focus and their resources away from character education and toward training young persons in a narrow set of formal skills - chiefly, reading, writing, and mathematics, but also the ‘practical arts’ like accounting, engineering, and economics - so that they would have the tools they needed to become ‘knowledge workers’ in the hypercompetitive ‘symbolic economy’ of ideas, services, and technology. The final end of higher education was to be the mobile, flexible white-collar professional.

Today, we are beset on all sides by tedium: the tedium of education reform stemming, on the left and the right, from the unholy belief that social mobility is a thing divine. On the grounds that resources are not fairly or evenly distributed, the left natters on about ‘privilege’ and ‘access’ and ‘elitism’ while the right, no less exhausting in its vituperations and excoriations, bellows on about ‘just deserts’, then about standards and accountability, and finally about quantitative measures. Neither speaks of anything apart from technical expertise, and though they differ on the principle of reshuffling, both share the assumption that higher education is the great reshuffler of a fungible social order.

For the past 30 years, though, and with refreshing candour, the poet and farmer Wendell Berry has been criticising the project of ‘upward mobility’ root and branch, on the grounds that it destroys local communities, lays waste to usable land, excises the social and natural costs of environmental degradation from its economic calculations, and blinds us to our historical and metaphysical myopia. Its broken promises are based on unpaid loans and accumulating debts. To the question, ‘In what sense does upward mobility benefit the common good?’, the answer can only be silence.

John Dewey was the proponent of another, more Romantic conception of education. Replacing a curriculum of shared ideas and common understandings with an open-ended enquiry based on the pupil’s desire to realise his butterfly self, the self-esteem movement culminated in the divestment of teacher responsibility concerning the student’s progress and in the promotion of the cult of ‘feeling good’ about oneself. The Victorian master, the paternalist prick, the stern moralist - figures we would by no means want to have back - gave way to the soft-hearted facilitator. Yes, the student’s ideas were to be validated, but left out was a standard by which the teacher could evaluate the importance of his ideas. Yes, personal fulfilment was to be affirmed, yet there remained no way to determine whether the ends sought were worth pursuing. How, indeed, to tell the difference between vanity and self-respect, self-love and genuine understanding? How not to become excessively proud, and thereby also deeply prejudiced?

The upshot of this abomination is that authenticity has had to exist in a bubble. As an internal ideal concerned solely with coherency, it can say nothing about how to tie one’s plans of life to external ends of independent weight and genuine import. Thus, so long as we value self-esteem without reference to anything objective, we unwittingly replicate The Matrix. As if to illustrate this line of thought, an article last summer in The Atlantic Monthly details hauntingly how young adults, raised by well-meaning, financially secure parents and schooled in the gymnasium of self-esteem, turn up at therapists’ doors recounting their lack of meaning or orientation.[1]


And who are the exemplars of industrial education?

The exemplars of industrial education are the English intellectual Geoff Dyer and the self-help guru Tim Ferriss. Both are models of upward mobility and self-fulfilment. Both are successful in their respective endeavors. Both, at once failures and successes of industrial education, are clever without being wise.

Dyer is first of all the scholarship boy and second the peripatetic writer.[2] If he is a member of anything, it is the leisured middle class whose distinguishing marks are cosmopolitanism, urbanity, and rootlessness. In his book on D.H. Lawrence, a fellow intellectual and peripatetic, Dyer writes about how he vacillates endlessly over where to live, what to do, and how to go on. His perpetual vacillation, it seems, leads to ranting about vacillation and ranting, in turn, culminates in exhaustion.

Dyer loathes working and so roams about uselessly, not settling on one genre of writing or on any one area of enquiry but praising the life, in his 2005 essay ‘My Life as a Gate-Crasher’, of ‘intellectual nomadism.’[3] I am struck, as ever, by the beauty and grace of Dyer’s prose, also by the vast scope of his intellectual curiosity, by his laudable desire to break free of narrow academic enclaves, and, most of all, by his wit and humour. But that cannot be all there is to a life well-lived. During a recent conversation, my friend Jules Evans observed that Dyer is ‘searingly funny and honest about how unwise he is.’

‘That’s what makes him a quintessential postmodern,’ I replied. ‘He is searingly honest and funny, but also Beckettian.’

‘Yes,’ Jules replied. ‘Dyer’s despair is unwarranted, really, because it’s an exercise in style. He never challenges it; he makes love to it.’

He makes love to it. In Dyer, we see freedom and self-esteem meeting their unhappy doubles: hyper-stylised self-absorption and ascetic self-detachment. In him, we also perceive lifelong waywardness as a social tragedy that follows from the failure of our social institutions to embed persons within practices and, in turn, from the nihilism of those seeking, but failing to discover, good reasons for leading one way of life as opposed to another. The paradox is that Dyer’s tragedy is also a comedy - more, a heroic triumph - of a modern social order that does not value good work, rooted home life, moral virtue, or local community but leisure, wit, individuality, and freedom.

Tim Ferriss, by contrast, represents the hustler entrepreneur, a clever slacker who, as I have argued elsewhere, is a ‘cross between a visionary, a Great Awakening evangelical preacher, a good-old American pragmatist, and a P.T. Barnam.’[4] He is also too clever for his own good, too good at promising upward mobility and its spoils - leisure, pleasure, wealth, and health - on the cheap.

On the cheap because, he enjoins, we can enjoy the fruits of wealth without being wealthy, health by exercising more efficiently, leisure without responsibility, and sex without consequence. Like modernist poets and nineteenth-century scientists, he believes in self-experimentation (ours is the ‘age of self-experimentation,’ he has said), yet this only for the sake of a dubious final end. He is the crude utilitarian seeking to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Quite good at this, too, but not so good at the good life.

While Dyer the intellectual is dissatisfied with much, save transient moments of aesthetic splendour, Ferriss the empiricist is sated, as ever, with hedonic pleasure. Arguably, they are but two versions of the same story of upward mobility/personal fulfilment story. Not Greece and Jerusalem, but Europe and America. According to the standards of liberal society and evaluated by the norms of modern education, Dyer and Ferriss are leading successful lives. Yet they can only count as exemplars of success in a world shorn of higher ends and unmoored from viable social practices. Only in the Matrix of liberal society could being free to waste one’s life be a tempting possibility and a desirable reality. In her profile of Tim Ferriss in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead observes, ‘Every generation gets the self-help guru that it deserves’.[5] The same could be said of every generation about its most highly flattered writers.


Oh, but do you remember when you were a child? Do you remember learning and learning well? And can you recall how learning is possible?

Learning cannot take place apart from the practice of teaching and outside the bounds of a venerable institution. On the one hand, there is no such thing as self-directed inquiry, as this assumes that the inquirer has the means, the resources, and the virtues to search for what is best and, on her own, to cultivate something higher and more estimable. Here, once again, we find the Great Chooser free to navigate the web according to his untrained attention, flitting curiosities, and overfed preferences.[6] On the other hand, learning is not simply the transmission of theoretical knowledge or a ‘banking transaction’ (a case the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire made convincingly in the early 1970s), but an experience of knowing. Mastery of algorithms, procedures, technical knowledge is nothing but the manipulation of information without basis, reason, or synopsis.

Unlike self-directed activity and technical expertise, learning is meant to be a self-transformative process, a practice that progresses through doing and thinking toward the realisation of final goods. Of the paradigmatic figures, Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, and Confucius, Karl Jaspers writes, ‘Their concern was not mere [theoretical] knowledge, but a transformation in men’s thinking and inward action.’[7] For them, a transformation in both senses, and both at once. Learning, accordingly, rests on guided exercises and exemplary models. Exercises might include the practical knowledge of making things well and learning to love good design; the art of play, improvisation, and storytelling; forms of meditation such as premeditatio malorum, examination of conscience, and Socratic dialogue; the cultivation of virtue by means of the development of good habits; and the refinement of taste concerning good and bad, better and worse, more or less. Learning makes strenuous exercise the basis for a larger practice, good institutions, and the renewal of a collective way of life.

To be sure, some ways of life can be ruled out on the grounds that they bear within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Apart from this class of imminently collapsible models, there does not seem to be, prima facie, one supreme way of life (the view Isaiah Berlin criticised as ‘monism’ or ‘Platonism’), but, pace value pluralism, there do seem to be better and worse, more workable and less workable ways of being in the world.

This the pupil can see in the radiant example of his teacher. In his discussion of the concept of respect (Achtung) in The Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals, Kant is at pains to show that we do not respect this person as such, but ‘the law (of integrity and so forth) of which he gives us an example.’[8] In The Symposium, Socrates says something similar about love: we do not truly love the beloved, so much as we desire, via the stepping stone of loving a sensuous particular, the Form of love. Whether Kant or Socrates is right about the concepts of respect and love is beside the point. (In the case of love, I hope Socrates is wrong.) What is at issue, though, is whether we perceive rightly when we look at a radiant example. In the presence of an estimable figure, we do not want to be or to possess him; we are not tempted to fetishise (call it ‘guru-ism’) or follow blindly (‘fascism’) the educator. Rather, we see the radiance of the educator shine forth, we want to be the kind of person she is, and we desire to craft a model of our own that exhibits the same formal properties (wholeness, meaning, clarity) embodied therein. Consequently, the emphasis in learning well is on our perception of the model just insofar as it is actualised.

On this picture of education, learning is the desire to overcome the divide between pupil and educator. By virtue of striving and understanding, the pupil rises up to the educator, becoming worthy of friendship. The scene of friendship can only become commonplace in the context of good authority.


But why do we need good authority?

As the imperium lay in ruins, St. Benedict, born into wealth yet rejecting all decadence, travelled south from Rome. In a cave near modern-day Enfide he found seclusion and there in contemplation stayed for three years, until he was called to be Abbot of Monte Cassino. Under his hand, monasteries were built and cenobites thrived. Over millenia, houses became ruins and were built anew. When life flourished, it was because cenobites followed the radiant Benedictine principles of obedience, humility, and simplicity.

The Rule (Ordo) of St. Benedict was meant to be a trellis: a way of bringing an individual’s life into harmony with the cosmos. ‘Saint Benedict,’ Patrick Henry observes, ‘was not promulgating [invariant] rules for living; he was establishing a framework on which a life can grow. While a branch of a plant climbing a trellis cannot go in any direction it wants, you cannot know in advance which way it will go. The plant is finding its own path, within a structure.’[9]

Within a structure but within not any structure: a trellis, a framework that supports right growth. Without the trellis, the vine tree cannot grow and grapes will not swell. With the trellis, the vine can find some way; its way, but not any way. Even though there exists a variety of settings in which grapes can flourish, some (those which are too harsh) can be ruled out from the outset, and doubtless some outcomes will be better, others worse. The delicate, attentive work of cultivation rests upon the vintner’s exercise of good judgment, which is itself based on experience, perception, and attention to life needs. Good growth, from beginning to end, is directed by guiding hands toward actualising the plant’s essence in full flowering, a flowering that always also comes as a surprise, a marvel eliciting gratitude. (As if to say: this turned out well - but my God, who knew it would frondesce this way?)

In the trellis, one discerns the possibility of a ‘lay monastic’ way of life that transcends liberal society. Stability, in contrast with waywardness, could be regarded as a commitment to a set of friends in a small community, a fellowship overflowing with kindred spirits; fidelity as a commitment to a practice of self-transformation (metanoia); and obedience as the recognition of the authority of a wise educator who directs your practice.

But surely deference to authority would plant the seeds of tyranny? Surely deference is tantamount to slavishness? Not necessarily. According to the philosopher Philip Kitcher, deference also requires the exercise of good judgment on the part of the pupil. It ‘thus depends on a capacity to recognise the source of the commands as good, and that requires just that ability to assess the deity [in this case, the educator], independent of his pronouncements...’[10]

Good authority is rather like a virtuous circle. I learn to pronounce on the justice of another’s directives by learning to perceive how, and whether, he embodies good authority. And as I learn further how radiant authority shines forth, and as I also become more self-reflectively aware of my basic needs and spiritual desires, I learn to evaluate my educator’s example, her instructions, her admonitions, her praise-songs, according to standards of good authority. Through and only through my teacher’s direction and nurturant guidance do I become autonomous. And - let this be the plenitude of the harvest - the more autonomous I become, the more love I return, the more thanks I give, the more gifts I bestow; the more gifts I bestow, the more radiant I become.


  1. Lori Gottlieb, ‘How to Land Your Kid in Therapy’, The Atlantic, July/August 2011 - http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/
  2. Andrew Taggart, ‘Models for Post-University Life’, Inside Higher Ed, 16 March 2011 - http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2011/03/16/essay_on_alternatives_to_traditional_university_life_for_academics
  3. Geoff Dyer, ‘My Life as a Gate-Crasher’, Working the Room: Essays (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), 349-352.
  4. Taggart, ‘Models for Post-University Life’
  5. Rebecca Mead, ‘Better, Faster, Stronger’, The New Yorker, 5 September 2011 - http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/09/05/110905fa_fact_mead?currentPage=all
  6. Andrew Taggart, ‘Whither Moral Education?’, The World and I Journal, November 2011 - http://www.worldandijournal.com/subscribers/feature_detail.asp?num=28293
  7. Karl Jaspers, Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The Paradigmatic Individuals, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Harcourt, 1957), 93.
  8. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals, trans. and ed. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 14.
  9. Patrick Henry, ‘The Trellis’, Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict, ed. Patrick Henry (New York: Riverhead, 2001), 1.
  10. Philip Kitcher, ‘Challenges for Secularism,’ The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, ed. George Levine (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 40.