On Education

by Harry on March 18, 2006

Here’s a bit of not-quite-shameless self-promotion. My new book On Education has been out for a couple of months in the US, and longer in the UK.

I started writing the book around the time I started blogging here at CT, and wrote it largely with a CT-type audience in my head — smart, intellectually serious, and interested, but not necessarily specialists, in Philosophy or in Education. Also a transatlantic audience; I try to develop arguments and positions that will be interesting and useful to people in both the countries I know well. It’s an attempt to argue for a (small l) liberal account of the purposes of education, and to explore some current policy controversies in the light of those purposes — viz, funding of faith schools, teaching patriotism, and citizenship education; all with the aim of being accessible to just about anyone who is interested in these things (unlike some of what I write). It’s not for me to say how good it is, but it was reviewed very favourably in the TES, and the nicest comment was reported to me by the spouse of a teacher who is reading it: “She’s had several moments where her reaction as been that as soon as you said something, she sees that it’s obviously right, had thought about similar things, but had never formulated the point quite that way.” That’s a large part of what I hoped to achieve in the first part of the book.

I can say that it has three unquestionable virtues. It is short, inexpensive, and it has a nice cover (according to my wife, not always my strongest point).



Matt 03.18.06 at 4:25 pm

The “School Choice” cover isn’t bad, but what _is_ the deal with the flower on the _Justice_ book? Is it meant to be some sort of hippy thing? I don’t get it.


harry b 03.18.06 at 5:40 pm

One of my friends refers to it as “your flower book” whenever she mentions it. I think others in the series have similar covers….


Dan Kervick 03.18.06 at 9:38 pm

I look forward to taking a look at your book Harry. I taught philosophy for 18 years, and gave a lot of thought during that time to what the hell I was supposed to be doing, and the ultimate purpose of teaching or education.

I found many of the things I read on the subject very frustrating. My problem was that so many of these witings addressed education from a social or political point of view. The interest of the individual student was regarded as secondary to the advancement of a social agenda. The discussion quickly got bogged down in broad questions about politics and the arrangement of institutions, and ignored the fundamental relationship between the individual student and that student’s teacher.

The political aims often sound fine in the abstract. But in the classroom itself, I couldn’t avoid the profound sense that I had a duty to each individual to help them achieve what I felt they were at bottom trying most to achieve, without regard to society’s agenda for their lives. And I couldn’t avoid the reality of the emotional bond, the sense of mutual seeking, the struggle to find a meeting of minds, and the craving for freedom.

I also didn’t think my role was simply to satisfy whatever particular short-term desire the student might have happened to have – or think they have – at that particular moment, but to identify something deeper that was behind it all. Teaching, or teaching philosophy at least, struck me as similar in many ways to medicine. The patient comes to the medical practitioner seeking health, and already has a good idea about what their health consists in; but the patient must also rely to some extent on the practitioner’s expertise. Hopefully, the relationship develops in an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect and listening. They don’t typically come to the doctor and say “give me drug X”, and doctors are not expected to respond automatically to such requests, although perhaps in our own society with its anxious and reckless competitive chase for the material rewards that come from satisfying the immediate desires of others, this is becoming more and more the model.

The student is in a similar predicament. If they already knew precisely what it is they don’t know, then they would have no real need of teaching. They don’t come to the teacher and say “teach me proposition X”.

Ultimately, I came to feel that the point of education was “enlightenment” in something like a combination of the Western and the Eastern sense of the term. Enlightenment as I conceived it was the liberation and peace and happiness that comes with the growth of knowledge – particularly self-knowledge – and the removal of ignorance and illusion. It is the ultimate, dimly perceived home of the restless and wandering mind.

Through the process of teaching, I also came to learn why philosophy has often been the object of attack, suppression and hatred throughout human history. Human beings live in a world that hammers away mercilously at them, to try to form them into the sort of person that will serve some collective interest. Those interests are served by delivering trained human workers and servants into various niches, and by giving them a mental outlook and behavioral norms that conform with the dominant views and norms upon which their society is bulit. In a word, the natural tendency of society is subjugation and enthrallment; wheras the natural tendency of individual human beings is freedom. Ultimately, the seeking mind is not aiming at a condition that serves the world. It is after truth and liberation. And this is the subversive need to which the best philosophy has responded through the ages.

I did form one important political belief related to education. In all societies, including contemporary society, true education is hard to achieve, and generally available only to a fairly privileged class. The “educational system” in modern democracies is open to all, but that system pushes students at every juncture to accept a certain kind of training in place of education. Real education is intrinsically valuable, but is a sort of luxury item that is very unequally distributed.


vivian 03.19.06 at 12:32 am

And you will be headlining a mini-conference next weekend somewhere in the Boston (MA) area, right? To do with this book or other work?


harry b 03.19.06 at 9:06 am

Dan, I agree with a lot of what you say. My book is focussed on compulsory schooling, so I wouldn’t say we should help children achieve what they already want to, but certainly facilitating their self-realisation, or flourishing, is at the core of what we should be doing. The view I take is much richer than you would find in my previous book on schooling. I leave out any discussion of the distribution of educational opportunities, though in some of my other work that is a central question for me. I hope you find the book interesting and will tell me what I get right and wrong!

vivian — I thought we were the supporting act (to Satz and Anderson), and indeed I see from the program that we are on first. The conference is, I think, more about the distributive questions which I said to dan I deliberately left out of the book, so its not on the book, but it is related. It looks like a great conference to me! Here’s the URL with map and all.


Should I announce this? If you come to it, please say hello!


harry b 03.19.06 at 9:10 am

If anyone does come to the MIT conference, an earlier version of our paper is here:
and an earlier version of what I presume wil be Debra Satz’s paper is here:


jake 03.20.06 at 1:02 pm

US higher education is plagued by all sorts of problems. INdeed, a brief investigation of the application process for admittance into various University of California graduate programs demonstrates the stalinist character of the modern university.

The deadline for admission into say a UC Santa Barbara Enlgish or Philosophy PhD program is January 1st; not only is the long, police-report-like application needed, but 3 recent letters of recommendation (of course, from professors in “good standing”), “official” transcripts, and then some lengthy essay “Why I want you to admit me”. It’s designed to keep creative and subversive men out of the system (it’s difficult to imagine say a William Faulkner not to say a Gregorio Corso making it through this bureaucratic muck); and meant to put another crop of obedient but hip rich kids from the right geographic areas into the biz. The idea of say some perosn taking a graduate class at a UC without having the State stamp of “Matriculation” is unthinkable.

The letter of recommendation (LOR) policy is perhaps the most obvious unethical practice. Say X has a degree with decent grades. Yet for whatever reason he cannot obtain all the letters of recommendation: yet another applicant, say with a lower GPA does obtain LOR. Simply due to the letter with no regard to academic work the one applicant is now in a much better situation.

How are these letters assessed anyways? “She’s a good kid. Follows orders. Writes well. Her nipples are pierced. Possible party material.”

UC admission policies are right out of Padua, 1300. UC Padua by the Sea.

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