Posted by: mrlock | May 18, 2014

What can we learn from the liberal philosophers of education of the 60s?

This is the first in what I hope becomes a series of posts remarking on some of the work of Richard Stanley Peters, Michael Oakeshott, Paul Hirst and Robert Dearden.

The new field of philosophy of education was born in the 1950s (though of course, there is a sense in which, obvious if one looks back to Plato, the entire tradition of philosophy is about education), and the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, (of which I’m a member) was born in the year 1964.

During my MA, I first encountered the work of the above thinkers. They belonged to what was termed the London school.They applied analytic philosophy to matters of education. That is to say that they took the concepts of education and looked at each one in order to attempt to discover its underlying logic.

A key aspect of their writing was their  criticism of child-centred or progressive orthodoxy (and it really was an orthodoxy in the 60s). This criticism was of play, of experiential learning, and of the preoccupation with happiness. They believed the orthodoxy had an overly romantic view of the child. I was particularly struck by a phrase my lecturer, Paul Standish at the Institute of Education, challenged me with after an early essay. RS Peters complained that modern education was too concerned by the manner of education, rather than the matter of education.

The view of the liberal philosophers was that what is to be learned is the key question educators should be interested in, and they leant heavily on Oakeshott in looking towards a liberal education as the alternative to progressivism.

The idea that really appeals to me is that the purpose of education should be to induct some into what Oakeshott called the ‘conversation of mankind’ was appealing to me. By way of analogy, you can stick me in a chemistry laboratory and call me free all you like. However, I really can’t do much, because I haven’t been inducted into the language, the traditions and the thought that has resulted in the discipline of chemistry. I’m not equipped to engage in that conversation. That induction, that frees me to be involved in the conversation, is education.

As civilised human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and enquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. . . Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. . . Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human utterance (Oakeshott)

This was appealing to me, and still is. Even as I read it, I’m reminded of the arguments that still rage across twitter and on blogs, and while I hear about Dewey, Rousseau, Herbert Spencer, Vygotsky, and Piaget, I hear very little of any of the above philosophers.

I met Robert Peal at an education bloggers curry, and he asked me what had started changing my mind. When had I stopped being a progressive? What caused me to believe that every child is entitled to a liberal knowledge based curriculum.

My answer was that it started when I read RS Peters and his colleagues during my MA. I hadn’t given up on progressive ideology when I finished my MA. I have now.

I have recently read Peal’s excellent book on the history of progressive education. It’s a terrific read, and particularly brilliant in its cataloguing of the history of progressivism. I finished it far richer in understanding the all-encompassing nature of child-centred orthodoxy, its history (lots hidden) and failures, and the scale of the task in challenging it. I was struck by how the challenge is similar to the one that Peters and company were writing and complaining about. I think that the liberal philosophers of education have a lot to add to this challenge, so I want to reclaim them.

I’m therefore going to read or re-read essays by these four philosophers and blog about them. I’ll try and do one a week. I’m going to start with What is teaching? by Hirst.

The third post in the series is on liberal education and the nature of knowledge


  1. I’m really glad that you are going to do this. I am studying Phil of Ed now and I think Peters ideas in particular are definitely of general interest. I am also concerned with the lack of theoretical depth to a lot of the so-called “traditionalist” view and look forward to the parallels you seem to be preparing to draw here with our present situation.


  2. I look forward to these blogs with interest. Thank you in anticipation.


  3. Do you attribute the quote to Hirst? It’s from Oakeshott (“The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen, 1962: 197-247.) I’ll follow your thoughts with interest.


    • Really? Oops and thanks!


  4. This is turning out to be one of the most fascinating pathways I have followed since starting to read on the bloggershpere.

    I am trying to get my head around some of this stuff.

    Is there a theme running through this sort of discussion as to whether what we teach should be clearly determined by society (and to a great extent how we teach it) to meet the needs of society and in doing so most individuals might benefit. This compared with whether the needs of the individual should govern the what we teach (and the way we teach it).

    Would I be thinking on the right lines that in the former are the seeds of “trad” whereas in the latter are the seeds of “prog”.

    Any illumination, and any advice on focused reading material would be nice. I will still await the series of blogs with great anticipation.

    Thank you


    • On the contrary, I believe the liberal philosophers would subscribe to education for education’s sake – certainly no form of training for jobs, including those that don’t exist yet.

      It will be interesting to explore.


  5. Great to meet you in person, after reading in appreciation and agreement. The conversation will continue…


    • Very many congratulations. Though it was damaging to my ego, I think it was the right decision.


  6. The “manner” and “matter” quote is crucial, especially when theorists still claim that all knowledge is on Google or whichever search engine they happen to use themselves and all that matters is teaching independently in groups.

    Keep going – there is little which would even count as philosophy in education today.


  7. I eagerly wait more of your blog posts, a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking read and just what my mind is craving after a year of non-committal, theory/evidence-lite, philosophy-starved PGCE training!


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