Epistemic Injustice by Miranda Fricker (some brief comments)

This is an important idea, developed by author Miranda Fricker, Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. It is something many of us will have experienced, i.e., we have been wronged specifically in our capacity as knower.

This happens all the time to my husband who has been a quadriplegic for 57 years and as such uses a wheelchair. Despite this, he had a successful academic career. However, this did not and does not prevent many people from assuming that being in a wheelchair equates to lack of intelligence, or the capacity to speak knowledgeably. For example, he often experiences people directing answers to his questions to me over the top of his head. According to Miranda Fricker, this is an example of ‘testimonial injustice’.

‘Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.’ (p.1).

 ‘Epistemic Injustice. Power and the Ethics of Knowing’, was the book discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network last month. The discussion was introduced by Dr Alison MacKenzie @QUBelfast. I have to admit that I didn’t read the book. Perhaps it was simply the wrong time for me to try. At the time I just didn’t have the energy or motivation to engage with the academic style of writing, but I did look for secondary sources (see list below) and found a couple of videos and a few articles which helped and meant that I did feel that I could still attend the reading network zoom call.

Much of the discussion in the online meeting focussed on testimonial injustice. Most people had examples from personal experience that they could recount. Less time was spent ‘hermeneutic injustice’ which is the second form of injustice that Fricker writes about.

‘Hermeneutic injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.’ (p.1)

‘An example of the first [testimonial injustice] might be that the police do not believe you because you are black; an example of the second (hermeneutic injustice) might be that you suffer sexual harassment in a culture that still lacks that critical concept.‘ (p.1)

Despite not having read the book, I enjoyed the zoom call and left it rather wishing I had read the book. I think if I had persevered, I probably would have got a lot from it. Dr Alison MacKenzie raised these questions for us to discuss:

  1. What are the merits of Fricker’s work? And does it speak to your own experiences of either testimonial or hermeneutical injustice?
  2. What are we to make of Fricker’s claim that Joe (Enduring Love) merely experiences incidental hermeneutic injustice when the police fail to take his claims seriously that he’s being stalked (p.158)
  3. Relatedly, do you find anything problematic in the claim that a person who experiences a medical condition about which little is known merely experiences ‘circumstantial epistemic bad luck’? (152)
  4. Could Fricker be accused of structural gaslighting because of her failure to engage with the work of black feminist philosophers? (This is the argument of Nora Berenstain, 2020, Hypatia, 35/4)

As ever, the reading network group went its own way and didn’t directly address the speaker’s questions, but the questions are always useful for future reference.

And also, despite not having read the book, I wanted to mark here the idea of Epistemic Injustice, which once you know about it, you can see all round you, not least in yourself, or at least that is my experience.

Here is the list of secondary sources I accessed:

Philosophy Bites. Miranda Fricker on Epistemic Injustice (13 mins)

Miranda Fricker on testimony and the power of words (6 mins)

Huzeyfe Demirtas (July 2020) Epistemic Injustice

University of Bristol Epistemic injustice resource page

Epistemic Injustice Community Engagement Project

Miranda Fricker – Epistemic Equality? (41 mins)

The next meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network will be on June 21st, when the group will discuss Martin Buber’s The Knowledge of Man. The book will be introduced by Prof Sam Rocha. This is already proving to be an even more challenging read, but since it consists of selected essays, I hope to have read at least some of them before the meeting.

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network is an open group which anyone can attend. Details of how to join the zoom call are usually posted on Twitter a few days ahead of the meeting. See @PhilofEd

‘Dancing in the Dark’ and dwelling in uncertainty

Dancing in the Dark – A Survivor’s Guide to the University is the next book to be discussed on April 19th by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network. This is a delightful, curious, and thought-provoking tiny book which defies attempts to pigeon-hole it into a category and particularly not into an academic category, despite reference to the University in the title.

There are many things to like about this book. It really is tiny, roughly 10 x 14.5 cm and about 50 pages in length, but there is no sense that this has been for cost-saving purposes, for example by cramming a lot into a limited number of pages. The font is a good size, there is plenty of white space and there are many pages of intriguing artwork by artist and dream whisperer Geoffrey Baines. In short it is a lovely object in it’s own right, which you can easily slip into a pocket or bag.

And before starting to discuss the content of the book, I should also mention that it is beautifully sold by Golden Hare Books. It came with a bookmark and a message on a postcard from the sales team. The personal touch made receiving the book such a pleasure.

So, what is this book about and who is it for? The authors, Anne Pirrie, Nini Fang and Elizabeth O’Brien say that it is for anyone working or studying in a university who feels they are fumbling around in the dark, but I think it doesn’t have to be confined to this sector. This book is for anyone who is uncomfortable with uncertainty, or not knowing; anyone who feels ‘locked down’ by their and others’ expectations, anyone who questions whether they are good enough for whatever it is they are doing; anyone who equates being ‘in the dark’ with failure.

The authors say that they ‘challenge the binary between shadows and light – and in respect of form – between lightweight and gravitas.’ ‘Our aim’, they say, ‘is to reinstate the shadows as a place of possibility and to reassure the reader that the entertainment of doubt is the heart of the educational project’. In other words, we can embrace being ‘in the dark’, embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, embrace not knowing; and more than this we can be open to doubt, be curious, and learn to ‘dance in the dark’.

What I particularly like about this book is that the authors have created a sense of ‘dancing in the dark’ in the way they have written and presented their ideas. Despite the fact that they reference philosophers, sociologists, psychoanalysts, poets, and artists, they do not present this as an academic text. True to their words, they have challenged the binary between lightweight and gravitas, they have explored the interplay between shadows and light and resisted being governed by ‘linear understanding of learning processes’. They share their ideas with us through conversation and narrative, drawing on their personal experience, and resisting closing circles of inquiry. They do not offer solutions or practical assistance but invite us to acknowledge the essential unknowability of the ‘Other’ and leave the circle incomplete.


Pirrie, A., Fang, N. and O’Brien, E. (2021). Dancing in the Dark. A Survivor’s Guide to the University. Tilosophy Press.

See also Roy Williams’ wiki post – Dancing in the Dark/Seeing in the Shadows

Source of image 1: https://goldenharebooks.com/

Source of image 2: https://www.henrimatisse.org/the-dance.jsp


Elizabeth O’Brien, together with Victoria Jamieson, founded the Philosophy of Education Reading Network

Lines. A Brief History by Tim Ingold (Notes)

“Line making of one sort or another is as old as speech. For as long as people have been talking to one another, they have surely also been gesturing with their hands, and of these gestures a proportion will have left traces on surfaces of various kinds.” (Ingold, 2016, p.153)

The first book of the year to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Tim Ingold’s Lines. A Brief History. When I first opened the book, I was delighted and intrigued. The book, as you might expect, includes many illustrations of line drawings, including Richard Long’s well known work ‘A Line Made by Walking’, but also a number of beautiful line drawings from different cultures, such as the kolam designs from Tamil Nadu, South India. This reminded me of my own photos of kolam designs that I took when visiting Kanchipurum in 2012.

Source of image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157629620573535

I did at this point wonder what this book might have to do with education, since there is no reference to education in the index, but I speculated that it might have something to do with linear thinking, which it does, implicitly, but not explicitly, and this is not the main theme of the book.

So, at the beginning of January, I started reading the book with great enthusiasm, only to find it very hard work. This is not a bedtime reading book. I had to devote several hours to it, and made many notes, but even then, although I found it interesting, I just couldn’t seem to pull my thoughts about it together. It took the Philosophy of Education Reading Network zoom meeting (which is always held on the third Tuesday of the month) to begin to untangle my muddled lines of thought, although I suspect that the book is one of those that requires several readings to fully absorb.

Ingold starts the book with the question: ‘What do walking, weaving, observing, singing, storytelling, drawing and writing have in common?’ and answers it by saying that they all proceed along lines of one kind or another. ‘It takes only a moment’s reflection’, he writes, ‘to recognize that lines are everywhere. As walking, talking and gesticulating creatures, human beings generate lines wherever they go. It is not just that line-making is as ubiquitous as the use of the voice, hands and feet – respectively in speaking, gesturing and moving around – but rather that it subsumes all these aspects of everyday human activity and, in so doing, brings them together into a single field of inquiry’. (Ingold, 2016, p.1)

Chapter by chapter Ingold explores different types of lines. In the first chapter he explores the relationship between language, music and notation, the distinction between speech and song, the script and the score and the origins of musical notation. I found this a difficult chapter to follow, but Ingold uses eye-catching headings such as ‘How the Page Lost its Voice’, and ‘The Word Nailed Down by Print’, which help to capture the imagination and interest.

Through the following chapters Ingold develops his taxonomy of lines. There are:

Threads, filaments, such as a ball of wool, violin strings, whiskers, rhizomes, Threads have surfaces but are not drawn on surfaces. The making of threads is a human speciality.

Traces, such as two-dimensional drawings and surface decoration. A trace is any enduring mark left in or on a solid surface by a continuous movement, A trace can be additive (chalk on a blackboard, snail slime) or reductive (scratched into the surface, e.g., footprints, made with or without tools). Interestingly Richard Long’s line made by walking is neither additive nor reductive.

Cuts, cracks, and creases, made by rupture in a surface

Ghostly lines, e.g., survey lines, lines of longitude, latitude, line of the equator, and imaginary lines which form the constellations in the night sky.

Source of image: http://www.constellationofthemonth.com/2014/10/the-plough.html

In writing, knitting, embroidery and lacework, threads may be transformed into traces, and traces into threads. ‘It is through the transformation of threads into traces (as in knotting, weaving, brocade and text) that surfaces are brought into being. It is through the transformation of traces into threads (as in mazes and loop designs) that surfaces are dissolved’. (Ingold, 2016, p.54)

There are also: Trails and routes and lines on cartographic maps, Storylines and Plots, and Genealogical Lines, and Ingold discusses the development of drawing, writing, calligraphy, printing and engraving in relation to lines.

Lines, Ingold tells us, can be active and dynamic flourishes, going where they will for movements sake, having no beginning or end. These lines take us on a journey. These are wayfaring lines, winding, irregular, and entangled.

Or lines can go from point to point. These lines are in a hurry. The line that connects adjacent points is static.

Over history the line has been shorn of movement. It is no longer a trace of a continuous gesture but fragmented into points. Wayfaring has been replaced by destination-oriented transport. Transport lines are straight and regular and intersect only at nodal points of power. Transport lines restrict movement and divide and cut the occupied surface into territorial blocks (Ingold, 2016, p.85).

Tim Ingold argues that over time the line has become increasingly linearized, fragmented and straight. The wayfaring line, which he believes to be the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human inhabit the earth, is no longer valued. Instead, in modern times, straight lines are ubiquitous. ‘The inhabitant is one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being, and who, in laying a trail of life, contributes to its weave and texture.’ (Ingold, 2016, p.83)

Thinking about lines is to think about the world in terms of processes – of becoming rather than being.

So, what has all this to do with education?

Vicky Jamieson, who led the discussion in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s January zoom call, raised three questions for us to consider.

Is there space in education to teach children to attend, and to learn from what they observe and experience, and embrace the unfinished and incompleteness? And how might we as educators bring education out of the ordinary?

Ingold casts doubt over the contemporary way of life – life which often demands linearity in the pursuit of certainty, logic, and rigour. Chapter 6 explores the implications of straight lines: straight lines have a clear sense of direction (p.167). Education has just experienced a rupture in its ‘straight line’. How might this fragmentation and rupturing of the line be a passage for the future of education?

Ingold draws a distinction between the traveller and the wayfarer. He elevates the path of the wayfarer over that of the traveller. For Ingold, wayfaring is where life is lived where knowledge is forged along the way. As Ingold writes, ‘[i]ndeed the wayfarer or seafarer has no final destination, for wherever he is, and so long as life goes on, there is somewhere further he can go’ (p.76). How might we, as educators, cultivate wayfarers?

These questions led to a fruitful discussion on what the implications of thinking about education as an open journey along an active and dynamic wayfaring line might be, as opposed to moving along a dotted line, from point to point. The group discussed whether learners can make their own lines, threads, and traces, and whether they can cope with the complexity of tangled and interconnected lines.

Whilst Ingold does not discuss education in his book ‘Lines. A Brief History’, he does briefly in this short video (10 mins).

Here he tells us that educators should lead novices out of their fixed positions and expose them to the world. We should learn to attend and respond to the things around us and become more attuned to the world around us, just as a skilled hunter is attuned to the properties of the environment. Not only is the world waiting for us to attend to it, but we should also be waiting for the world. We must push out into the unknown, being both prepared and unprepared. Human life is lived in this tension between mastery and the unknown, and between patience/waiting and responding to world as it is.

At the end of his book, Tim Ingold writes: ‘What matters is not the final destination, but all the interesting things that occur along the way’ (Ingold, 2016, p.174). If just this one sentence was embraced by educators, it would be a challenge to our current straight and dotted line approach to education.

 And the PhilofEd discussion was summed up on Twitter with the following thoughts:

‘Tonight’s meeting closed with two different, possible, difficult, beautiful entreaties – to be wayfarers, not knowing things together, and to write and spend time beginning with “I wonder…’


Ingold, T. (2016). Lines. A Brief History. Routledge

A Year with the Philosophy of Education Reading Network

It has actually been more than a year since I joined this reading network, so it’s maybe time to take stock and reflect on my experience. Here is a list of the books and authors that the group has read. Most (but not all) the links are to my blog posts about my reading. Further details can also be found on the Philosophy of Education Reading Network website.

August 2020Iris MurdochThe Sovereignty of GoodI found out about the group just before their first meeting, so didn’t have time to read the book, although I did find information about the work online.
September 2020Gert BiestaThe Beautiful Risk of EducationThis book was already on my bookshelf
October 2020Mary MidgleyWhat is Philosophy For?I knew of Mary Midgley as she wrote a review of Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary. I have been thinking about McGilchrist’s work for more than 10 years, but his books are too long to recommend to this group!
November 2020Paulo FreirePedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed

See also Paulo Freire’s questions for educators
This book was already on my bookshelf, as it surely is on many educators’ shelves.
December 2020Richard RortyPhilosophy and Social HopeI knew of Richard Rorty as a friend gave me his book ‘Philosophy as Poetry’
January 2021Hannah ArendtThe Gap Between Past and Future
Chapter 1. Tradition and the Modern Age
Chapter 2. The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern
Chapter 3. What is Authority?
Chapter 4. What is Freedom?
Chapter 5. The Crisis in Education
Chapter 6. The Crisis in Culture
Chapter 7. Truth and Politics
Chapter 8. The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man
I knew of Hannah Arendt, but had never read her work before. This book was a real eye-opener. It really captured my interest.
February 2021Amélie RortyPhilosophers on Education (Chapters 1-4 and 26-27)The Reading Network helped me access this very big and expensive book. Thank you.
March 2021bell hooksTeaching to TransgressThis book was already on my bookshelf. bell hooks was a legend in education.
April 2021Decolonising Education.
In April the theme of the Reading Network was Decolonising Education, with a particular focus on Higher Education. The group read a selection of papers from a special edition of Cultural Studies journal (2007 – Vol 21, Issue 2-3)
I did not read these papers and took a break in April.
May 2021Nel NoddingsA Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education
See also. Nel Noddings. A Feminine Approach to Moral Education
This book was already on my bookshelf. It was required reading for a Masters module in 1994/5. I enjoyed it and could relate to it more this second time of reading. Age does have some advantages!
June 2021Simone WeilAn Anthology complied by Siân MilesI didn’t have time to read this book properly but I enjoyed looking into Simone Weil’s background. Quite a tour de force!
July 2021Maxine GreeneReleasing the ImaginationThis book had been on my radar for years and I finally read it. An important text for educators.
August 2021Martin BuberI and ThouThis book had a profound effect on me. The best book of the year for me, together with Hannah Arendt’s book.
September 2021John DeweyExperience and Education
See also. John Dewey. Traditional and Progressive Education
Many teachers will be familiar with John Dewey’s work, but it was good be reminded of it
October 2021Paula AllmanRevolutionary Social Transformation. Democratic Hopes, Political Possibilities and Critical EducationI took a break this month and did not read this book
November 2021Josef PieperLeisure the Basis of CultureThis book and author were completely new to me
December 2021John Hattie and Steen LarsenThe Purposes of EducationThis is the only book in the list that has irritated me 🙂

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network meets once a month, on the third Tuesday of the month on Zoom. Details of the zoom call are posted on their website and also on Twitter @PhilofEd. It was set up by two philosophy PhD candidates, Elizabeth O’Brien and Victoria Jamieson. How they have time to organise this and do their PhDs and their jobs, and live their lives, I really don’t know. I couldn’t even have contemplated taking this on, on top of everything else, but as one of the group members (Winnie O’Connell-Wong) has said, engagement with this group means that you end up reading books you would never have come across or got round to reading otherwise.

Every book that I have read so far because of @PhilofEd is not what I would have chosen to read myself, but I have been repeatedly surprised by how good the selection has been so far.

I really appreciate the democratic approach to the organisation of the group. The group is open to anyone who wants to join. If you do join you are not required to be on video or to speak. There is no hierarchy of group members. Each month a speaker is invited (either a group member or someone with expertise related to the text) to introduce the book and raise questions for the group to consider. If you go to the PhilofEd website and click on the images of books read, most of the time this will bring up the list of questions raised for the book. The introduction to the book on Zoom usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. The group can then discuss those questions or discuss anything else that is of interest. If you want to speak you simply unmute yourself and start to speak when there is a pause. The meeting lasts an hour and rarely runs over, and even then only runs over for administrative purposes. I like this tight time-keeping.

The selection of books to be read is also a very democratic process. Members of the group can suggest texts that they would like to read and discuss. These are then posted on the PhilofEd website. Every three months texts are randomly selected from members’ suggestions, which are numbered. A random number generator software is used to pick 4 trios of books. A poll is then set up on Twitter and members vote for which trio of books they would like to read over the coming three months.

It took me about 10 months to find my voice in this group. I have no background in philosophy, although since I retired I have attended a number of different adult education philosophy courses, but they have been taught courses, led by a tutor, who invites you to speak. Currently I am attending a face-to-face course on Fantastic Female Philosophers, which is being run over a number of months. The Philosophy of Education group is a reading network not a course.

I am also a member of my local U3A (University of the Third Age) philosophy group which meets monthly in Kendal to discuss a wide variety of topics dependent on members’ interests and who is willing to lead a session. The last one I went to in November was on the question ‘What can Covid teach us about Climate Change?’ with reference to the Stoics. Again, these are structured sessions.

The PhilofEd reading network sessions are only very loosely structured. There are some introductory questions, but I am always amazed that often few of them are addressed, if at all. The discussion goes in any direction that members want to take it. This lack of structure can be unnerving, particularly for newcomers who have to take the initiative and grasp the bull by the horns to speak.

Also unnerving can be the silences. Sometimes there are long pauses when no-one speaks. I was very amused in one meeting which was introduced by a Professor of Philosophy, who could not cope with the silence that followed the questions he raised, so he answered all the questions himself. This went down very well with the group because he was very knowledgeable and informative and as we know it is easier to sit back and be told than to have to think for yourself.

I definitely had to take the bull by the horns to speak the first time (and even to put my video on initially). I find it easier if I have seen the questions to be discussed before the meeting so that I have time to think about them. I have never been good at thinking on my feet. Ultimately I realised that particularly in the cases where I had done a very thorough reading of the book, then I could be confident that I might have something of value to contribute.

So gradually I have overcome the feeling of being a fish out of water and have found the group meetings more enjoyable. The group itself is not at all threatening. Everyone is very welcoming and over time faces and individual modes of expression become familiar. The books that have had the biggest impact on me this past year have been Hannah Arendt’s The Gap Between Past and Future, Nel Noddings’ A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, and Martin Buber’s I and Thou. And I have also noted, that on the whole, I find the female authors’ works resonated with me more. I think that is probably a discussion for another time.

January 2022 will start with an intriguing book which I have started to read – Lines by Tim Ingold. Sometimes it takes me a while to see the relevance of some of these texts for education and so far Tim Ingold’s book falls into that category, but I have only just started it, and maybe by the end it will have become clear.

I was asked today how long I have been participating in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network and when I said more than a year, I was then asked how long I was going to continue. It was these questions that prompted this post. I will continue to read the texts selected by the network for as long as I find them stimulating and thought-provoking, and for as long as my ageing brain can cope with them 🙂

The Purposes of Education. John Hattie and Steen Larsen

This book, published in 2020, will be discussed by the online Philosophy of Education Reading Network next week. The book records a series of conversations that took place between John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Steen Nepper Larsen, an Educational Philosopher from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University.

John Hattie is known for his evidence-based quantitative research on student achievement and his book Visible Learning, which has been described as the largest ever synthesis of meta-analyses of quantitative measures of the effect of different factors on educational outcomes.

In a review of The Purposes of Education Steve Turnbull writes:

Hattie needs little introduction. He’s the “meta-man”, or to be more accurate, the “meta-meta-man”. His magnum opus, Visible Learning, synthesised more than 800 meta-analyses and became a handbook for educators worldwide, drawn no doubt to its user-friendly ranking of teaching strategies by their impact on learning outcomes.

If you do happen to be new to Hattie’s work, then there are plenty of articles about his concept of visible learning on the web. In a nutshell Hattie’s Visible Learning research synthesises findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students, into what works best in education, and comes up with 250+ influences on student achievement. (Hattie’s work has been ongoing over many years so the figures relating to number of analyses etc. change according to the date of reporting).

Source of images: https://visible-learning.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/VLPLUS-252-Influences-Hattie-ranking-DEC-2017.pdf (Click on the images to enlarge).

See also Hattie’s Visible Learning Metax website, where he shares his methodology and data

The significance of this book, The Purposes of Education, is that Steen Larsen is (or at least has been) a fierce critic of John Hattie’s work.  In the final paragraph of his 2015 paper ‘Know thy Impact. Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo’, Larsen makes the stinging comment:

One does not have to run (through) the big data of 240 million students to proclaim that well-prepared teachers are a sine qua non for teaching and learning. But this simple fact does not make deep and critical questions to John Hattie’s axioms, ways of investigating learning processes, use of meta-studies, and recommendations to educational stakeholders, superfluous. The concluding remark must be that the advantage of John Hattie’s evidence credo is that it is so banal, mundane and trivial that even educational planners and economists can understand it.

Steen Larsen questions whether learning is a visible phenomenon. Who should it be visible for? For him blindness is an inevitable part of educational seeing. He mentions that Hattie’s work is focussed on developing visible learning strategies for the teacher and that Hattie never actually talks to the learners. He argues that students, teachers and researchers are blind to each other’s rationales. ‘The teacher and the learner do not see the world in the same perspective’. (p.6)  He further argues that ‘learning can never be an instant, simple and visible phenomenon—neither for the teacher nor for the ‘key figure’, i.e., the learning subject.’ (Larsen , 2019, p.3). The effects of learning are sometimes not realised for years to come. Instead of focussing on quantitative analysis and a statistical approach to student achievement, Larsen suggests that we consider the notion of the German concept of Bildung, the idea that education might lead to ‘the edification and the eloquent formation of the individual’s character, wisdom, judgment, and fertile curiosity (Larsen, 2017, p.175).

It says something for John Hattie that he was willing to meet with his fiercest critic and have these intense conversations, in which they tried to answer the following questions:

  • What are the purposes of education?
  • Does educational data speak for itself?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • Is learning a visible phenomenon?
  • Is it important to teach and learn specific subjects?
  • What is the role of neuroscience research?
  • What is the relationship between educational research and educational politics?
  • What is the role of the state in education?

In this short video below (14 mins) Hattie and Larsen talk about the writing of The Purposes of Education in a very good natured way, but it becomes clear that, whilst (as seen in the book) there are things they agree on, fundamentally they have completely different philosophies of education.

Hattie claims that his research has been misinterpreted, but whether or not this is the case, his statistical, quantitative approach to student achievement has been very influential on government departments and policy makers for education around the world. Students/learners are now observed and tested more than ever before. Surely as Larsen says, ‘The purpose of education is much more demanding and challenging than enhancing visible learning processes and results.’ (Larsen, 2019, p.10)


David-Lang, J. (2013). Summary of Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie. The Main Idea, 1.

Steen Nepper Larsen. (2015). Know Thy Impact: Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo. Journal of Academic Perspectives Know, 1(1), 1–13.

Larsen, S. N. (2017). What is education? – A critical essay. In A. B. Jørgensen, J. J. Justesen, N. Bech, N. Nykrog, & R. B. Clemmensen (Eds.), What is education? An anthology on education (pp. 157-185). Próblēma.

Larsen, S. N. (2019). Blindness in seeing: A philosophical critique of the visible learning paradigm in education. Education Sciences, 9(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci9010047

Carsten Henriksen (2020). A New Perspective on John Hattie

Carly Boreland. (2021). The North Wind : A Critical Perspective on the Purposes of Education. Journal of Professional Learning, 1–4.

Will Fastiggi Summary of John Hattie’s Research

John Dewey. Traditional and Progressive Education

The last Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s online discussion was on John Dewey’s book Experience and Education (see also a previous post on this blog). The invited speaker to introduce John Dewey was Professor Deren Boyles of Georgia State University, who not only came across as an expert, but also as a strong proponent of Deweyan education. His most recent book is about Dewey – John Dewey’s Imaginative Vision of Teaching: Combining Theory and Practice.

Dewey wrote his book in 1938 and even then was worried about the state of education. He believed that all worthwhile education is based in experience (not any experience, but quality experience).  Traditional education, that is, the type of education system that believes that children/students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge emanating from the teacher or text books (what Paulo Freire later described as the banking system of education), clearly doesn’t fit with an educational philosophy based on experiential learning, which requires more freedom, student agency and autonomy. The following paragraph quoted from Dewey’s book explains his concerns.

‘Let me speak first of the advantages which reside in increase of outward freedom. In the first place, without its existence it is practically impossible for a teacher to gain knowledge of the individuals with whom he is concerned. Enforced quiet and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures. They enforce artificial uniformity. They put seeming before being. They place a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum, and obedience. And everyone who is acquainted with schools in which this system prevailed knows that thoughts, imaginations, desires and sly activities ran their own unchecked course behind this façade.’ (p.62)

It seems to me that in the past few years this kind of education, that places a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum and obedience, is becoming more prevalent in the UK, and presumably the same is happening in the US since Professor Boyles described US schools as full of unthinking students being taught by unthinking teachers. No doubt he was exaggerating to make a point, but this was, I think, Dewey’s concern.

Here in the UK, schools that expect strict observance of the rules by pupils are often lauded for the good exam results they achieve. For example, Michaela Community School has adopted a traditional approach to education with an emphasis on discipline. In this school,

“There is a “zero tolerance” policy regarding poor behaviour; a “boot camp” week at the start of the year teaches the children the rules and the consequences of breaking them. A strict uniform code and no group work; children sit in rows and learn by rote, and walk in single file between classrooms. Staff at the school tend to reject most of the accepted wisdoms of the 21st century”.

Similarly John Ferneley College requires pupils “to smile at all times, make continuous eye contact with staff, to not look out of windows, to never turn around (even after hearing a noise from behind), to always sit up straight, to walk in single file at all times, to not pick up stationery unless specifically directed to do so by staff, to learn and respond to a series of whistle commands from staff, to always respond to staff in a sufficiently upbeat manner and to be constantly grateful that they have the privilege to be at the school.”

This is clearly contrary to what Dewey was advocating. But Dewey published his book in 1938. Are his beliefs still worthy of consideration in a modern context? Professor Boyles seemed to think that they are, but I would need to know more about schools such as John Ferneley College and Michaela Community College to judge whether they turn out unthinking students in the mould of unthinking teachers, despite their good exam results.

Are good exam results the aim of education and do children learn better, such that they achieve these results, under a strict discipline regime? Michaela Community School and John Ferneley College appear to think they do, and Dewey certainly did not advocate an ‘anything goes’ approach. He warned against interpreting progressive education as unconstrained and uncritical freedom. His view was that both traditional education and progressive education can and do get it wrong, and that we should be trying to understand what is worthy of being called a good education.

The question of whether a traditional education system serves children better, was also raised in a Radio 4 programme Could Do Better I heard this week. This programme was first aired in 2018 and over the course of 5 short 14 minute episodes, it follows the progress of journalist Lucy Kellaway who changes career at the age of 58, when she starts her training as a maths teacher. She also encourages others to follow her example and change career to become teachers, by setting up Now Teach, a charity that focuses on training secondary school teachers.

Particularly interesting for me in the Radio 4 programme, having just read and discussed John Dewey’s book Experience & Education, is a conversation that Lucy has with another trainee teacher, Basil, presumably of a similar age, who ultimately throws in the towel and gives up on teacher training and the education system (Episode 4)

Here is a transcript of the conversation, starting at 8.55 minutes in the recording.

Lucy: The most difficult thing of all is that I feel pulled in two directions. On one hand I see the great advantages of such rigid discipline. It means that a teacher can start teaching the minute the lesson begins, but on the other I’m finding it really hard to toe the line. In this I’m not alone.

Basil: I do feel regret because the dream is still in me – there were too few bright spots.

[Basil, a former TV Producer, is one of the 46 other people that Lucy lured onto the Now Teach Scheme. He’s been training to be an English teacher at a different school nearby, but now he emails to say he’s dropping out. When Lucy sees him, he has become bruised by a system he doesn’t quite fit into.]

Basil: How in that format do you have the chance to make the children want to learn and understand maths because they relate to you, they’re inspired by your personality – because you see, I think you in the classroom, I would see you as an incredibly inspiring teacher. How much do your pupils know who you are and how much of your personality has been able to motivate and be the engine of your teaching?

Lucy: This is the absolutely central thing and I think it’s part of my egotism that I wanted it to be that way.

Basil: No, it’s not – it’s the reason you’re going into teaching.

Lucy: I thought it was, but you see I feel that actually in the way that it is taught I am less good because of my personality.

Basil: That’s because the system is wrong.

Lucy: It’s not that the system is wrong – it’s because that particular thing doesn’t use what I think I’m good at.

Basil: But it is wrong, because you are a teacher – you need that bit of you and everybody whoever inspired us – we all talked about teachers who inspired us – it was their personalities.

[Like everyone on the Now Teach programme, Basil has had a long and high powered career doing other things. All have been paid to have opinions and to be individualists and it’s that, not their age that seems to be the sticking point.]

Basil: You now go to schools where if every teacher hasn’t bought into the ethos down to the smallest degree you are regarded as undermining the system and fatally undermining your fellow teachers – and this means [undermining] the personalities that were part of the richness and diversity, the pluralism of what schools should be. It’s robot time. And you aren’t a robot.

Lucy: No and I’m very bad at being a robot.

Basil: And you shouldn’t be.

Lucy: That’s sweet and I think it’s partly true, but I think I went into it with what you’ve described as a sort of charisma view of teaching, really that you can just teach through charisma. I’m now much more dubious about that.

Basil: Well, I think you’ve been indoctrinated.

Lucy: Well maybe I’ve been indoctrinated, but equally it’s not about what I tell the class. It’s about how much of that they retain and understanding how that works.

Basil: Absolutely true and I completely agree with that. If you don’t find an outlet for you being recognisable Lucy Kellaway, your sense of humour and your warmth, being motivated, the engine to the maths, if you don’t find that, then it will be hopeless and you’ll cry yourself to sleep every night.

For me this discussion raises the dilemma that thinking teachers must face every day. Do they aim to educate children to fit into the system? Do they educate themselves to fit into the system? Or do they challenge the system and aim to educate children to so the same? Is it possible to do both?

And finally, I wonder if Lucy Kellaway’s teacher training programme, Now Teach, includes studying educational philosophers such as John Dewey.

Source of Image: Kansas Historical Society

John Dewey. Experience and Education (Notes)

This short book by John Dewey (91 pages), written two decades after ‘Democracy and Education’ (Dewey’s most comprehensive statement of his position on educational philosophy), is described on the cover as:

‘The great educational theorist’s most concise statement of his ideas about the needs, the problems, and the possibilities of education – written after his experience with progressive schools and in the light of the criticisms his theories received.’

This book describes in some measure the education system I was working in pre-National Curriculum (in the UK), when education was based more on personal experience (i.e. progressive education) than the transmission of knowledge. Dewey describes the latter as traditional education, which sought to prepare the young for future responsibilities and success in life through the transmission of information and skills that had worked in the past and was static in books or the heads of teachers. Pupils were expected to be docile, receptive and obedient.

For Dewey progressive education opposes traditional education as follows:

‘To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation of a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.’ (p.19/20, my bold)

A Wikipedia article has interpreted progressive education as having the following qualities:

  • Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning
  • Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
  • Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
  • Group work and development of social skills
  • Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
  • Collaborative and cooperative learning projects
  • Education for social responsibility and democracy
  • Integration of community service and service learning projects into the daily curriculum
  • Selection of subject content by looking forward to ask what skills will be needed in future society
  • De-emphasis on textbooks in favor of varied learning resources
  • Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills
  • Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions

Would Dewey have approved of this list? He points out that introducing progressive education is not necessarily straightforward and comes with its own problems. Neither traditional, nor progressive education is completely satisfactory. For example, in relation to progressive education, all experiences are not equally educative; some experiences are mis-educative.  Everything depends on the quality of experience. Dewey believed that what was needed was a new philosophy of experience, which references what is to be done and how it is to be done. Dewey thought this a harder task for progressive education than for traditional education.

In Chapter 3, Dewey discusses the criteria of experience that need to be considered to determine whether an experience is educationally worthwhile. He points to two key principles, continuity and interaction. ‘The principle of continuity of experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after’ (p.35). Experience must lead to growth, and the direction of growth must be specified. It is the educator’s role to draw on past experiences of experts as well as her own,  to determine the conditions that will lead to worthwhile growth, without engaging in imposition, and to bring about a particular kind of interaction. By interaction, Dewey means the interplay between the objective and internal conditions in an experience, which ‘taken together, or in their interaction, … form what we call a situation’. (p.42)

The principles of continuity and interaction intercept and unite. They are the longitudinal and lateral aspects of experience. ‘An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment…’ (p.43). The educator must therefore take account of the learner’s past and possible future experiences, his personal needs, desires and capacities, to select the conditions necessary for growth, such that the learner wants to go on learning.

Central to Dewey’s educational philosophy is that education is essentially a social process (p.58). As such educators must consider community activity, social organisation and social control, i.e. ‘the conduct of the interactions and intercommunications which are the very life of the group as a community’. Social control is normal in group activities, such as games, where rules are understood and applied. Social control in these circumstances is not experienced as restriction of personal freedom. Social organization within progressive education allows for all individuals to make a contribution, but progressive education is not a ‘free-for-all’. One of the most important lessons of life, says Dewey, is that of mutual accommodation and adaptation.

In Chapter 5, Dewey considers the nature of freedom. The only freedom of importance for Dewey is the freedom of intelligence, i.e. freedom of observation and judgement, and intellectual and moral freedom. Dewey writes: (p.62)

‘Let me speak first of the advantages which reside in increase of outward freedom. In the first place, without its existence it is practically impossible for a teacher to gain knowledge of the individuals with whom he is concerned. Enforced quiet and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures. They enforce artificial uniformity. They put seeming before being. They place a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum, and obedience. And everyone who is acquainted with schools in which this system prevailed knows that thoughts, imaginations, desires and sly activities ran their own unchecked course behind this façade.’ (p.62)

Increased freedom does not mean that there is no time for quiet reflection. Nor does it mean that there is no self-control. ‘The ideal aim of education is creation of power of self-control.’ But freedom of movement is important for physical and mental health, and intellectual growth. The educator must consider how much freedom and what quality of freedom is needed for growth.

Dewey believed that the learner should be actively involved in determining the purpose of his education in cooperation with the educator. A genuine purpose always starts with an impulse, which if obstructed converts into a desire, and it is up to the educator to see that this is taken advantage of, but also that immediate action is postponed until observation and judgment have intervened, and consequences have been considered. Forming a purpose is therefore a complex intellectual operation, a co-operative enterprise between teacher and learner, which involves 1). Observation of surrounding conditions; 2). Knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past; 3). Judgment which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify (p.69). Purposeful action requires intelligent activity, as opposed to overemphasis on activity as an end.

In  the penultimate chapter of his book (Chapter 7), Dewey considers progressive organization of subject matter, which, he believed, should all fall within the scope of ordinary life-experience. Not only does the educator have to find the material for learning within experience, but more importantly has to develop this into a fuller, richer and more organized form. As such the educator must first discover learners’ existing experiences and start from there. ‘It thus becomes the office of the educator to select those things within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems which by stimulating new ways of observation and judgment will expand the area of further experience.’(p.75). Dewey believed that this was harder to do in progressive education than in traditional education, because this ruled out a single course of study, and also because the organized subject-matter of the adult and the specialist cannot provide the starting point. (p.83). A key concern for the educator is connectedness in growth, looking to the past, but even more to the future. ‘…. experiences in order to be educative must lead out into an expanding world of subject-matter…..’ (p.87). To do this educators must be familiar with scientific method. The scientific method, says Dewey, is the only authentic means at our command for getting at the significance of our everyday experiences of the world in which we live.

Dewey finishes his book by reiterating his view that education must be based on experience and that we need a sound philosophy of experience to understand what education is. If progressive education has failed it is because educators have failed to fully understand its standards, aims and methods, and have failed to put the basic principles of progressive education, as described by Dewey in this book, into practice.

‘The educational system must move one way or another, either backward to the intellectual and moral standards of a pre-scientific age or forward to ever greater utilization of scientific method in the development of the possibilities of growing, expanding experience.’(p.89)

But for Dewey the key issue is not of old versus new, or of traditional versus progressive. The key issue is the question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.

John Dewey’s Experience & Education, is the book that has been selected to be discussed at the next meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network On Tuesday 21st September on Zoom.  The discussion will be opened by Professor Deron Boyles. Distinguished professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University. In preparation for this discussion, Professor Boyles has posed the following questions:

  • Dewey is addressing two audiences in the book—which ones and why?
  • Dewey’s idea that “means and ends” are conjoint often confuses readers. Why does this confusion exist? Why is it so important to Dewey that means and ends be understood together and not separate?
  • Even educators who express their interest or desire to “be Deweyan” in their teaching often run into problems. Dewey gives a clue at the top of p. 19 when he talks about “devices of art.” What does he mean?


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. Simon and Schuster

International Center for Educators’ Styles. Dewey’s Philosophy on Experience and Education. (This provides a more comprehensive summary of the book, than I have in this post)

Internet Archive. Full Text of Experience and Education – John Dewey. (This is very useful for word searching, such as for the words ‘means and ends’ which Professor Doyle wants us to discuss on Tuesday).

Martin Buber – I and Thou (Notes)

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s book for August 2021 is Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’. My copy is the translation by Ronald Gregor Smith, who translates the original title ‘Ich Und Du’ as ‘I and Thou’, rather than I and You. Between the ages of three and fourteen, Buber lived in Lvov, Galicia with his grandfather, Solomon Buber, who clearly influenced his thinking and direction. Solomon Buber was a scholar of Jewish Law and a deeply religious man. From 1924 to 1933, Martin Buber lectured in Jewish religion and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. In 1938 he left Germany to join the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Between 1897 and 1923 Buber’s interest lay in mysticism; between 1923 and 1938 in dialogue and the dialogical relationship with nature; and between 1938 and 1965 in attentive silence and a deepening recognition of ‘the eternal’.

It is easy to recognise ‘I and Thou’ as a profound and beautiful book, but it is not easy to read. Ronald Smith acknowledges this in his Preface, where he writes:

‘To the reader who finds the meaning obscure at first reading we may only say that I and Thou is indeed a poem. Hence it must be read more than once, and its total effect allowed to work on the mind: the obscurities of the one part (so far as they are real obscurities, and not the effect, as they must often be, of poor translation) will then be illumined by the brightness of another part. For the argument is not as it were horizontal, but spiral; it mounts, and gathers within itself the aphoristic and pregnant utterances of the earlier part.’ (p.xiii)

I and Thou (published in 1923) is a short book, only 95 pages long including the Postscript which was written by Buber in 1957 to answer questions raised about the ideas he expresses in the book, but it reads like a long book, as it includes so many aphorisms which need careful thought and attention. This is not a book that can be skim read. I had to go to secondary sources, which I have listed under References at the end of this post, to help me make sense of the text.

The book is written in three parts which, put simply, cover how we address or speak to each other, how we address or speak to Nature/the world/society, and how we address or speak to God.

Buber starts the book by explaining that there are two modes of engaging with the world, which he describes through the use of two word pairs, I-It and I-Thou. Buber calls these primary words, which do not signify things but intimate relations. It is not possible to be an I outside of these relations.

‘There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and I of the primary world I-It ‘ (p.3)

‘When a primary word is spoken the speaker enters the word and takes his stand in it.’ (p.4)

Buber’s overarching concern is that we are trapped in a world of ever increasing I-It communication and dialogue, where we hold ourselves apart from the Other, and treat each other like objects to be manipulated. (I think Iain McGilchrist would describe this as treating each other as ‘things’. There are so many parallels between Buber’s and McGilchrist’s work that I am really surprised that I can find no reference to Buber anywhere in McGilchrist’s first book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.)

In the first part of his book, Buber explains that  I-It is the language of objectification, where the primary temporary modality is the past.

‘The I of the primary word I-It, that is the I faced by no Thou, but surrounded by a multitude of content, has no present, only the past. Put in another way, in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content. He has nothing but objects. But objects subsist in time that has been.’ (p.10)

Buber calls the I-It mode of engaging with the world, the mode of ‘experience’ (which covers both inner emotions and sensory experience), where the I is an objective observer, cataloguing, calculating, analyzing, and describing, rather than being in active relation Buber tells us that I-It does not make for a ‘whole’ human being. For this we also need I-Thou.

For Martin Buber ‘… he who lives with It alone is not a man’ (p.24). Man needs ‘I-Thou’ relationships, where we communicate with our being rather than with words. I-Thou is about mutuality, seeing someone in his or her depth, speaking to the Other with your entire being, saying Thou with all that you are, standing in present relation, in the here and now – not completely separate, but not completely fused, maintaining just enough balance between close and distant to retain a sense of who you are.

In this beautiful passage from p.6 of his book, Buber sums up the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships, by considering a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air – and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law…

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.…….

Martin Buber (1958) I and Thou, p.6)

I-Thou experiences cannot be willed. They are given to us by grace (God’s grace), but we have to be open to I-Thou experiences and choose to enter these moments.

In Part 1 of his book, Martin Buber considers how, at an individual level, we tend to objectify each other (I-It) rather than enter into mutual relation (I-Thou). In Part 2 Buber extends this to thinking about society as a whole. His thoughts about how advances in society since the time of the Industrial Revolution have led us to being trapped in an I-It world, are as relevant today as when he wrote the book. All our institutions (school, work, marriage etc.) can reinforce the I-It mode of attending to the world, which Buber says is stagnating as a result.

‘… in times of sickness it comes about that the world of It, no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of Thou as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of fens, over-powers man. In coming to terms with a world of objects that no longer assume present being for him he succumbs to this world.’ (p.38)

Buber talks about knowledge, art and teaching as all needing more I-Thou relation. Knowledge has become about accumulating concepts, art about analysis and making money, and teaching about imparting knowledge. All focus on the I-It, rather than being open to relation. We should recognise that I-Thou is the locus of all genuine creative activity, all spirituality and all becoming in transcendence.

Interestingly Buber says that there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to make money or obtain power. There is nothing inherently I-It in economics and politics, it’s the way we live them out. Man’s will to profit and power are fine so long as they are not dominated by It. He explains this as follows. ‘Man’s will to profit and to be powerful have their natural and proper effect so long as they are linked with, and upheld by, his will to enter into relation.’ (p.35) Buber envisions a society (community) in which human beings have a loving responsibility to all other human beings, including those they have not met. This is a new sort of community built on absolute encounter with the eternal Thou, that is, with God.

In Part 3, Buber focusses on the eternal Thou, that is, on our relation with God. I found this part of the book the most difficult to follow, maybe because it is impossible to describe God. God cannot become an It. God must always be a Thou.

The eternal Thou can by its nature not become It: for by its nature it cannot be established in measure and bounds, not even in the measure of the immeasurable, or the bounds of the boundless being; for by its nature it cannot be understood as a sum of qualities, not even as an infinite sum of qualities raised to a transcendental level; for it can be found neither in nor out of the world; for it cannot be experienced, or thought; for we miss Him, Him who is, if we say ‘I believe that He is’ – ‘He” is also a metaphor, but ‘Thou’ is not’. (p.77)

As Buber explains, all attempts to find God in the It world have reduced the idea of God to something which could not possibly be the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient creator of the universe.

He explains that the active solution to a world dominated by I-It, where man feels oppressed by causality, powerless, and as though he is living a meaningless life lacking in freedom, is to enter into relation with God. Why? Because whilst each human experience inevitably peters out into experience, the eternal Thou can never degenerate into an It.

But to encounter the eternal Thou (God) we must be ready for it in both active and passive terms. Actively, we must truly want this encounter, we must let go of thinking we are in control and we must hold I-It and I-Thou in harmony; passively we must wait for God to meet us.

When we enter into relation with God, we enter into relation with everything else in the world. Our encounter with God is both exclusive and inclusive, exclusive because we fully enter into the relation, inclusive because we are relating not only to God but also to the whole Universe.

Buber is not able to describe an encounter with God, but he does say what it is not. It is not a feeling of dependency. God needs us as much as we need God. It is a mutual relationship. It is not an immersion of union between ourselves and God. It is important that we retain our individual selves (whilst losing the drive for self-affirmation) and keep the encounter in a dialogical relation between two separate beings. It is not logically coherent but involves logical conflicts and paradoxes. Paradox is an essential component of the religious moment. We should not substitute the idols of knowledge, power, artistic beauty and erotic love with God. Religious relation is not idol worship of the right idol, and religion is not a crutch, but requires strength and willpower. We cannot predict, control or understand the world. Saying Thou to God transforms us. We lose all duty and obligation. We are filled with loving responsibility for the whole world.

Buber believed that the way forward, away from a domination by I-It relation, is to build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God. He pointed out that these communities have existed in the past but gradually their need for continuity in space and time resulted in relating to God as It. But if we can build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God, the everyday life becomes holy and divine encounter is involved in every act of daily life. We need to bring the holy into everyday life through building of community and relation with God.

‘The world of It is set in the context of space and time.

The world of Thou is not set in the context of with either of these.

Its context is in the Centre [God], where the extended lines of relations meet – in the eternal Thou.’ (p.69)

18-08-21 Update

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network discussion on Martin Buber’s I and Thou was introduced by Amanda Fulford is Professor of Philosophy of Education, and Head of the Department of Professional Learning at Edge Hill University, who posed the following provocations for discussion:

  • Criticisms have been levelled at Buber’s I and Thou that his language is overly obscure and romantic. Walter Kaufmann makes this claim in his translator’s introduction to the work. Given this, is there a risk that the reader is seduced into thinking the text is more profound than it actually is? Does this undermine the central distinction in I and Thou?
  • Is there a hierarchy in Buber’s work that elevates the I-Thou (and thus denigrates) the I-It? What would this mean for certain ways of knowing?
  • Can I-Thou relations be extended beyond human others, and what would this mean for our relationships with, say, animals, or the environment?

And our discussion ended with Jessica Lussier (@miss_lussier) raising the following questions for us to reflect on and discuss on Twitter (@PhilofEd):

  • What role does language play in Buber’s I-Thou relation?
  • What role does feeling/affect play in this relation?
  • How might this allow us to extend I-Thou relations beyond the human?


Buber, M. Ich Und Du (1923 Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith and published as I and Thou by Bloomsbury Revelations Edition (2013)

Smith, M. K. (2000, 2009) ‘Martin Buber on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/martin-buber-on-education/ . Retrieved: 05-0821]

Spark Notes Study Guide. I and Thou. Martin Buber. https://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/iandthou/summary/

Dodson, E. (2014) Buber in Ten Minutes. https://youtu.be/16Cr82mLhkw

Source of Image:  https://infed.org/mobi/martin-buber-on-education/

Maxine Greene. Releasing the Imagination. (Notes)

This is the book that has been chosen for discussion by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network on July 20th, which will also be the first anniversary for the group.

The subtitle of the book is Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change, which means that the book could be dipped into, and the chapters read selectively, but I have read it sequentially, starting at the beginning and working through to the end.

In the reading that I have been doing for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, I have realised that I find it very helpful if I know something about the authors as people, when reading their work. I found this video about the life of Maxine Greene helpful in making the words in her book come alive.

Part 1. Creating Possibilities

The book is written in three parts. The six chapters in the first part, explore how to create possibilities for releasing the imagination. Maxine Greene’s thoughts are addressed to teachers and teacher educators, particularly the latter. In her introduction she writes:

‘…. Imagination is what, above all, makes empathy possible. It is what enables us to cross empty spaces between ourselves and those we teachers have called “other” over the years. If those others are willing to give us clues, we can look in some manner through strangers’ eyes and hear through their ears. That is because, of all our cognitive capacities, imagination is the one that permits us to give credence to alternative realities.’ (p.3)

Greene believes that we must ‘move beyond schooling to the wider domains of education, where there are and must be all kinds of openings to possibility.’ She tells us that the current education system in the US (she was writing in 1995, but her ideas have not dated) has a very narrow focus and fails to see the big picture. It is preoccupied with measurement and accountability. To move beyond this to think about alternative possibilities and of things being otherwise, which takes imagination and empathy. We must ‘cultivate multiple ways of seeing and multiple dialogues in a world where nothing stays the same.’ We want young people to become critical, self-reflective, active learners. We want children to be more than raw materials to be shaped to market demand. We want them to have something to say about the way things might be if they were otherwise. Greene believes that the arts are central in this endeavour; stories, poems, dance performances, concerts, paintings, films, plays.  Also critical to this is the breaking of habit. ‘The difficult task for the teacher is to devise situations in which the young will move from the habitual and the ordinary and consciously undertake a search.’And important too is community, democratic community, characterised by interconnectedness and communion, where people are ‘offered the space in which to discover what they recognize together and appreciate in common; they have to find ways to make inter-subjective sense’.

What is striking about Maxine Greene, is the extent to which she draws on literature to illustrate what she means by releasing the imagination. This is very evident in Chapter 4. Discovering a Pedagogy, where she references the literature of Don DeLillo, Umberto Eco, Joseph Conrad, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Virginia Woolf and Albert Camus and the writing of Habermas, Freire, Arendt, Sartre, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Rorty, Gadamer and Bakhtin. Literature can invoke alternative worlds, experiences and perceptions never noted before, and release the imagination, but not just literature. We must enable our children

‘… to have a number of languages to hand and not verbal or mathematical languages alone. Some children may find articulation through imagery; others, through body movement; still others, through musical sound. Mastery of a range of languages is necessary if communication is to take place beyond small enclosures within the culture; without multiple languages, it is extremely difficult to chart the lived landscape, thematizing experience over time.’ P.57

Students and teachers must be empowered to speak in their own voices and develop their own ways of seeing.

Greene rejects the idea of a static view of reality. No-one’s picture is complete. Neither is anyone free from the shaping influence of contexts. For this reason she believes it important that we learn to be reflective enough to become aware of how we construct our realities and see multiple perspectives. We must learn to think about our own thinking, and become conscious of our own consciousness. We must ‘notice’ and acknowledge the primacy of perception (Merleau-Ponty).

Part 2. Illuminations and Epiphanies

In this part Greene argues for a view of teaching as for finding openings and a view of curriculum as a search for meaning, saying that ‘the arts in particular can bring to curriculum inquiry visions of perspectives and untapped possibilities’. Again she stresses the importance of literature and metaphor for defamiliarizing experience and seeing alternate perspectives and new possibilities. Literature, she says, has the potential ‘to subvert dualism and reductionism, to make abstract generalizations questionable’. It has the potential to release the imagination.

Not only reading, but writing too is important in releasing the imagination. Through writing and the telling of stories, learners can make connections, create patterns and find meaning. Writing enables us to name alternatives, open ourselves to possibilities and overcome silences. ‘Learning to write is a matter of learning to shatter the silences, of making meaning, of learning to learn.’ We must work together, reading, writing and in dialogue, ‘to unconceal what is hidden, to contextualize what happens to us, to mediate the dialectic that keeps us on edge, that may be keeping us alive’… so that we can read our worlds differently.

Greene reminds us that Virginia Woolf wrote about the shock-receiving capacity that made her a writer, how shocks made her want to explain it. Literature can be a source of these shocks of awareness. For Greene, the shocks, for example, of the inhibiting, demeaning forces, that constricted her freedom, could be explored in writing. But Greene was also very aware of how deeply literacy is involved in relations of power and how ‘many of the alienated or marginalized are made to feel distrustful of their own voices, [and] their own ways of making sense.’ She urges teachers to think of literacy as a social undertaking to be sought in pluralist classrooms.

Art too can be a source of shocks of awareness. ‘…. many forms of art can enable us to see more in our experience, to hear more on normally unheard frequencies, to become conscious of what daily routines have obscured, what habit and convention have suppressed.’ Art is a way of understanding, a way of knowing. As for literature, encounters with art can release the imagination. Indeed, Greene believed that ‘informed encounters with the several arts is the most likely mode of releasing our students’ (or any person’s) imaginative capacity and giving it play.

In the final chapter of Part 2, Greene makes the distinction between art education and aesthetic education saying both are needed. Art education covers the spectrum that includes dance education, music education, the teaching of painting, the other graphic arts and some kinds of writing. By aesthetic education she means ‘the deliberate efforts to foster increasingly informed and involved encounters with art’. Art education and aesthetic education should inform each other. Art should be education for a more informed and imaginative awareness. It should be an education in ‘the kinds of critical transactions that empower students to both resist elitism and objectivism, that allow them to read and to name, to write and to rewrite their own lived world.’

Part 3. Community in the Making

In the final part of her book Greene turns to the question of how teaching can be a social undertaking, how teachers can see and hear all students in all their plurality, multiplicity and diversity, how they can help students to articulate their stories, and how through this teaching for openings, communities attentive to difference and open to the idea of plurality can be developed.  ‘Learning to look through multiple perspectives, young people may be helped to build bridges among themselves; attending to a range of human stories, they may be provoked to heal and to transform’. The arts are central to this. Community development and democratic community is essential for change.

‘The democratic community, always a community in the making, depends not so much on what has been achieved and funded in the past. It is kept alive: it is energized and radiated by an awareness of future possibility.’ p.166  

The world is neither equitable nor fair. Hence the importance of attending to the principles of equity, equality and freedom. Greene asks, ‘How can we reconcile the multiple realities of human lives with shared commitment to communities infused once again with principles?’ She believes that the arts can help students reflect on these principles, question the taken-for-granted, become critical thinkers.

‘Imagination may be our primary means of forming an understanding of what goes on under the heading of “reality”; imagination may be responsible for the very texture of our experience. Once we do away with habitual separations of the subjective from the objective, the inside from the outside, appearances from reality, we might be able to give imagination its proper importance and grasp what it means to place imagination at the core of understanding’. (p.140)


Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination. Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. Jossey-Bass.


I don’t feel as though I’ve done Maxine Greene justice in this post, so here are two more references.

A helpful book review was published in 1997 by N. Carlotta Parr in Philosophy of Music Education Review, Fall, 1997, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 108-110; Indiana University Press – https://www.jstor.org/stable/40495432?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

And Eddie Playfair, who is a member of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, wrote a short introduction to Maxine Greene on his blog in 2014 – https://eddieplayfair.com/2014/06/13/maxine-greene-resisting-one-dimensionality/

Simone Weil – some brief notes

The most recent book to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles. The session was introduced by Dr Susan Notess of Durham University, who introduced us to the life and work of Simone Weil, a French philosopher, mystic and political activist, in 15 short minutes.

As she said, Simone Weil was an ‘interesting’ character, who had a different way of approaching the world. Elsewhere I have seen Weil described as eccentric, which, from what I have read, is putting it mildly, although Albert Camus described her as ‘The only great spirit of our time’. From a very early age it was clear that Simone Weil was gifted, although she lived in the shadow of her gifted, older brother, André, who was considered a mathematical genius. Weil could speak several languages and was reading Plato in Ancient Greek at the age of 12. Later she also taught herself Sanskrit, so that she could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. Her teacher, Émile Chartier, more commonly known as Alain, nicknamed her ‘The Martian’ to draw attention to her intellect and ‘very large brain’. Weil was an intellectual being, but also a woman struggling to compete in a man’s world. She managed this by adopting an asexual identity, wearing masculine-style clothes, and shunning intimate relationships and all forms of physical intimacy (although physical intimacy had appalled her from a very early age, and even as a child, she didn’t like to be touched or kissed for fear of germs). Another nickname for her was The Red Virgin, red referring to her left-wing political activism.

From a very young age, Weil empathised acutely with the suffering of others, to the detriment of her own health and well-being. At the age of six, she stopped eating sugar, because soldiers at the front in the first world war couldn’t have sugar. Later in life she tried to stay true to her belief in empathising with the suffering of others, and practise what she preached, by living very simply with minimum comforts and eating very little. She wanted to match the living conditions of people around her. She died young at the age of 34 in 1943 from tuberculosis, aggravated by malnutrition. Some believe that she may have been anorexic, but there is no evidence for this.

Weil came from an affluent non-practising Jewish family. Her father was a doctor, so she came from a privileged background and went to a fine school. She did brilliantly at University, being one of the first 5 women ever to attend the École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, outshining Simone de Beauvoir by finishing first in the exam for the certificate of ‘General Philosophy and Logic’. de Beauvoir finished second.

On leaving University Weil became a teacher of philosophy and political activist, and ultimately became influential in religious and spiritual matters, but given that this book was chosen for discussion by a philosophy of education reading network, it is on education that I would like to focus. This film (1 hour 24 mins) gives a more complete introduction to Simone Weil than I have done here.

I must admit to only having dipped into the anthology being discussed in this session. I found several introductions to Weil’s life and work online, which were interesting – she definitely is an interesting character, but her political and social activism, mysticism and leaning towards religious and spiritual matters did not draw me in. Perhaps it was, for me, the wrong time to be trying to read this book. I do find a book a month, by these difficult authors, quite a challenge, and I was still thinking about Nel Noddings (see previous posts) when I came to Weil’s book. Despite only having dipped into Weil’s work, I can see the connections between her and Noddings, and to some extent between her and Hannah Arendt. Iris Murdoch was also influenced by Weil.

From the little I know of Weil’s approach to education and pedagogy, she was unorthodox. She tried to teach people wherever she went, sharing her philosophical and political ideas with workers in factories and publishing in workers’ journals. But she soon realised that labouring workers (in the car factories that she herself worked in to try and align herself with workers’ suffering) were too oppressed by their impoverished lives to have the energy or will to discuss philosophy. As a teacher she wanted to humanise education. In teaching sixth form philosophy, she realised that her students had no knowledge of the connections between philosophy and science, so she created a special curriculum. In doing this, she didn’t follow the curriculum or the rules of the school in which she worked, to the extent that her students didn’t pass the exams, and ultimately, she lost her job as a teacher. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the students benefited from her teaching, claiming that she gave them ‘something else’. It’s interesting to think about this in the relation to the purpose of education.

For Weil the central purpose of education is to cultivate and develop the capacity for attention. She doesn’t mean by this that we should furrow our brows and strain to attend. Attention does not depend on the will. She writes (1986, p.233) ‘Attention is bound up with desire. Not with will, but with desire – or more exactly, consent’. For Weil attention is being receptive, open, patient and selfless. ‘I’ has to disappear. ‘Attention alone – that attention, which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears – is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.’ The mind is ‘detached, empty and ready’ to receive truth from the world (Weill, 2009, p.111).

She goes on to write (1986, p.234) ‘The authentic and pure values – truth, beauty and goodness – in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object. Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.’ This is where we see the influence of Weil on Noddings, who wrote about the need for the one-caring to be engrossed in and fully committed to the cared-for, in the act of caring for the other. For Weil and Noddings alike, teachers must be attentive to their students and students must be attentive to their studies.

But for Weil, the ultimate aim of education is the orientation of all attention to the love of God, although she acknowledges in her essay ‘Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God’ (Weil, 2009) that this is the highest form of attention, whereas schools only develop a lower form of attention. ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.’ (1986, p.232). She expands on this in her essay on the right use of school studies as follows:

Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use. (2009, p.108)

Weil stresses the importance of failure in learning (learning from failure) and humility, but also joy. ‘The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running’. (2009, p.110). Whilst Weil believed that cultivating attention would help students to reach God through prayer, she also thought that a capacity for attention would help students generally in their academic studies and particularly in their ability to attend to others.

A full discussion of Weil’s work, as it relates to education, is beyond the scope of this post. In addition, I think it is probably not possible to fully appreciate and understand Weil’s ideas on education, without having some knowledge and understanding of her wider work relating to politics, mysticism and religion. At this point, from my own limited reading and understanding of her work, I think her ideas are possibly too radical and too imbued with religious overtones, to be widely adopted in education. Having said that, most teachers would probably agree on the importance of cultivating attention, but they may have a different understanding of attention to Weil, i.e., thinking of attention as being muscle straining hard work, rather than the open receptivity advocated by Weil.

Finally, Susan Notess, who introduced this Philosophy of Education Reading Network session, posed some really thought-provoking questions for us to consider. I will finish this post by sharing them here. Three great questions to get you (and me) thinking.

Question 1:

What do you make of Weil’s zealous belief that ideology was not enough; that she had to live the experience of the causes she cared about? Does genuine activism require that we commit to abstract objectivity and remove, or to participation ‘in the trenches’, or both? Consider this: suppose you are a passionate proponent of revolution in some sphere, desiring to see an oppressed class revolt and find freedom, although you yourself tend towards pacifism and would prefer a nonviolent revolution. A genie who reads Simone Weil appears, and tells you they will ensure the revolution and its success, on the condition that you agree to participate and carry arms. How would you respond to the genie? Is it a mistake to think that our theoretical commitments require us to be committed to involvement also? Was Weil going too far by joining the Spanish Civil War, or was she setting a daunting precedent that we ought to follow?

Question 2:

To what extent can, or should, Weil’s notion of attention function to disrupt our philosophical praxis? In pedagogy broadly construed, what role can this ungrabbing, unboxed attention play? In philosophical pedagogy, how do we strike a balance between the need to equip students for technical knowledge/skill, and the need to teach people to find the open attunement of apophatic attention?

Question 3:

Take for granted Weil’s notion of roots and the human need for rootedness. How do the possibilities for rootedness change or modulate in the context of the following: immigration in a globalised age (uprooting and replanting); the internet, as a field in which communities of belonging can be established, an alternative or queered space of rootedness, a source of affordances for the displaced, the dispossessed, the divergent, and the estranged; cross-cultural living, and those who live with a dual identity, rooted in two places.

Evidently Simone Weil was ‘intensely displeased’ by the attention paid to her life rather than her works, so I expect she wouldn’t have liked this post very much!


Weil, S. Attention and Will in Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles, 2005, Penguin Books. First published by Virago Press in 1986.  https://rohandrape.net/ut/rttcc-text/Weil1952d.pdf  

Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 2009, Harper Collins https://www.themathesontrust.org/papers/christianity/Weil-Reflections.pdf