Flourishing as the aim of education – Kristján Kristjánsson

Flourishing would seem an obvious aim of education. To me it’s an indictment of our times that Kristján Kristjánsson felt he needed to write a lengthy book to justify this and that there needs to be a special department at the University of Birmingham, UK, to study and research this. I would hope that it would be obvious that flourishing should be the aim of education, but clearly not.  

Kristján Kristjánsson is Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. He is not alone in thinking that flourishing should be the overall aim of education, but his perspective is unique. He attempts to bring a Neo-Aristotelian view to flourishing as the aim of education. In other words, he wants to bring Aristotle’s account of flourishing up to date.

For Aristotle flourishing is more than well-being. Kristjánsson agrees with this and spends some time explaining why flourishing cannot be equated with happiness, writing that it is possible for a person to be happy but not flourish, or a person to be unhappy and yet flourish.

For Aristotle certain external conditions need to be in place for flourishing. Some of these are:

  • Close parental attachment and good upbringing/education
  • Good government, ruling in the interests of the people, and a just constitution
  • Enough wealth to make sure we do not come a cropper
  • A complete life: namely a life in which we do not die prematurely
  • Health, strength, and even minimal physical beauty
  • Friends and family

I would question some of these, for example, a complete life, but we must remember that when Aristotle was writing people did not live to the age of 100 or beyond. For Kristjánsson, Aristotle’s account is not enough; for him we have to go beyond Aristotle’s attempts to describe what flourishing means, but he is concerned that the idea of flourishing can become ‘bland’ in educational accounts and has written (2021) ‘A threat of bland truisms hovers constantly over educational accounts of flourishing ….. The concept of flourishing becomes like a shopping trolley that everybody can fill with his or her random choice of goods.’ As such Kristjánsson attempts specificity in a long definition, which I have heard/seen described (I can’t remember where now) as reading like an insurance policy.  This is Kristjánsson’s definition:

Human flourishing is the (relatively) unencumbered, freely chosen and developmentally progressive activity of a meaningful (subjectively purposeful and objectively valuable) life that actualises satisfactorily an individual human being’s natural capacities in areas of species-specific existential tasks at which human beings (as rational, social, moral, and emotional agents) can most successfully excel. (Kristjánsson, 2020, p.1)

Kristjánsson (2020, p.35) goes beyond Aristotle in suggesting that a flourishing education must involve

  • Engagement with self-transcendent ideals and experiences of awe-filled enchantment
  • Moral elevation
  • A clear personal sense of meaning …

… but as mentioned above it does not have to be accompanied by subjective well-being and a person does not have to be fully virtuous to flourish.

This suggests to me that students need spiritual experiences in education in order to flourish. This seems to be supported by William Damon’s research (2008, cited by Kristjánsson on p.43) in which he found from surveying 1200 young people between the ages of 12 and 26, and interviewing a quarter of them in depth, that only 20% of them were fully purposeful. Approximately 25% were ‘dreamers’, about 30% were ‘dabblers’ and 25% were disengaged.

What can teachers do to support flourishing in education? Opinion on this is divided, with some thinking that teachers should become agents of social change, and others that this is not the job of teachers, and that instead they should be good role models. Can teachers do this without flourishing themselves? Do teachers have the necessary moral language and moral identity? Do teachers have meaning in their lives? Do they have a sense of purpose? Have they been adequately trained for this?

And what about a curriculum for flourishing? John White, 2011 (cited in Kristjánsson, p.32) thinks that we should tear up the curriculum and start again; we should not carve the curriculum up into discrete subjects but teach all subjects through themes, such as climate change. Kristjánsson’s view is not as radical as this, but he does think that flourishing should permeate the whole curriculum and influence every salient educational decision taken within the school. He also thinks that teachers should provide students with the space to have ‘peak experiences’ and expose them to the ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. Students should be encouraged to keep an open mind and explore new ways of seeing (Kristjánsson, 2021).

This book was discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network earlier this month. I don’t think I would have read it had it not been on their list, even though I fully agree that flourishing should be the overall aim of education. The book is very long and academic, and I wonder how many full-time working teachers would have the time to read it. Kristjánsson wants teachers to read it, as at the end of every chapter he has included a list of questions under the title ‘Food for thought for practitioners’. These questions are worth considering and discussing.

Our PhilofEd zoom meeting to discuss this book was introduced by Kenny Primrose who has recently completed his Masters in Character Education at the University of Birmingham with Kristján Kristjánsson as his tutor. Kenny posed three questions for the group:

  • To what extent does Kristjánsson’s theory/view of flourishing provide a helpful and normative ideal for educators, when compared to other governing aims of education?
  • How would an education system with flourishing as its core aim look different? (Chapter 2 includes radical proposals like White’s; does flourishing require a radically different approach politically, institutionally and pedagogically?)
  • A significant difference in K’s theory from other Aristotelian ideas is the addition of experiences of awe/transcendence, which seek to enchant a fairly flat idea of flourishing. To what extent is this a realistic and fair aim for educators, and what would this entail?

I liked Kenny’s questions. For me they focussed on the main concerns for teachers whilst at the same time being broad enough for those who had not had the time or inclination to read the book to be able to join in the discussion. And given that it transpired that not one member of our small group (about six of us if I remember correctly) had enjoyed the book, there was still plenty of discussion. I am glad I engaged with the book. I think the work that Kristjánsson is doing has to be important. He has appealed to colleagues and readers (2021) to help move flourishing discourse forward in order to make it enrich educational policy and practice. I would appeal to him to make his work more accessible to every day full-time teachers.


Kristjánsson, K. (2020). Flourishing as the Aim of Education: A Neo-Aristotelian View. London: Routledge

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson: Four Accounts of Flourishing as the Aim of Education (2021)

Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: How young people find their calling in life. New York: Free Press.

White, J. (2011). Exploring well-being in schools: A guide to making children’s lives more fulfilling. London: 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 🙂

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).

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/

Philosophers on Education: Amélie Rorty

This collection of chapters by different authors, each on a philosopher of education, was the selected text for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s  discussion this month.

The book includes 33 chapters, clearly far too long for a one hour discussion on zoom, so the organisers, in consultation with the group, selected seven chapters (1-4 and 25-27) for this meeting, with a view to revisiting the book at some future date. Even seven chapters seemed a lot to me since they covered Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Dewey, Marx and the first chapter on The Ruling History of Education.

The discussion usually starts with a brief introduction by either a member of the group, or an invited speaker, who has some expertise in the topic. This week this task fell to Owen Gower, Director at UK Council for Graduate Education, since the book was his choice for discussion. The books for discussion each month are voted for on Twitter by members of the group. By his own admission, Owen had his work cut out for him in pulling the seven different chapters together for discussion, but he did an impressive job. This is how he did it.

First he said he recognised three themes running through all the chapters.

  1. Educational methods
  2. Cultural influences
  3. Education and human nature

Then he broke this down a bit further for us.

Educational Methods could be identified in

Chapter 2. Socratic Education by Paul Woodruff. Through his questions Socrates shamed people into critical and consist thinking. Socrates advocated teacherless education.

Chapter 4. Aristotelian Education by C.D.C. Reeve.  Provoke powerful emotional responses to motivate learning. The need to educate the whole person.

Chapter 26. Moral Education in and after Marx by Richard. W. Miller. Tap into the loyalties needed for successful socialist revolution.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. All education starts with a problem. Owen wanted us to discuss whether this statement is true, but as I have noted in previous meetings, the group rarely sticks to the questions raised by the presenter!

Cultural Influences in

Chapter 3. Plato’s Counsel on Education by Zhang LoShan, a pseudonym for Amélie Rorty. (An explanation for this pseudonym is included in the notes at the end of the chapter). You can’t have a good education in a bad society. A good society is central to education. Our opinions are not independent of society. It takes a whole village to raise a child.

Chapter 25. The Past in the Present. Plato as Educator of Nineteenth-Century Britain by M. F. Burnyeat. Social norms stifle education. Education should make us critical autonomous thinkers.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. Education should connect the individual to society and culture.

Education and Human Nature in

Chapter 4. Aristotelian Education by C.D.C. Reeve.  Education for happiness.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. Human knowledge is a form of engaging with the world.

Any errors in the above notes are mine. These discussions in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s zoom calls are difficult to keep up with, so I appreciated Owen Gower’s effort to structure this session for us. It must have been much more difficult than focussing attention on one author and book. It certainly hadn’t occurred to me that the chapters could be pulled together in this way, but I am always interested to note how the participants in these discussions, myself included, focus attention on different aspects of the text.

For me what is becoming increasingly apparent from these discussions is that (as is written at the end of Chapter 2 on Socratic Education, p.27), “Philosophy …. seems to lead nowhere but to more philosophy ”, but it is very interesting to be prompted to read all these different authors and learn more about different philosophers.

Next month the book chosen for discussion is bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. My copy should be arriving in the post today.